Study Guide

My Ántonia Suffering

By Willa Cather


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.