Study Guide

My Ántonia Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. (Introduction.5)

    This is a key line and it helps us to interpret Ántonia not just as a character, but as a symbol. As we'll see in her "Character Analysis," Ántonia is very much tied – in Jim's mind – to the natural landscape of the Nebraskan prairie. It's important stuff, so be sure to check it out.

    There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries were made. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it […]. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out (1.1.10).

    Can you start to see why we venture a theory that the Nebraskan prairie – in all its vast expanse – is a little bit like the prospect of growing up for Jim? Jim faces adulthood as something vast and unknowable, something that is intimidating but to be respected, just like the landscape.

    Ambrosch and Ántonia were both old enough to work in the fields, and they were willing to work. But the snow and the bitter weather had disheartened them all...(1.10.24)

    This is a kind of foreshadowing to Mr. Shimerda's upcoming suicide, which you could argue is the result of the tough winter months. The natural elements have a strong influence on the lives of the characters.

    As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running (1.2.14).

    In many ways, the land is an external manifestation of Jim's internal feelings. When he feels motion, he sees motion in the land. This is one of many examples, so be on the look out for more.

    I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. (1.2.26)

    There is an almost religious reverence here for the natural landscape. Religion, of course, is important to the novel and factors into the social issues between the Americans and the immigrants. Reverence for nature is in many ways the common religious ground that all the farmers, of every origin, share.

    Soon we could see the broken, grassy clay cliffs which indicated the windings of the stream, and the glittering tops of the cottonwoods and ash trees that grew down in the ravine. Some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales. (1.3.8)

    Some critics have pointed out that Cather spends more time and attention – and lavishes her best descriptions – on the landscape instead of on the people. What do you think about this? If it's true, is that a bad thing? Do you think that this is part of the novel's artistic strategy?

    All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. (1.6.5)

    Think about how Cather uses color, in this and other passages describing the landscape. How is color used to evoke specific emotions with regard to the novel's physical setting and its tonal atmosphere or mood?

    As Ántonia said, the whole world was changed by the snow. (1.9.5)

    And so are the lives of the people who live in the Nebraskan prairie. The farmers are at the mercy of the elements. That is, both their lives and their attitudes are affected by the shifting seasons. Think about which events happen in winter, and which in spring or summer, in this novel. Do you notice any patterns?

    For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it. (2.14.5)

    How does Jim's move into town – and the corresponding shift in physical setting – impact the movement of the novel's plotline, themes, and mood?

    I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the "Georgics" where tomorrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee. "Optima dies ... prima fugit." (3.2.2)

    These are the words that Cather uses for her epigraph. Notice what text they come from – a didactic poem about farming. This quote serves as a reminder of the timeless importance of man's relationship with the natural world.

  • Memory and the Past

    I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. (1.1.1)

    Because Jim has just been orphaned, an entirely new phase of his life begins as he heads out to live with his grandparents. Moving West to Nebraska represents a "journey" for him in more ways than one.

    There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. (1.1.10)

    The land is, like Jim, raw material out of which something must form. We see how appropriate the empty Nebraskan landscape is for a coming-of-age story. The country – or at least this part of the country – is coming of age along with Jim.

    Once, while [Peter] was looking at Ántonia, he sighed and told us that if he had stayed at home in Russia perhaps by this time he would have had a pretty daughter of his own to cook and keep house for him. (1.5.9)

    Jim isn't the only one hung up on nostalgia for the past. The other characters, too, share his idealistic, romanticized view of days and places gone by.

    Beyond the pond, on the slope that climbed to the cornfield, there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride. Jake and Otto were sure that when they galloped round that ring the Indians tortured prisoners, bound to a stake in the centre; but grandfather thought they merely ran races or trained horses there. […] The old figure stirred me as it had never done before. (1.9.2)

    While narrator-Jim is nostalgic for his childhood past, the character-Jim harbors a similarly romanticized view of the past belonging to the natural landscape. Days gone by always seem better than the present.

    "I don't know, something has." Ántonia tossed her head and set her jaw. "A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won't be any tent next year." (2.10.5)

    Ántonia, like Jim, has grasped the central conflict summed up in the novel's epigraph – "the best days are the first to flee." There is a constant sense of transience possessed by all the young people in this novel, a sense that these good days simply will not last.

    I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it. […] I suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of my own infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified now, like the image of the plough against the sun. […] All those early friends […] were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how. (3.1.8)

    Jim gives hints during the course of the novel as to why he is writing this memoir in the first place. The act of composing the memoir is in itself a process of recovering the past, which, interestingly, Jim claims is incommunicable.

    As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass. (4.4.7)

    Jim's decision to visit Ántonia isn't just about checking up on an old friend – it's part of the process of recovering the past. That's why he attributes such importance to it and is scared to do it for twenty years.

    I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. (5.1.1)

    What do you think made Jim choose to face his fears and return to see Ántonia again?

    The boy was so restless that I had not had a chance to look at his face before. My first impression was right; he really was faun-like. He hadn't much head behind his ears, and his tawny fleece grew down thick to the back of his neck. His eyes were not frank and wide apart like those of the other boys, but were deep-set, gold-green in colour, and seemed sensitive to the light. (5.1.87)

    Jim's past vision of Ántonia is alive and kicking in the form of her son. He embodies the same spiritual closeness to nature that Ántonia once did in Jim's eyes.

    I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past. (last paragraph)

    It's interesting that Jim chooses to call the past "incommunicable," given that he's just written a memoir – a act of communicating the past. What do you think he's getting at in this final line?

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

    [Jim]: "People who don't like this country ought to stay at home," I said severely. "We don't make them come here." (1.13.5)

    It's worth noting that Jim and Ántonia's first real fight is on the topic of immigration. Jim feels defensive about his country, while Ántonia is similarly defensive about her family's status.

    "They ain't the same, Jimmy," he kept saying in a hurt tone. "These foreigners ain't the same. You can't trust 'em to be fair." (1.15.18)

    As portrayed in My Ántonia, the Americans in this time and place have a particular mindset when it comes to immigrants. They've set up families like the Shimerdas as complete outsiders. This represents part of the difficulty in breaking down the social barriers.

    There never were such people as the Shimerdas for wanting to give away everything they had. Even the mother was always offering me things, though I knew she expected substantial presents in return. (1.6.12)

    This is one example of the cultural differences that stand between Jim and Ántonia. The Shimerdas simply have a different way of doing things. Ántonia's mother, for example, thinks it is her right to take a pot or two from the Burdens if they're not using all their crockery.

    Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten -- and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. (1.8.18)

    My Ántonia is oddly punctuated with these harsh, violent stories (another example of Ántonia's story of the man who jumped into the threshing machine). This might be a reminder that the immigrants are used to a tougher, harsher lifestyle than the Americans.

    "I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony," I said. "I dedicated it to him." (2.13.25)

    This is the second time we've heard Jim talk about Mr. Shimerda with this degree of intensity. Why does Ántonia's father and his death end up being so important to Jim?

    "Jim," she said earnestly, "if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river to the next town, where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you. I ain't never forgot my own country." (2.14.12)

    Jim ends up expressing a similar sentiment about the American West when he looks back on his time there. Remember that he is writing this memoir as a lawyer living in New York. In a way Jim, too, has emigrated from the West to a new country and lifestyle on the east coast.

    I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. "Primus ego in patriam mecum ... deducam Musas"; "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." (3.2.2)

    This is an interesting passage because it reminds us of the importance of love for one's own country. The immigrants in this novel are in an interesting position, because they feel loyalty and homesickness for the countries they left behind, but they feel passionate and lovingly towards the new country they have decided to make their home.

    [Cuzak] advanced to meet me and gave me a hard hand, burned red on the back and heavily coated with hair. He wore his Sunday clothes, very thick and hot for the weather, an unstarched white shirt, and a blue necktie with big white dots, like a little boy's, tied in a flowing bow. (5.2.8)

    Now Cuzak is like the outsider – the only city man in a family full of farmers. The way that he dresses reveals that he longs for – and belongs to – the city life.

    "A Ferris wheel," Rudolph entered the conversation in a deep baritone voice. He was six foot two, and had a chest like a young blacksmith. "We went to the big dance in the hall behind the saloon last night, mother, and I danced with all the girls, and so did father. I never saw so many pretty girls. It was a Bohunk crowd, for sure." (5.2.10)

    "Bohunk" is a disparaging term for an unskilled foreign worker.

  • Gender

    But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer. (1.14.30)

    Jim has a keen sense of sympathy and is able to understand the complicated emotions going on around him. This is stereotypically a more feminine trait, and yet it is the central male character who embodies it.

    Nowadays Tony could talk of nothing but […] how much she could lift and endure. She was too proud of her strength. I knew, too, that Ambrosch put upon her some chores a girl ought not to do, and that the farm-hands around the country joked in a nasty way about it. (1.17.23)

    Does Jim resent the fact that the neighbors are talking about Ántonia, or does he resent that she is more masculine than he is? That is, is he driven by social concerns or gender concerns?

    "Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house!" she used to sing joyfully. "I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man." She would toss her head and ask me to feel the muscles swell in her brown arm. (1.19.3)

    Does Ántonia feel pride in her manliness, or is she pretending – as she will later pretend to hide her tears about school – to enjoy the life she knows she has to live? On what evidence do you base your assessment?

    They were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. Her skin was brown, too, and in her cheeks she had a glow of rich, dark colour. Her brown hair was curly and wild-looking. (1.3.14)

    This description of Ántonia makes her sound natural, like part of the landscape herself. What is the relationship between femininity and the natural world in this novel? Is Ántonia less or more feminine because of her ties to nature?

    After Ántonia had said the new words over and over, she wanted to give me a little chased silver ring she wore on her middle finger. (1.3.20)

    How interesting. There is a subtle reversal of traditional gender roles here in that Ántonia, a woman, is offering Jim, a man, a ring. How do you interpret Jim's reaction to this offer?

    …the chill came on quickly when the sun got low, and Ántonia's dress was thin. What were we to do with the frail little creature we had lured back to life by false pretences? I offered my pockets, but Tony shook her head and carefully put the green insect in her hair, tying her big handkerchief down loosely over her curls. (1.6.4)

    There's such an interesting mix of delicate femininity and natural, earthy elements in this description. There is mention of Ántonia's thin dress and of her curls, but at the same time she's putting an insect into her hair for safekeeping.

    That snake hung on our corral fence for several days; some of the neighbors came to see it and agreed that it was the biggest rattler ever killed in those parts. This was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake -- I was now a big fellow. (1.7.21)

    It's interesting that Ántonia, who flies in the face of all gender stereotypes about women, wants Jim to fill all the stereotypes of a typical man. What do you think is going on here?

    "Yes, a new country's hard on the old ones, sometimes," said Anna thoughtfully. "My grandmother's getting feeble now, and her mind wanders. She's forgot about this country, and thinks she's at home in Norway. She keeps asking mother to take her down to the waterside and the fish market. She craves fish all the time. Whenever I go home I take her canned salmon and mackerel." (2.14.24)

    The women in this novel take it upon themselves to support their families – a stereotypically masculine role. Yet it is consistently done with a sense of love, not one of obligation.

    She was nearly as strong as I, and uncannily clever at all boys' sports. Sally was a wild thing, with sunburned yellow hair, bobbed about her ears, and a brown skin, for she never wore a hat. She raced all over town on one roller skate, often cheated at 'keeps,' but was such a quick shot one couldn't catch her at it. (2.2.3)

    We start to get a picture of the author's own views on gender characterization through passages like this one. The characters who break down gender barriers are rendered by Cather with admiration.

    'That very night, it happened. She got her cattle home, turned them into the corral, and went into the house, into her room behind the kitchen, and shut the door. There, without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child. (4.3.26)

    Even in the midst of the most feminine of all possible actions, Ántonia maintains her masculine strength and calm. Cather shows that it's possible to be a woman – in every sense of the word – without clinging to "feminine" traits.

    "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister – anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind. You influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me" (4.4.7).

    Ántonia seems to embody all things feminine for Jim – with no specific sexual or romantic component.

  • Society and Class

    Mr. Shimerda made grandmother sit down on the only chair and pointed his wife to a stool beside her. Standing before them with his hand on Ántonia's shoulder, he talked in a low tone, and his daughter translated. He wanted us to know that they were not beggars in the old country; he made good wages, and his family were respected there. (1.10.24)

    Mr. Shimerda's character is distinct in that he maintains his pride with regard to social standing. This passage explains why it has been so difficult for him to move to America. We get the sense that social standing is considerably more important to him than it is to, say, Ántonia.

    There never were such people as the Shimerdas for wanting to give away everything they had. Even the mother was always offering me things, though I knew she expected substantial presents in return. We stood there in friendly silence, while the feeble minstrel sheltered in Ántonia's hair went on with its scratchy chirp. The old man's smile, as he listened, was so full of sadness, of pity for things, that I never afterward forgot it. (1.6.14)

    Jim is unconcerned with the social status of the Shimerdas for most of the early part of this novel. This may be because he is too young to start thinking about it, or because it's just not as relevant out in the farms as it is in town.

    Next to getting warm and keeping warm, dinner and supper were the most interesting things we had to think about. Our lives centered around warmth and food and the return of the men at nightfall. (1.9.9)

    Look at how different Jim's life is in the country as compared to in the town. The early parts of the novel are marked by the simplicity of the farm days, while the chapters which take place in town are made more interesting by the social complications between the farm people and the merchant families.

    His girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces, their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest wild roses, their gold hair moist with the steam or the heat and curling in little damp spirals about their ears. They had not learned much English, and were not so ambitious as Tony or Lena; but they were kind, simple girls and they were always happy. When one danced with them, one smelled their clean, freshly ironed clothes that had been put away with rosemary leaves from Mr. Jensen's garden. (2.12.21)

    It's interesting that the traits which make the hired girls somehow "beneath" the wealthy girls are the same traits that make them more sexually attractive to the boys of the town. It's almost a "forbidden fruit" situation. Notice that these girls are described as possessing the same sort of vitality and energy that so draws Jim to Ántonia.

    The dance at the Firemen's Hall was the one thing I looked forward to all the week. There I met the same people I used to see at the Vannis` tent. Sometimes there were Bohemians from Wilber, or German boys who came down on the afternoon freight from Bismarck. Tony and Lena and Tiny were always there, and the three Bohemian Marys, and the Danish laundry girls. (2.12.24)

    The dances held at the Fireman's Hall were aimed more at the country people, whereas the dances in town were aimed at the merchant families. That's why it's socially acceptable for Jim to attend the latter, but not the former.

    Ántonia looked eagerly about the house and admired everything. `Maybe I be the kind of girl you like better; now I come to town,` she suggested hopefully. (2.3.3)

    Ántonia recognizes that her value is dependent on her social status. The social barriers in this time and place are out in the open, not buried or hidden.

    So that was what they were like, I thought, these white-handed, high-collared clerks and bookkeepers! I used to glare at young Lovett from a distance and only wished I had some way of showing my contempt for him. (2.9.1)

    Jim is critical of the boys in town for the way they treat the hired girls. But is he, too, affected by the social standing of the immigrant girls?

    "Miss Lingard," [Mr. Ordinksy] said haughtily, "is a young woman for whom I have the utmost, the utmost respect." (3.4.21)

    It's amazing how far Lena has come. Remember that, when we first heard about her, she was almost a social outcast. Cather shows that not all social barriers are insurmountable.

    "After I'd dressed the baby, I took it out to show it to Ambrosch. He was muttering behind the stove and wouldn't look at it. "You'd better put it out in the rain-barrel," he says. (4.3.37)

    While some characters are able to move past social stigma, others are perpetually worried about reputation and social status. This might be one reason Ambrosch wants the child killed – to protect his family's reputation.

    [Cuzak] advanced to meet me and gave me a hard hand, burned red on the back and heavily coated with hair. He wore his Sunday clothes, very thick and hot for the weather, an unstarched white shirt, and a blue necktie with big white dots, like a little boy's, tied in a flowing bow. (5.2.8)

    It's interesting that Ántonia ends up marrying a city man – Cuzak is definitely more enamored of city life than farm life. How does this comment on the social system we saw established when Jim and Ántonia first moved to town?

  • Visions of America

    While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron. (Introduction.1)

    Cather's vision of America is strongly rooted in physical setting. It is this setting that determines the lives of the characters, that tests their determination and limits. To be in America in the West is a unique experience in this novel.

    Jim is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new people and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood friends remember him. He never seems to me to grow older. His fresh color and sandy hair and quick-changing blue eyes are those of a young man, and his sympathetic, solicitous interest in women is as youthful as it is Western and American. (Introduction. 4)

    It's interesting that Jim represents America to the narrator, just as Ántonia represents to Jim the will and beauty of the American West.

    One morning the two big bulls, Gladstone and Brigham Young, thought spring had come, and they began to tease and butt at each other across the barbed wire that separated them (1.13.13)

    The cow, Brigham Young, is humorously named after the Mormon leader who helped the pioneer movement out West. The cultural references in Cather's novel help to firmly root the story in its very American setting.

    The quiet was delightful, and the ticking clock was the most pleasant of companions. I got "Robinson Crusoe" and tried to read, but his life on the island seemed dull compared with ours. (1.14.26)

    Jim does portray himself as a sort of American Hero, engaged in adventure in dangerous territory. His highly romanticized way of looking at his past only contributes to this sort of exaggeration.

    I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper. (1.16.13)

    This is a reminder that the "portrait of America" we see painted in this novel is decidedly color by Jim's attitude of romanticized nostalgia. The whole vision has a rose-colored veneer to it. In this passage, for example, Jim finds a sublime beauty even in Mr. Shimerda's death.

    I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered. Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises, and I looked at her most of the time while I made my speech. Her keen, intelligent eyes never left my face. Afterward she came back to the dressing-room where we stood, with our diplomas in our hands, walked up to me, and said heartily: "You surprised me, Jim. I didn't believe you could do as well as that. You didn't get that speech out of books." (2.13.19)

    Cather gave a similar speech at her own graduation. Details such as this one show how much of her own life Cather has chosen to insert into this vision of America.

    Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings'. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers. (2.2.2)

    The Harlings represent a typical life in town in the American West. Cather uses them to show her readers what life was like in this specific time and place.

    The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify--it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: "This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth." It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer. (2.6.2)

    In Cather's vision of America, the physical landscape and the weather play an important role in determining the lives, moods, and actions of the populace. Even after Jim and Ántonia have moved into the town, the natural elements still dominate.

    I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Ántonia's father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all "hired girls" (2.9.5).

    Social issues regarding immigrants is one of the focuses of Cather's portrait of America. She presents the situation as objectively as possible – the portrait is descriptive and not prescriptive.

    "Jimmy, I sat right down on that bank beside her and made lament. I cried like a young thing. I couldn't help it. I was just about heart-broke. It was one of them lovely warm May days, and the wind was blowing and the colts jumping around in the pastures; but I felt bowed with despair." My Ántonia, that had so much good in her, had come home disgraced…" (4.3.20)

    The characters in Cather's novel suffer through their share of hardships. Unfair and unwarranted suffering is par for the course in this difficult environment. But perseverance seeming to be a common trait here in this American landscape.

  • Love

    "My father, he went much to school. He know a great deal; how to make the fine cloth like what you not got here. He play horn and violin, and he read so many books that the priests in Bohemia come to talk to him. You won't forget my father, Jim?" (1.17.16)

    After Mr. Shimerda's death, we start to see that Jim is as important to Ántonia as Ántonia is to Jim. But, just as we are uncertain of the nature of Jim's feelings for Ántonia, we are similarly left in the dark as to Ántonia's feelings for Jim.

    They were growing prettier every day, but as they passed us, I used to think with pride that Ántonia, like Snow-White in the fairy tale, was still 'fairest of them all.' (2.12.1-2)

    This is an interesting reaction on Jim's part – notice that he's already taking a sort of ownership over Ántonia. He feels pride in thinking that she is the prettiest of the hired girls; not attraction or jealousy. It's almost like she's his sister or his daughter.

    I used to wish I could have dreams like this about Ántonia, but I never did. (2.12.32)

    It's as though Jim cannot reconcile his sexual attractions with his romantic attractions. So he uses Lena as the target of the former and reserves the latter for Ántonia. That he wishes he could feel the same way about Ántonia is telling of a deeper level of understanding on his part

    If she was proud of me, I was so proud of her that I carried my head high as I emerged from the dark cedars and shut the Cutters` gate softly behind me. Her warm, sweet face, her kind arms, and the true heart in her; she was, oh, she was still my Ántonia! (2.12.37)

    What does Jim mean when he uses the phrase "my Ántonia"? Is it a sense of possession he feels? Or something different altogether?

    "Mercy, it's hot!" Lena yawned. She was supine under a little oak, resting after the fury of her elder-hunting, and had taken off the high-heeled slippers she had been silly enough to wear. "Come here, Jim. You never got the sand out of your hair." She began to draw her fingers slowly through my hair.

    Ántonia pushed her away. "You'll never get it out like that," she said sharply. (2.14.27)

    It looks like Ántonia is a bit jealous. This is one of several instances where we see Ántonia forcefully separate Lena and Jim. Is she just looking out for Jim's best interests, or does she want him for herself?

    Whenever we rode over in that direction we saw [Lena] out among her cattle, bareheaded and barefooted, scantily dressed in tattered clothing, always knitting as she watched her herd. Before I knew Lena, I thought of her as something wild, that always lived on the prairie, because I had never seen her under a roof. Her yellow hair was burned to a ruddy thatch on her head; but her legs and arms, curiously enough, in spite of constant exposure to the sun, kept a miraculous whiteness which somehow made her seem more undressed than other girls who went scantily lad. The first time I stopped to talk to her, I was astonished at her soft voice and easy, gentle ways. (2.4.38)

    It's interesting that Lena and Ántonia both had similar childhoods, but Lena's sexuality and femininity is so much more pronounced than Ántonia's. Jim's reaction to these two girls is, subsequently, different.

    We all liked Tony's stories. Her voice had a peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky, and one always heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart. (2.6.6)

    Jim's feelings for Ántonia are revealed in the oddest of places. In the details of his descriptions of her life hints of a deeper emotion.

    She looked bold and resourceful and unscrupulous, and she was all of these. They were handsome girls, had the fresh colour of their country upbringing, and in their eyes that brilliancy which is called-- by no metaphor, alas!--`the light of youth.` (2.7.30)

    Jim recognizes that much of the vigor and appeal of Ántonia lies in the fact that she is young. How is it, then, that his feelings for her remain strong as she grows older?

    Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish. (3.2.31)

    It's easy to characterize Jim's feelings for Ántonia as purely chaste and his feelings for Lena are purely sexual – but this is clearly not the case. Jim's feelings for Lena run deep indeed, and often seem more romantic than sexual.

    I tried to shut Ántonia out of my mind. I was bitterly disappointed in her. I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity. (4.1.5)

    Again, it sounds like Ántonia is a sister or a daughter to Jim, not an object of romantic or sexual affection. The nature of his feelings for her is cryptic indeed.

  • Passivity

    As for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his naturally romantic and ardent disposition. This disposition, though it often made him seem very funny when he was a boy, has been one of the strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches. […] Jim is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new people and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood friends remember him. He never seems to me to grow older. (Introduction.4)

    How does the narrator's initial description of Jim fit the character we see in the memoir? Does Jim see himself in the same light in which the narrator sees him?

    I looked up with interest at the new face in the lantern-light. He might have stepped out of the pages of "Jesse James." He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. (1.1.5)

    Jim's admiration for Otto seems a product of his own passivity. He admires Otto's traditionally masculine qualities because he himself lacks these traits.

    I was not frightened, but I made no noise. I did not wish to disturb him. I went softly down to the kitchen which, tucked away so snugly underground, always seemed to me the heart and centre of the house. There, on the bench behind the stove, I thought and thought about Mr. Shimerda. (1.14.27)

    Jim makes up in sensitivity what he lacks in decisiveness and action. He understands emotions and is able to deal with difficult situations in a way that a characters more prone to action would not.

    That snake hung on our corral fence for several days; some of the neighbours came to see it and agreed that it was the biggest rattler ever killed in those parts. This was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake -- I was now a big fellow. (1.7.9)

    This is the only place in the novel where Jim steps up to fill stereotypically masculine shoes – and it is the moment where Ántonia begins to admire him. Does this mean that Ántonia wants Jim to be more typically "masculine"? How can she expect these things from him when she herself is not typically "feminine"?

    I told her I didn't know what they believed, and didn't care, and that I certainly wasn't going to be a preacher. (2.12.8)

    We see that, as he grows up, Jim begins to move away from the sphere of influence exerted by his grandparents. To some degree, he is learning to think for himself.

    I got hold of his thumb and bent it back, until he let go with a yell. In a bound, I was on my feet, and easily sent him sprawling to the floor. Then I made a dive for the open window, struck the wire screen, knocked it out, and tumbled after it in the yard. (2.15.10)

    Think of this as an adult version of the snake incident from Jim's childhood – except this time he runs away instead of fighting. Why?

    I was jealous of Tony's admiration for Charley Harling. Because he was always first in his classes at school, and could mend the water-pipes or the doorbell and take the clock to pieces, she seemed to think him a sort of prince. Nothing that Charley wanted was too much trouble for her. She loved to put up lunches for him when he went hunting, to mend his ball-gloves and sew buttons on his shooting-coat, baked the kind of nut-cake he liked, and fed his setter dog when he was away on trips with his father. Ántonia had made herself cloth working-slippers out of Mr. Harling's old coats, and in these she went padding about after Charley, fairly panting with eagerness to please him. (2.3.5)

    Jim seems to recognize in others the positive masculine traits he lacks himself – but his own shortcomings seem only to be an issue when it comes to Ántonia. That he's not worried about being typically "male" for himself – he only wants to please Ántonia.

    Her voice had a peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky, and one always heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart. (2.6.7)

    Ántonia's character possesses all the vitality and energy that seems to be missing in Jim's more passive character. Perhaps this has something to do with the reason he is so drawn to her? Jim seems to admire in others what he lacks in himself. (A similar thing happens with Otto Fuchs earlier in the novel.)

    "Baptists don't believe in christening babies, do they, Jim?"

    The curtain rose on the bedroom scene. By this time there wasn't a nerve in me that hadn't been twisted. Nanine alone could have made me cry. I loved Nanine tenderly; and Gaston, how one clung to that good fellow! The New Year's presents were not too much; nothing could be too much now. I wept unrestrainedly. Even the handkerchief in my breast-pocket, worn for elegance and not at all for use, was wet through by the time that moribund woman sank for the last time into the arms of her lover. (3.3.10)

    It's fitting that Jim is so enamored of the theatre. Because of his passive character, he enjoys being able to watch a drama unfold where the characters take action.

    I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again. (5.1.1)

    The fact that it takes Jim twenty years to return to visit Ántonia again is another example of his passivity. He allows himself to be paralyzed by (ultimately ill-founded) fears.

  • Suffering

    A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. (1.1.9)

    Otto's physique is a testament to the tough life that immigrants live. But Jim finds it impressive that Otto has borne so much difficulty – he thinks it makes Otto seem stronger.

    The Bohemian family, grandmother told me as we drove along, had bought the homestead of a fellow countryman, Peter Krajiek, and had paid him more than it was worth. Their agreement with him was made before they left the old country, through a cousin of his, who was also a relative of Mrs. Shimerda. The Shimerdas were the first Bohemian family to come to this part of the county. Krajiek was their only interpreter, and could tell them anything he chose. They could not speak enough English to ask for advice, or even to make their most pressing wants known. (1.3.3)

    The immigrants suffer even at the hands of other immigrants. It's sad that Krajiek would take advantage of his own people, having once been in their position.

    I was convinced that man's strongest antagonist is the cold. (1.9.8)

    It's not just the immigrants, but all the pioneers who suffer on account of the natural elements. Jim and his family also have to make their way through a variety of hardships.

    [Jake:] `He's a worker, all right, ma'm, and he's got some ketch-on about him; but he's a mean one. Folks can be mean enough to get on in this world; and then, ag'in, they can be too mean.' (1.10.33)

    Much of Ambrosch's character can be attributed to the suffering he's experienced. He's toughened up because of men like Krajiek who have taken advantage of him. Others, however, like Ántonia, manage to be tough without being mean.

    The crazy boy went with them, because he did not feel the cold. I believed he felt cold as much as anyone else, but he liked to be thought insensible to it. He was always coveting distinction, poor Marek! (1.14.29)

    Some characters feel that bearing rough conditions makes them tougher or better people. Indeed, Jim does admire Ántonia for these reasons later on in the novel.

    Nevertheless, after I went to bed, this idea of punishment and Purgatory came back on me crushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered. But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer. (1.14.last paragraph)

    Mr. Shimerda's suicide shows that not everyone can deal with suffering the way characters like Ambrosch or Ántonia can. There are real costs, for Mr. Shimerda and for his family, for the lives they all lead.

    [Ántonia] put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. `If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.' (1.19.last paragraph)

    Ántonia has a real understanding of what separates her from Jim – indeed, more than even Jim does. This is also an explanation of why she acts the way she does when she's on the farm. Perhaps if Ántonia hadn't moved to town, she would have grown mean like Ambrosch.

    [Ántonia:] "I tried to make signs to Ole, `cause I thought that man was crazy and might get the machine stopped up. But Ole, he was glad to get down out of the sun and chaff-- it gets down your neck and sticks to you something awful when it's hot like that. So Ole jumped down and crawled under one of the wagons for shade, and the tramp got on the machine. He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the threshing machine after the wheat." (2.6.14)

    There are a few violent stories like this throughout My Ántonia. They show the reader how commonplace these horrific events were in the lives of the pioneers.

    `Now, wasn't that strange, Miss Frances?` Tony asked thoughtfully. `What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? In threshing time, too! It's nice everywhere then.` (2.6.22)

    Because of her difficult life, Ántonia has attained an indifference toward suffering. She isn't horrified by the story of the man who committed suicide; instead, she asks a practical question.

    It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. [Ántonia] was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (3.1.last paragraph)

    Despite a life of suffering, Ántonia has retained her strong character. In her symbolic role, she is a testament to the immigrants' determination and resilience.

  • Youth

    Fuchs told me everything I wanted to know: how he had lost his ear in a Wyoming blizzard when he was a stage-driver, and how to throw a lasso. He promised to rope a steer for me before sundown next day. He got out his `chaps` and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design-- roses, and true-lover's knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels. (1.2.10)

    Jim displays boyhood admiration for Otto, who becomes one of the symbols of manhood for the young kid. Many of Jim's ideas about how to grow up stem from this relationship.

    Much as I liked Ántonia, I hated a superior tone that she sometimes took with me. She was four years older than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner. (1.7.1)

    Jim and Ántonia's relationship is complicated both by their ages and by their genders. Ántonia is superior in terms of age, but Jim feels he should have the upper hand because he's the man. Hence all the confusion…

    I read "The Swiss Family Robinson" aloud to her, and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life. (1.9.8)

    Cather does a great job of portraying Jim's youthful enthusiasm for his life on the prairie. The whole attitude of the My Ántonia is very much colored by the narrator's young age.

    Nevertheless, after I went to bed, this idea of punishment and Purgatory came back on me crushingly. I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered. But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer. (1.14.13)

    Jim is mature for his age. He has an emotional sensitivity beyond his years when it comes to understanding Mr. Shimerda and his suicide.

    That snake hung on our corral fence for several days; some of the neighbours came to see it and agreed that it was the biggest rattler ever killed in those parts. This was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake--I was now a big fellow. (1.7.last paragraph)

    It's interesting that Jim, who is generally not a typically masculine character, adopts such a stereotypical view about becoming a man. We can see the influence of guys like Otto on his perspective here.

    `I'll never be friends with them again, Jake,` I declared hotly. `I believe they are all like Krajiek and Ambrosch underneath.` (1.18.14)

    Though he seems at times to be wise beyond his years, Jim is also subject to child-like pouting. Cather does a good job of reminding us of Jim's young age with passages like this one.

    [Ántonia's] greatest fault, Mrs. Harling found, was that she so often stopped her work and fell to playing with the children. She would race about the orchard with us, or take sides in our hay-fights in the barn, or be the old bear that came down from the mountain and carried off Nina. (2.3.4)

    Ántonia's love for children is an important part of her character. It foreshadows the large family she will have at the end of the novel. It also shows that she is a natural motherly figure.

    After the apple and cherry trees broke into bloom, we ran about under them, hunting for the new nests the birds were building, throwing clods at each other, and playing hide-and-seek with Nina. Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting. (2.8.1)

    Cather doesn't let us forget that My Ántonia is a coming-of-age novel. This is one of those interesting passages where narrator-Jim interrupts the storyline to interject some of his own wisdom in the novel. It's also a chance for Cather to muse about the process of growing up.

    I was moody and restless that winter, and tired of the people I saw every day. (2.12.13)

    My Ántonia is a coming of age novel in that we see Jim through every stage of growing up. Just as earlier we got anecdotes portraying child, now Jim is the quintessential moody teenager.

    I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered. (2.13.19)

    Jim's graduation oration is clearly a milestone in his growing up. It strikes us as odd that Cather chooses not to include the oration – and the things Jim has "discovered" – in the text.