Study Guide

My Ántonia Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Willa Cather

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.