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When Willa Cather's editor first read the manuscript of My Ántonia, he experienced "the most thrilling shock of recognition of the real thing" he had ever felt. Few books pack so much vibrantly genuine life into their pages as this classic novel of the American immigrant experience. My Ántonia teems with romance, violence, tenderness, cruelty, comedy, and tragedy—all bustling side by side in a narrative at once compassionate and gripping.
"An artist should have no moral purpose in mind other than just his art." —from the essay "Commitment" (1894)
A beloved American classic, Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918) is best summarized by its epigraph: "the best days are the first to flee." In it, the adult narrator, Jim Burden, remembers his childhood through the memory of his friend, Ántonia Shimerda. As Cather herself did, ten-year-old Jim has left Virginia for Nebraska by train and is shocked by the barren prairie on his first wagon ride. Unlike Cather, Jim is an orphan joining his paternal grandparents on the Nebraska Divide.
The novel comprises five sections, called "books" by the author, and may appear at first to lack a cohesive structure. As Cather intended, there is no plot in the usual sense of the word. Instead, each book contains thematic contrasts. Book One, for example, begins with an idyllic autumn of exploration for Jim and Ántonia; it ends with a bitter winter and an unforeseen family tragedy that changes Ántonia's life forever.
In Book Two, Jim's family leaves the prairie for the small town of Black Hawk, where many of the young immigrant women help alleviate their families' financial hardships by becoming the town's "hired girls." After Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend the University of Nebraska, he reunites with Norwegian Lena Lingard, who has become a successful dressmaker in Lincoln. He flees to Boston to avoid a lasting romance with her.
Still, Jim cannot escape his love for either Ántonia or the prairie. Similar to Cather, Jim regards the land as "the happiness and curse" of his life. While living in New York, Jim hears rumors of Ántonia's ruin. More than fifteen years pass before he musters up enough courage to find out what really happened to her.
The novel owes its enduring appeal partly to its universal themes of time, death, youth, and friendship. Children grow up and lose their innocence; the virgin land becomes productive but fenced. Cather's friend Edith Lewis once reflected, "The whole book was a sort of love story of the country." The beautiful elegiac tone of My Ántonia captures the taming of the American frontier as no other work of fiction ever has. Perhaps most of all, the novel is about memory, as Jim concludes at the novel's end: "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."
"There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land.... I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven."
— Jim Burden in My Ántonia
- Why might Willa Cather begin her novel with an introduction from an unnamed female acquaintance of Jim Burden? What effect does this device have on the reader?
- Why does Jim title his manuscript "My Ántonia"? What does he mean when he states, "It's through myself that I knew and felt her"?
- This book is often seen as a coming-of-age novel. How does Ántonia challenge Jim's growing masculinity?
- When does Ántonia's father call her "My Ántonia"? How deeply does his death change her life? Why does it affect Jim so much?
- Do you feel the stories narrated by others—such as the story of the young bride and the wolves—are essential to the novel? Why or why not?
- How is the land a character in this novel? Is it the hero?
- What qualities do Ántonia and Lena share? How do they differ? Why does Jim pursue a romance with Lena and not Ántonia?
- Jim's family is low-church Protestant; the Shimerda family is Roman Catholic. What role does religion play in the novel?
- Is Ántonia triumphant at the end? Is Jim?
- Why do you suppose the image of the plough in the setting sun has become one of Cather's most memorable symbols?
- Cather once said that "one's strongest emotions and one's most vivid mental pictures are acquired before one is fifteen." How is this true for Jim Burden and his view of Ántonia?
- The novel's epigraph, "Optima dies ... prima fugit," is cited by Jim later in the novel: "the best days are the first to flee." How is this a fitting summation of the novel's theme?