'The best thing I've done is My Antonia,' recalled Willa Cather. 'I feel I've made a contribution to American letters with that book.' Set against the vast Nebraska prairie, Cather's elegiac novel features one of the most winning heroines in American fiction—Antonia Shimerda—a young woman whose strength and passion epitomize the triumphant vitality of this country's pioneers.
'If, as is often said, every novelist is born to write one thing, then the one thing that Willa Cather was born to write was first fully realized in My Antonia,' observed Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner. 'The prose is. . .flexible, evocative; the structure at once free and intricately articulated; the characters stretch into symbolic suggestiveness as naturally as trees cast shadows in the long light of a prairie evening; the theme is the fully exposed, complexly understood theme of the American orphan or exile, struggling to find a place between an Old World left behind and a New World not yet created. . . . No writer ever posed that essential aspect of the American experience more warmly, with more nostalgic lyricism, or with a surer understanding of what it means.'
I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the "hands" on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.
We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watchcharm, and for me a Life of Jesse James, which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.
Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from "across the water" whose destination was the same as ours.
"They can't any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say is 'We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.' She's not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she's as bright as a new dollar. Don't you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She's got the pretty brown eyes, too!"
This last remark made me bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to Jesse James. Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get diseases from foreigners.
I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.
I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with lanterns. I couldn't see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow from the fire-box, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform, encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. There was an old man, tall and stooped. Two half-grown boys and a girl stood holding oilcloth bundles, and a little girl clung to her mother's skirts. Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.
Another lantern came along. A bantering voice called out: "Hello, are you Mr. Burden's folks? If you are, it's me you're looking for. I'm Otto Fuchs. I'm Mr. Burden's hired man, and I'm to drive you out. Hello, Jimmy, ain't you scared to come so far west?"
I looked up with interest at the new face in the lanternlight. He might have stepped out of the pages of Jesse James. He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. As he walked about the platform in his high-heeled boots, looking for our trunks, I saw that he was a rather slight man, quick and wiry, and light on his feet. He told us we had a long night drive ahead of us, and had better be on the hike. He led us to a hitching-bar where two farm-wagons were tied, and I saw the foreign family crowding into one of them. The other was for us. Jake got on the front seat with Otto Fuchs, and I rode on the straw in the bottom of the wagon-box, covered up with a buffalo hide. The immigrants rumbled off into the empty darkness, and we followed them.
I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land-slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
I do not remember our arrival at my grandfather's farm sometime before daybreak, after a drive of nearly twenty miles with heavy work-horses. When I awoke, it was afternoon. I was lying in a little room, scarcely larger than the bed that held me, and the window-shade at my head was flapping softly in a warm wind. A tall woman, with wrinkled brown skin and black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew that she must be my grandmother. She had been crying, I could see, but when I opened my eyes she smiled, peered at me anxiously, and sat down on the foot of my bed.
"Had a good sleep, Jimmy?" she asked briskly. Then in a very different tone she said, as if to herself, "My, how you do look like your father!" I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she must often have come to wake him like this when he overslept. "Here are your clean clothes," she went on, stroking my coverlid with her brown hand as she talked. "But first you come down to the kitchen with me, and have a nice warm bath behind the stove. Bring your things; there's nobody about."
"Down to the kitchen" struck me as curious; it was always "out in the kitchen" at home. I picked up my shoes and stockings and followed her through the living-room and down a flight of stairs into a basement. This basement was divided into a dining-room at the right of the stairs and a kitchen at the left. Both rooms were plastered and whitewashed-the plaster laid directly upon the earth walls, as it used to be in dugouts. The floor was of hard cement. Up under the wooden ceiling there were little halfwindows with white curtains, and pots of geraniums and wandering Jew in the deep sills. As I entered the kitchen, I sniffed a pleasant smell of gingerbread baking. The stove was very large, with bright nickel trimmings, and behind it there was a long wooden bench against the wall, and a tin washtub, into which grandmother poured hot and cold water. When she brought the soap and towels, I told her that I was used to taking my bath without help.
"Can you do your ears, Jimmy? Are you sure? Well, now, I call you a right smart little boy."
It was pleasant there in the kitchen. The sun shone into my bath-water through the west half-window, and a big Maltese cat came up and rubbed himself against the tub, watching me curiously. While I scrubbed, my grandmother busied herself in the dining-room until I called anxiously, "Grandmother, I'm afraid the cakes are burning!" Then she came laughing, waving her apron before her as if she were shooing chickens.
She was a spare, tall woman, a little stooped, and she was apt to carry her head thrust forward in an attitude of attention, as if she were looking at something, or listening to something, far away. As I grew older, I came to believe that it was only because she was so often thinking of things that were far away. She was quick-footed and energetic in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill, and she often spoke with an anxious inflection, for she was exceedingly desirous that everything should go with due order and decorum. Her laugh, too, was high, and perhaps a little strident, but there was a lively intelligence in it. She was then fifty-five years old, a strong woman, of unusual endurance.
After I was dressed, I explored the long cellar next the kitchen. It was dug out under the wing of the house, was plastered and cemented, with a stairway and an outside door by which the men came and went. Under one of the windows there was a place for them to wash when they came in from work.
While my grandmother was busy about supper, I settled myself on the wooden bench behind the stove and got acquainted with the cat-he caught not only rats and mice, but gophers, I was told. The patch of yellow sunlight on the floor travelled back toward the stairway, and grandmother and I talked about my journey, and about the arrival of the new Bohemian family; she said they were to be our nearest neighbours. We did not talk about the farm in Virginia, which had been her home for so many years. But after the men came in from the fields, and we were all seated at the supper table, then she asked Jake about the old place and about our friends and neighbours there.
My grandfather said little. When he first came in he kissed me and spoke kindly to me, but he was not demonstrative. I felt at once his deliberateness and personal dignity, and was a little in awe of him. The thing one immediately noticed about him was his beautiful, crinkly, snow-white beard. I once heard a missionary say it was like the beard of an Arabian sheik. His bald crown only made it more impressive.
Grandfather's eyes were not at all like those of an old man; they were bright blue, and had a fresh, frosty sparkle. His teeth were white and regular-so sound that he had never been to a dentist in his life. He had a delicate skin, easily roughened by sun and wind. When he was a young man his hair and beard were red; his eyebrows were still coppery.
As we sat at the table, Otto Fuchs and I kept stealing covert glances at each other. Grandmother had told me while she was getting supper that he was an Austrian who came to this country a young boy and had led an adventurous life in the Far West among mining-camps and cow outfits. His iron constitution was somewhat broken by mountain pneumonia, and he had drifted back to live in a milder country for a while. He had relatives in Bismarck, a German settlement to the north of us, but for a year now he had been working for grandfather.
The minute supper was over, Otto took me into the kitchen to whisper to me about a pony down in the barn that had been bought for me at a sale; he had been riding him to find out whether he had any bad tricks, but he was a "perfect gentleman," and his name was Dude. Fuchs told me everything I wanted to know: how he had lost his ear in a Wyoming blizzard when he was a stage-driver, and how to throw a lasso. He promised to rope a steer for me before sundown next day. He got out his "chaps" and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design-roses, and true-lover's knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels.
Before we went to bed, Jake and Otto were called up to the living-room for prayers. Grandfather put on silver-rimmed spectacles and read several Psalms. His voice was so sympathetic and he read so interestingly that I wished he had chosen one of my favourite chapters in the Book of Kings. I was awed by his intonation of the word "Selah." "He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom He loved. Selah." I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.
Early the next morning I ran out-of-doors to look about me. I had been told that ours was the only wooden house west of Black Hawk-until you came to the Norwegian settlement, where there were several. Our neighbours lived in sod houses and dugouts-comfortable, but not very roomy. Our white frame house, with a storey and half-storey above the basement, stood at the east end of what I might call the farmyard, with the windmill close by the kitchen door. From the windmill the ground sloped westward, down to the barns and granaries and pig-yards. This slope was trampled hard and bare, and washed out in winding gullies by the rain. Beyond the corncribs, at the bottom of the shallow draw, was a muddy little pond, with rusty willow bushes growing about it. The road from the post-office came directly by our door, crossed the farmyard, and cruved round this little pond, beyond which it began to climb the gentle swell of unbroken prairie to the west. There, along the western sky-line, it skirted a great cornfield, much larger than any field I had ever seen. This cornfield, and the sorghum patch behind the barn, were the only broken land in sight. Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.
Excerpted from My Antonia by Willa Cather. Copyright © 1994 by Willa Cather. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Book
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to
enhance your group's reading of Willa Cather's My Antonia and The Professor's
House. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at--and talking
about--two novels that represent Cather's astonishing powers of narrative selection and
juxtaposition; her ability to create believably complex characters who take on mythic
dimensions in the reader's imagination, and the historical vision that could celebrate
the American past without minimizing its hardships and moral ambiguities.
About the Guide
Perhaps the most popular of Cather's novels, My Antonia is at once the intimate
portrait of an American heroine, an elegy for a vanished frontier, and the story of an
unconsummated love affair. Jim Burden, the narrator, meets Antonia Shimerda as a
child on the Nebraska prairie. He is an orphan and a Protestant, she the daughter of
ill-adapted Bohemian immigrants; her father will kill himself when he is broken by the
harshness and solitude of their new home. Jim and Antonia grow up together, and he
harbors vague and contradictory romantic yearnings toward her. But they are separated in
their youth and spend most of their lives apart. While Jim pursues his education and
becomes a lawyer for the railroad, Antonia goes into domestic service, survives a
near-rape, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless lover, and bears a baby out of
wedlock. Much of her story unfolds secondhand, as Jim gathers it from other sources.
They are reunited only briefly at the novel's end, and by then both of them are married,
Jim unhappily so.
What is it that makes Antonia a genuinely heroic figure? Partly, it is her ability
to emerge undiminished and unembittered from circumstances no less bleak than the ones
that killed her father, to improvise happiness in the same way she once improvised
stories. In the course of the novel, Antonia also becomes an embodiment of the
narrator's memory, which has the power to withstand time and redeem its losses. Of
course, it is not only Jim's memory that is in play: Antonia represents all the
strength, resilience, and unselfconscious nobility of a decisive moment in our nation's
past. The virtues that Cather associates with her heroine have either become obsolete or
have receded into our collective unconscious, but the sight of her is enough to reawaken
our memory of them: "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize
by instinct as universal and true....she still had that something which fires the
imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that
somehow revealed the meaning in common things." [p. 258]
About the Author
Willa Sibert Cather was born December 7, 1873, near Winchester, Virginia. When she was about ten years old her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where many of her novels and short stories are set. "I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything," she told an interviewer many years later. "It was a kind of erasure of personality."
Following her education at the University of Nebraska, where she at first studied medicine, Cather became a newspaperwoman and teacher in Pittsburgh. In 1906, she moved to New York City to work as an editor on McClure's Magazine. She eventually left journalism to devote herself to writing fiction full time. Her novels include Alexander's Bridge (1912), O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), Death Comes For the Archbishop (1927), Shadows on the Rock (1931), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).
Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, in New York City.
1. For discussion: My Antonia
The first narrator in My Antonia is an unnamed speaker who grew up with Jim Burden and meets him years later on a train. Jim tells his story in response to this mysterious figure, who disappears from the novel as soon as the Introduction is over. How does this first narrator's disappearance foreshadow other withdrawals within this novel, which at times resembles a series of departures? Why might Cather have chosen to frame her narrative in this fashion?
2. When Jim arrives in Nebraska, he sees "nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." [11-12] Yet at the novel's end that landscape is differentiated. It has direction and color--red grass, blue sky, dun-shaded bluffs. We are reminded of the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and of God's parting of the heavens from the earth. To what extent is My Antonia an American Genesis? What are its agents of creation and differentiation?
3. Just as My Antonia's setting is initially raw and featureless, its narrative at first seems haphazard: "'I didn't arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people's Antonia's name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn't any form.'"  Is Burden's description really accurate? Although the narrative proceeds chronologically, its structure is unconventional, as Antonia is present in only three of the five sections and much of her story unfolds via exposition. What effect does Cather produce by telling her story in this fashion?
4. One of the greatest difficulties facing the Shimerdas and other immigrant families is that posed by their lack of English, which seals them off from all but the most forthcoming of their neighbors. Yet even American-born arrivals to Nebraska find themselves set apart. As the narrator notes in the Introduction, "no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said."  What is the nature of this freemasonry? What experiences do the inhabitants of this world share that are alien--and perhaps incommunicable--to people raised elsewhere? Does the shared experience of the novel's pioneers end up counting for more than their linguistic and ethnic differences?
5. What is it that makes Mr. Shimerda unable to adapt to his new home and ultimately drives him to suicide? Is he simply too refined--too rooted in Europe--to endure the harshness and solitude of the prairie? Before we jump to too easy a conclusion, we might consider the fact that the novel's other suicide, Wick Cutter, is a crass, upwardly mobile small-town entrepreneur. What do these two deaths suggest about the prerequisites for surviving in Cather's world?
6. From their first meeting, when Jim begins to teach Antonia English, he serves as her instructor and occasional guardian. Yet he also seems in awe of Antonia. What is it that makes her superior to him? What does she possess that Jim doesn't? What makes her difference so desirable?
7. At times Jim's feelings towards Antonia suggest romantic infatuation, yet their relationship remains chaste. Nor does Jim ever become sexually involved with the alluring--and more available--Lena Lingard. Curiously, Antonia appears to disapprove of their flirtation. And, whether he is conscious of it or not, Jim seems wedded to the idea of Tony as a sexual innocent. Following the failed assault by Wick Cutter, "I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness."  How do you account for these characters' ambivalent and at times squeamish attitude toward sexuality? In what ways do they change when they marry and--in Antonia's case--bear children?
8. Just as it is possible to read Lena Lingard as Antonia's sensual twin, one can see the entire novel as consisting of doubles and repetitions. Antonia has two brothers, the industrious and amoral Ambrosch and the sweet-natured, mentally incompetent Marek. Wick Cutter's suicide echoes that of Mr. Shimerda. Even minor anecdotes have a way of mirroring each other. Just as the Russians Peter and Pavel are stigmatized because they threw a bride to a pursuing wolf pack, the hired hand Otto is burdened by an act of generosity on his voyage over to America, when the woman he is escorting ends up giving birth to triplets. Where else in the novel do events and characters mirror each other? What is the effect of this symmetry and its variations?
9. In one of her essays, Willa Cather observed, "I have not much faith in women in fiction." [cited in Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York, Vintage, 1991, p. 12] Yet in Antonia Cather has created a genuinely heroic woman. What perceived defects in earlier fictional heroines might Cather be trying to redeem in this novel? Do her female characters seem nobler, better, or more deeply felt than their male counterparts? In spite of this, why might Cather have chosen to make My Antonia' s narrator a man?
10. For her epigraph Cather uses a quote from Virgil: Optima dies...prima fugit: "The best days are the first to pass." How is this idea borne out within My Antonia? In what ways can the novel's early days, with their scenes of poverty, hunger and loss, be described as the best? What does Jim, the novel's presiding consciousness, lose in the process of growing up? Does Antonia lose it as well? How is this notion of lost happiness connected to Jim's observation: "That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great"?
11. Although My Antonia is elegiac in its tone--and has been used in high school curricula to convey a conservative view of the American past--it is also notable for its striking realism about gender and culture. Not only does the novel have a female protagonist who prevails in spite of male betrayal and abuse (and two secondary female characters who prosper without ever marrying), it also portrays the early frontier as a multicultural quilt in which Bohemians, Swedes, Austrians, and a blind African-American retain their ethnic identities without dissolving in the American melting pot. Significantly, at the novel's end Antonia has reverted to speaking Bohemian with her husband and children. How important are these themes to the novel's overall vision? Do they accurately reflect the history of the western frontier?
Comparing My Antonia and The Professor's House:
1. How does the small university town in The Professor's House resemble or differ from My Antonia's Black Hawk? To what extent are those differences due to the different historical eras in which the two novels are set? Read together, what kind of relationship do these novels posit between towns and the prairie? Which region does Cather seem to identify with the "best times" of My Antonia's Virgilian epigraph?
2. How do the female characters in The Professor's House compare with those in My Antonia? How do both sets of women confirm or challenge stereotypes about their gender? What significance do you see in the fact that Antonia marries relatively late, and her friends Lena and Tina not at all, while the St. Peter women have married early? What role does class play in Cather's treatment of her female characters?
3. Why is suicide a theme in both novels? What do Cather's suicides appear to have in common? Does she seem to associate the act with moral failure or mental breakdown or portray it as a natural, and even honorable, response to intolerable circumstances? What role did suicide play in the age and society in which Cather wrote? (You may want to look at such novels as Sister Carrie to see how some of her contemporaries treated the same theme.)
4. Given the evidence of these novels, how does Cather seem to view relations between the sexes? What prospects of happiness and fulfillment do they hold for both men and women? Which of her characters ends up happily married and for what reasons? Why do so many others--from Jim Burden to Godfrey St. Peter--end up regretting their attachments?
5. The Professor's House has as its epigraph, "A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it?...Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver." Although these words of Louie's describe a ring that Tom once gave Rosamund and thus allude to the abandoned cliff-dwelling where Tom presumably unearthed it, they may also refer to the structure that Cather uses in this novel. Discuss the way in which the author embeds Tom Outland's narrative within the professor's story. What similarity do you see between this strategy and the embedded narratives in My Antonia?
6. In both My Antonia and The Professor's House Cather uses two sorts of language, one conventional and expository, the other heightened and rhapsodically sensual, a language attuned to colors, fragrances, and grand effects of light and shadow. Where does she employ these different kinds of prose, and to what effect?
ABOUT THIS BOOK
About This Guide
Written in 1918, My Antonia by Willa Cather is a novel of America's great expansion westward, the immigrants' journey, and the ideal of Manifest Destiny. This teacher's guide uses the various literary and historical themes of the book to help develop critical thinking in the classroom. Although there are many themes to teach from My Antonia, this guide will focus on nostalgia, perspective, Manifest Destiny, and the undertone of religion.
When teaching about America's great expansion westward and the taming of the land, teachers may want to combine textbook work with a novel such as My Antonia. The novel can also be taught alongside other novels of the time period, including The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. This allows students to discover varying perspectives, themes, and content from an interdisciplinary perspective by yielding greater depth and understanding of the challenges and mindset of Westward Expansion.
The discussion and writing section of this guide divides My Antonia into reading assignments approximately 30 pages in length based on theme. It also provides a brief plot summary and questions for use in classroom discussion and writing. My Antonia is divided into an introduction and 5 books with shorter chapters within those books.
Note to Teachers: Combining novels in the classroom offers students a chance to explore topics in greater depth. It also allows students to make connections, think critically, and create hypotheses. The following ideas can be used for teaching My Antonia and The Ox-Bow Incident using interdisciplinary group work, research, and writing, or experiential learning techniques.
Book Groups. Divide the class into two groups - one for each novel. Each student would be assigned a specific task to perform in order for the group to function effectively, for example: reader, note-taker, presenter, energizer, etc. A specific question or aim for the day would serve as the focus for the day's lesson. For example, focus on a specific theme central to both novels (the role of the pioneer, expansion, time period, character relationships, and religion). Questions of the day may include: How is justice best served? How do characters tame an unsettled land? The groups would determine how their novel interprets the theme. To assess group work and share learned information, students should present their findings to the other book teams.
Interdisciplinary Research. Pose the following question to students: Did law and religion bring order to the West at the end of the 1800s? Students can research the historical concepts of the novels, such as Manifest Destiny and Habeas Corpus, by using historical and literary evidence.
Character Analysis. Characters in both novels react to the taming of the West in varying degrees. Have students create a scale of characters from most radical to least conservative. Then, have students compare and contrast the role of the characters in the novel. For example, Jim Burden and Mr. Davies or Ambrosch and Tetley could be compared and contrasted. Students should use evidence and quotes from the novel to defend their case.
The Authors. Are the authors' portrayals of Western America in the late 1800s accurate? Have students research the biography of the authors of My Antonia and The Ox-Bow Incident and compare their lives to photographs, news articles, and stories about life during that time period. Have students develop a thesis and answer the question posed using historical and literary evidence.
Artistic. Have students choose a pivotal moment in either novel and draw it. Students should write a reflection on why they thought that the selected moment was pivotal to the novel. Post the illustrations around the room.
Scene Depiction. Have students create a scene using the characters from the two novels together. The original scene could be based in the American West at the end of the 1800s or students could use a certain moment from either novel. For example, how would the grandfather from My Antonia convince Tetley not to lynch the three suspects in The Ox-Bow Incident? This would work best as a group activity. Have students act it out!
DISCUSSION AND WRITING
Reading Assignment #1 Introduction
My Antonia's introduction is written in an unidentified first-person voice. The author introduces the narrator of the novel, Jim Burden, and later disappears from the novel. Jim Burden's story is a manuscript of his memories of the Bohemian immigrant, AntoniaShimerda.
Questions - Theme: Author's Perspective, Emergence and Disappearance of Characters:
Who could be the author of the introduction? How does the introduction foreshadow the events, the mood, and the tone of the novel? Why do you think that Willa Cather chose to begin her novel in an unidentified first-person voice?
Reading Assignment #2
Book 1: The Shimerdas, Chapters I, II, III
At the start of the novel, Jim Burden is moving to his grandparents' farm near Black Hawk, Nebraska as a result of his parents' death. Once there, Jim learns that a new family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas, had moved into a home near Black Hawk. The Shimerdas' journey to their new home was difficult: they were cheated out of money upon purchasing their new farm, inhibited by language barriers, and struggled against the hardships of being a new immigrant in a strange and untamed land.
Questions - Theme: Perspective:
Compare and contrast Jim Burden's move out west with the Shimerda's move. How would the voice of the book differ if Mr. Shimerda, Jake, Antonia, or the grandmother wrote the first few chapters?
Reading Assignment #3
Book 1 The Shimerdas, Chapters IV, V, VI, VII, VIII
The untamed land of Nebraska is difficult for the new immigrant family, and Mr. Shimerda encounters great hardships. Mr. Shimerda's hopes brighten when he meets two Ukrainian friends, Peter and Pavel. The two Russian immigrants escaped the Ukraine and came to the United States after a tragic evening when an entire wedding party was overtaken by wolves. Also, in these chapters, Antonia and Jim Burden's relationship blossoms and develops around one of varying roles -- age, gender, strength, language, and origin.
Questions -- Theme: Nostalgia, Perspective:
What hardships does Mr. Shimerda face? How do Peter and Pavel help to lighten his depression? How does the story of Peter and Pavel in the Ukraine affect their new lives in the United States? What are the various factors that affect Jim and Antonia's relationship? How do the other characters' experiences change/affect their perspective on gender, age, education, language, and origin?
Reading Assignment #4
Book I: The Shimerdas, Chapters IX, X, XI, XII, XIII
In this section, two major concepts are in focus: religion and hardship. The Shimerdas are struggling during their first winter in Nebraska's countryside while the Burdens are enjoying a snowy and comfortable Christmas in the same region. The Shimerda's living conditions, food supply, and mental and physical health are in jeopardy. As a result, the Burdens take care of them. The Shimerdas, Catholics, and the Burdens, Protestants, find that differences in religion are overridden by the goodness of people.
Questions -- Theme: Religion:
How does religion play a part in setting the tone of My Antonia? Do religious differences divide or unite the Shimerdas and the Burdens? How do the hardships that the Shimerdas face during their first country winter and the family's strong faith in religion connect?
Reading Assignment #5
Book I: The Shimerdas, Chapters XIV, XV, XVI
During these few chapters, Mr. Shimerda commits suicide, and this act sets in place the defining moment of the novel. It is believed that Mr. Shimerda died of homesickness. Religion plays a heavy role during these chapters as the characters of the book discuss various options in how to bury and conduct the funeral of a suicide victim. It is decided by Mrs. Shimerda that Mr. Shimerda would be buried at a point where roads converge.
Questions -- Theme: Religion, Nostalgia:
How does religion determine the proper way to bury Mr. Shimerda and how does the country determine what is proper? Why is it significant that Mr. Shimerda is buried at a crossroads? How do the grandfather and Mrs. Shimerda have different views on the significance of being buried at a crossroads?
Reading Assignment #6
Book I: The Shimerdas, Chapters XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX
The death of Mr. Shimerda transforms Antonia's role in the family. In Jim Burden's view, her possibilities for education and "appropriate" work for a young woman are now limited. Antonia's relationship with Jim becomes fragile as he sees her succumb to Ambrosch's (her brother) and Mrs. Shimerda's desires for Antonia's life. Antonia becomes hardened as a result of the difficult farm labor and breaking of sod.
Questions -- Theme: Perspective:
How does hardship change a person? How does Antonia change once her father dies? How about the Shimerda family? Are Jim's transformed feelings for Antonia justified? Why or why not?
Reading Assignment #7
Book II: The Hired Girls, Chapters I, II, III
As Jim's grandparents age, the Burdens move to the city of Black Hawk to escape the hardships of the farm and country life. The Burdens make an arrangement to bring Antonia to Black Hawk as hired help of the Harlings, who live next door. This arrangement allows Antonia to escape the hardships of the farm, the lowly expectations of her family, and to develop skills in housework. These chapters are filled with happiness and comfort, and during this time, the reader experiences the budding of Antonia and Jim's relationship.
Questions -- Theme: Perspective, Appearance and Disappearance:
My Antonia focuses on the right thing to do. Antonia does what the Burdens feel is proper and right. How would the voice of these chapters change if Antonia were writing the novel and instead of Jim? My Antonia is also a novel where numerous characters appear and disappear. In the midst of chapters of contentment, how do the appearance and disappearance of characters lend to the characters' joy and/or grief?
Reading Assignment #8
Book II: The Hired Girls, Chapters IV, V, VI, VII, VIII
Lena Lingard, the beautiful daughter of Norwegian immigrants, moves from the country to Black Hawk and visits Antonia and the Harlings. Lena has been hired to assist in dressmaking. Many stories surround Lena concerning her immoral and promiscuous nature. These chapters of My Antonia are also the climax of joy; dancing, music, parties, and stories of visitors inhabit their lives.
Questions -- Theme: Author's Perspective, Appearance and Disappearance:
What does Lena's character resemble or signify? How do the entry and disappearance of characters of joy and gaiety affect the mood of the novel? What might characters such as Samson symbolize? Does any gloom exist among the gaiety of Black Hawk? Explain.
Reading Assignment #9
Book II: The Hired Girls, Chapters IX, X, XI, XII
Country girls who come to town in order to earn money to send to their families on the farm come to be known as hired girls.This act allows their younger siblings to earn an education while the older girls learn a trade. There is tension between the townspeople and the hired girls; farm life emboldens and strengthens the hired girls' demeanor. The hired girls also spend time going to dance clubs at night to meet boys. Antonia, now a hired girl, gets into trouble at a dance club one evening, and she is asked to leave the Harlings. As a result, she moves to the dysfunctional home of the Cutters. The hired girls become close friends of Jim, and they convince him that he has incredible intellectual and professional potential, but Jim continues to enjoy the evenings at the dances as much as the girls do.
Questions -- Theme: Perspective:
What is a hired girl? Why might the townspeople dislike them? Why might an immigrant or a foreigner be disliked? Compare and contrast the Harlings' and the Cutters' home life. How do the gender roles differ between Mr. and Mrs. Harling and Mr. and Mrs. Cutter?
Reading Assignment #10
Book II: The Hired Girls, Chapters XIII, XIV, XV
The last chapters of The Hired Girls are filled with feelings of nostalgia as Jim and Antonia reminisce about Antonia's father, the old country, and their younger years. Jim tells Antonia that he is certain that Antonia's father's spirit went back to Bohemia after his death. Jim graduates high school and prepares to go to college. In his commencement address, Jim discusses his emotional successes and dedicates the speech to Antonia's father.
Questions -- Theme: Nostalgia:
Jim's commencement address focuses on feelings of nostalgia and emotional success after the death of Antonia's father. What is emotional success? Why do you think that the event was an emotional success for Jim Burden? How do feelings of nostalgia affect the characters of Jim and Antonia and their relationship with each other? Is memory a reliable source of the past? How do memories mold and shape us?
Reading Assignment #11
Book III: Lena Lingard, Chapters I, II, III, IV
Jim goes to Lincoln College in Nebraska and opens his mind to new ideas. Lena Lingard moves to Lincoln and visits Jim. Lena and Jim spend much time together discovering the arts and as a result, become close. Jim and Lena finally part because they realize that it is not healthy for them to be in contact.
Questions -- Theme: Author's Perspective:
A whole book is dedicated to Lena Lingard yet the book is entitled My Antonia. Is My Antonia a book about Antonia? Why/why not? What might the author's intentions be in dedicating a book to Lena Lingard?
Reading Assignment #12
Book IV: The Pioneer Woman's Story, Chapters I, II, III, IV
Jim hears disturbing news about Antonia. She has given birth to a child, out of wedlock, by Larry Donovan, a crook who left Antonia to raise the child alone. As a result, Antonia moves back to her home in the country to raise the child. Jim goes to the country to visit Antonia. Again, Antonia and Jim exude feelings of nostalgia as they discuss her father and his grave. Jim and Antonia discuss the differences in their character and decide that although they must be apart, they will always be a part of each other. This is the last time that Jim and Antonia see each other for twenty years.
Questions -- Theme: Nostalgia, Author's Perspective:
Why do you think that this book is entitled the Pioneer Woman's Story? Why would the author choose to have Antonia's father recalled whenever Jim and Antonia meet?
Reading Assignment #13
Book V: Cuzak's Boys, Chapters I, II
Twenty years later, Jim visits Antonia. After many years of hardships and eleven children, Antonia becomes a battered woman physically, but she is still the same fiery woman inside. The last book conjures up the many memories of the past, through reminiscing and photographs. Antonia's children are named after characters of the previous chapters. Antonia closes the book as the backbone of her family, embodying the spirit of her family.
Questions -- Theme: Nostalgia, Appearance and Disappearance of Characters:
The novel My Antonia is filled with many symbols -- roads, paths, nostalgia, and the appearance and disappearance of many characters. What do these concepts symbolize? How do the characteristics of Antonia's children resemble Antonia, Jim, and/or the book? What characters do not disappear at allfrom the book? Why?
The main historical attribute of My Antonia is the subtle presence of the concept of Manifest Destiny. (It is recommended to teach the concept of Manifest Destiny before beginning this project.) To introduce an interdisciplinary project on Manifest Destiny, teachers may want to place the following quote on the board and ask students to respond in writing:
"For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be."(Book V, Chapter III)
You may ask students to respond literally to this quote. After completing this introductory assignment, have students find evidence of Manifest Destiny throughout the novel by finding one quote relating to the concept. These can be found through religious references and discussion of motivation behind Westward Expansion. They should quote the reference and page number. Have students write the quote on a piece of large paper. Place the quotes as artifacts around the classroom. Have students walk around the room and react to the quotes silently and in writing. After this is completed, have students discuss as a whole or in groups what they found during their walking tour of quotes.
Have students build a family tree of the numerous characters in the novel -- starting with Antonia and Jim or the Burdens, Shimerdas, and/or Harlings. Students should write next to the characters' names a short description that defines the role of the characters in the novel.
Creative Writing Exercise.
Have students choose someone in their lives -- past or present -- who has made a large impact on them. Have students make a spider's web map of 3-5 indelible moments/memories of the person that they have selected. Have students choose one of the memories of that person and tell the story of that person in writing. For more advanced writers, have students focus on varying themes that are present in My Antonia as a base for their story.
freemasonry - n., natural fellowship based on some common experience
suffrage - n., the right of voting
missionary -- n., a person undertaking the work of a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work
sod -- n., the grass and forb-covered surface of the ground
Bohemian - n., a native or inhabitant of Bohemia
tether - n., the limit of one's strength or resources
mutton - n., the flesh of a mature sheep used for food
tallow - n., the white nearly tasteless solid rendered fat of cattle and sheep used chiefly in soap, candles, and lubricants
corral -- n., a pen or enclosure for confining or capturing livestock
Providence -- n., God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny (This term is important in introducing the concept of Manifest Destiny.)
provisions -- n., a stock of needed materials or supplies
squall -- v., to cry out raucously
intercessor - n., prayer, petition, or entreaty in favor of another
Prussia - n., historical region - North Germany bordering on Baltic Sea
cholera -- n., any of several diseases of humans and domestic animals usually marked by severe gastrointestinal symptoms
Sacrament - n., a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality
homestead -- n., a tract of land acquired from U.S. public lands by filing a record and living on and cultivating the tract
prospect - v., to explore an area especially for mineral deposits
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
Ophir Lehavy is a graduate of Teachers' College, Columbia University, with a Masters degree in Education and is a former NYC high school teacher. Her greatest joy in the classroom was creating innovative projects and assessments to energize her students.