My Antonia By Willa Cather Essay Research

My Antonia By Willa Cather Essay, Research Paper

The Inability to Provide for His Family, and Why it Drove Mr. Shimerda to

Suicide My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a novel about Jim Burden and his

relationship and experiences growing up with Antonia Shimerda in Nebraska.

Throughout the book Jim reflects on his memories of Nebraska and the Shimerda

family, often times in a sad and depressing tone. One of the main ways Cather is

able to provoke these sad emotions within the reader is through the suicide of

Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda. His death was unexpected by everyone and it is

thought that homesickness is what drove him to take his own life. Homesickness

was surely felt by Mr. Shimerda, as it was by many, but it was the failure to

adequately find a way to provide for his family that sent Mr. Shimerda into a

depressing downward spiral that left him no foreseeable alternative but to take

his own life. The first descriptions of Mr. Shimerda are that of a successful

businessman that had always provided well for his family. I noticed how white

and well-shaped his own hands were. They looked calm, somehow, and skilled. His

eyes were melancholy, and were set back deep under his brow. His face was

ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes – like something from which all the

warmth and light had dried out. Everything about this old man was in keeping

with his dignified manner (24) Mr. Shimerda was indeed a prosperous man in

Bohemia, but had made his living in the business world, not by running a farm to

provide for his family’s needs. His hands show that he rarely performed hard

manual labor, but that he did work hard with his hands to weave. His face

however shows signs that he was already having doubts about the welfare of his

family and their survival. The apparent glow that he must have once had was now

replaced by the look of heavy thoughts. This came from the burden of providing

for his family by way of very unfamiliar and difficult means. He had already

lost a great deal of money in the family’s traveling expenses and overpaid for

their property. "They paid way too much for the land and for the oxen,

horses and cookstove" (22). Mr. Shimerda must not have thought that he

would have to support his family by means of plowing fields for food and

actually building a home from materials gathered from the earth. He was a

businessman and made a life for his family in Bohemia by working. "He was a

weaver by trade; had been a skilled work man on tapestries and upholstery

materials" (22). There was no work for him in this new country and he did

not have the money to relocate his family. Certainly before he left Bohemia he

believed that they had more than enough money to get by. The reality of his

family’s circumstances was just beginning to show their impact. Antonia points

out to Jim that Mr. Shimerda looks ill "My papa sick all the time"

Tony panted as we flew. He not look good, Jim" (36). It is obvious that Mr.

Shimerda was terribly stressed and was staring to show it physically. Most

likely he looked ill due to not sleeping and eating. Nevertheless, Mr. Shimerda

wanted desperately do the best that he could for his family. He moved his family

with the hopes of finding good husbands for his daughters and wealth and land

for his son. He calls onto Jim to teach Antonia to read. He does so in a very

pleading, helpless way which leaves an unforgettable memory in Jim’s mind. Jim

takes on the task, but unfortunately Mr. Shimerda gets little help from anyone

else in the town for anything. Mr. Shimerda never really understands why he

receives virtually little help from neighbors getting the farm going. He knows

nothing about running the farm, and didn’t even have the appropriate tools

necessary. He and his family on the other hand are very trusting and would give

the shirts off their backs to anyone who needed anything from them. "There

never were such a people as the Shimerdas for wanting to give away everything

they had" (38). He loses more hope for help when Krajiek tells him that

even going into town for anything would be risking what little the family had

left. The burden of not providing for his family only gets worse. His family has

to bear the cold winter in a dugout with no food. This is when his family starts

to lose hope and he feels the pressures of ultimate failure. Mrs. Shimerda

certainly put a lot of this unneeded pressure on him as well. She was use to

being taken care of and now shows little love or compassion towards him. She

constantly whines and reminds him how miserable they all are. Also, the burden

of having no one to lean on for support, such as for advice and to borrow

equipment, leaves Mr. Shimerda feeling helpless. His two Russian friends that

were his main source for information about running the farm are gone. One dies

and the other moves away. This leaves him with no one for advise and help but

the Burtons. Everything for Mr. Shimerda is a failure. He has proven to himself

that there is nothing more that he can do for his family. Perhaps he believed

that if he sacrificed his own life, maybe then people would show compassion and

come to the needed assistance of his family. In this new country Mr. Shimerda

came to the realization that no one was really going to help them. It was as if

all immigrants stuck with their own nationality and only helped there own kind.

Jim recalls how this wore on Mr. Shimerda. "I suppose in the crowded

clutter of their cave, this old man had come to believe that peace and order had

vanished from the earth, or existed only in the world he had left so far

behind" (71). Unfortunately the Shimerdas were the only Bohemian family for

miles. Something as tragic as his suicide would surely bring at least some

compassion from someone in the community towards his family. Mr. Shimerda had

run out of options to choose from and decided that he could do nothing more and

finally gave up. And of course it was not until his suicide that neighbors, such

as the postmaster and the father of the German family, did finally come out of

the woodwork, most likely out of shame for not doing anything about a known

family in need. "The news of what had happened over there had somehow got

abroad through the snow-blocked country" (88). And that spring, neighbors

helped build a new home for the family and helped get the farm working.

"The Shimerdas were in their new log house by then. The neighbors had

helped them build it in March" (95). Mr. Shimerda’s suicide ultimately was

a determining factor with getting the help he needed for his family’s survival.

This could have been something he thought about when he took his own life.

Regardless, if it were not for his inability to provide an adequate life for his

family in the new country, Mr. Shimerda never would have committed suicide.


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