Study Guide

My Ántonia Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

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    The natural landscape and the weather both play a large part in setting the atmosphere and depicting the actions and mindsets of the characters in My Ántonia. Because the characters we meet are farmers, they are dependent on the natural world for their livelihood and therefore greatly affected by its changes. A harsh winter, for example, leads (perhaps indirectly, but still), to suicidal despair. The vast Nebraskan landscape is tied up with the novel's themes of youth and coming-of-age. (See "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.) The relationship between man and the natural world is both humbling and awe-inspiring for the characters, which respect and admire the beauty of the prairie landscape.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Cather spends a lot of time just describing what the landscape looks like. What is her point behind this lengthy description?
    2. How does the physical setting of Jim's location – country, town, etc. – impact the development of his character?
    3. What is the relationship, in Jim's mind, between Ántonia and the natural landscape?

    Chew on This

    Jim belongs in the country, not in the town.

    Jim belongs in the town, not in the country.

  • Memory and the Past

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    My Ántonia takes the form of a fictional memoir, told by adult Jim Burden looking back on his youth in the American West around the turn of the 19th century. In this case, the form (memoir) is the perfect instrument for the novel's attitude toward the past – an attitude of nostalgia. Jim's attitude towards his own past is matched by the attitude of the memoir's characters toward their own respective pasts. The immigrants, for example, look back longingly at the days "back home" in their old countries. The past is presented as something to be longed for, but never regained. The novel's epigraph – "the best days are the first to flee" – perhaps reflects this feeling best.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. At what points in the novel can you see a divide between narrator-Jim and Jim-the-character-in-the-story?
    2. Given what you know about narrator-Jim's present life (from the Introduction), why do you think the past is so important to him?
    3. How well does narrator-Jim understand what happened in the past? What kind of perspective has he gained?
    4. It's easy to argue that Jim lives in the past. In contrast, which characters live in the present?

    Chew on This

    Jim's tendency to live in the past is an example of his passivity; it is presented as a negative character trait.

    Jim's tendency to live in the past represents his appreciation for beauty and love; it is presented as a positive character trait.

  • Foreignness and 'The Other'

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    Many of the characters in My Ántonia are immigrants who have come to the American West from their home countries to make a living farming. They come from several different counties, including Bohemia (a region in what is today the Czech Republic), Russia, and Austria. The characters have different reasons for immigrating; some had to flee their native counties, others hoped to make a better life for themselves in America. Their attitude toward America is largely hopeful, though many of the immigrants express nostalgic longings for their homeland.

    The novel explores the social, linguistic, and economic barriers these immigrants face as they try to settle in a new place. They are often treated as outsiders by the Americans because they have different values, speak differently, have different religious beliefs, and are in a different socio-economic bracket. Cather's attitude toward these immigrants can best be described as admiration. She notes the spirit, will power, and determination that these immigrants bring with them, and recognizes that it is precisely these traits which allow the immigrants to succeed, often more so than native-born Americans in the same situation.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'The Other'

    1. What is the toughest challenge the immigrants in this novel face?
    2. What abilities or virtues do the immigrants have that the Americans do not?
    3. How does Ántonia's ethnicity affect her relationship with Jim?
    4. Are most of the immigrants happy or regretful that they've come to America?
    5. What are the similarities and differences between the way in which immigrants are viewed in this novel and how immigrants to the U.S. are viewed today?

    Chew on This

    Economic barriers are more challenging than social barriers for the immigrants in this novel.

    Social barriers are more challenging than economic barriers for the immigrants in this novel.

  • Gender

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    My Ántonia subverts traditional gender roles, both for women and for men. Set around the turn of the century in the American West, the novel surprisingly features women as its strongest characters and men as its weakest. In My Ántonia we see an apparent reversal of stereotypical gender roles. Women take control of families, earn money, call the shots, and even do field work with the men. The title character, Ántonia, is characterized by strength of both body and of spirit, while the male narrator Jim is both indecisive and weak. This female strength is rewarded in the novel – the strongest of the young women end up as successful, happy adults. Cather does present different life trajectories for these women: some end up in business while others end up as homemakers. The novel seems to take an equally positive view toward both, though this is subject to debate.

    Questions About Gender

    1. In what ways does Ántonia rebel against gender stereotypes in her day and age? Are there are of the stereotypes she does fit?
    2. Why doesn't Lena want to get married? Does this seem reasonable? Why is it that Ántonia does want to get married?
    3. Which life is presented as the "right" choice for a woman – Lena's or Ántonia's?

    Chew on This

    In My Ántonia, the women are the characters of action, while the men are characterized by passivity.

    My Ántonia rejects traditional standards of femininity and argues for alternatives.

  • Society and Class

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    My Ántonia explores social issues in a small town in Nebraska around 1900. The central social conflict arises in the form of racist attitudes toward the immigrants who make up a large percent of the population in the growing West. The immigrant girls, who come from farming families, face prejudice from the girls of wealthy, merchant families who live in town. A class system is set up in which the immigrants work as "hired girls" in the houses of the merchant families, and are essentially seen as second class citizens. The issue gets more complicated when you throw sex into the mix, since the town boys place the immigrant girls on a sexual pedestal but aren't willing to marry them.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why are the immigrant girls so appealing to the town boys?
    2. What role do social classes play in the young characters' love lives?
    3. How (if it all) do Jim's social views change over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Social barriers are the ultimate reason Jim does not pursue Ántonia romantically.

    Social barriers have nothing to do with Jim and Ántonia's relationship.

  • Visions of America

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    My Ántonia can be considered a novel of historical fiction (see "Genre") in that it paints a portrait of the culture of a specific time and place: the American West around the turn of the 19th century. Social issues like racism, immigration, gender roles, and classism, are explored through a fictionalized story that is based on the author's own real experiences. Cather paints of a portrait of a time in America that is both romanticized and nostalgic, imbued with the longing for youth and the beauty of the natural landscape. The novel is noted for its lush, evocative physical descriptions of the prairie, and so this vision of America is as much rooted in physical, outdoor settings as it is in a social climate.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What role did immigrants play in developing the American West, as seen in this novel?
    2. How are different regions – such as country or town – contrasted in this novel?
    3. There's a lot of gruesome stuff in this novel (the story about the wolves, the Cutter murder, the suicides). What is Cather's point about the American West?

    Chew on This

    Cather's portrait of the American West is that of a land of sacrifice and suffering.

    Cather's portrait of the American West is that of a land of pride and victory.

  • Love

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    Love is a tricky business in My Ántonia, as it's never exactly clear just what the novel's narrator (Jim) feels for his childhood friend, Ántonia. Whether it's puppy love, infatuation, deep-rooted respect, curiosity, or just plain hormones, love can be found in all its forms in this novel. Because My Ántonia can be considered a coming-of-age novel (see "Genre"), love is wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of growing up. Love is in some cases tied to respect and admiration; other times associated with lust and sexuality. In many forms it is sub textual. Cather is rarely explicit about just what her characters are feelings, perhaps because those characters aren't exactly sure themselves.

    Questions About Love

    1. How would you characterize Jim's love for Ántonia? Ántonia's love for Jim?
    2. How do Jim's feelings for Ántonia change over the course of the novel?
    3. What is the difference between Jim's love for Lena and his love for Ántonia?
    4. At what point in the novel (if ever) are you certain that Jim loves Ántonia?

    Chew on This

    Jim is fundamentally romantically incompatible with Ántonia.

    Jim and Ántonia are perfect for each other.

  • Passivity

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    My Ántonia upsets many traditional gender exceptions, but one in particular is the expectation that men be active, decisive characters. The novel's narrator and arguable protagonist, Jim Burden, is fairly passive, weak, and indecisive on several levels. When it comes to love, he seems not to know what he feels about whom, and is unwilling to act on it anyway. While the novel's title character, a woman, works out in the fields like a man, Jim studies indoors. When faced with uncomfortable situations, he tends to run away (literally or figuratively). He even lets twenty years go by while he hesitates about visiting the woman he claims he loved. Jim and his passivity work alongside the specific traits of other characters to upset gender stereotypes of all kind.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Why is Jim so passive?
    2. Find some examples of places in the novel where Jim is a man of action instead of passivity. What causes these moments of action?
    3. What is the relationship between masculinity and passivity in this novel? Is Jim less manly because of his passive nature?
    4. Can you find any passive female characters in this novel?
    5. Compare Jim's masculinity to that of other male characters in the novel. Are there any "men of action" to be found here?

    Chew on This

    Passivity is presented as a negative character trait in My Ántonia.

    Passivity is presented as a positive character trait in My Ántonia.

  • Suffering

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    My Ántonia tells the story of white settlers in the American West around 1900. The characters deal with many different forms of suffering. The natural elements present a great challenge, particularly to the farmers. Main character Jim argues that the cold is their greatest enemy. In the long winters everyone must deal with limited food and harsh conditions. The immigrants in particular suffer as they try and adapt to a new culture and country – some of the established farmers try to take advantage of them because they don't speak the language. Emotional hardship is also one of the trials these characters suffer, and on account of it a suicide features prominently in the novel. Still, many of the characters end up stronger because of the suffering they experience. Cather clearly admires the Nebraskans for their efforts and resilience.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is the main cause of the immigrants' suffering – the natural elements or the established Americans?
    2. In what ways does the immigrants' suffering help them?
    3. What specific anecdotes of suffering shape Cather's portrait of immigrant life?

    Chew on This

    The immigrants' suffering makes them stronger.

    Most of the immigrants' suffering is due to natural elements.

  • Youth

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    My Ántonia is as much a coming of age story as any other genre. Protagonist Jim Burden begins the novel as a ten-year-old boy and the story follows his character through adolescence, college, and into adulthood. As readers we watch Jim grow up on the prairie in more ways than one, and the general tone toward youth seems to be one of nostalgia. Jim develops ideas about manhood and learns what it means to suffer and withstand. He learns about friendship and later about romance. Cather seems to parallel Jim's own coming of age with that of the country. In fact Jim notes when the novel begins that the plains of Nebraska are the stuff of which countries are made. It's likely that Cather modeled Jim's fictional youth on her own youth in Nebraska. She bases many of the characters and places in the story on real-life models from her own experiences.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What specific incidents mark milestones in Jim's coming of age?
    2. Ántonia is older than Jim when the novel begins. What part does their age difference play in their relationship?
    3. How does Cather integrate the thoughts of the older Jim who is telling the story with the younger Jim character? When are they at odds?

    Chew on This

    Jim's character is never typical of his age group throughout the novel.

    Jim's coming-of-age is made parallel with the country's own coming-of-age with regard to the American West.