A Jim Burden
As narrator, Jim Burden is Cather’s persona-that is, he serves as a stand-in for the author. He comes to Nebraska at about the same age and time that Cather moved west with her family; he lives on a farm for a time with his grandparents just as Cather did; and Jim’s neighbors, the Shimerdas, may have been inspired by the Cathers’ Bohemian neighbors, the Sadileks. As an adult, Jim Burden returns to Nebraska just as Cather returned to Red Cloud and visited her friend Annie Sadilek, who was then surrounded by a large brood of children and happily married to a Czech farmer (Cuzak in the novel).
Jim is not merely Cather’s voice. He is a full-bodied character with a nature and point of view of his own. Although sensitive, dreamy, and somewhat alienated, he is also conventional, a product of his own social class and family aspirations. But it is not simply class attitudes that keep a wedge between him and Antonia. He is at turns intrigued by Antonia’s will-power and vitality and disgusted by her strong headedness and outspoken nature. People talk about him, that there is something strange about his lack of interest in girls of his own age and class and his lively relationships with the hired girls, the daughters of immigrants. Yet, once scolded by his grandmother, he stops socializing with them at the dances. While attending college in Lincoln, he starts a relationship with Lena Lingard. Yet he accepts her declaration that she will never marry and eventually marries someone else. Returning to Black Hawk, he learns of Antonia’s betrayal by Larry Donovan. Bothered that she apparently threw herself away so cheaply, he is also aware how much she means to him. Again, he goes away. This time he does not see her for another twenty years. By then, seeing Antonia in the midst of her large family, Jim realizes the sterility of his own life and marriage and the vitality that is symbolized by Antonia. However, despite his admiration for and familiarity with Antonia, he cannot come any closer to her than as a sympathetic observer.
B Antonia Shimerda
Antonia is fourteen when she first meets Jim and gives him a ring. Her warmth and impulsiveness are immediately evident, the very characteristics that both intrigue and frighten Jim. She is both a realist and a loyalist, who makes excuses for her mother’s behavior but does not complain about her. Her father wants to develop her loftier side: “Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my An-tonia!” he tells Mrs. Burden. But his suicide puts an end to such refined aspirations. Antonia’s hardy side is developed instead. She works in the fields, proud to be competing with men. Her physicality makes her great; she belongs to the earth. At the end of Book One, Antonia corrects Jim’s blindness to their difference in circumstance: “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
Hired out to the Harlings, she learns how things are done in a well-ordered American home, things her own overwhelmed and disappointed mother could not have taught her. A basic harmony exists between Antonia and Mrs. Harling: they have strong, independent natures, and they know what they like, and they love children, animals, and music, as well as rough play and digging in the earth. As Jim says, “Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating.” But Antonia is young, high-tempered, and stubborn. When she has to choose between her work at the Harlings and dancing, she chooses dancing. “A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won’t be any tent next year. I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls.”
Pregnant, Antonia is abandoned at the altar by the worthless Larry Donovan. Decades later, when Jim returns for a visit, he finds her the mother of a large, loving, demonstrative family. Falling asleep in the barn, he thinks, “Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade … She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true … She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination … All the strong things of her heart came out in her body … She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
C Mrs. Emmaline Burden
Jim’s sturdy grandmother runs an orderly, proper household, a counterpoint to the Shimerda’s animal-like cave. Awareness of differences makes her generally tolerant and concerned. The narrow attitudes of the Norwegians who won’t let Mr. Shimerda be buried in their cemetery offend her: “If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we’ll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded.” But she has her own biases. She is contemptuous of Mrs. Shimerda’s gift of dried mushrooms, declaring “I shouldn’t want to eat anything that had been shut up for months with old clothes and goose pillows.” And she is conventional too. She worries that people will say she hasn’t brought Jim up correctly because he dances with the country girls. And when he is at school, she informs him only of those friends she approves of. She does not let him know that Lena Lingard is in Lincoln.
D Mr. Burden
Grandfather Burden is reserved, dignified, but occasionally outspoken. Religious and broadminded, he accepts that “The prayers of all good people are good.” Grandfather does not join the feud between his hired men and the Shimerdas and continues to help Ambrosch and Antonia with advice and materials.
E Jake Marpole
Jake is the farmhand who accompanies Jim on his train ride from Virginia to Nebraska. An illiterate and provincial, “mountain boy,” he thinks foreigners spread diseases. Lured by Otto’s tales of western wealth, Jake thinks a silver mine is waiting for him in Colorado. When the Burdens move to town, he follows his dream there. Otto’s letter from the Yankee Girl Mine tells that Jake has recuperated from mountain fever, but when Jim writes back, the letter is returned unclaimed.
F Otto Fuchs
Otto, the Burden’s hired hand, is an Austrian immigrant who has been a cowboy, a stage-driver, a bartender, and a miner. He impresses Jim with his Jesse James look and regales him with stories of outlaws and desperadoes. Like Jake, he is a hard worker with nothing to show for it. When the Burdens move to town, Otto goes out West in search of his fortune and, except for one letter, is not heard from again.
G Mrs. Shimerda
When we first meet Antonia’s mother, she is hugging her trunk “as if it were a baby.” Possessions are dear to her and she bears the deprivations of immigrant life poorly. “A conceited, boastful old thing,” as Jim calls her, is not even humbled by misfortune; nevertheless she is capable of gratitude. She gives Mrs. Burden mushrooms, a hoarded treasure brought from Bohemia; but poignantly, what she values has no worth at all to Americans. Typically, when Mrs. Shimerda almost washes Antonia’s baby with harsh soap, we don’t know whether to attribute her action to ignorance, to disregard, or even to hostility. It is as Mrs. Burden says, “A body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in ’em.”
H Mr. Shimerda
Mr. Shimerda, with his iron-grey hair, well-shaped hands, and silk neck cloth, has a genteel, dignified bearing, a shadow from a different world. He was a musician, older and of higher social rank than his wife, whom he married honorably. Mr. Shimerda would have preferred to remain in Bohemia, where he made a good living and was well-respected, but his wife insisted the family move to America, where opportunity is greater. After Mr. Shimerda dies, Jim imagines his spirit travelling back to his much-loved homeland. While Mrs. Shimerda favors Ambrosch, Mr. Shimerda feels closest to Antonia. Considerate and well-groomed even in his suicide, Mr. Shimerda’s memory is cherished by both Antonia and Jim throughout their lives.
I Ambrosch Shimerda
The oldest of the four Shimerda children, Ambrosch is ambitious and hardworking. He works Antonia hard and sometimes rents her out to other farmers. When she goes to work for the Harlings, Ambrosch tries to get her entire salary sent to him. Although he is not a generous man, he is deeply concerned for his father and spends money on masses for him. One of Antonia’s sons is named after her brother Ambrosch.
One of the two Russian men whose farm Mr. Shimerda visits. Short, curly-haired, bow-legged, and as “fat as butter,” he is friendly and shares his milk and garden produce with the Shimerdas. He loves his new country, where anyone who can care for a cow can own one-not just rich men. He is deeply in debt to Wick Cutter, and shortly after his friend Pavel’s death, must sell his farm to pay his mortgage. Peter ends up leaving America to work as a railway cook.
Sickly and sad, Pavel’s “generally excited and rebellious manner” supports rumors that he was once an anarchist. On his death bed, Pavel tells Mr. Shimerda about a crime he committed in his youth. In Russia, he had saved his own life by throwing his friends, a new bride and groom, from a sleigh to hungry wolves that chased them. This led him and Peter to come to America. Shortly after this confession, Pavel dies from a strain brought on by hard labor.
L Wick Cutter
The Black Hawk money lender fleeces Russian Peter and many others. He talks of his religious nature and contributions to Protestant churches, yet is known as a gambler and womanizer. His crafty plot to assault Antonia, who comes to work for him and his wife, is thwarted by Mrs. Burden and Jim.
M Mrs. Harling
The town neighbor of the Burdens, Mrs. Harling is encouraged to hire Antonia. Jim describes a basic harmony between the two; despite their different backgrounds, they are both strong-willed, loving, down-to-earth women. Antonia flourishes at the Burdens and learns how to run a household and to be a good mother. Mrs. Harling is very hurt when Antonia chooses to leave the Harling family in order to keep attending the Saturday night dances. However, she does not try to change the mind of either her husband or Antonia, and eventually forgives her. As Jim Burden describes her, she is “quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul.”
N Mr. Christian Harling
A grain merchant and cattle-buyer who lives next door to the Burdens in Black Hawk, Mr. Harling is autocratic and imperial. His reputation as the town’s leading businessman helps persuade Ambrosch to allow Antonia to work for the family. When he catches a boy trying to kiss Antonia, he has Mrs. Harling issue an ultimatum that she must quit the dances or leave the Harling’s house.
O Frances Harling
The oldest Harling daughter, Frances helps her father in his business, is familiar with all the farm people, and has a keen eye for both business and people. As Jim’s friend she tells him, “I expect I know the country girls better than you do. You always put a kind of glamour over them. The trouble with you, Jim, is that you’re a romantic.”
P Charley Harling
The only Harling son, older than Jim by two years, Charley is indulged and is a favorite of Antonia, a fact that makes Jim jealous. He goes to Annapolis and serves on a battleship.
Q Lena Lingard
Norwegian-born Lena is one of the “hired girls,” immigrant daughters who work in Black Hawk to earn money for their farm families. Outgoing and pretty, she is both a friend and rival of Antonia’s. While working in Lincoln as a dressmaker, she diverts Jim from his college studies. Although his relationship with her matures him, he returns East to attend Harvard. Never married, Lena is a flirt who gives her heart away but keeps her head for business. Her experiences helping her mother run the household as a child have decided her against marriage: “I’ve seen a good deal of married life, and I don’t care for it.” She becomes a successful dressmaker and even as an older woman remains stylish. It is Lena who persuades Jim to visit Antonia after twenty years.
R Tiny Soderball
Another hired girl, Tiny works at the Boys’ Home Hotel in Black Hawk. She starts a lodging-house in Seattle and later helps found Dawson City during the gold rush in Alaska. After a Swede whom she had befriended died and left his claim to her, she returned a rich woman to San Francisco. But by then, Tiny had lost the ability to be interested in anything.
S Blind Samson d’Arnault
Blind d’Arnault, a Negro musician, comes to Black Hawk. He was born in the South, “where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted,” but was given encouragement by his white mistress after his incredible musical talent was discovered. His music brings excitement to Jim’s life and contrasts to the dull Nebraska winter. Jim thinks when d’Arnault plays he looks like an “African god of pleasure.”
T Mrs. Vanni
Along with her husband, Mrs. Vanni brings the trends and style of the world to Black Hawk. The excitement generated in their dance pavilion affects all the groups in town: the town ladies send their daughters to Mrs. Vanni’s dancing classes, while the country girls and boys and working men enjoy the nightly dances. The Progressive Euchre Club arranges exclusive use of the tent on Tuesday and Friday nights but Jim prefers Saturday nights, when the country boys and girls joined the hired girls.
U Sylvester Lovett
Sylvester, a cashier at his father’s bank, also prefers the Saturday night dances with the hired girls. He was especially crazy about Lena. Jim says, “In my ingenuousness I hoped that Sylvester would marry Lena, and thus give all the country girls a better position in town.” When he marries a respectable widow instead, Jim is contemptuous of him.
V Gaston Cleric
Jim’s Latin teacher in Lincoln awakens his mind and makes the classics come alive for him. Jim believes that Cleric “narrowly missed being a great poet,” but spends all his creative energy in his lectures. It is on his account that Jim goes to Harvard.
W Anton Cuzak
Antonia’s husband had made several bad decisions in his youth in Vienna and in America. He finally comes to Black Hawk to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek. When he meets Antonia, he finds exactly the kind of girl he had always wanted. Lena thinks he is the perfect partner for Antonia: “He isn’t a hustler, but a rough man would never have suited Tony.” Anton also loves his children and has an artistic sense; he is very fond of music, just as Antonia’s father was.
X Anton Jelinek
A young Bohemian settler, Jelinek comes to help his fellow countrymen after Mr. Shimerda’s death. “Everything about him was warm and spontaneous,” Jim says, and he impresses the Burdens with a tale of religious faith from his youth. It is his cousin, Anton Cuzak, who comes to Black Hawk and marries the disgraced Antonia.
Y Peter Krajiek
The first Bohemian settler in Black Hawk, Krajiek provides land and supplies for the Shimerdas’ homestead-at a grossly inflated price. Krajiek takes advantage of the family in every way he can, even though he is distantly related to Mrs. Shimerda. After Mr. Shimerda’s suicide, Krajiek “behaved like a guilty man,” and Jim believes he may feel some remorse in addition to his fear.
Z Mrs. Molly Gardener
Owner of Black Hawk’s hotel, Mrs. Gardener is the best-dressed woman in town but “seemed indifferent to her possessions,” as Jim says. Nevertheless, she is cold and rare is the guest who is given the privilege of speaking with her. She runs the business while her mild-mannered husband greets guests. It is while she is out of town that there is an impromptu dance at the hotel with Blind d’Arnault playing.