Study Guide

My Ántonia Gender

By Willa Cather


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.