Places: My Ántonia

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional

Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedBurden farm

Burden My Ántoniafarm. Ranch in pioneer Nebraska owned by Jim Burden’s grandparents. It is to this farm that the ten-year-old Jim Burden is brought from Virginia after his parents die, and it is here that he learns to love the prairie. It is also here that he meets the Shimerdas, a Bohemian family (immigrants from Bohemia) who are distant neighbors struggling to survive in this harsh new land.

Shimerda home

Shimerda home. Sod cave, built into a hillside, that is home to Ántonia and her family. The Burdens help out their Bohemian neighbors, who live in isolation and deprivation in their first year in America. The Shimerdas survive the brutal winter, but the father, homesick for the old country, kills himself. When the church refuses to bury Mr. Shimerda in the cemetery, he is laid to rest in a corner of his property. In the spring, the Shimerdas build a log house, and through hard work and economy begin to make their farm prosper.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk. Small town that is the center of this farming region (probably based on Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up). When the farm gets too much for them, the Burdens rent it out and buy a house in town, where Jim can start school. Ántonia also moves to town to work for the people who live next door to the Burdens. Jim feels a loss of freedom in the move from the prairie to Black Hawk and becomes “moody and restless,” but life is made better by the presence of Ántonia and the other “hired girls” (immigrants from Europe like Ántonia) who work in town. Certainly, Cather shows, they have an energy and love for life missing in many of their neighbors. At the town dances, it is Ántonia and her friends who show the most spirit. Jim graduates from high school, dedicating his commencement oration to Ántonia’s father.

*Lincoln

*Lincoln. Nebraska’s state capital, largest city, and home to the university where Jim starts his separation from his family and the prairie life. After succeeding at the university, he goes on to Harvard Law School. Jim hears about Ántonia and her family during his years away but visits her only once before starting his legal career.

*New York City

*New York City. Center of American financial and cultural life by the end of the nineteenth century. Jim becomes a lawyer for the railroads in New York and marries. It is clear from Cather’s fictional introduction to My Ántonia, however, that his marriage is loveless and produces no children. In the greatest city in the country, he has lost something of what he had as a young man growing up with Ántonia on the American prairie.

Cuzak farm

Cuzak farm. Farm where Ántonia, her husband, and their many children live. In the last scene of the novel, Jim visits this farm years later and discovers the richness and happiness of immigrant life on the prairie. Ántonia has aged, but she has “not lost the fire of life.” With Ántonia and her family, Jim feels at home again, and the novel has circled back to the prairie. It is the land, Cather implies, and the immigrants who bring their dreams and energy to it, which sustains this country. Jim Burden no longer shares either the dreams or the land, but he personally understands the prairie’s power and the heroism of people like “my Ántonia.”

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection of eleven reprinted articles, selected by a leading literary critic. Includes a Cather chronology and bibliography.Brown, Edward Killoran. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Brown was Cather’s first biographer. A gracefully written book that still provides insights into Cather’s writings, this work is penetrating in its discussion of Cather’s use of feelings and nostalgic memories in My Ántonia. Brown died before he could finish the biography, and Leon Edel completed the work.Brown, Muriel. “Growth and Development of the Artist: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.” Midwest Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Autumn, 1991): 93-107. Refers to Cather’s own ideas about the novel and about creativity. Brown offers her interpretation of the characters of Ántonia and Jim Burden.Dyck, Reginald. “The Feminist Critique of Willa Cather’s Fiction: A Review Essay.” Women’s Studies 22, no. 3 (1993): 263-279. Dyck explains Cather’s regained literary reputation as a major writer as a consequence of work by feminist critics since the 1970’s. Summarizes some of the conflicting interpretations of Cather, using My Ántonia as the primary focus.Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1950. An early feminist scholar, Jessup compares Cather favorably with Edith Wharton and Ellen Glasgow, particularly in her development of strong female characters. This is a short but important book.Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. In this major biography of Cather, Lee presents a sweeping, multilayered examination of her life and art. Utilizing the most recent scholarship and finely honed critical skills, she assays all the writings, often producing original and controversial interpretations. Her discussion of the pastoral is a significant contribution to understanding Cather’s use of the land motif. The book contains a valuable short bibliography.Murphy, John J. “My Ántonia”: The Road Home. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Places the novel in historical and literary context and provides a reading of the text. Also includes a chronology and selected bibliography.Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. Interesting and readable essays by both established and newer Cather critics who consider the novel from a wide range of perspectives.Stouck, David. Willa Cather’s Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. Although Stouck is primarily interested in an appreciation of all Cather’s writings, he does offer some valuable observations about memory and the pastoral in My Ántonia. His book also has a helpful selected bibliography.Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Woodress, an established Cather expert, provides a clear, enthusiastic treatment of Cather’s accomplishments as an author. He argues that My Ántonia is her finest novel and one of the best written by an American.
Categories: Places