“’ We were so deep in the grass that we could see nothingbut the blue sky over us and the gold tree in front of us(26).” Book Two
Setting plays a large part in My Antonia throughout the course of the novel, as the settingchanges greatly from Book I to Books IV and V. Book I starts when Jim Burden is ten years old and goes tolive in Nebraska with his grandparents after his parents death. The book takes place in the 1880’s, whichfosters the setting as an small Nebraskan farm town. The vividness with which Jim describes hischildhood town relates to the theme of nostalgia. He writes, “There was nothing but land: not a countryat all, but the material out of which countries are made. No there was nothing but land […] (15)”. Jimdescribes the open plains where he spent his childhood years as if he was just there yesterday (depictedin this mural), rather than writing about his childhood more than twenty years later. His vividdescriptions show that he thinks about his childhood often, showing he feels very nostalgic about thetime he spent with Antonia. Jim describes his childhood home with vivid descriptions that make readersfeel as if they are in the Nebraskan country-side: “[…] yellow leaves and shining white bark made themlook like the gold and silver trees in fairy tails (24)”. Setting obviously influences the lifestyle of the Burdens, transportation, etc, and therefore isvery important. In the story, the characters ride on horse-drawn carriages to get from place to place.Setting also influences the relationship between Jim and Antonia. Because the book takes place in 1880,Antonia cannot go to school because she is both an immigrant and a girl. Therefore, Jim has to help herlearn English: “’Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!’(27).” Overall, the vivid descriptions of home that Jim includes have a major effect on both the plotlineof the novel and helps create a nostalgic mood. These descriptions and this mood continue throughoutthe novel. Book One
Book OneA key theme in My Antonia is nostalgia. In the introduction Willa Cather presents us withthe idea that Jim is eager to remember his childhood because his marriage is unhappy. Shesays of his wife, “that she married this unknown man from the West out of bravado (10).”Jim and his wife have very little in common and don’t seem to be very interested in eachother. Book 1 is written in language that makes prairie life sound like heaven. It gives theimpression that the time on his grandparents farm was near perfect. In Jim’s eyes, “Thewhole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed (38).” Hisbiblical reference shows that he sees the prairies as almost divine. As the books progress,the tone become darker and grayer. Jim says that “winter lies too long in county towns;hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen (125).” This view of winter contrastsdarkly with his view of winter in the country. In the country “The sky was brilliantly blue,and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of praire was almost blinding (52).” Hischange in attitude towards winter shows that he doesn’t want to be where he is. He wantsthe tranquility of life before Black Hawk. He wants to go back to when he and Tony spentlong fall days on the prairie. By the time Jim is an adult, he did not want to go back toNebraska because he “did not want to find her [Antonia] aged and broken…In the courseof twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the earlyones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen toone again.(205).” He doesn’t even want to go see Antonia for fear that it will ruin hismemories; he wants to continue to remember his childhood through rose colored glasses.Jim’s constant thought of days gone by shows that nostalgia is a fundamental theme of MyAntonia.
Book One•Josiah Burden-Jim’s grandfather. Josiah is a strongly religious man, silent and given tohard work.•Emmaline Burden-Jim’s grandmother. Emmaline shows great concern andcompassion for the Shimerdas and is a loving maternal figure for Jim.•Mrs. Harling-The matriarch of the Harling family, and a charismatic and active woman.Mrs. Harling develops a strong affection for Ántonia, and she provides myriad activitiesfor her children, Ántonia, and Jim, to take part in.•Russian Peter-Pavel’s housemate, and a fat, happy man. Like Pavel, Peter was forcedinto exile from his native Russia following a wolf attack on a wedding party. Petereventually finds himself severely in debt and sells off his belongings, leaving Americafor a job as a cook in a Russian labor camp.•Mrs. Shimerda-The matriarch of the Bohemian immigrant family. Mrs. Shimerda is abrusque, bossy, and often curt woman. After the suicide of her husband, she is forcedto make do with the little that she has in an attempt to provide for her family.•Otto Fuchs-The Burdens’ hired hand, who looks like a cowboy out of one of Jim’sbooks but is actually an Austrian immigrant. Good-natured despite his roughappearance, Otto decides to seek his fortune in the West after the Burdens move toBlack Hawk.
Book OneAs a youth in Nebraska, Jim develops a close friendship with a Bohemian immigrantgirl named Ántonia Shimerda. Jim is intelligent and intropesctive being the only boyhis age who is more interested in academics and reflection than in roughhousing. Healso likes to spend time alone or with girls such as Ántonia or other hired girls. Jim ismarried, but has no kids and works as a legal counsel in New York City. Histhoughfulness, romantic nature, and attatchment to his childhood friends and theNebraksa landscape give a nostaligic quailty that highlights his story. Rather thanremaining close to Ántonia through the years, Jim allows himself to drift apart fromher, always preserving her special place in his heart by treating her memory withgreater and greater nostalgia as the years go by. Jim acquires an impressiveeducation along the way at the University of Nebraska and Harvard. At the end of thenovel, when Jim reunites with the middle-aged Ántonia on the Cuzak farm. He canreforms a real relationship with Ántonia, acknowledging that she still exists and is stillherself even after the past that they shared has ended. He emphasized somethingvery personal to him from his past when he calls his memoir “My Ántonia” ratherthan “Ántonia.” Jim is not claiming ownership of Ántonia, but indicating that the storyof Ántonia contained within his memoir is just as much a product of his own mindand heart as it is of the past.
Book One Ántonia moves to Nebraska from Bohemia with the rest of her family in her early teenage years. Intelligent, optimistic, loyal, and kindhearted, the naturally gregarious Ántonia is forced to accept a difficult life after the death of her father. She is also trapped by the cultural differences that make her feel like a outsider and has to deal with other complications: the Shimerdas go hungry, and their poverty forces Ántonia to work as a servant girl; certain members of the Black Hawk community judge her harshly for her love of dancing; her fiancé betrays her and leaves her to raise a child alone. Yet she never loses her quality of inner grace and self-sufficiency. Ántonia always tries to make the best of her circumstances, but she refuses to sacrifice her independence to improve her life. For example, she would rather work for the wretched Wick Cutter than follow Mr. Hartling’s order to stop going to the dances. Ántonia is based on an actual figure from Cather’s childhood—a girl named Annie Pavelka, like Ántonia an immigrant and a hired girl in town whose father committed suicide. Cather admired Annie’s inner radiance and her independence, and sought to capture those qualities in Ántonia. http://www.literarytraveler.com/authors/willa_cather_red_cloud.aspx
“ Black Hawk […] was aBooks 3-5 clean, well planted little prairie town with white fences and good green yards about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the wooden sidewalks (102).” Minor Characters
Book Two Book 2 takes place in Black Hawk, a small Nebraskan town, as depicted in this mural. Jim and his family move there after living outside the town for a few years. This setting is important because, as Jim writes, “ […] I saw less of the Bohemians (93)”. He lives in a town now rather than on land owned by his family. He makes different friends, and meets new people that are very different from the Shimerdas. Shortly after their move to Black Hawk, Antonia gets a job as a servant for a neighboring family. Tension enters Jim and Antonia’s relationship because the townspeople feel that they are better than the hired girls. The differences between Jim and Antonia brought about by this move to Black Hawk show that the setting has a major influence on the story because a change in the setting caused new conflicts that would not have occurred had there not been a change in setting. Overall, Book 2 takes place in a small Nebraskan town called Black Hawk. It is very different from the farm lifestyle, and changes the relationship between Jim and Antonia, showing the importance setting plays in the novel.
Book Two A Norwegian immigrant’s daughter and a friend of Ántonia’s. Lena has a briefliaison with Jim in Black Hawk and a more extended relationship with him inLincoln, where she sets up her own dressmaker’s shop. Lena is pretty andblonde, and craves independence and excitement. Men are always attracted toher, but she refuses to marry and give up her freedom. Lena craves excitementand autonomy, refusing to marry any of the men who fall in love with herbeauty and charisma. Her choice to live in San Francisco is nearly as extreme forsomeone from Black Hawk as Jim’s decision to move to New York. Lenacontinues to become more important to Jim as he attends college, when theyare both in Lincoln together. She is still a pivotal figure in his growth fromchildhood to adulthood.
Book Two Tiny Soderball-One of the hired girls in Black Hawk and a friend to Ántonia and Lena. After working with Mrs. Gardener in the Boys’ Home, Tiny travels west and makes a small fortune during the Alaskan gold rush.
“ Optima dies prima fugit(173).” Theme Poster Middle
Book 3-5 Optima dies, prima fugit is a central theme of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Throughout the book, peace is achieved just to be ruined. At the beginning of the story, Antonia and Jim become friends. They spend a couple idyllic years roaming over the untamed Nebraska prairie just to find themselves confined to the dingy streets of Black Hawk. Jim remembers autumn happily, saying that, “all those fall afternoons were the same, but he never got used to them (38).” He then describes the beauty of the prairie scene with a sort of golden glow to it. This shows that he remembers the good times with a perfection unattainable in actuality. Antonia experiences dancing and fun in Black Hawk until Larry jilts her, leaving her an unmarried woman with a baby who “ […] had come home disgraced (189).” The good times lasted a couple years, the shame lasts forever. Jim finds a mentor in Gaston Cleric, but Gaston Cleric dies. The heavenly days come, but they are always soon to be replaced by something more stoic. The best days are the first to flee was a major theme all through My Antonia.
Book 3-5 The setting in Books III, IV, and V is greatly different than the setting in the first two books. After graduating from high school, Jim moves to Lincoln, Nebraska, a huge city compared to where he was living before. He goes there and focuses on his studies, changing his relationship with Antonia to the point where they rarely talked anymore. Again, a conflict in the story is caused by a change in setting, showing how important setting is to the storyline. Rather than describing open plains blowing in the wind, Jim describes “dusky stairways” and “mushy yards” (173). He now lives a completely different life than before. He is hundreds of miles away from the prairie where he grew up, and the feeling of nostalgia is beginning to come into his character. In Book IV, Jim furthers himself from home even more when he attends Harvard law and becomes a lawyer. In addition, his relationship with Antonia has changed so much that in the time they were apart, she had a baby, as he found out upon returning to Black Hawk. Again, a change in setting has made a major impact in the storyline, showing just how important setting is to the novel. In Book V, Jim is settled in New York City, thousands of times bigger than the town where he grew up. “I told Antonia I would come back, but life intervened, and it was twenty years before I kept my promise (205)” he writes. While he has become a successful lawyer, Antonia has remained in Black Hawk, and has a full family. The change in setting has affected the storyline to the point that Jim is a completely different person than he was when he was living in Black Hawk. The setting in these sections of the novel is represented by a picture of a city in the early 1910’s, which was when this part of the book took place. Compared to past settings, this is more industrial, built up, and less open. The quote ‘Optima dies prima fugit’ is a Latin phrase meaning ‘the good days are the first to flee’. This describes the nostalgia that Jim feels as he is writing this, the longing to be back on the farm in the open prairie, free of all tensions and stress. Overall, the setting in these sections of the book is represented by a city because Jim lives in New York, however he longs for his old life.
Dome Descriptive DetailsCather uses many descriptive details in the novel to place images in the readers’ minds. This allows her to take very simple scenes, such as Jim describing a snowfall, and turn them into such vivid images that one can picture themselves in that situation.
“ […] for more than anything else, I felt motion in thelandscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind,and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were asort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wildbuffalo were galloping, galloping (20).”
Dome Throughout the novel, Jim Burden (the novel is in his perspective) describes the beauty of the Nebraskan plains. He writes, “As I looked about me, I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running (20)”. Although he wrote these descriptions more than twenty years after he lived in a small farm town in Nebraska, he writes as if he was just there yesterday, showing that he feels nostalgic about Antonia and his childhood. The grass is important because it is one of the more vivid descriptions Jim provides in his writing. To represent the importance of the grass in the novel, we decided to have real grass as the floor in our museum. This grass is watered with an underground irrigation system, which runs at night to save visitors’ feet from getting wet. The grass is maintained by museum workers, and receives all the sunlight it needs from the skylight in the ceiling (look up!).
Dome Frame Story In the book, Cather uses the idea of an frame story as the backbone for her writing style.She begins talking about Jim and how he and an unknown narrator are conversingabout Antonia. Jim then says that he has recently been in contact with her and the This prompts a shift in the novel that takes the reader back into Jim’s childhood. This reminiscence also feeds on some of the major themes of the book such as nostalgia and how Jim slowly becomes attached to his past.unknown narrator urges him to channel his feelings into a writing piece.
BasementMr. Shimerda-The patriarch of the Bohemian immigrantfamily. A melancholy man given to artistic and scholarly pursuits, Mr. Shimerda feels very much out of place inforeign land. His depression eventually leads to suicide, leaving his family members to pick up the pieces and struggle to make a living on their own.
BasementRussian Pavel-Tall, gaunt, and nervous, Pavel isan immigrant who falls ill under the care of theShimerdas. He had been ostracized and forced to leave his native Russia after a frightful incident involving a wolf attack on a wedding party.
BasementWick Cutter-The leading moneylender in Black Hawk and a shady character.
BasementGaston Cleric-Jim’s tutor at the university in Lincoln. Cleric eventually moves on to a teaching position at Harvard University and brings Jim along with him. His prematuredeath from pneumonia has a strong effect on Jim.
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