My Antonia (Cather)

My Antonia 
Willa Cather, 1918
~300 pp. (varies by publisher)

Widely recognized as Willa Cather's greatest novel, My Antonia is a soulful and rich portrait of a pioneer woman's simple yet heroic life. The spirited daughter of Bohemian immigrants, Antonia must adapt to a hard existence on the desolate prairies of the Midwest.

Enduring childhood poverty, teenage seduction, and family tragedy, she eventually becomes a wife and mother on a Nebraska farm. A fiction record of how women helped forge the communities that formed a nation. The book is also a hauntingly eloquent celebration of the strength, courage, and spirit of America's early pioneers. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
Birth—December 7, 1873
Reared—Red Cloud, Nebraska, USA
Death—April 24, 1947
Where—New York, New York
Education—University of Nebraska
Gold medal from American Academy of Arts and 
  Letters and the Prix Femina Americaine.

Wilella Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in the small Virginia farming community of Winchester. When she was ten years old, her parents moved the family to the prairies of Nebraska, where her father opened a farm mortgage and insurance business. Home-schooled before enrolling in the local high school, Cather had a mind of her own, changing her given name to Willa and adopting a variation of her grandmother's maiden name, Seibert, as her middle name.

During Cather's studies at the University of Nebraska, she worked as a drama critic to support herself and published her first piece of short fiction, "Peter," in a Boston magazine. After graduation, her love of music and intellectual pursuits inspired her to move to Pittsburgh, where she edited the family magazine Home Monthly, wrote theater criticism for the Pittsburgh Daily Leader, and taught English and Latin in local high schools. Cather's big break came with the publication of her first short story collection, The Troll Garden (1905). The following year she moved to New York City to work for McClure's Magazine as a writer and eventually the magazine's managing editor.

Considered one of the great figures of early-twentieth-century American literature, Willa Cather derived much of her inspiration from the American Midwest, which she considered her home. Never married, she cherished her many friendships, some of which she had maintained since childhood. Her intimate coterie of women writers and artists motivated Cather to produce some of her best work. Sarah Orne Jewett, a successful author from Maine whom Cather had met during her McClure's years, inspired her to devote herself full-time to creating literature and to write about her childhood, which she did in several novels of the prairies. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel about World War I, called One of Ours.

She won many other awards, including a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Prix Femina Americaine. On April 24, 1947, two years after publishing her last novel, Willa Cather died in New York City of a cerebral hemorrhage. Among Cather's other accomplishments were honorary doctorate degrees from Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities. (From the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of O, Pioneers!)

When Cather first arrived at the University of Nebraska, she dressed as William Cather, her opposite sex twin.

Cather was the first woman voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame, in 1961.

She spent forty years of her life with her companion, Edith Lewis, in New York City.

Book Reviews 
Read this beautiful book. I should just stop here. So I will. On second thought, I'd better not. But truth is there's not much more to say about this American classic than what H.L. Mencken said in 1918: No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia.
A LitLovers Pick - Dec. 07

No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia.
H. L. Mencken, 1918

It was risky, in the early part of this century, to presume to write fiction about ordinary, rough-hewn people engaged in the rigors of dry land farming in frontier Nebraska. The prevailing literary style was for overrefined, predictable, plot-driven novels with characters who held fast to European pretensions and standards of gentility. Along with writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather was seen by some contemporary critics as an answered prayer. Writing about O PIONEERS!, which had established Cather's national reputation when it appeared in 1913, one critic stated, "Here at last is an American novel, redolent of the Western prairies."

Louise Bogan, who termed Cather an American classic in The New Yorker, treasured the authority of Cather's voice, her having "learned all there was to know about the prairie, including how to kill rattlesnakes and how prairie dogs built their towns." Above all, Bogan praised Cather for not being one of those "writers of fiction who compromised with their talents and their material in order to amuse or soothe an American business culture." Refreshed by Cather's evocation of pioneer life, Bogan said admiringly that Cather "used her practicing fiction as one of the fine arts."
Kathleen Norris - PBS Website

Discussion Questions 
You'll find two sets of questions below—the first from Penguin Classics, the second from Random House (Bantam Classics).

1. Why is getting "a picture" of Ántonia important enough to Jim and the narrator of the introduction that they decide to write about her? (p. 5

2. When Jim and Ántonia meet as children, why do they become such close friends?

3. Why does Pavel's story about the wolves and the wedding party affect Jim and Ántonia so deeply?

4. Who or what does Cather intend us to see as responsible for Mr. Shimerda's suicide?

5. Why does Cather repeatedly include images of people and objects silhouetted against the sun? What does the vision of the plough mean to Jim?

6. Why does Jim prefer "the hired girls" to the Black Hawk girls? Is Frances right when she says that Jim puts "a kind of glamour" over the hired girls? (p. 175)

7. What is Cather suggesting about gender roles with the characters Frances, Antonia, and Lena?

8. Why is Antonia so determined to keep going to the dancing tent that she would rather leave her job with the Harlings than stop dancing?

9. Why does the incident at Wick Cutter's house make Jim feel that he never wants to see Ántonia again and that he hated her almost as much as he hated Cutter

10. Why does Jim leave Lena Lingard in the end, despite how much he enjoys being with her?

11. Why does Jim tell Antonia, "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man"? (p. 240)

12. What does Jim mean when he says that "Cuzak had been made the instrument of Ántonia's special mission" (p. 270)? What is her mission?

13. Why is remembering the past so important to Jim? Why does he agree with Virgil that "optima dies prima fugit"? (p. 199)

14. How have immigrants enriched American culture? How have they been transformed by it?

15, Would you agree with Virgil and Jim that the earliest days are the best and the most quickly gone?

16. Do you agree that happiness consists of being "dissolved into something complete and great" (p. 20)?
(This set of questions from Penguin Classics edition.)

1. The first narrator in My Antonia is an unnamed speaker who grew up with Jim Burden and meets him years later on a train. Jim tells his story in response to this mysterious figure, who disappears from the novel as soon as the Introduction is over. How does this first narrator's disappearance foreshadow other withdrawals within this novel, which at times resembles a series of departures? Why might Cather have chosen to frame her narrative in this fashion?

2. When Jim arrives in Nebraska, he sees "nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." [11-12] Yet at the novel's end that landscape is differentiated. It has direction and color—red grass, blue sky, dun-shaded bluffs. We are reminded of the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and of God's parting of the heavens from the earth. To what extent is My Antonia an American Genesis? What are its agents of creation and differentiation?

3. Just as My Antonia's setting is initially raw and featureless, its narrative at first seems haphazard: "'I didn't arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people's Antonia's name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn't any form.'" [6] Is Burden's description really accurate? Although the narrative proceeds chronologically, its structure is unconventional, as Antonia is present in only three of the five sections and much of her story unfolds via exposition. What effect does Cather produce by telling her story in this fashion?

4. One of the greatest difficulties facing the Shimerdas and other immigrant families is that posed by their lack of English, which seals them off from all but the most forthcoming of their neighbors. Yet even American-born arrivals to Nebraska find themselves set apart. As the narrator notes in the Introduction, "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." [3] What is the nature of this freemasonry? What experiences do the inhabitants of this world share that are alien—and perhaps incommunicable—to people raised elsewhere? Does the shared experience of the novel's pioneers end up counting for more than their linguistic and ethnic differences?

5. What is it that makes Mr. Shimerda unable to adapt to his new home and ultimately drives him to suicide? Is he simply too refined—too rooted in Europe—to endure the harshness and solitude of the prairie? Before we jump to too easy a conclusion, we might consider the fact that the novel's other suicide, Wick Cutter, is a crass, upwardly mobile small-town entrepreneur. What do these two deaths suggest about the prerequisites for surviving in Cather's world?

6. From their first meeting, when Jim begins to teach Antonia English, he serves as her instructor and occasional guardian. Yet he also seems in awe of Antonia. What is it that makes her superior to him? What does she possess that Jim doesn't? What makes her difference so desirable?

7. At times Jim's feelings towards Antonia suggest romantic infatuation, yet their relationship remains chaste. Nor does Jim ever become sexually involved with the alluring—and more available—Lena Lingard. Curiously, Antonia appears to disapprove of their flirtation. And, whether he is conscious of it or not, Jim seems wedded to the idea of Tony as a sexual innocent. Following the failed assault by Wick Cutter, "I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness." [186] How do you account for these characters' ambivalent and at times squeamish attitude toward sexuality? In what ways do they change when they marry and—in Antonia's case—bear children?

8. Just as it is possible to read Lena Lingard as Antonia's sensual twin, one can see the entire novel as consisting of doubles and repetitions. Antonia has two brothers, the industrious and amoral Ambrosch and the sweet-natured, mentally incompetent Marek. Wick Cutter's suicide echoes that of Mr. Shimerda. Even minor anecdotes have a way of mirroring each other. Just as the Russians Peter and Pavel are stigmatized because they threw a bride to a pursuing wolf pack, the hired hand Otto is burdened by an act of generosity on his voyage over to America, when the woman he is escorting ends up giving birth to triplets. Where else in the novel do events and characters mirror each other? What is the effect of this symmetry and its variations?

9. In one of her essays, Willa Cather observed, "I have not much faith in women in fiction." [cited in Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York, Vintage, 1991, p. 12] Yet in Antonia Cather has created a genuinely heroic woman. What perceived defects in earlier fictional heroines might Cather be trying to redeem in this novel? Do her female characters seem nobler, better, or more deeply felt than their male counterparts? In spite of this, why might Cather have chosen to make My Antonia' s narrator a man?

10. For her epigraph Cather uses a quote from Virgil: Optima dies... prima fugit: "The best days are the first to pass." How is this idea borne out within My Antonia? In what ways can the novel's early days, with their scenes of poverty, hunger and loss, be described as the best? What does Jim, the novel's presiding consciousness, lose in the process of growing up? Does Antonia lose it as well? How is this notion of lost happiness connected to Jim's observation: "That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great"?

11. Although My Antonia is elegiac in its tone—and has been used in high school curricula to convey a conservative view of the American past—it is also notable for its striking realism about gender and culture. Not only does the novel have a female protagonist who prevails in spite of male betrayal and abuse (and two secondary female characters who prosper without ever marrying), it also portrays the early frontier as a multicultural quilt in which Bohemians, Swedes, Austrians, and a blind African-American retain their ethnic identities without dissolving in the American melting pot. Significantly, at the novel's end Antonia has reverted to speaking Bohemian with her husband and children. How important are these themes to the novel's overall vision? Do they accurately reflect the history of the western frontier?
(This set of questions from Bantam Classics edition.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2018