My Antonia

Willa Cather

BACKGROUND

Willa Cather's novels are famous for showing the American landscape and its intense social, psychological and spiritual impact upon its inhabitants. My Antonia is the story of a young man's growth upon the prairies of Nebraska. Jim meets Antonia, a girl whom he loves in the deepest way (like a sister, a lover, a mother and a Goddess) for the rest of his life. While describing his relationship with Antonia and others, Jim also depicts the immigrant farm families on the Great Plains. In this, as in many of her other works, Cather is able to show the great American spirit through nature and the mindset of the pioneers.

MAIN CHARACTERS

Jim: The hero of the book. An orphan and a romantic, he narrates story.

Antonia: A beautiful girl from Bohemia, the Platonic (non-sexual) love of Jim's life.

Grandmother & Grandfather: Jim's grandparents, who've adopted him.

Jake: Farmhand from Jim's hometown, friend to Jim.

Otto: Austrian farmhand, friend to Jim.

Krajiek: A cheat.

Peter & Pavel: Two Russian guys.

Wick Cutter: An evil loan shark.

The Harlings: Neighbors.

Lena: Good-looking Norwegian girl.

Gaston: Jim's college professor.

PLOT

My Antonia is told in five parts, or books, each covering a period in Jim's life. Each period shows Jim at a different phase of thinking.

In Book One, Jim adjusts to his new life on the prairie after losing his parents. His grandparents are good, gentle Christian folk and encourage Jim to treat people with dignity. Jim makes an intense friendship with Antonia, whose family has just moved to the prairie from Bohemia (the Czech Republic today). Even though her English is shaky, the two youngsters form a bond that goes deep. Life is hard for Antonia's family their first year on the prairie. After her father kills himself, Antonia and Jim begin to drift apart.

In Book Two, Jim has moved to town, so his life begins to center around socializing, instead of farming. Soon, Antonia moves to town, too, finding work in the home of Jim's neighbors. The two continue their friendship as they pass through high school. They are no longer little kids and each one now has to deal with the restlessness of being a teenager.

In Book Three, Jim loses touch with Antonia because he has gone away to college. He throws himself into his studies and feels his mind expanding. But when he starts dating a girl he knew from his hometown, the books look less attractive. Finally, he ditches this girl and heads east to go to Harvard.

In Book Four, Jim heads home during a break from law school to learn that Antonia has gotten herself pregnant and is living alone on a farm. At first he is angry with her, but when the two meet again, he sees in her eyes the same flicker and remembers the tenderness he has always felt for her.

In Book Five, Jim and Antonia meet after twenty years. Antonia has a huge family and looks worn out from a life of work. But after a few minutes the same spark draws the two together again. Jim realizes that she has always been more than just a woman to him, but a kind of Goddess. He also realizes after so much time that his early years on the prairie have made him what he is today.

CHAPTER BY CHAPTER

BOOK ONE

Chapter One

  • After an endless train-ride from Virginia, Jim the orphan arrives in Nebraska. The place feels strange, like no-man's land. His old, familiar life seems as dead as his mom and dad.

Chapter Two

  • Jim meets his grandparents and likes them. The grandfather is wise; the grandmother is kind. Their house is quaint. They have bought him a pony.
  • Jim helps his grandmother dig potatoes from the garden. She warns him about rattlesnakes. The bigness of the prairie makes Jim feel dreamy, like he can fly. The tall grass stretches endlessly and sways in the sunlight. The whole prairie feels alive.

Chapter Three

  • Jim meets his neighbors, a Bohemian (Czech) family, also newcomers to the prairie.
  • They want to be farmers, but are totally clueless, and can hardly speak a word of English.
  • Krajiek has sold them a crappy house and a useless farm.
  • Jim wastes no time in making friends with their good-looking daughter, Antonia.
  • They run through the tall grass and Jim teaches her a few words (but nothing smutty) of English.

Chapter Four

  • Jim teaches Antonia to read.
  • Together, they run through the fields and eat melons.
  • They visit dog-town, the holes that lead to the underground homes of the prairie dogs. Jim and Antonia feel bad for the prairie dogs, because rattlesnakes prey upon them.
  • Antonia learns housekeeping from Jim's grandmother. Antonia's own mother is a piss-poor prairie housewife. Krajiek is taking advantage of her family.

Chapter Five

  • Jim and Antonia visit Peter, one of the Russian guys. He plays harmonica and feels sad he had to leave Russia. It's harvest time, so Peter is very generous with his melons and cucumbers.

Chapter Six

  • Winter is coming and Antonia's skimpy dress can't keep her warm.
  • She and Jim catch her father coming home from a hunt. He is a sad man. But today he has bagged three rabbits and will make Antonia a furry hat with their skins.

Chapter Seven

  • Down in dog-town, Jim kills a big, bad rattlesnake. Jim becomes a stud in Antonia's eyes.

Chapter Eight

  • On a wagon ride to the house of Peter and Pavel, Jim and Antonia snuggle in the hay.
  • Pavel is dying and imagines wolves circling the house. Pavel confesses to a terrible thing he did in Russia long ago. A pack of wolves were chasing the sleigh Peter, Pavel and two others were riding in. Pavel threw the two others to the wolves, which made the sleigh light enough to escape. Because of this, everyone hated Peter and Pavel so much that they ran away to America. Pavel dies after making his confession. Peter sells the farm to pay his debts to the evil loan shark, Wick Cutter.

Chapter Nine

  • Winter has fallen on the prairie and there is nothing to do but eat, sleep, and keep warm.
  • Jim goes on a sleigh-ride with Antonia, who is glad to get away from her dirty, cave-like house and bitchy mom.
  • Life feels like an adventure to Jim. At night, folks sit around the stove, singing or telling stories.

Chapter Ten

  • Antonia's family can't handle the winter.
  • They've got one coat between them and have been reduced to eating prairie dogs.
  • Jim, his grandmother, and Jake bring the family some food, and are disgusted by their dark and smelly house.

Chapter Eleven

  • It is Christmas Eve, a storm has been raging all week, and Jim's family is snow bound. They have an old-fashioned country Christmas, with handmade presents, a tree decorated with odds & ends and home cooking.

Chapter Twelve

  • On Christmas Day, Antonia's dad pays a visit to say thanks for the gifts. He is quiet, but deeply moved by the good feelings in Jim's house. Antonia's dad kneels before the Christmas tree to pray.

Chapter Thirteen

  • The weather turns warm briefly and Antonia and her mom visit.
  • The mom is a bitch. Still, Jim's grandmother is nice to her and gives her more stuff.
  • There is another huge storm and everyone is snowed in again.

Chapter Fourteen

  • Antonia's dad is found dead. It looks like he shot himself, but Jake and Otto are suspicious, because an axe near the body also matches the gash in the dead man's head.
  • Krajiek started acting scared when Jake discovered the axe. Otto trudges through the snow for a coroner.

Chapter Fifteen

  • Otto makes a coffin for Antonia's dead dad. The coroner rules the death a suicide, but everyone wonders why Krajiek is acting like a guilty dog.

Chapter Sixteen

  • Antonia's dad is buried in a snow-covered field and Jim's grandfather prays that life might become easier for Antonia's poor family.

Chapter Seventeen

  • It's springtime and Antonia has grown pretty butch, working her family's new farm like a tough young man.
  • Jim thinks she's become stuck up and crude.

Chapter Eighteen

  • Antonia's brother acts like an asshole, so Jake smacks him in the nose. For a couple of months the two families hate one another, but grandfather eventually smoothes things over.

Chapter Nineteen

  • Together Jim and Antonia watch a thunderstorm. Jim asks her why she's been so bitchy. She tells him, "life is hard."

BOOK TWO

Chapter One

  • Because Jim's grandparents are getting old, they decide to sell the farm and move to town.
  • Jake and Otto go out West, looking for adventure.
  • Jim makes friends with other boys, but misses Antonia, who continues to work like a man in the fields.

Chapter Two

  • Grandmother lands Antonia a job as a cook for their neighbor, the Harlings.
  • The town ladies want to make Antonia less of a tomboy.

Chapter Three

  • Jim and Antonia play constantly with the Harling children, a rowdy bunch.
  • Antonia seems to have a crush on one of the sons, Charley, which pisses Jim off.
  • The mom is nice but the father acts like the king of the castle.

Chapter Four

  • Lena Lingard, a good-looking Norwegian girl with a bad reputation shows up in town. She has found work with a dressmaker.

Chapter Five

  • Jim helps Lena with her Christmas shopping. She tells him she's lonely.

Chapter Six

  • Jim spends winter evenings at the Harlings with Antonia.
  • Everybody loves her good nature. She tells stories about farming and her home country. She has become part of the Harlings' family.

Chapter Seven

  • With their friends, Jim and Antonia spend the night dancing to the music of a fantastic blind pianist.

Chapter Eight

  • A travelling tent for dancing has come to town where all the local teenagers go to sow their wild oats.

Chapter Nine

  • Jim thinks the town is full of narrow-minded bigots because the Americans there look down on the foreign girls who come to town to help their farming families get out of debt.
  • Jim can see clearly how gifted these girls really are.

Chapter Ten

  • Antonia's been having too good a time at the travelling tent for dancing.
  • People are starting to think she's a slut. When Mr. Harling tells her to quit dancing, Antonia decides instead to look for a new boss.

Chapter Eleven

  • Antonia goes to work for Wick Cutter, the evil loan shark.
  • In the past, Cutter knocked up two of his hired girls. Mrs. Cutter is a supreme bitch. So, things don't look so good for Antonia.

Chapter Twelve

  • There's not enough happening in town to satisfy Jim, who is burning with all the normal teenage desires. He is restless and bored.
  • He starts sneaking out at night to dance with the foreign girls.
  • One night, while walking Antonia home, he surprises her with a wet kiss.
  • But she still thinks of him as a kid. She's proud of Jim and tells him not to hang around this small town all his life, to go to college and make something of himself.

Chapter Thirteen

  • Jim promises his grandmother he won't sneak off to dance anymore, which leaves him with a boring summer to look forward to.
  • He dedicates his high school graduation speech to Antonia's dad.

Chapter Fourteen

  • Jim spends the summer studying for college.
  • One beautiful day he goes skinny-dipping and calls to the foreign girls, who are driving by in a wagon.
  • Lena flirts with Jim as everyone talks about the difficulties of coming to a new country.
  • Together they picnic with the wild nature all around them. Jim and Antonia sit alone by a stream talking about her dead father and her hometown, both of which she misses so much she becomes like a little girl again.

Chapter Fifteen

  • Wick Cutter worries Antonia when he tells her to stay home alone while he goes away for business.
  • So Jim takes her place in her bed. One night Jim is awakened by Cutter climbing on top of him. Cutter thinks Jim is Antonia and has returned home secretly to rape her. The two men fight it out and both get badly bruised.

BOOK THREE

Chapter One

  • Jim moves to the city and throws himself into his college studies.
  • He becomes a good friend with a young teacher named Gaston, who opens a new world of poetic ideas to Jim.
  • Even though Jim becomes drunk on his new knowledge, he still feels attached to the people and things of the country.

Chapter Two

  • One night, while lost in his studies, Jim is visited by Lena, who has moved to the city as a dressmaker.
  • She brings him up-to-date on what's happening at home.
  • Antonia has gotten engaged to a guy Jim dislikes. Lena invites Jim to visit her when he's lonely.
  • Jim realizes poetry comes from good-looking girls.

Chapter Three

  • Jim and Lena go on a date to the theater.
  • Both of them are carried away by the romantic, make-believe world of the stage.
  • Jim is filled with the bitter-sweetness of springtime and love and feels like a man.

Chapter Four

  • Jim starts blowing off his studies because he's hanging out with Lena.
  • Her sexiness is more powerful than poetry.
  • Gaston thinks Jim is wasting his time on a floozy and should follow him east to Harvard and focus for real on his education.
  • Even though Jim is genuinely in love with Lena, he decides to head east. Before he leaves, the two kiss up a storm.

BOOK FOUR

Chapter One

  • Two years pass and Jim returns home for the summer before starting law school.
  • Antonia is living in disgrace as an unwed mother.
  • Jim is pissed she has screwed up her life.

Chapter Two

  • Jim sees a photo of Antonia's baby and feels a flood of forgiveness for her.
  • He hates the stuck-up jerk who knocked her up and then deserted her.

Chapter Three

  • Antonia is living a lonely life, and working hard on the prairie.
  • But she is a good mother and totally unashamed of her baby.

Chapter Four

  • Jim and Antonia finally meet and sit down to talk next to the grave of her dad.
  • Jim confesses that she is always a part of him.
  • As they part, each is full of tenderness for the other.
  • Even though Jim is leaving for New York, Antonia says she'll never feel far from him.

BOOK FIVE

Chapter One

  • Twenty years have now passed and Antonia has a husband and a bunch of kids.
  • The sight of Antonia's eyes makes Jim's heart jump.
  • Antonia's house is full of life, with kids and animals all over the place and tons of food in storage.
  • Jim spends the night. As he falls asleep he flashes on images of Antonia through the years, and realizes that something in Antonia's nature is timeless, like a goddess.

Chapter Two

  • Jim meets Antonia's husband, a nice guy from Bohemia.

Chapter Three

  • Jim retraces the road that first brought him into the prairie and feels the presence of his memories all around him. He feels that no matter how far you travel, you are never far from your beginnings.

THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART

  • Jim narrates throughout and his style is consistently romantic, which means what he describes is colored by his emotions and high ideals. His descriptions of the prairie are poetic, even spiritual. His descriptions of people often go to the extreme by revealing the best and the worst he believes they are capable of.
  • Book One shows Jim during his formative years, where he is just learning about what makes people tick and what's important in life. It makes sense that so many images and allusions in Book One are Biblical. It makes sense for two reasons. One, in Western culture, the Bible is a primary source for education and inspiration. Two, psychologically speaking, many people believe that the Bible is full of prototypes of human nature. This means that all the basic human characteristics can be found in the Bible.
  • Book Two shows Jim growing socially and blooming physically. He is now a teenager and the same force of nature Jim admired as a boy upon the prairie is now taking hold of his body. It makes sense that this portion of the story happens in a town and many of the scenes take place inside homes. It makes sense because the building of homes and towns is Man's way of taming nature. The attempt to tame nature in order to resist the wild impulses inside Man is a basic theme in a lot of literature.
  • Jim gradually comes to realize that Antonia has been more than just an ordinary woman to him. He realizes that she is an embodiment of all women to him. He sees her as a Goddess. Her beauty, love of life, persevering spirit, and her ultimate role as mother of many children casts Antonia in a female role that is found throughout literature of all ages she is a Fertility Figure.
  • Jim's love for Antonia includes some sexual feelings, but extends far beyond that. Their relationship can be called "Platonic," which means a kind of relationship that, in addition to being non-sexual, strives toward the ideal, or a kind of moral purity. My Antonia is filled with relationships that are highly moral and which depict different levels of idealism between people.