Willa Cather’s My Antonia begins in the voice of an unnamed narrator who “introduces” not only the novel but also Jim Burden, whose first-person narration begins with chapter one. When these two “old friends” meet on a train crossing the plains of Iowa, they reminisce together about growing up in a small town on the Nebraska prairie, “buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate.” Both have long since moved away from the prairie to New York, but their recollections of childhood remain sharp, especially their memories of one “central figure,” the “Bohemian girl” named Antonia. “To speak her name,” the narrator writes, “was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one’s brain.” The narrator challenges Jim to write down all that he can remember of Antonia, and the manuscript that he creates he calls “My Antonia.”
B Book I: The Shimerdas
Jim Burden’s story begins with a journey, after the death of his parents, to the home of his grandparents in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Jim learns from the train conductor that a family in the “immigrant car” are traveling to the same town, and in the station he hears, for he first time, the sounds of “a foreign tongue.” At the station Jim and his traveling companion, Jake Marpole, are picked up by his grandfather’s hired man, Otto Fuchs. Riding in the back of a wagon through the broad prairie land, a land that seems to be “outside man’s jurisdiction,” Jim feels “erased, blotted out,” separated from even the spirits of his deceased parents.
Jim is soon comfortably settled in his grandparents’ home and he begins to explore the strange environment of waving red grass that surrounds him there. After the family meets their “new Bohemian neighbors,” the Shimerdas, Jim quickly becomes Antonia Shimerda’s friend and language tutor. But he is less comfortable with the other Shimerdas, especially Antonia’s angry and arrogant brother, Ambrosch, and her jealous, deceitful mother. In spite of frequent tensions between the Burdens and the Shimerdas, Jim and Antonia become close companions while exploring the countryside together. Antonia’s respect for the younger Jim grows after he kills an enormous rattlesnake; Jim’s understanding of what Antonia left behind in Bohemia deepens when they revive a dying cricket that reminds her of her Bohemian childhood.
Memories of life in the “old country” also afflict the Russians, Pavel and Peter, as well as Mr. Shimerda. Pavel and Peter are haunted by the actions of their past: Pavel dies soon after he unburdens his mind to Mr. Shimerda about throwing a bride and groom from their wedding sleigh to a pack of wolves. For Mr. Shimerda, leaving his former life in Bohemia takes the spirit out of him; when Jim first sees him, he thinks his face looks “like ashes-like something from which all the warmth and light had died out.” Although Mr. Shimerda pleads with Jim to teach Antonia English, so that she might adjust to life in a new place, he never finds happiness or contentment in America and finally kills himself. After his death, Jim imagines Mr. Shimerda’s spirit traveling across the prairie once more, all the way to Baltimore, then over “the great wintry ocean” and back to his homeland.
After the local Norwegian church refuses to allow the burial of Mr. Shimerda in their graveyard, a grave is dug, at the demand of Mrs. Shimerda, directly on the corner of their property, which she believes will be a crossroads some day. Her insistence on this Bohemian custom is granted, but Mr. Burden remarks, “If she thinks she will live to see the people of this country ride over that old man’s head, she is mistaken.” While the strongly Protestant Mr. Burden disapproves of the Catholic rituals of the Shimerdas and of a new Bohemian homesteader, Anton Jelinek, he respects the strength of their faith, and he offers a moving prayer at Mr. Shimerda’s graveside. Jim begins attending the country school and asks Antonia to do so with him, but she refuses because of her increased responsibilities on the farm. Although she admired her father’s learning, she also takes pride in her strength and ability on the farm and in helping to “make this land one good farm.” Finally, when Jim asks her why she is working so hard and emulating her brother Ambrosch, Antonia responds, “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
C Book II: The Hired Girls
Three years after Jim’s arrival, his grandfather moves the family from the farm into Black Hawk, and they quickly come to feel “like town people.” Jim’s grandmother convinces the family next door, the Harlings, to hire Antonia as a live-in cook. In town, Antonia renews her friendship with Jim and begins to socialize with the other “hired girls,” especially Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball. To Jim and to the girls, town life offers more interesting diversions than farm life, including the visit by a negro piano player, Blind d’Arnault, and the dance pavilion set up by traveling dance instructors. Antonia’s enthusiasm for dancing leads Mr. Harling to accuse her of earning “a reputation for being free and easy,” and he demands that she stop attending dances or find new employment. Antonia refuses to yield to his demand and leaves the Harlings to work for Wick Cutter, a disreputable money-lender who was “notoriously dissolute with women.” When Jim’s grandmother suspects that Cutter will assault Antonia, Jim takes her place for one night and is savagely attacked by Cutter. Jim grows increasingly restless in Black Hawk, becoming contemptuous of the narrow, small-minded ways of the townsfolk. After graduating from high school and exhausting the limited possibilities for diversion in the town, Jim resolves to study through the summer so that he can leave for college as soon as possible.
D Book III: Lena Lingard
At the university, Jim is introduced to “the world of ideas” by his professor and advisor, Gaston Cleric. Lena Lingard, who has set up a dressmaking shop in Lincoln, visits Jim one night and the two quickly renew their friendship. Jim’s attraction to Lena grows as they attend the theater and spend more time together, but at the urging of Gaston Cleric he resolves to leave Lincoln for Harvard to continue his education. Before he informs Lena of his decision, she tells him that she never wishes to marry, stating that she has experienced enough of the trials of “family life” to last her a lifetime.
E Book IV: The Pioneer Woman’s Story
Returning to Black Hawk for a summer before entering law school, Jim seeks out information about Antonia, who has returned to her family after being deserted, with child, by her fiance, Larry Donovan. Jim reflects on the unexpected success of the other “hired girls,” Lena and Tiny Soderball, and he feels “bitterly disappointed” in Antonia for “becoming an object of pity.” Jim visits the Widow Steavens, who lives on the Burden’s old farm, and she recounts Antonia’s sad story. Finally, Jim visits Antonia herself, who is working in the fields once again. They express their deep feelings of attachment to each other, and Jim leaves with a promise to return.
F Book V: Cuzak’s Boys
Jim fulfills his promise after twenty years, finally returning to visit Antonia in spite of his fears of finding her “aged and broken.” He finds her aged but not broken, instead glowing with the “fire of life,” delighted with her husband and happy children, and proud of their productive farm. Jim takes pleasure in watching Antonia interact with her children, “conscious of a kind of physical harmony” around her, and he recognizes the powerful place that Antonia holds in his own mind. Antonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade-that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one’s first primer: Antonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Antonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father’s grave in the snowstorm; Antonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. … [S]he 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. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. …
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
After leaving Antonia and her family with a promise that he will return, Jim stands on the “old road” outside of Black Hawk that he and Antonia had traveled as children, now confident that this “road of Destiny … was to bring us together again.”