Study Guide

My Ántonia Man and the Natural World

By Willa Cather

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.