Willa Cather's My Antonia: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:06 The Prairie Life
  • 1:09 Synopsis
  • 5:01 Analysis
  • 7:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will examine Willa Cather's most recognizable literary work, 'My Antonia'. We will take a look at the plot of this story while considering the ways in which this modernist novel uses language and setting to reflect character relationships and emotion.

The Prairie Life

My Antonia, written by Willa Cather, is one of the most recognizable stories of both immigrant and prairie life. Published in 1918, the novel is the last in what has been called Cather's Prairie Trilogy, consisting also of O Pioneers! and Song of the Lark. Set mainly in Nebraska, the author's home state, My Antonia is a kind of memoir - a young man's recollection of his childhood in the Midwest. Specifically, the narrator, Jim, focuses his first-person storytelling lens on the Shimerdas, a traveling immigrant family whose daughter Antonia becomes one of his most dear childhood friends. Structured into five sections, the novel follows Antonia from girlhood through motherhood in her life on the prairie. Immediately received as a masterpiece in writing and an innovation in story structure, this modernist novel holds a very unique place in the literary tradition of this country - one that highlights the very American concept of frontier living, independence and individualism through the life of a resilient immigrant woman.

My Antonia is the final work in the Prairie Trilogy by Cather
Willa Cather

Synopsis

The novel opens with some background given by a nameless female narrator. Basically, this narrator tells us that, growing up, she knew a young Bohemian immigrant girl named Antonia Shimerda. The narrator intended to write a story about this interesting girl (who came from the region we now know as the Czech Republic). After all, Antonia was worthy of a story. But we come to find out that the narrator believes that her friend Jim Burden would be better suited for the task. He knew Antonia better. So Jim writes a memoir focused on his life in relation to Antonia (and the remainder of the novel is this memoir).

Jim begins his memoir as a ten year old on his way to live with his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Having just lost his parents, he is on his way to start a new life in what feels like, once he arrives, an empty place and a lonely land. It is on this train that he meets the Shimerda family - a family of six who are also traveling to Black Hawk and who end up being his grandparents' closest neighbors. Antonia, the eldest daughter, seems to know the most English, and it is with her that Jim quickly creates a bond. He finds her confident and spirited and, as their friendship grows, he admires her a great deal.

While Jim's childhood is full of the discovery and wonder of both the Nebraskan landscape and his new companion, he finds that his experiences with Antonia are grounded in a harsher reality. After dealing with a difficult time over the winter without much money or many connections, Antonia's father finds himself even more depressed and homesick. Sadly, he commits suicide. Antonia takes on more responsibility in the family and in the fields, which means when Jim goes to school, she does not - their lives begin to look very different. Jim and Antonia don't see each other as much.

By the time Jim reaches high school, he and his grandparents have moved off the farm and into town. Antonia is still working quite a bit. In fact, she is hired by a family in town to be a part of their housecleaning staff. This is where we are also introduced to Lena Lingard - a young girl who is also earning money for her family on a farm. The differences between Antonia and Lena and the other girls Jim knows from school are clear. Socially, Antonia and Lena are known as hired help, the working immigrant girls. But Jim's friendship is true.

Jim shows an outward interest in Lena, although Antonia's beauty is apparent to all. But it is only when Jim goes off to college at the University of Nebraska (and Lena eventually moves to the same town to pursue a career as a dressmaker) that a relationship between the two comes to fruition. This lasts until he decides he needs to make a change and he transfers to Harvard for his last two years of college.

After graduating, Jim returns back to his grandparents to visit. He hears of Antonia, who has been engaged to a man who basically leaves her at the altar. Antonia deals with the pain of rejection while covering up the fact that she is pregnant - this would have been a huge disgrace to her family. But she gives birth to a baby girl, resolved to care for her the best she can. While he is home, Jim decides to visit Antonia and is quite happy to find her the same resolute and spirited girl he once knew. He leaves with the promise that he will visit again soon.

But Jim does not visit again soon. In fact, twenty years pass before he sees her again. When Jim, who has become an attorney in New York City, finally returns back to Nebraska, he finds Antonia happily married with many children. Where he was once fearful that he would find his beloved Antonia weighed down in years and finally broken in spirit, he sees now that she is unchanged. The fact that she still resembles the girl he once knew, fiery and resolute even after much sadness, is the greatest possible outcome.

After sharing stories and laughter, Jim leaves with the promise that he will keep in touch. Jim feels at peace with the memories he shares with Antonia, the person she is and all that they've experienced together. The novel ends with a consideration of all that Antonia has meant to him.

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