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Willa Cather: My Ántonia

Ántonia, pronounced Ant-on-ee-ah, is a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska. We first meet her as a young child, through the eyes of the narrator Jim Burden. Burden, like Cather, travels from Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska at the age of ten. Though Ántonia is four years older than he is, he soon befriends her and helps her to learn English. She and her family have recently arrived from Bohemia to farm. The Shimerdas – Ántonia’s family – are strange and tend to keep to themselves but Ántonia is different, a lively, happy girl and Jim is soon in love with her, though he never says this.

The story follows the travails of the Shimerdas as seen through Jim’s eyes. All the while Ántonia is growing up and seems eager to detach herself from the grim farm life to which her family, particularly her gloomy brother, Ambrosch, seem tied. She gets a job but seems more interested in dancing and enjoying herself in town. Eventually, to the chagrin of Jim and many others, she takes up with a railroad man, more, it would seem, as a chance to escape, than out of any real love for him. However, he gets her pregnant and then deserts her when her money runs out and she returns stoically to her family to bring up her baby.

Burden, now a successful married lawyer, loses touch with his home town, except for occasional contacts with one or two other former inhabitants but, finally, twenty years later, returns to visit Ántonia. At first she does not recognise him. She has married a solid farmer and produced”ten or eleven” children. She seems content with her lot as a wife and mother. The book ends with Burden, barely able to recognise his home town, leaving, thinking only of the past.

What makes this book stands out is, of course, the character of Ántonia. She undergoes many burdens – her father kills himself early in the book and she has to work hard all her life – but still manages to maintain her passion for life, despite her disappointments and suffering. Right at the end, surrounded by her demanding children and her solid but dull husband, she seems thoroughly content with her lot, even though she failed to break away and has not had an easy life. For Cather, the struggles of the farmers on the Nebraska prairie – struggles which she herself saw at first hand – are mirrored in Ántonia’s life.

Publishing history

First published 1918 by Houghton Mifflin