Wila Cathers

’ My Antonia Essay, Research Paper

“My Antonia”

My Antonia is an ideal book to introduce one to because it deals with the great variety of people from other countries who were confronted simultaneously with the creation of new lives and a new country. Willa Cather focused on depicting ethnic values of the different cultures of the various immigrants who came to Nebraska. I was amazed at the hardships, the plight, and the conditions of life on the rural Nebraska prairie land of the late nineteenth century America that Cather referenced so well. Since Cather peopled her fiction with individuals and immigrant groups who had not been written much about before, I found her characters individualized, intriguing and true-to-life. These resourceful and brave people journeyed into the unknown land of the Midwest and Nebraska, brought their families, and sometimes hired hands with them not knowing what may come of their life.

Being from Nebraska herself, Cather knew and wrote passionately not only of the resourcefulness, determination, and bravery of the first group of pioneers who tried to survive on their hope in the American dream, but also of the harshness, coldness and brutality of pioneer life in the prairie. Indeed, My Antonia depicts the difficult and joyous times of the early settlers.

I especially admired Antonia, who possessed a grand imagination with ideas to seek a more hopeful destiny in an unfamiliar territory while coping with hardships and stoically overcoming many of them. The heart of the novel, however, lies in Antonia?s harmony and creativity with her environment and her contribution to the creation of new lives and a new country. “More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” Jim remarks (p. 2).

While reading this book, I was able to experience life on the prairie land and realize that the land is a richly complex symbol representing great hardships and great rewards. It serves as a natural and vital force that begins and sustains all living things in rich abundance?if one works hard enough cultivating it. Yet, the land is also a source of back-breaking labor, sacrifice, and deprivation during bad years. The pioneers were very challenged by the prairie land because of the packed grass and sod that covered it. In order to plant corn, wheat, squash, and other crops, they had to clear and till the ground of all the tall grass and weeds. After the land was planted with crops, plagues of grasshoppers and locusts could destroy them and cause severe deprivation. Drought, prairie fires, and frost could also attack their hard worked planted fields. The land in My Antonia is a powerful main actor which depicts the conflicts that pioneers dealt with that determined if they would survive and prosper or disappear with the change of the seasons.

The family of the native-born Jim Burden often brought bundles of clothing, wood, and other provisions to the poor Bohemian Shimerda family. Anton Jelinek, a young Bohemian often rode on his horse to help others with their troubles. He, too, is very responsible and helpful in arranging the funeral after Mr. Shimerda?s suicide when the Norwegians didn?t want to have his body buried in their cemetery. Some of the pioneers, but not all, conquered the land, made it flourish, and helped others to gather their crops, harvest their grain and to build their houses.

The land gave opportunities for personal development and artistic inspiration also. Jim Burden remarks about his early Nebraskan life: “I was entirely happy . . . that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great (p. 12). “All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autum.” (p. 17). “Antonia . . . lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true . . . 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 . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” (p. 167).

The suffering of change, family members growing older and dying, the disasters and uncertainties of the pioneers, the grave at the crossroads of Antonia?s sensitive father who killed himself, the poverty, trouble, anxiety about everyday living, the burdensome, back-breaking labor of the immigrants? lives, and the sense of irreparable loss in time are the many aspects that is dealt with in, My Antonia. Other aspects is the timelessness and creativity of those images associated with Antonia, the stoical strength of the hired men and the vivacity of spirit of the hired girls. The earth, like the plow image on the sun, expresses the ultimate relationship and continuity between humans and the universe The pioneers passed on their old customs, culture and ways of life that enriched the land and the new way of life. The frontier gave the immigrants and pioneers creative individualism, a free will and an opportunity to develop the pioneer spirit.

Another symbol that fits together very effectively in My Antonia is the fat rattlesnake that horrifies Jim and Antonia, and that Jim kills, thus making him greatly admired in the eyes of Antonia(p. 25). Krajiek the dishonest, greedy money lender who fleeced the Shimerdas and cheated the two Russians, Pavel and Peter, and nearly seduced Antonia, is similar to the rattlesnake attacking the prairie dog. Humanity and nature both breed such disgusting creatures. “They hated Krajiek, but they clung to him because he was the only human being . . . from who they could get information . . . They kept him in their hole and fed him for the same reason that the brown owls house the rattlesnakes?because they did not know how to get rid of him”(p. 18).

Cather uses history and legend in the story that Jim tells the girls about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden Cities (p. 117-118). Coronado, the Spanish explorer wandered through the Southwest and perhaps to Nebraska. This connects the Nebraska landscape with all the ancient quests, as well as the history of Spanish penetration of North America. Also, Coronado suggests the adventurous spirit, romance and the kind of dreams young people have. A metal stirrup and sword were found by a farmer turning the sod of the prairie. Coronado died of a broken heart in his futile quest for gold. The death of Antonia?s father echoes the Coronado symbol in that his death occurred in the wilderness of America that refused to yield its treasure. Antonia?s father and the two Russians could not wrestle with the challenges of America, thus they became victims and were defeated by the hardships of the immigrant?s life.

The use of symbols is especially evident toward the end of the novel when after twenty years Jim Burden gets up his courage to return to Black Hawk to visit his old childhood friend, Antonia, who has married Anton Cuzak. She greets him with all the old enthusiasm and affection after laboring on the farm for many years and raising her offspring of eleven children. She appears “in the full vigor of her personality battered but not diminished” (p. 157) . When taken to visit the fruit cave, Jim describes the children as “a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight” (p. 160) Antonia?s dark and fair children burst forth with the intensity of life suggesting Antonia?s fulfillment and enrichment after her dark beginnings in the cave of her early immigrant life. In addition, touching the trees in the orchard, she says that she loves her trees “as if they were people” (p. 161). One could say that her creative and adventurous life will allow her and her family to prosper because she possesses an energy filled with compassion, sacrifice and determination. It is through her will of determination, sacrifice and hard work that the trees, garden and her family will reach development and success. Jim says of Antonia: “all the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early race.” (p. 167). Antonia stands for the undefeated strength, power, and spirit of the pioneers. She not only displays a great physical strength, but also an inner spiritual one. Antonia may have given up something for her marriage but from another point of view, she has gained much?a loving husband, eleven children and the pride of accomplishment.

This was a great book to read?.I felt I lived on the prairie vicariously through the life of Antonia. This story was most enjoyable to read. Thanks!



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