My Ántonia

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My Ántonia

Willa Cather

Author Biography
Plot Summarv
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Willa Cather


Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918) is the story of both Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the state of Nebraska in the 1880s, and the novel's American-born narrator, Jim Burden. The story is told as Jim relates his own image of Ántonia in a nostalgic re-creation of his childhood and youth. Their wildly differing places in the social hierarchy account for their respective fortunes. Ántonia survives her father's suicide, hires herself out as household help, is abandoned at the altar, gives birth out of wedlock, but achieves fulfillment in her marriage to a Czech farmer, her loving children, and their flourishing farm. Jim, a successful well-traveled and cultured East-coast lawyer, remains romantic, nostalgic, and unfulfilled in life. This portrait of Ántonia is widely acknowledged as one of the most memorable characters in twentieth-century literature. Through her, Cather celebrates the vitality and fruitfulness of the pioneering era as a type of lost paradise. My Ántonia is widely considered the best of the author's "Nebraska" novels which reflect her childhood experiences growing up on the plains. Since its appearance, Cather's carefully crafted fiction has gathered a steady following. Her reputation has continued to grow since her death in 1947. Although contemporary reviewers sometimes faulted the author's work as overly nostalgic and obsessed with the past, today critics see Cather's Nebraska novels, and My Ántonia in particular, as well-crafted, sympathetic portrayals of the uniquely American experience of immigrant pioneers.

Author Biography

Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884, her family moved to join her father's relatives among the ethnically diverse settlers of the Great Plains. This area would serve as the inspiration for several of her novels, including My Ántonia (1918). Her father tried farming but soon settled the family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town of approximately 2,500 people. Cather remembered vividly both the trauma of leaving a hill farm for a flat, empty land and the subsequent excitement of growing up in the new country. She took intense pleasure in riding her pony to neighboring farms and listening to the stories of the immigrant farm women she met there. Cather accompanied a local doctor on house calls and by her thirteenth birthday had adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male. She signed her name "William Cather, Jr." or "William Cather, M.D." Eventually returning to more conventional modes of dress, she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing.

At sixteen, she left home to prepare to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which she entered in 1891. Her freshman English instructor gave her essay on Thomas Carlyle to a Lincoln newspaper for publication and by her junior year, she was supporting herself as a journalist. From Lincoln, she moved to Pittsburgh as a magazine editor and newspaper writer. She then became a high school teacher, using summer vacations to concentrate on fiction. In 1905, she published her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden.

In 1906, Cather was hired to edit McClure's, a leading muckraking magazine, and moved to New York City. Her older literary friend Sarah Orne Jewett advised her to "find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world." Nevertheless she found it difficult to give up a position as a highly successful woman editor during a time when journalism was almost wholly dominated by men, and did not quit her position for three years. In 1912, on a visit to her family in Red Cloud, she stood on the edge of a wheat field and watched her first harvest in years. By then, she was emotionally ready to use her youthful memories of Nebraska. From this experience evolved 0 Pioneers!, the novel she preferred to think of as her first. It is this long perspective that gives Cather's work about Nebraska a rich aura of nostalgia, a poignancy also found in her next Nebraska novel, 1918's My Ántonia.

Although Cather's 1922 novel about World War I, One of Ours, was received with mixed critical reviews, it was a best-seller and won Cather the Pulitzer Prize. She continued to write until physical infirmities prevented her from doing so. In 1945, she wrote that she had gotten much of what she wanted from life and had avoided the things she most violently had not wanted—too much money, noisy publicity, and the bother of meeting too many people. Willa Cather died from a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.

Plot Summarv


Willa Cather's My Ántonia begins in the voice of an unnamed narrator who "introduces" not only the novel but also Jim Burden, whose first-person narration begins with chapter one. When these two "old friends" meet on a train crossing the plains of Iowa, they reminisce together about growing up in a small town on the Nebraska prairie, "buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate." Both have long since moved away from the prairie to New York, but their recollections of childhood remain sharp, especially their memories of one "central figure," the "Bohemian girl" named Ántonia. "To speak her name," the narrator writes, "was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain." The narrator challenges Jim to write down all that he can remember of Ántonia, and the manuscript that he creates he calls, "My Ántonia."

Book I: The Shimerdas

Jim Burden's story begins with a journey, after the death of his parents, to the home of his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Jim learns from the train conductor that a family in the "immigrant car" are traveling to the same town. In the station he hears, for the first time, the sounds of "a foreign tongue." At the station Jim and his traveling companion, Jake Marpole, are picked up by his grandfather's hired man, Otto Fuchs. Riding in the back of a wagon through the broad prairie land, a land that seems to be "outside man's jurisdiction," Jim feels "erased, blotted out," separated from even the spirits of his deceased parents.

Jim is soon comfortably settled in his grandparents' home and he begins to explore the strange environment of waving red grass that surrounds him there. After the family meets their "new Bohemian neighbors," the Shimerdas, Jim quickly becomes Ántonia Shimerda's friend and language tutor. But he is less comfortable with the other Shimerdas, especially Ántonia's angry and arrogant brother, Ambrosch, and her jealous, deceitful mother. In spite of frequent tensions between the Burdens and the Shimerdas, Jim and Ántonia become close companions while exploring the countryside together. Ántonia's respect for the younger Jim grows after he kills an enormous rattlesnake; Jim's understanding of what Ántonia left behind in Bohemia deepens when they revive a dying cricket that reminds her of her Bohemian childhood.

Memories of life in the "old country" also afflict the Russians, Pavel and Peter, as well as Mr. Shimerda. Pavel and Peter are haunted by the actions of their past: Pavel dies soon after he unburdens his mind to Mr. Shimerda about throwing a bride and groom from their wedding sleigh to a pack of wolves. For Mr. Shimerda, leaving his former life in Bohemia takes the spirit out of him; when Jim first sees him, he thinks his face looks "like ashes—like something from which all the warmth and light had died out." Although Mr. Shimerda pleads with Jim to teach Ántonia English, so that she might adjust to life in a new place, he never finds happiness or contentment in America and finally kills himself. After his death, Jim imagines Mr. Shimerda's spirit traveling across the prairie once more, all the way to Baltimore, then over "the great wintry ocean" and back to his homeland.

After the local Norwegian church refuses to allow the burial of Mr. Shimerda in their graveyard, a grave is dug, at the demand of Mrs. Shimerda, directly on the corner of their property. She believes the spot will be a crossroads some day. Her insistence on this Bohemian custom is granted, but Mr. Burden remarks, "If she thinks she will live to see the people of this country ride over that old man's head, she is mistaken." The strongly Protestant Mr. Burden disapproves of the Catholic rituals of the Shimerdas and of a new Bohemian homesteader, Anton Jelinek. Nevertheless, he respects the strength of their faith, and he offers a moving prayer at Mr. Shimerda's graveside. Jim begins attending the country school and asks Ántonia to do so with him, but she refuses because of her increased responsibilities on the farm. Although she admired her father's learning, she also takes pride in her strength and ability on the farm and in helping to "make this land one good farm." Finally, when Jim asks her why she is working so hard and emulating her brother Ambrosch, Ántonia responds, "Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us."

Book II: The Hired Girls

Three years after Jim's arrival, his grandfather moves the family from the farm into Black Hawk, and they quickly come to feel "like town people." Jim's grandmother convinces the family next door, the Harlings, to hire Ántonia as a live-in cook. In town, Ántonia renews her friendship with Jim and begins to socialize with the other "hired girls," especially Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball. To Jim and to the girls, town life offers more interesting diversions than farm life. This includes a visit by a negro piano player, Blind d'Arnault, and the dance pavilion set up by traveling dance instructors. Ántonia's enthusiasm for dancing leads Mr. Harling to accuse her of earning "a reputation for being free and easy." He demands that she stop attending dances or find new employment. Ántonia refuses to yield to his demand and leaves the Harlings to work for Wick Cutter, a disreputable money-lender who was "notoriously dissolute with women." When Jim's grandmother suspects that Cutter will assault Ántonia, Jim takes her place for one night and is savagely attacked by Cutter. Jim grows increasingly restless in Black Hawk, becoming contemptuous of the narrow, small-minded ways of the townsfolk. After graduating from high school and exhausting the limited possibilities for diversion in the town, Jim resolves to study through the summer so that he can leave for college as soon as possible.

Book III: Lena Lingard

At the university, Jim is introduced to "the world of ideas" by his professor and advisor, Gaston Cleric. Lena Lingard, who has set up a dressmaking shop in Lincoln, visits Jim one night and the two quickly renew their friendship. Jim's attraction to Lena grows as they attend the theater and spend more time together. But at the urging of Gaston Cleric he resolves to leave Lincoln for Harvard to continue his education. Before he informs Lena of his decision, she tells him that she never wishes to marry, stating that she has experienced enough of the trials of "family life" to last her a lifetime.

Book IV: The Pioneer Woman's Story

Retuming to Black Hawk for a summer before entering law school, Jim seeks out information about Ántonia, who has returned to her family after being deserted, with child, by her fiance, Larry Donovan. Jim reflects on the unexpected success of the other "hired girls," Lena and Tiny Soderball, and he feels "bitterly disappointed" in Ántonia for "becoming an object of pity." Jim visits the Widow Steavens, who lives on the Burden's old farm, and she recounts Ántonia's sad story. Finally, Jim visits Ántonia herself, who is working in the fields once again. They express their deep feelings of attachment to each other, and Jim leaves with a promise to return.

Book V: Cuzak's Boys

Jim fulfills his promise after twenty years, finally returning to visit Ántonia in spite of his fears of finding her "aged and broken." He finds her aged but not broken, instead glowing with the "fire of life," delighted with her husband and happy children, and proud of their productive farm. Jim takes pleasure in watching Ántonia interact with her children, "conscious of a kind of physical harmony" around her, and he recognizes the powerful place that Ántonia holds in his own mind.

Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.… [S]he still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.…

It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.

After leaving Ántonia and her family with a promise that he will return, Jim stands on the "old road" outside of Black Hawk that he and Ántonia had traveled as children, now confident that this "road of Destiny … was to bring us together again."


Mrs. Emmaline Burden

Jim's sturdy grandmother runs an orderly, proper household, a counterpoint to the Shimerda's animal-like cave. Awareness of differences makes her generally tolerant and concerned. The narrow attitudes of the Norwegians who won't let Mr. Shimerda be buried in their cemetery offend her: "If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we'll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded." But she has her own biases. She is contemptuous of Mrs. Shimerda's gift of dried mushrooms, declaring "I shouldn't want to eat anything that had been shut up for months with old clothes and goose pillows." And she is conventional too. She worries that people will say she hasn't brought Jim up correctly because he dances with the country girls. And when he is at school, she informs him only of those friends she approves of. She does not let him know that Lena Lingard is in Lincoln.

Grandmother Burden

See Mrs. Emmaline Burden

Grandfather Burden

See Mr. Burden

Jim Burden

As narrator, Jim Burden is Cather's persona— that is, he serves as a stand-in for the author. He comes to Nebraska at about the same age and time that Cather moved west with her family; he lives on a farm for a time with his grandparents just as Cather did; and Jim's neighbors, the Shimerdas, may have been inspired by the Cathers' Bohemian neighbors, the Sadileks. As an adult, Jim Burden returns to Nebraska just as Cather returned to Red Cloud and visited her friend Annie Sadilek, who was then surrounded by a large brood of children and happily married to a Czech farmer (Cuzak in the novel).

Jim is not merely Cather's voice. He is a fullbodied character with a nature and point of view of his own. Although sensitive, dreamy, and somewhat alienated, he is also conventional, a product of his own social class and family aspirations. But it is not simply class attitudes that keep a wedge between him and Ántonia. He is at turns intrigued by Ántonia's will-power and vitality and disgusted by her strongheadedness and outspoken nature. People talk about him, that there is something strange about his lack of interest in girls of his own age and class and his lively relationships with the hired girls, the daughters of immigrants. Yet, once scolded by his grandmother, he stops socializing with them at the dances. While attending college in Lincoln, he starts a relationship with Lena Lingard. Yet he accepts her declaration that she will never marry and he eventually marries someone else. Returning to Black Hawk, he learns of Ántonia's betrayal by Larry Donovan. Bothered that she apparently threw herself away so cheaply, he is also aware how much she means to him. Again, he goes away. This time he does not see her for another twenty years. By then, seeing Ántonia in the midst of her large family, Jim realizes the sterility of his own life and marriage and the vitality that is symbolized by Ántonia. However, despite his admiration for and familiarity with Ántonia, he cannot come any closer to her than as a sympathetic observer.

Mr. Burden

Grandfather Burden is reserved, dignified, but occasionally outspoken. Religious and broadminded, he accepts that "The prayers of all good people are good." Grandfather does not join the feud between his hired men and the Shimerdas and continues to help Ambrosch and Ántonia with advice and materials.

Gaston Cleric

Jim's Latin teacher in Lincoln awakens his mind and makes the classics come alive for him. Jim believes that Cleric "narrowly missed being a great poet," but spends all his creative energy in his lectures. It is on his account that Jim goes to Harvard.

Curly Peter

See Peter

Wick Cutter

The Black Hawk money lender fleeces Russian Peter and many others. He talks of his religious nature and contributions to Protestant churches, yet is known as a gambler and womanizer. His crafty plot to assault Ántonia, who comes to work for him and his wife, is thwarted by Mrs. Burden and Jim.

Wycliffe Cutter

See Wick Cutter

Media Adaptations

  • My Ántonia was adapted for television in 1994 by Victoria Riskin and David W. Finteis, Fast Track Films, Inc., Wilshire Productions, and is distributed by Paramount Home Video. It stars Neil Patrick Harris, as Jim Burden, Jason Robards Jr. and Eva Marie Saint as Jim's grandparents, and Elina Lowensohn as Ántonia. The film was directed by Joseph Sargent.
  • Charles Jones adapted My Ántonia for the stage. The work was published by Samuel French in 1994.
  • Sound recordings of My Ántonia are available from Bookcassette Sales, Brilliance Corp., and Blackstone Audio Books.

Anton Cuzak

Ántonia's husband had made several bad decisions in his youth in Vienna and in America. He finally comes to Black Hawk to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek. When he meets Ántonia, he finds exactly the kind of girl he had always wanted. Lena thinks he is the perfect partner for Ántonia: "He isn't a hustler, but a rough man would never have suited Tony." Anton also loves his children and has an artistic sense; he is very fond of music, just as Ántonia's father was.

Ántonia Cuzak

See Ántonia Shimerda

Blind Samson d'Arnault

Blind d'Arnault, a Negro musician, comes to Black Hawk. He was born in the South, "where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted," but was given encouragement by his white mistress after his incredible musical talent was discovered. His music brings excitement to Jim's life and contrasts to the dull Nebraska winter. Jim thinks when d'Arnault plays he looks like an "African god of pleasure."

Offo Fuchs

Otto, the Burden's hired hand, is an Austrian immigrant who has been a cowboy, a stage-driver, a bartender, and a miner. He impresses Jim with his Jesse James-look and regales him with stories of outlaws and desperadoes. Like Jake, he is a hard worker with nothing to show for it. When the Burdens move to town, Otto goes out West in search of his fortune and, except for one letter, is not heard from again.

Mrs. Molly Gardener

Owner of Black Hawk's hotel, Mrs. Gardener is the best-dressed woman in town but "seemed indifferent to her possessions," as Jim says. Nevertheless, she is cold and rare is the guest who is given the privilege of speaking with her. She runs the business while her mild-mannered husband greets guests. It is while she is out of town that there is an impromptu dance at the hotel with Blind d'Arnault playing.

Charky Harling

The only Harling son, older than Jim by two years, Charley is indulged and is a favorite of Ántonia, a fact that makes Jim jealous. He goes to Annapolis and serves on a battleship.

Mr. Christian Harling

A grain merchant and cattle-buyer who lives next door to the Burdens in Black Hawk, Mr. Harling is autocratic and imperial. His reputation as the town's leading businessman helps persuade Ambrosch to allow Ántonia to work for the family. When he catches a boy trying to kiss Ántonia, he has Mrs. Harling issue an ultimatum that she must quit the dances or leave the Harling's house.

Frances Harling

The oldest Harling daughter, Frances helps her father in his business, is familiar with all the farm people, and has a keen eye for both business and people. As Jim's friend she tells him, "I expect I know the country girls better than you do. You always put a kind of glamour over them. The trouble with you, Jim, is that you're a romantic."

Mrs. Harling

The town neighbor of the Burdens, Mrs. Harling is encouraged to hire Ántonia. Jim describes a basic harmony between the two; despite their different backgrounds, they are both strong-willed, loving, down-to-earth women. Ántonia flourishes at the Burdens and learns how to run a household and to be a good mother. Mrs. Harling is very hurt when Ántonia chooses to leave the Harling family in order to keep attending the Saturday night dances. However, she does not try to change the mind of either her husband or Ántonia, and eventually forgives her. As Jim Burden describes her, she is "quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul."

Anton Jelinek

A young Bohemian settler, Jelinek comes to help his fellow countrymen after Mr. Shimerda's death. "Everything about him was warm and spontaneous," Jim says, and he impresses the Burdens with a tale of religious faith from his youth. It is his cousin, Anton Cusak, who comes to Black Hawk and marries the disgraced Ántonia.

Peter Krajiek

The first Bohemian settler in Black Hawk, Krajiek provides land and supplies for the Shimerdas' homestead—at a grossly inflated price. Krajiek takes advantage of the family in every way he can, even though he is distantly related to Mrs. Shimerda. After Mr. Shimerda's suicide, Krajiek "behaved like a guilty man," and Jim believes he may feel some remorse in addition to his fear.

Lena Lingard

Norwegian-born Lena is one of the "hired girls," immigrant daughters who work in Black Hawk to earn money for their farm families. Outgoing and pretty, she is both a friend and rival of Ántonia's. While working in Lincoln as a dressmaker, she diverts Jim from his college studies. Although his relationship with her matures him, he returns East to attend Harvard. Never married, Lena is a flirt who gives her heart away but keeps her head for business. Her experiences helping her mother run the household as a child have decided her against marriage: "I've seen a good deal of married life, and I don't care for it." She becomes a successful dressmaker and even as an older woman remains stylish. It is Lena who persuades Jim to visit Ántonia after twenty years.

Sylvester Lovett

Sylvester, a cashier at his father's bank, also prefers the Saturday night dances with the hired girls. He was especially crazy about Lena. Jim says, "In my ingenuousness I hoped that Sylvester would marry Lena, and thus give all the country girls a better position in town." When he marries a respectable widow instead, Jim is contemptuous of him.

Jake Marpole

Jake is the farmhand who accompanies Jim on his train ride from Virginia to Nebraska. An illiterate and provincial "mountain boy," he thinks foreigners spread diseases. Lured by Otto's tales of western wealth, Jake thinks a silver mine is waiting for him in Colorado. When the Burdens move to town, he follows his dream there. Otto's letter from the Yankee Girl Mine tells that Jake has recuperated from mountain fever, but when Jim writes back, the letter is returned unclaimed.


Sickly and sad, Pavel's "generally excited and rebellious manner" supports rumors that he was once an anarchist. On his death bed, Pavel tells Mr. Shimerda about a crime he committed in his youth. In Russia, he had saved his own life by throwing his friends, a new bride and groom, from a sleigh to hungry wolves that chased them. This led him and Peter to come to America. Shortly after this confession, Pavel dies from a strain brought on by hard labor.


One of the two Russian men whose farm Mr. Shimerda visits. Short, curly-haired, bow-legged, and as "fat as butter," he is friendly and shares his milk and garden produce with the Shimerdas. He loves his new country, where anyone who can care for a cow can own one—not just rich men. He is deeply in debt to Wick Cutter, and shortly after his friend Pavel's death, must sell his farm to pay his mortgage. Peter ends up leaving America to work as a railway cook.

Rooshian Peter

See Peter

Russian Peter

See Peter

Ambrosch Shimerda

The oldest of the four Shimerda children, Ambrosch is ambitious and hardworking. He works Ántonia hard and sometimes rents her out to other farmers. When she goes to work for the Harlings, Ambrosch tries to get her entire salary sent to him. Although he is not a generous man, he is deeply concerned for his father and spends money on masses for him. One of Ántonia's sons is named after her brother Ambrosch.

Ántonia Shimerda

Ántonia is fourteen when she first meets Jim and gives him a ring. Her warmth and impulsiveness are immediately evident, the very characteristics that both intrigue and frighten Jim. She is both a realist and a loyalist, who makes excuses for her mother's behavior but does not complain about her. Her father wants to develop her loftier side: "Tee-ach, te-e-ach my Án-tonia!" he tells Mrs. Burden. But his suicide puts an end to such refined aspirations. Ántonia's hardy side is developed instead. She works in the fields, proud to be competing with men. Her physicality makes her great; she belongs to the earth. At the end of Book One, Ántonia corrects Jim's blindness to their difference in circumstance: "If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us."

Hired out to the Harlings, she learns how things are done in a well-ordered American home, things her own overwhelmed and disappointed mother could not have taught her. A basic harmony exists between Ántonia and Mrs. Harling: they have strong, independent natures, and they know what they like. They both love children, animals, and music, as well as rough play and digging in the earth. As Jim says "Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating." But Ántonia is young, high-tempered, and stubborn. When she has to choose between her work at the Harlings and dancing, she chooses dancing. "A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won't be any tent next year. I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls."

Pregnant, Ántonia is abandoned at the altar by the worthless Larry Donovan. Decades later, when Jim returns for a visit, he finds her the mother of a large, loving, demonstrative family. Falling asleep in the barn, he thinks, "Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade.… She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.… She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination.… All the strong things of her heart came out in her body.… She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."

Mr. Shimerda

Mr. Shimerda, with his iron-grey hair, wellshaped hands, and silk neck cloth, has a genteel, dignified bearing, a shadow from a different world. He was a musician, older and of higher social rank than his wife, whom he married honorably. Mr. Shimerda would have preferred to remain in Bohemia, where he made a good living and was wellrespected, but his wife insisted the family move to America, where opportunity is greater. After Mr. Shimerda dies, Jim imagines his spirit travelling back to his much-loved homeland. While Mrs. Shimerda favors Ambrosch, Mr. Shimerda feels closest to Ántonia. Considerate and well-groomed even in his suicide, Mr. Shimerda's memory is cherished by both Ántonia and Jim throughout their lives.

Mrs. Shimerda

When we first meet Ántonia's mother, she is hugging her trunk "as if it were a baby." Possessions are dear to her and she bears the deprivations of immigrant life poorly. "A conceited, boastful old thing," as Jim calls her, is not even humbled by misfortune; nevertheless she is capable of gratitude. She gives Mrs. Burden mushrooms, a hoarded treasure brought from Bohemia; but poignantly, what she values has no worth at all to Americans. Typically, when Mrs. Shimerda almost washes Ántonia's baby with harsh soap, we don't know whether to attribute her action to ignorance, to disregard, or even to hostility. It is as Mrs. Burden says, "A body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em."

Tony Shimerda

See Ántonia Shimerda

Tiny Soderball

Another hired girl, Tiny works at the Boys' Home Hotel in Black Hawk. She starts a lodginghouse in Seattle and later helps found Dawson City during the gold rush in Alaska. After a Swede whom she had befriended died and left his claim to her, she returned a rich woman to San Francisco. But by then, Tiny had lost the ability to be interested in anything.

Mrs. Vanni

Along with her husband, Mrs. Vanni brings the trends and style of the world to Black Hawk. The excitement generated in their dance pavilion affects all the groups in town: the town ladies send their daughters to Mrs. Vanni's dancing classes, while the country girls and boys and working men enjoy the nightly dances. The Progressive Euchre Club arranges exclusive use of the tent on Tuesday and Friday nights but Jim prefers Saturday nights, when the country boys and girls joined the hired girls.


Change and Transformation

Willa Cather's straightforward story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, parallels the change in the lives of the two principal characters with the transformation of the Great Plains. Ántonia is fourteen when we first see her; Jim Burden ten. Both have been wrenched from their origins, Ántonia from her native Bohemia, Jim from his parents' home in Virginia. She is an immigrant. He is an orphan. It is no surprise we encounter them first in motion on a train. They are carried through an empty land. "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields.… There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." That first ride is in sharp contrast with Jim's train crossing as an adult, when the "train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun." Ántonia has become the mother of a large family, and Jim is a successful Eastern lawyer, childless and unhappily married. Jim takes a long walk out of Black Hawk: "I had the good luck to stumble upon a bit of the first road.… Everywhere else it had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed; this half-mile or so within the pasture fence was all that was left of that old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie.… This was the road which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither."

American Dream

The novel is populated predominantly by immigrants and the successes and failures of the American Dream are manifest. What drove people to make the long haul across oceans and then across the continent? Some came because they were ambitious. Mrs. Shimerda uprooted her family against her husband's wishes. She said, "America big country, much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls." Anton Cuzak seems to have drifted to Nebraska to keep away from the bad luck and trouble he seemed to have attracted in the past. Pavel and Peter were fugitives. The burgeoning country and economy provided many opportunities. The immigrant farmers hire out their daughters to the townspeople. Anton Jelinek rented his homestead and ran a saloon in town. Tiny Soderball follows the frontier to Seattle and then, during the gold rush, to Alaska. The Vannis take their musical talents and dancing tent on the road. And, as always, swindlers and loan sharks, like Wick Cutter, preyed on the weak. The immigrants pay an enormous price for these opportunities. The differences in language, occupation, and geography created hardships. "'It must have been a trial for our mothers,' said Lena, 'coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother always lived in town. She says she started behind in farmwork, and never has caught up."' There is loss of social status. Even Jim, who prefers the hired girls, is aware they are not of his own set. Marriage to Lena or Ántonia is not even a consideration. And for many, there is homesickness. Ántonia says "I ain't never forgot my own country." For some the price seems materially worth it. Lena is a successful dressmaker in San Francisco. Tiny owns a house there and is wealthy, although soured. Ántonia and her husband flourish. For all the successes, the novel is riddled with disappointments and failures. Otto and Jake go west, and except for one postcard, they are never heard of again. "Rooshian" Peter, who proudly told Ántonia that "in his country only rich people had cows, but here any man could have one who would take care of her," loses his brother and bankruptcy forces him to sell his possessions. When Jim tells Ántonia that Coronado, who searched the American west for the Seven Golden Cities, died in the wilderness of a broken heart, she sighs, "More than him has done that." The American Dream had also broken her father.

Topics for Further Study

  • Explore the religious, social, and national background of the various waves of European immigration to the Great Plains and how these factors affected their assimilation into "American" society.
  • Track the correlation between changing economic conditions and the changing American attitude toward immigration.
  • Consider how much of Mrs. Shimerda's greed and false pride is a product of her own psychological nature or of the circumstances we find her in.
  • Consider reasons why Willa Cather chose a male narrator and why women dominate the novel.
  • Compare Willa Cather's writing style to that of Herman Melville, that of Ernest Hemingway, or that of Virginia Woolf.
  • Create two differing interpretations of My Ántonia, one depending on Jim Burden as its center and one with Ántonia Shimerda at its center.


It is through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan and thus something of an outsider himself, that Willa Cather considers differences of class, nationality, and gender. Even before young Jim arrives in Nebraska, he is met with prejudice against foreigners. Jake thinks that foreigners spread diseases. But Cather makes it clear that prejudice was not invented in America. Otto tells Mrs. Burden, "Bohemians has a natural distrust of Austrians." And Norwegian Lena feels fated by the Lapp blood of her paternal grandmother. "I guess that's what's the matter with me; they say Lapp blood will out." Throughout the novel, Jim himself is a perpetrator of pervading prejudices and conventions. As a boy, he is indignant that Ántonia, a girl, should have a superior attitude toward him. After his success in killing a snake wins her admiration, he cannot help insulting her, "What did you jabber Bohunk for?" My Ántonia is not simply a study in human difference but in the destiny that binds us into the human condition. Stargazing with Ántonia, Jim muses, "Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influences upon what is and what is not to be."

Coming of Age

My Ántonia is a bildungsroman, or coming-ofage story, that traces Jim Burden's development from the age of ten. It begins when he is orphaned and newly transplanted to his grandparents' farm in Nebraska, where he first feels erased and blotted out. His escape into romanticism first takes the form of a young boy's fascination with outlaws, such as Jesse James, and lost adventurers, such as the Swiss Family Robinson. As an adolescent, he remains estranged although conventional. Bored by the sameness of his small, pioneer town, he is intrigued by the romantic foreignness of the hired girls, girls he will never marry, and he keeps away from girls that would be suitable for him. As an adult, he remains virtually without a real home. His marriage is childless; he and his wife live almost separate lives, his being a life of travel on the railway through the land that he loves.

Memory and Reminiscence

The novel has a rich aura of nostalgia and evokes a departed grandeur of a vast land that had once been a sea of red grass in motion. There is a sense of longing and homesickness that accompanies the characters as they move on in their lives. Ántonia misses the flowers and the woodland pathways of her homeland. Life-hardened Otto carries Christmas-tree ornaments from Austria in his trunk. The age-old prejudices that have been brought from Europe are familiar relics and, being so, are hard to relinquish. Ántonia's big box of pictures seems to be a container of this past, a past she has managed to pass on to her children. "Ántonia herself had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time." Jim has his own stores of pictures in his mind's memory. And he consoles himself by saying, "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."


Point of View

My Ántonia is at once the story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the Great Plains in the 1880s, and the story of Jim Burden, the narrator who creates his own image of Ántonia. As Jim's memoirs, the novel is the re-creation of a middle-aged lawyer whose failed marriage leaves him unloved and alone. His childhood in Nebraska becomes, in retrospect, the happiest time of his life, the period of potential and expectancy before the disappointments of adulthood. The rosecolor cast and purple rhapsodies are products of this sentimental and romantic look backward. Ironically, despite the revisionist representation, it is clear that even as a child Jim is already alienated, different, orphaned. This use of a male narrator is typical in Cather's writing and has attracted much critical attention. It may account for Jim's inability to make Ántonia his girlfriend or wife, even though he clearly loves her. My Ántonia is also Willa Cather's story of children discovering the beauties and terrors of a vast new country and of themselves. While Ántonia emerges as an equally strong character, she is observed only from the outside. As Cather told a friend, she wanted her heroine to be "like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides … because she is the story."


Deeply rooted in a sense of time and place, Cather evokes the shaggy virgin prairie around Red Cloud, Nebraska. During the late nineteenth century, immigrants helped populate this new land. The novel has been said to be a tapestry in the colors of the land that Cather describes for us. Time is measured by the seasons that appear in distinct colors; the sunflower-border roads to the pale-yellow cornfields of summer or the slimy green of frozen asparagus, the frail green of the half-frozen insect, and the rosy haystacks of autumn. In a sense. Cather's work is a metaphor for the American pioneer experience and the prairie, the land itself, is a force as important to the novel as its characters.


My Ántonia is not a tightly plotted novel. Instead, it is told in a loose but focused episodic fashion. Like a painting with a small, almost incidental window that reveals an open landscape or a distant city, this collection of memories is interrupted at rare moments with stories from another time, from another life. The wretched past of Peter and Pavel and the humble and miraculous past of Blind d'Arnault are two such windows that open up this painting of the American Great Plains during the period of immigration. For those critics who believe that Ántonia is the center of the novel, these interruptions in the story are problematic—as is the long section about Jim's life in Lincoln and his affair with Lena Lingard.


Cather's superb prose style is disarmingly clear and simple, relying on a straightforward narration of facts. Yet it is also subtle, using carefully selected images to create a rich portrayal of the prairie environment. She worked consciously to achieve this effect through the selection of which details to include and which to leave out. She also heaped up incidents to achieve a realistic portrayal of life, known as verisimilitude. Cather described this prose style as "unfurnished" in an essay entitled "The Novel Demeuble." She compared it to throwing all the furniture out of a room and leaving it as bare as the stage of a Greek theater. To accomplish this, she eliminated many adverbs, used strong verbs, and many figures of speech.


Cather's sparse but allusive style relies on the quality and depth of her images. She consciously used the land, its colors, seasons, and changes to suggest emotions and moods. Summer stands for life (Ántonia can't imagine who would want to die during the summer) and winter for death (Mr. Shimerda commits suicide during the winter). Animals are used as symbols of the struggle for survival experienced by the Shimerdas during their first winter. The essential grotesque image of the cost of this struggle is that of Mr. Shimerda's corpse frozen in his blood, his coat and neckcloth and boots removed and carefully laid by for the survivors. At the end of the novel, Cather uses animalistic images as symbols of fertility and abundance. Ántonia's children come up out of the well-stocked larder like "a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight." One image has become almost emblematic of the novel. A plough, magnified through the distance, "heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun," freezes the moment when Jim picnics for the last time with his childhood friends. The vision disappears, the sun sets, and "that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie."


Jim Burden gives voice to a romanticism, or overly sentimental or positive outlook, that Cather was not quite distant from. The homesteading German, Danish, Bohemian, and Scandinavian settlers were the embodiment of a cultural tradition she cherished. However, the novel is saved from sentimentality by the evocative depiction of the harsh realities of pioneer and immigrant life and the complexity of the characters, who are rarely, if ever, only sympathetic or only despicable.

Historical Context


Up until 1825, less than 10,000 new immigrants came to the United States each year. By the late 1840s, revolutions in Europe and the devastating potato famine in Ireland sent people to this country by the hundreds of thousands. Immigration increased steadily during the 1850s, and by 1860, one-eighth of America's 32 million people were foreign born. While many of these immigrants settled around the mill towns of the east as well as in the larger urban centers, the promotional activities of the railroads brought many immigrants straight past them to the prairies. The railroad companies even sent scouts abroad to encourage people to come and settle the plains and prairies. It has been claimed that the transcontinental railroad could not have been built without immigrant labor. The railroad was not just crucial to economic success of the town and countryside: it was a powerful monopoly charging what it wished to ship grain to the market. Another flood of immigrants came in the 1860s and 1870s, just after the Homestead Act of 1862. This legislation granted, for a small fee, 160 acres of Western public land to citizens or prospective citizens who would stay and settle it for five years. These settlers were predominantly from western and northern Europe. They became the "old immigrants" when the numbers of "new immigrants" from eastern and southern Europe swelled in the 1880s and 1890s.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1880s: The "new immigrants" who came from eastern and southern Europe in the 1880s are considered a potential threat to the "American" character. For the first time, in 1882, Congress acts to restrict immigration on a selective basis, although standards are not very stringent. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 puts an end to the importation of cheap Chinese labor which had caused some ugly racial riots in the West.

    Post World War I: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1924; it institutes a quota system based on the U.S. population in 1920 and was an overt attempt to keep the country's ethnic "composition" what it had been—that is, predominantly Northern European.

    Today: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to millions of illegal aliens living in the U.S. since January 1982 and established penalties for anyone found hiring illegal aliens. Immigration preferences are extended due to family relationships and needed skills, not country of origin. In the 1990s, states like California attempt to pass legislation restricting government services to legal immigrants.

  • 1880s: After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to include black males. Women of all races remained unable to vote. An active woman's movement in the 1880s consolidated in 1890 into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

    Post World War I: In August, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution and stated that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied by the United States or any State on account of sex."

    Today: In 1963, Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique jumpstarted a stalled women's rights movement. Issues such as the right for equal pay, the need for child-care services, and the problem of gender stereotyping became the critical concerns on the agenda of the current feminist movement.

  • 1880s: The Monroe Doctrine, articulated in 1823 by U.S. President James Monroe, held sway throughout the century. It represented a mood of isolation from the political turbulence of Europe as well as an increased awareness of the opportunities for expansion on the American continent.

In Willa Cather's Nebraska, the population quadrupled between the Civil War and 1880, and then doubled again during the 1880s. Low prices for farm products in the late 1880s and early 1890s compounded by drought in the mid-1890s made success elusive for many on the Great Plains until almost the turn of the century. By the time Cather was writing My Ántonia, immigration to the Great Plains had slowed. Urban immigration, however, continued to cause miserable situations in the cities. As a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York City and as a newspaperwoman and editor for a radical magazine, McClure's, Cather was exposed to the conditions in which numerous urban immigrants lived. She also saw the mounting fear that the arrival of cheap foreign labor was not only undesirable competition but a contribution to the widening and hardening gap between rich and poor. During World War I, German-Americans were definitely suspect and stories of their victimization can be found in almost any midwestern state histories. Even the Czechs, who were eager to help free their homeland from the domination of Austria-Hungary, suffered during the war years. The country's anxiety over the role immigrants were to play in our society did not ease, even though the "tide" of immigration was stemmed briefly by World War I.

Theories of Americanization

By the time Willa Cather was writing My Ántonia, reaction to the massive European immigration of the nineteenth century had fostered two opposing theories of Americanization. These models have come to be called the "melting pot" theory and the "salad bowl" theory and still define the debate on difference even today, almost a century later. In the 1890s Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the image of the American West as a crucible where European immigrants would be "Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race." One can read My Ántonia as a tribute to this view and appreciate Ántonia herself as "the rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" that produces the American people from the raw material that has been gathered on its shores. At its best, this view can serve as a model of assimilation. At its worst, it argues for a nativism, or favoring of native-born citizens, which is vulnerable to a fear or hatred of foreigners. Indeed, the American Nativists of the 191Os and 1920s fiercely opposed the waves of immigration. An alternative view of Americanization was articulated by philosopher Horace M. Kallen in an article in the Nation, circulated three years before My Ántonia was published. Each nationality should express its "emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own inevitable aesthetic and intellectual form," according to Kallen. This idea has since been termed cultural pluralism. Carl Degler coined the expression "salad bowl."

Critical Overview

Cather's fourth novel, and her third to be set in the West, My Ántonia drew attention as the work of an already established writer. In The Borzoi 1920, H. L. Mencken enthusiastically called Cather extraordinary. "I know of no novel that makes the remote fold of the western farmlands more real than My Ántonia and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing." The nucleus of subsequent discussions over who is the protagonist can be detected in early reviews. The Nation critic declared the novel the "portrait of a woman," as did other observers; however, some reviewers thought Ántonia no more important than the physical background of the story. Perhaps the best all-around contemporary estimate of My Ántonia is Randolph Bourne's, who recognized in it the realist's command of material, knowledge of the countryside, and understanding of its people. He praised the "gold charm" of its style. In his Dial review, he defined Jim's vision as "romantic" and Ántonia as the "imaginative center" of his memoir. Within this book, he claimed, Cather "has taken herself out of the rank of provincial writers" and given readers a modern, universal interpretation of the spirit of youth. The feeling that Cather had arrived with My Ántonia was shared by Carl Van Doren, who, three years after the novel came out, distinguished her work from that of local colorist Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs had been a major influence on Cather. However, troubled by the novel's structural irregularities, or what he felt to be the "largely superfluous" introduction, he admonished her in a Nation article "to find the precise form for the representation of a memorable character." He added that it is not enough merely to free oneself "from the bondage of 'plot."' One critic compared Cather to English novelist Thomas Hardy in making setting epic in scope and integral to story.

My Ántonia remained a benchmark for Cather but earned her very little money. The World War I novel that followed, however, One of Ours (1922) was not only a best-seller, but also earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, the critics were not impressed, and some were outright derisive. During the 1920s and 1930s, Cather was often criticized for retreating from the present to the romanticized past. In a 1933 English Journal article, Marxist critic Granville Hicks continued to praise My Ántonia as a "faithful re-creation" of the "bleakness and cruelty" of prairie monotony and smalltown narrowness, but condemned Cather for turning to a remote world in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Alfred Kazin gave faint praise in his 1942 study On Native Ground, saying Cather could "secede with dignity" from modern America by using nostalgia to create values.

The explosion of criticism that followed Cather's death in 1947 was more focused on textual problems in My Ántonia and, again, the issue has been raised as to who is the real protagonist. Maxwell Geismar detected a split between the "ostensible heroine, Ántonia" and Lena Lingard, "who almost runs away with the show." For those who saw Ántonia as the main character, the structure of the book became a problem. British critic David Daiches, in his 1951 book-length study of Cather, is typical in this regard. He faults the author for occasionally losing sight of her theme, which he conceives to be the "development and self-discovery of the heroine." E. K. Brown notes in his 1953 critical biography that Cather's strategy of having a male narrator fascinated with Ántonia but remaining detached results in an emptiness at the novel's center. Richard Giannone's 1968 study Music in Willa Cather's Fiction suggests a different center. Because Ántonia's joie de vivre cannot be conveyed in words, it is "more a rhythm than a reason" and is expressed through music. Giannone puts the d'Arnault episode at the "pulsating center," prepared for by musical references in the first book and then in the scenes at the Harlings', and followed by the "infamous" dances and the playing of Mr. Shimerda's violin at the end. John Randall claimed in his 1960 book The Landscape and the Looking Glass that Cather balances two protagonists; he sees the novel as a system of contrasts: head (Jim) and heart (Ántonia), past (Jim) and future (Ántonia), contemplative life (Jim) and active life (Ántonia), town life (Jim) and country life (Ántonia); also, there are contrasts between life and death, warmth and cold, and order and chaos. Randall also notes Jim's significant crisis in moving from his original family in Virginia to his second one. Similarly psychological in approach, Terence Martin views the novel in his PMLA article in terms of Jim's conflicting impulses toward Lena and Ántonia, between forgetfulness and remembering. He sees Jim as defining both theme and structure, and the novel as presenting his story, not Ántonia's. It is a drama of memory, of "how he has come to see Ántonia as the epitome of all he has valued." The tendency among recent critics of My Ántonia is to dislodge it from its niche as a work of country-life optimism by exploring undercurrents of death, violence, and sex. In a 1967 Western American Literature article, Charles linked Jim to Mr. Shimerda as a Thanatos (Death) character, arguing that they provide a dark frame for the vibrant story of Ántonia's Eros (Love) nature. However, Susan J. Rosowski, in her 1986 book-length study of Cather, sees My Ántonia as defying analysis, as "a continuously changing work" in the Wordsworthian tradition, a successful balancing of the world of ideas and the world of experience through imaginative fusion. In this interpretation Jim becomes a reacting mind and Ántonia is the object.


Anthony M. Dykema-VanderArk

In the following essay, Dykema-VanderArk, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, looks at how the stories of Jim Burden and Ántonia intertwine throughout Cather's novel to address themes of childhood, friendship, permanence, and the quest to find meaning in life.

"I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America." So begins Jim Burden's story of "his" Ántonia, and it is no accident that Jim's recollections are rooted in a journey. Willa Cather's My Ántonia was inspired by her own travels back to her childhood home of Red Cloud, Nebraska, and the novel is full of change, transition, and travel. Many of its characters are immigrants, classified by their very movement, and the divergent journeys through life of Jim and Ántonia are its central focus. Jim's narration of his story is, itself, a journey of sorts, a journey back through his life to recapture his relationship with Ántonia and all that she represents to him. And, finally, the reader of My Ántonia in a sense travels along with Jim as he returns to the country of his childhood, seeking something permanent and enduring beneath the unsettled surface of his life.

The Introduction of My Ántonia, narrated by an unnamed woman, provides some important clues to the motives and the manner of Jim Burden's story. This narrator, a childhood friend of both Jim and Ántonia, in some sense verifies Jim's impassioned view of Ántonia: "More than any other person we remembered," the narrator remarks, "this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain." The narrator's comment also suggests the motives that inspire Jim to write his "manuscript" about "My Ántonia." By translating into writing the "pictures" and the "quiet drama" that Ántonia's name recalls, Jim hopes to revisit the "whole adventure" of his early life and recapture its emotional significance. The narrator of the Introduction also gives the reader fair waming that the subject of Jim's story is out of the ordinary, unknown to most people, even, perhaps, unknowable: "We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said." Paradoxically, this comment suggests that Jim's story will not succeed in explaining "the country" and "the conditions" of his childhood to anyone but his friend and a select group of readers, those with first hand knowledge of small-town prairie life. But Cather's introduction also gives away, in a sense, the secret password needed to understand the story that follows, the "name" that, once spoken, might recall the past and set it moving with life: Ántonia.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In The American (1877), Henry James presents a clash between an aristocratic old French family and a wealthy, self-made American. This novel is the first of his studies of the contrast between the simple, innocent American and the sophisticated, corrupt European.
  • In Franz Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika (1927, translated 1938), he deals with the adventures and ordeals of a young European in an unreal, expressionistically depicted America.
  • Sarah Ome Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs (1896) is a book of tales and sketches thinly bound together by a faint thread of plot which portrays a Maine seaport town from the point of view of a summer resident.
  • Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1924-25 in Norwegian; 1927 in English) is a stark and realistic work by the Norwegian-American novelist Ole E. Rolvaag describing the hardships, both mental and physical, of a small group of Norwegian farmers who set out from Minnesota with their families in 1873 to settle in the then unopened Dakota Territory. It is the first in a trilogy that also contains Peder Victorious and Their Father's God
  • Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (1920) is both a satire and an affectionate portrait of Gopher Prairie, a typical American town, which was undoubtedly suggested by Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where Lewis was born.
  • In Nathaniel Hawthome's The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hester Prynne evolves through the shame of her punishment, to wear an embroidered scarlet letter A on her breast as a symbol of her adultery.
  • O Pioneers! (1913) is Willa Cather's second novel and the first to be set in Nebraska. Alexandra Bergson, deeply devoted to the land, takes over the care of her family on the death of her father and establishes a prosperous farm.
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is one of Cather's Southwest novels and describes the missionary efforts of the French bishop Jean Latour and his vicar to establish a diocese in the territory of New Mexico.
  • The angriest piece of fiction that Willa Cather ever wrote is My Mortal Enemy (1926). Myra Henshawe feels cheated by life and dies of cancer, alone and embittered.

On one level, Cather uses Ántonia's simple story to bring to life the "country" and the "conditions" encountered and endured by many of the immigrants who settled the American frontier in the late nineteenth century. By telling this one "Pioneer Woman's Story," Cather portrays the immense hardships faced by figures like Ántonia Shimerda and her family, not only the hardships of poverty, landscape, and climate, but also the social barriers erected against immigrants of particular ethnic and religious backgrounds. Cather also uses Ántonia's story to celebrate the virtues of the immigrant pioneers, virtues unnoted or ignored by many of her contemporaries who, like the people of Black Hawk, viewed all "foreigners" as "ignorant people who couldn't speak English." As a poor immigrant from Bohemia, Ántonia first appears an unlikely American heroine, but Cather celebrates Ántonia for her strength of character, her resilience, and her tenacity in the face of social ostracism. She appears at the end of My Ántonia as a figure who has triumphed over the hardships of her life through stalwart struggle, producing a fruitful farm from the difficult land, upholding a large and joyful family, and ensuring an easier future for her children.

Ántonia also provides the key to Jim Burden's story, in part because it is Jim who tells her story and reflects on its significance. In writing down all that he remembers of Ántonia, Jim discovers the extent to which his own identity is rooted in his relationship to her. As a ten-year-old orphan at the start of his story, Jim remembers seeing the Shimerdas "huddled together on the platform" of the train station, and the sound of their "foreign tongue" is as new and strange to him as the land that surrounds him. In the years that follow his first encounter with the Shimerdas, Jim's relationship with Ántonia provides him with several roles to play, acting as a language tutor, a companion, a helpmate, a suitor, and, in his "mock adventure" with the rattlesnake, a savior of sorts. As a young man, Jim distinguishes himself from what he sees as the narrow-mindedness of his immediate community by identifying with Ántonia and the other "hired girls" who were "considered a menace to the social order." He expresses his "contempt" for the veneer of "respect for respectability" that defines the townsfolk. In Ántonia's refusal to deny her desires, he sees an antidote to the town's "evasions and negations," its repression of "every individual taste, every natural appetite." Although Jim does not face the same restrictions as Ántonia and the other "country girls," he identifies with their experience of town life and, in a sense, this identification inspires his moving away from Black Hawk.

Jim also finds a key to his own life in Ántonia's ability to hold onto her past—both its joys and its sorrows—through memory and through storytelling. When Jim returns from college and meets Ántonia working in the fields, they "instinctively" walk to Mr. Shimerda's graveside as "the fittest place to talk to each other," a place symbolizing the connection they shared as children. But as they talk there, Ántonia does not dwell on the painful loss of her father as a young girl; instead, she tells Jim that her father "never goes out of my life.… The older I grow, the better I know him and the more I understand him." Ántonia does not try to escape or ignore her past but embraces it, carrying it with her in the present. Jim sees in Ántonia's example a way to ground his life in something strong and permanent in spite of the continual movement that seems to define him. In the same conversation, Ántonia also looks to the future, telling Jim how eager she is to pass on her memories of childhood to her daughter: "I can't wait till my little girl's old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do." When Jim returns to visit Ántonia twenty years later, he finds her doing just that: Ántonia's box of photographs and her stories about each picture draw all of her children to her side, bonding the family together in "a kind of physical harmony." Jim sees that Ántonia uses her stories of the past not only to entertain but also to educate her children, to root their lives in the "people and places" of her childhood just as they are rooted in the language and customs of the "old country" despite being products of the new. In his own narration, Jim follows the example of Ántonia's storytelling, learning from her how to recapture the emotional significance of his childhood experiences and to create stories that keep the past alive in the present.

As many critics have noted, however, the stories that Jim tells in My Ántonia do not always provide a complete or entirely reliable portrait of Ántonia's life or of his own. The narrator of the Introduction, for example, calls attention to Jim's "naturally romantic and ardent disposition," and Frances Harling suggests to Jim that his "romantic" temperament influences his view of the country girls: "You always put a kind of glamour over them." Jim himself notes that the "places and people" of his past stand out "strengthened and simplified" in his memory. Although Jim identifies himself with Ántonia throughout his story, he also frequently reveals the limitations of his understanding of her life. Early in their friendship, for example, Jim repeatedly finds himself confused and frustrated by the particular customs and religious rituals of the Bohemians. Even the simple, well-intended gift of dried mushrooms from the "old country" fails to connect the two families: In spite of Ántonia's testimony to their usefulness and flavor, Jim's grandmother cannot identify the strange chips and throws the gift into the fire. A similar inability to understand fully all that the Shimerdas "had brought so far and treasured so jealously" continues throughout Jim's story. Even after Jim travels around the world and visits Bohemia, the "old country" of Ántonia's youth, he remains isolated from her and her family life by their language, the same "foreign tongue" that he heard for the first time as a ten-year-old boy at the train station in Black Hawk.

But this sense of distance between Jim and Ántonia, even at the end of My Ántonia, only adds poignancy to Jim's story and interest to Cather's novel. Perhaps the deep and lasting appeal of Cather's novel reflects the sense of mystery that she weaves into its many stories, the unanswered questions that Jim's narration evokes. How, for example, might the narrator of the Introduction, who only "watched her come and go," tell Ántonia's story? How might Mr. Shimerda and the Widow Steavens, each of whom also calls her "My Ántonia," tell her story? And, perhaps most intriguing of all, how does Ántonia tell and retell her gathered children about "the country, the conditions, the whole adventure" of her life in Bohemia and America? While these questions remain, at the close of Jim's story, part of the "incommunicable past," the broader themes of Cather's novel—the child's sense of undistilled happiness, the dream of being "dissolved into something complete and great," the mystery of genuine friendship, the quest for permanence and meaning in one's life—become real in the present for each new reader of My Ántonia.

Source: Anthony M. Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.

James E. Miller, Jr.

In the following excerpt, Miller explains how Cather's book is about the failure to find happiness by pursuing materialistic dreams.

[My Ántonia] does not portray, in any meaningful sense, the fulfillment of the American dream. By and large, the dreams of the pioneers lie shattered, their lives broken by the hardness of wilderness life. Even those who achieve, after long struggle, some kind of secure life are diminished in the genuine stuff of life. For example, in one of his accounts that reach into the future beyond the present action, Jim Burden tells us of the eventual fate of the vivacious Tiny Soderball, one of the few to achieve "solid worldly success." She had a series of exciting adventures in Alaska, ending up with a large fortune. But later, when Jim encountered her in Salt Lake City, she was a "thin, hard-faced woman.… She was satisfied with her success, but not elated. She was like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out."

One of the major material successes of the book is Jim Burden, and in many ways the novel traces his rise in position and wealth. As most of the characters of the book travel west, his is a journey east, and, in the process, the acquisition of education, wealth, social position. In short, Jim has all the appearances of one who has lived the American dream and achieved fulfillment. But the material fulfillment has not brought the happiness promised. The entire novel is suffused with his melancholy at the loss of something precious— something that existed back in the hard times, now lost amidst comfort and wealth. The whole promise of the dream has somehow slipped through his fingers right at the moment it appeared within his grasp. Why? The question brings us around to a central problem in the novel: Why has Jim, so appreciative of the vitality and freedom represented by the hired girls, ended up in a marriage so empty of meaning?

Perhaps Jim's melancholy itself tells us the reason. The book in a way represents his confession, a confession of unaware betrayal of the dream. In looking back from his vantage point in time, Jim can come to the full realization of what the hired girls (especially such as Ántonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard) represented and what they have come to symbolize: simply all that is best, all that survives of worth, of the faded dream. Some critics have seen in Jim's obtuseness in his male-female relationship with Ántonia and Lena a defect in the book's construction. On the contrary, this theme is very much a part of the book's intention. Jim looking back from the wisdom of his later years and the unhappiness of his meaningless marriage can come to a much sharper awareness of precisely what he missed in his ambitious movement eastward and upward.

In Book II, "The Hired Girls," we are in a way witness to the dream turning sour: "The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, unenquiring belief that they were 'refined,' and that the country girls, who 'worked out,' were not." "The country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth." Jim Burden remembered his roaming the streets of Black Hawk at night, looking at the "sleeping houses": "for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shills to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People's speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution."

"Respect for respectability" is, perhaps, the cancer battening at the heart of the dream (a theme that William Faulkner was to emphasize later in his Snopes trilogy), and the reader may wonder to what extent Jim Burden himself had been infected, especially in view of the brittle wife he had acquired at some stage in his rise to the top. Moreover, Jim was strongly attracted to the vitality of the hired girls, consciously and unconsciously, as revealed in a recurring dream he had: "One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, 'Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like."' After this remarkable sexual revelation, Jim adds: "I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Ántonia, but I never did." Sisterlike Ántonia cannot be transfigured, even in dream, to sexual figure. Her role in the book, and in Jim's psyche, is destined to be more idealized, more mythic.

But Lena Lingard is the subject of an entire book of My Ántonia. And that book works out metaphorically the meaning of the novel's epigraph from Virgil as well as the specific personal relation of Jim and Lena, this latter through symbolic use of a play they both attend, Dumas's Camille. The epigraph for My Ántonia is drawn from Virgil's Georgics, and reads: "Optima dies … prima fugit." This phrase comes into the novel in Book III, after Jim has entered the University of Nebraska and begun his study of Latin, translating the phrase "the best days are the first to flee." As Lena Lingard, now with a dressmaking shop in Lincoln, brings to mind for Jim all the vitality of the hired girls of Black Hawk, he makes the connection between them and the haunting phrase from Virgil: "It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understand that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish."

But if Lena (along with Ántonia and the others) is equated with poetry, she is also a breathing physical reality to Jim, and Book III brings Jim as close physically to one of the hired girls as the novel permits. A large part of the Book is taken up with a description of Jim's and Lena's attendance at a performance of Camille, the sentimental but highly effective drama by Dumas fils. As Jim remarks: "A couple of jack-rabbits, run in off the prairie, could not have been more innocent of what awaited them than were Lena and I." Although some critics see the long account of theatre-going as a kind of inserted story or intrusion, in fact it provides a kind of sophisticated mirror image in literature for the thematic dilemma posed in the novel itself—and particularly the dilemma Jim faces in his attraction to Lena. Only a few pages before this episode, he has come to the insight equating the hired girls, in all their vitality and freedom, with poetry. Now he is confronted with the physical presence of one for whom he feels a strong attraction.

The hired girls are not, of course, Camilles, but they have some of the same kind of magic, poetry, freedom, love of life that attracted Armand to Camille—and that attract Jim to Lena. As Jim and Lena find themselves drawn closer and closer together in Lincoln, their conversation turns more and more to marriage—but only obliquely do they hint of anything deeper than friendship between themselves. Lena, pressed by Jim about her future, says she will never marry, that she prefers to be "lonesome," that the experience of marriage as she has witnessed it is even repellent. Jim answers," 'But it's not all like that." Lena replies: " 'Near enough. It's all being under somebody's thumb. What's on your mind, Jim? Are you afraid I'll want you to marry me some day?" Jim's immediate remark after this, to the reader, is: "Then I told her I was going away." The moment has passed, the future for Jim has been, in a sense, determined. Lena will go on her successful, "lonesome" way; Jim will go on to his considerable achievement and position—and his disastrous marriage.

What happened to the dream—to Jim's dream of Lena, to the larger dream of personal fulfillment? Was his failure in not seeing some connection between the dreams? Was Jim's destiny in some obscure sense a self-betrayal? And is this America's destiny, a self-betrayal of the possibilities of the dream? …

This road is not, of course, simply Jim's and Ántonia's road. It is America's road, leading not into the future, but into the past, fast fading from the landscape, fast fading from memory.… It is Jim's and Ántonia's—and perhaps America's— "road of Destiny":

This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

As Americans who have dreamed the dream, we might say with Jim: "Whatever we have missed, we possess together the precious, the incommunicable past." In some dark sense, Jim's experience is the American experience, his melancholy sense of loss also his country's, his longing for something missed in the past a national longing.

The lost promise, the misplaced vision, is America's loss—our loss—and it haunts us all, still.

Source: James E. Miller, Jr., " My Ántonia and the American Dream," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 112-23.

Robert E. Scholes

In the following excerpt, Scholes compares the characters of Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda.

The two central figures in My Ántonia are, in different senses, Innocents. Jim Burden, bereft of both his parents within a year, is removed from the warm and comfortable Virginia of his early days and thrust into the strange and frightening world of Nebraska. As he bumps along on the wagon ride to his new home, he feels that he has left even the spirits of his dead parents behind him:

The wagon jolted on, carrying me I know not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Ántonia Shimerda, though also a young, innocent creature in a raw country, is not bereft of the past as Jim Burden is. Ántonia's Bohemian ancestry is a part of her and exerts a decided influence on her present and future. We are reminded of this past constantly: by the Bohemian customs and culinary practices of the Shimerdas; by the observations of Otto Fuchs on the relationship of Austrians and Bohemians in the old country; and especially by the Catholic religion of the Bohemians, which is their strongest link with the past, and which serves to bind them together and to separate them from the Protestant society of their adopted land. But, most important, Ántonia herself cherishes her connection with the past. When Jim asks if she remembers the little town of her birth, she replies,

"Jim … if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town; and along the river where my grandmother lived. My feet remember all the little paths through the woods, and where the big roots stick out to trip you. I ain't never forgot my own country."

But despite the importance of the past for Ántonia, she and the other hired girls are figures of heroic and vital innocence, associated with nature and the soil. Like Lena Lingard, they all "waked fresh with the world every day." They are unused to the ways of society, and Ántonia, especially, is too trusting. Lena tells Jim that Ántonia "won't hear a word against [Larry Donovan]. She's so sort of innocent." The struggle of the "hired girls" with society is one of the important themes of the novel. Jim Burden remarks that

the country girls were considered a menace to the social order. Their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background. But anxious mothers need have felt no alarm. They mistook the mettle of their sons. The respect for respectability was stronger than any desire in Black Hawk youth.

This struggle of the country girls with the city is a very perplexing one, in which apparent victory and apparent defeat are both apt to prove evanescent in time. Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball become successful, triumphing even in the metropolis of San Francisco, while Ántonia becomes the foolish victim of her love for a conniving railroad conductor. But Lena and Tiny succeed only in becoming more like the society from which they had been ostracized, while Ántonia, and the other country girls who stay on the land, ultimately change the structure of society itself. Jim Burden remarks,

I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have. Today the best that a harassed Black Hawk merchant can hope for is to sell provisions and farm machinery and automobiles to the rich farms where that first crop of stalwart Bohemian and Scandinavian girls are now the mistresses.

Jim Burden, like Lena and Tiny, has made his success in the city and on the city's terms. From the narrator of the introductory chapter we learn that Jim's personal life, his marriage, has not been a success though his legal work flourishes. Jim's failure to find happiness or satisfaction in his career and in the city, constitutes for him the "fall" into self-knowledge which is characteristic of the Adamic hero. It is Jim's recognition of his own fall that makes him superior to Lena and Tiny, and enables him to live vicariously through Ántonia and her children.

Ántonia's seduction is a more clearcut "fall" than Jim's unhappiness, and her subsequent self-knowledge is more strikingly evidenced. When Jim meets Ántonia after she has had her illegitimate child, he notices "a new kind of strength in the gravity of her face." At this meeting she asks Jim whether he has learned to like big cities, adding that she would die of lonesomeness in such a place. "I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly," she says; and after they part Jim feels "the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at night-fall," and he wishes he could be a little boy again, and that his way would end there.

When Jim revisits Ántonia and her thriving family, she has in some ways relapsed toward the past. "'I've forgot my English so."' She says, "'I don't often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speak it real well.' She said they all spoke Bohemian at home. The little ones could not speak English at all—didn't learn it until they went to school." But her children, her involvement in life, makes her concerned for the future. She has lived "much and hard," reflects Jim as they meet, but "she was there, in the full vigor of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well." Jim, however, is not recognized by Ántonia at first, even though he has "kept so young." He is less battered, perhaps, but he is more diminished.

So it is that Ántonia, who is always conscious of the past, is nevertheless free of it, and capable of concern for the future. And her past is not merely that of a generation or so. Jim observes, "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.… It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." Whereas Jim, who has no such connection with the past, who came to Nebraska without a family and rode on a wagon into a new life which he felt was beyond even the attention of God, is still bound by the recent past, by what has happened to him in his own youth, and he lives in both the present and the future only vicariously through the plans and lives of others. He reflects, "In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can happen to one again." Jim is haunted by the past, by the sense that, in the phrase of Virgil which is the novel's epigraph, Optima dies … prima fugit. When he contemplates in the closing lines of his narrative the road on which he had entered his new life as a boy, he reconsiders his whole existence:

I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had mnissed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

Ántonia's life is not tragic. She is neither defeated nor destroyed by life, not even diminished. Yet the distinguishing characteristic of this novel is its elegiac tone; the eternal note of sadness pervades especially the closing passages of the book. The direct cause of this element of sadness is the nostalgia of Jim Burden, through which the story of Ántonia filters down to the reader. But behind Jim Burden's nostalgia, and merged with it, is the nostalgia of Willa Cather herself.

There is a suggestion in this novel and in the earlier O Pioneers! that the younger brothers and the sisters of this splendid generation of pioneer women will not be their equals. Emil Bergson— the youth in O Pioneers! for whom his older sister Alexandra labors and plans—attends the university, escapes from the plough, only to ruin several lives through his adulterous love. And in My Ántonia there is the suggestion that the coming generations will be less heroic and more ordinary than the present breed. Jim Burden at one point muses on this problem, thinking of the hired girls in Black Hawk:

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had "advantages," never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.

The circumstances which formed Ántonia will not be repeated; the future will be in the hands of a diminished race. It is the feeling which haunts Willa Cather's novel. Ántonia looks to the future of her children, but Jim Burden knows that the future will be at best a poor imitation of the past. Ántonia's life is a triumph of innocence and vitality over hardship and evil. But Willa Cather does not celebrate this triumph; rather, she intones an elegy over the dying myth of the heroic Innocent, over the days that are no more.

Source: Robert E. Scholes, "Hope and Memory in My Ántonia," in Shenandoah, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Autumn, 1962, pp. 24-29.


Randolph Bourne, "Morals and Art from the West," in The Dial, Vol. LXV, No. 779, December 14, 1981, pp. 556-57.

E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, Knopf, 1953.

Sister Peter Damian Charles, "My Ántonia: A Dark Dimension," in Westem American Literature, Vol. II, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 91-108.

David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, Cornell University Press, 1951

Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925, Houghton, 1947.

Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction, University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

Granville Hicks, "The Case against Willa Cather," in English Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 9, November, 1933, pp. 703-10.

Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.

Terence Martin, "The Drama of Memory in My Ántonia," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 2, March, 1969, pp. 304-10.

H. L. Mencken, "Willa Cather," The Borzoi 1920, edited by Alfred A. Knopf, 1920, pp. 28-31.

Review of My Ántonia, in The Nation Vol. 107, No. 2783, Nov. 2, 1918, pp. 522-23.

John H. Randall, lll, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Meaning, Houghton, 1960.

Susan J. Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather'sRomanticism, University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Carl Van Doren, Nation, July 27,1921, reprinted in his ContemporaryAmerican Novelists: 1900-1920, Macmillan, 1922.

For Further Study

Joan Acocella, "Cather and the Academy," in New Yorker, November 27, 1995, pp. 56-71.

An insightful essay examining the varying responses of the "literary establishment" to Cather's fiction during this century.

Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather, Dodd, Mead, 1951; University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

This book is of primary value in understanding the influence of Cather's childhood on her fiction.

Edward Bloom and Lillian Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.

A book-length appraisal of Cather's place in American literature, with comparisons to Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, especially valuable for its contribution in exploring Cather's literary theories and practices.

Harold Bloom editor, Willa Cather's "My Ántonia," Chelsea House, 1987.

A useful collection of essays on Cather's novel representing a range of critical perspectives.

Brent L. Bohlke editor, Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

This selection of Cather's written and spoken words offers insight into her fictional writing.

Willa Cather, The World and the Parish, University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

A two-volume set of Cather's early articles and reviews, published in periodicals between 1893 and 1902.

Robert W. Cherney, "Willa Cather's Nebraska" in Approaches to Teaching Cather's "My Ántonia," edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Modern Language Association of America, New York, 1989, pp. 31-36.

An essay that focuses specifically on the socio-economic and demographic climate in Willa Cather's Nebraska at the end of the 19th century.

Judith Fryer, Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Attending to the painted quality of Cather's landscape, this book focuses on the influence Millet and the Barbizon painters had on Cather.

Blanche H. Gelfant, "The Forgotten Reaping-hook: Sex in My Ántonia," American Literature, Vol. 43, 1971, pp. 60-82.

Gelfant questions the reliability of Jim's narration and argues that "Jim Burden belongs to a remarkable gallery of characters for whom Cather consistently invalidates sex."

Philip Gerber, Willa Cather, Twayne, 1995.

A recently revised critical overview of Cather's life and work, including a brief character study of Ántonia.

Sally Allen McNall, "Immigrant Backgrounds to My Ántonia: A Curious Social Situation in Black Hawk" in Approaches to Teaching Cather's 'My Ántonia,' edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Modern Language Association of America, 1989. pp. 22-30.

A fact-filled essay on the social conditions that provided the background for Catber's My Ántonia and the questions that arise from the novel.

John J. Murphy, 'My Ántonia': The Road Home, Twayne's Masterwork Studies, Twayne Publishers, 1989.

A comprehensive book including textual analysis, critical summary, chronology, and historical context.

Paul A. Olsen, "The Epic and Great Plains Literature: Rolvaag, Cather and Neihardt," Prairie Schooner, Vol. 55, 1981, pp. 263-85.

This article attempts to show that when a redefined epic tradition is applied to My Ántonia, Ántonia becomes the heroic creator of the new civilization and Jim the hymner singing her accomplishments.

Susan J. Rosowski editor, Approaches to Teaching Cather's 'My Ántonia,' Modern Language Association, 1989.

Though intended primarily for teachers, this collection of brief essays also offers the first-time reader several productive avenues into Cather's novel.

David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

A book-length study using the pastoral mode as key to understanding Jim's compulsion to return to the past.

William J. Stuckey, "My Ántonia: A Rose for Miss Cather," Studies in the Novel, Vol. 4, 1972, pp. 473-83.

In this article, Cather, is compared to Fitzgerald and is faulted for not making a clear distinction between realistic skepticism and romantic vision.

James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

A recent biography in which the author praises My Ántonia for its breadth of appeal and its depth of intellectual and emotional content.

James Woodress, "Willa Cather," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Realism, Nationalism and Local Color, 1986-1917, Gale, 1988, pp. 36-51.

A comprehensive essay of both Cather's life and work by Cather's biographer with a special focus on her novels.