1. What role does race or national origin play in the novel?
The first and most obvious way that national origin plays a role is in the way that it encourages solidarity and community even among strangers. For example, Anton Jelinek, who does not know and has never met the Shimerdas, travels out to their farm from Black Hawk because he learns that they are Bohemian.
People of similar origins also tend to live together. The Norwegians have their own group or “settlement” in a certain part of the area, and their own graveyard. Apart from this, language plays an important part, too. The Bohemians are able to converse with each other, while almost no one else can understand them. For people who speak both languages, this gives them the ability to communicate in code. A common language is vital for the depressed Mr. Shimerda, who befriends the two Russian immigrants, Pavel and Peter, because Russian is not very different from the Bohemian language spoken by the Shimerdas, so they are able to communicate. This gives Mr. Shimerda a lifeline, and it is not long after Pavel and Peter move away that he commits suicide.
There are also hints in the novel that race and national origin influence a person’s temperament. The most jarring example is the depiction of the piano player, Blind d’Arnault. He is described as being happy in a way that only a former slave can be happy. These are difficult words to decipher, but it is easy to accuse Cather of making a causal connection between race and temperament and adopting a condescending attitude to her black character. It might also be easy to argue from the text that Bohemians are depicted as volatile and temperamental.
Racial prejudice is apparent in the novel as well. The Scandinavian characters are victims of prejudice from the townspeople, and Cather encourages readers to notice the ways that the townspeople seem to use national origin – or immigrant status – as a way to hide their obsession with class differences. Cather mentions a young Scandinavian woman breaking into the teaching profession, which implies that Scandinavians had been excluded before that. She also mentions the way that the poor immigrant “hired girls” were able to turn their class status around, and become the centers of the area’s wealth and power in the years after the ending of the novel. By doing this, Cather seems to adopt the logic of the initial oppressors: somehow, the immigrants have proved that they were not deserving of prejudice by acquiring more wealth than the people who had looked down on them before. Being wealthy, in other words, proves that they are good people. If race and national origin prejudice is gradually reduced, class prejudice appears to remain.
2. Why doesn’t Ántonia want to marry Jim?
The simple answer to the question of why Ántonia has no interest in marrying Jim is that she doesn’t think that he would be happy. She thinks he is smarter than he really is and that he would get bored. Another answer might be that she thinks she might keep him from becoming the best person he can be and fulfilling his career aspirations. There are two incidents where this idea might have popped into her head. First, when Jim kisses her after taking her home from one of the dances. In that scene, Jim hasn’t yet finished high school, and he needs to be unencumbered by romantic attachments when he goes to college. Ántonia doesn’t want to hinder him from acquiring a college degree because she knows he needs the qualification in order to become a lawyer. In the second incident, Jim is about to enter law school, and Ántonia knows that it would be difficult for him to finish law school while married and raising a family.
While it might seem to romantic sense for the two to marry, Ántonia is still a Bohemian woman with very little education, while Jim is the top in his class and the only child of wealthy Virginia farmers. These differences seem insurmountable. Moreover, Ántonia has always adopted a motherly attitude toward Jim, scolding Lena for distracting him, and telling her to avoid interrupting his studies in Lincoln.
Another important possibility is that Ántonia has always felt a stronger attachment to the land than Jim has, and she is therefore more inclined to remain, while he seems unlikely to stay. As a farmer who has spent considerable time in the fields, and as someone who has buried her father there and whose brother and mother live there, Ántonia has stronger roots in Nebraska. In contrast, Jim hasn’t been asked to work in the fields nearly as much as Ántonia, and he has been attending school and working toward entering a non-farming profession. Since there aren’t many things to do in Black Hawk beside farming, it seems logical to expect Jim to leave.
3. Why does the novel include so many characters?
My Ántonia is a relatively short novel of less than 250 pages, much shorter than Cather’s other great Nebraska novel, O Pioneers! And although it is named for one character, it has a surprisingly full cast of characters, suggesting that is not just about one woman’s life but about an entire community. The novel is in part constructed around the relationships that Jim and Ántonia have with that community, and multiple characters are presented to show the different effects that Ántonia in particular has on those around her. This creates a sense of contrast, of Ántonia’s uniqueness, and also of the tragic dimension of her story. On the other hand, the inclusion of multiple characters, many of whom lead successful lives, gives Cather the chance to make the book positive or “happy.”
For example, showing Ántonia’s effect on the Burden household, and then on the Harling household, helps the reader see how she awakens affection in those she encounters. Putting her onto the dance floor shows not only how the community entertains itself but also that Ántonia has a fun-loving and also a determined streak. Characters such as the Cutters and Larry Donovan give Cather an opportunity to highlight Jim and Ántonia’s innocence set against the wickedness and worldly experience of others.
The presentation of multiple characters makes the book more inclusive and increases its claim to a broader understanding of the community. By presenting the details of the lives of Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard, it includes several examples of strong, successful female characters. At the same time, the stories of colorful characters such as Otto Fuchs, Peter Krajiek, the Russians Pavel and Peter, Ole Benson, and the Shimerdas, create a vivid picture of life in this prairie community in the nineteenth century.
4. In what ways does the land play a part in the book?
There are many lyrical descriptions, through the narrator Jim, of the freshness, wonder, vitality, and fecundity of the land that the settlers discover. It is almost as if the land itself is a character in the drama, with its own lessons to teach the humans who depend on it for their sustenance. Early on, the young Jim sits in the garden of his grandparents’ house (located half a mile from the house) feeling the earth warm under him and crumbling it between his fingers. He is completely happy, needing nothing more than this simple harmony with the earth. It connects him to something larger than himself, as he tries to explain: “Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.” (p. 14).
From the beginning, Jim has an awareness of the vast potential of this land that stretches out as far as the eye can see and has as yet been the subject of so little human cultivation (at least by white settlers). When Jim first arrives in Nebraska, he looks out of the wagon and sees no sign of human imprint on the land (no roads, no fences), and also no sign of hills or fields or trees. “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made” (p. 7). The endless openness and sheer size and scale of the land, as well as its fertility, make it almost awesome in scope. The vast potential of the corn harvest impresses itself on Jim, and he knows how important it will become for the world’s food production. As he looks out on the cornfields he realizes that they do not belong to individuals in Kansas or Nebraska, but to the world: “their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war” (p. 88).
As the seasons change, Jim’s perception of each season is sharp and appreciative, full of the pleasures of discovery, whether it is the first snowfall, the coming of spring—“the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere” (p. 78)— or summer with “that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world” (p. 88). And then again, the coming of winter with its austere purity, the sunset “like the light of truth itself” (p. 111). The result is a kind of hymn to the prairie, the new addition to the United States of America.
This deep appreciation of the land always remains with Jim, even though he leaves it behind. When he returns as an adult he feels at home again, and as he walks north of Black Hawk, his appreciation of the landscape is as strong as ever: “Overhead the sky was that indestructible blue of autumn; bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. To the south I could see the dun-shaded river bluffs that used to look so big to me, and all about stretched drying cornfields, of the pale-gold colour I remembered so well. Russian thistles were blowing across the uplands and piling against the wire fences like barricades. Along the cattle-paths the plumes of goldenrod were already fading into sun-warmed velvet, grey with gold threads in it” (p. 237). Significantly, he comments also on how he has escaped the “curious depression that hangs over small towns.” It is the land that is vital, not the restrictive lives that people create for themselves in their towns.
5. How does My Ántonia present Native Americans, and how does it regard the idea of Manifest Destiny?
Cather makes almost no mention of the Native American tribes who lived in Nebraska before the current settlers moved in. This is often called the myth of the Disappearing Indian, where the natives have conveniently moved away so that settlers such as the Burdens and Shimerdas can establish themselves. There are some vestiges of the Natives, such as the great circle in the grass where they used to ride, and which can be seen particularly well in cold weather. Some of the Indian place names, such as Squaw Creek survive, but other than that, the Native Americans are invisible. The land for all intents and purposes now belongs to the white settlers, who know nothing of the former inhabitants of the land.
The settlers are presented as a blessing for the land, eventually bringing out its natural fecundity in the corn harvest, where the corn seems to grow so well that its growth can even be heard (“under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green” [p. 88]). The farms become a magnificent success story, with immigrant farmers becoming well established and prosperous contributors to the well being of the nation and the world.
In the stories of Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard, moreover, the so-called “American Dream” becomes connected with the westward expansion of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the belief common to politicians and businessman in the nineteenth century that it was the destiny of the United States to expand west all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In the novel, this expansion can be seen in Tiny’s establishment of businesses in Alaska and along the West coast. Two of the most successful former residents of Black Hawk live in San Francisco, on the West coast, enjoying their prosperity in a place where questionable morality does not restrict success. More importantly, this success is presented as being well deserved. Tiny and Lena have earned their fortunes, and this is associated with the fact that they have reached the limit of westward expansion.
My Antonia: Essay Q&A
1. What role does race or national origin play in the novel?