Study Guide

My Ántonia Youth

By Willa Cather


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.