My Ántonia

This article is about the novel by Willa Cather. For the 1995 film adaptation, see My Antonia (film).
My Ántonia

First edition with rare dustjacket
Author Willa Cather
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher Houghton Mifflin (Boston)
Publication date
Pages 175
OCLC 30894639
813/.52 20
LC Class PS3505.A87 M8
Preceded by The Song of the Lark

My Ántonia (/ˈæntəniə/ AN-tə-nee-ə)[1] is a novel published in 1918 by American writer Willa Cather, considered one of her best works. It is the final book of her "prairie trilogy" of novels, preceded by O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark.

The novel tells the stories of an orphaned boy from Virginia, Jim Burden, and the elder daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants, Ántonia Shimerda, who are each brought as children to be pioneers in Nebraska towards the end of the 19th century. Both the pioneers who first break the prairie sod for farming, as well as of the harsh but fertile land itself, feature in this American novel. The first year in the very new place leaves strong impressions in both children, affecting them lifelong.

This novel is considered Cather's first masterpiece. Cather was praised for bringing the American West to life and making it personally interesting.


Overview of characters in novel as social network
Jim Burden
The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Jim grows up in Black Hawk, Nebraska from age 10 and becomes a successful lawyer in New York City.
Josiah and Emmaline Burden
Jim's grandparents, who live on a farm in Nebraska. Mrs. Burden is 55 when her grandson arrives. This is the first time they see him, having moved to Nebraska ten years earlier. Mr. Burden is a religious Protestant and a successful farmer, who becomes a deacon in the Baptist church when they move to town.
Jake Marpole
Farm hand from Virginia at the Burden place.
Otto Fuchs
Farm hand from Austria at the Burden place.
Ántonia "Tony" Shimerda
The bold and free-hearted young Bohemian girl who moves with her family to Black Hawk, Nebraska. Her name is always pronounced as her father said it, (/ˈæntəniə/ AN-tə-nee-ə).
Mr. and Mrs. Shimerda
Ántonia's immigrant parents from Bohemia.
Ambrosch, Marek and Yulka
Ántonia's brothers and sister.
Anton Cuzak
Ántonia's husband and father of their ten children. He accepted her daughter Martha, born when Ántonia's first love deceived and deserted her, leaving her with child and socially disgraced.
Lena Lingard
Hired girl come from the countryside to work as a dressmaker in Black Hawk.
Tiny Soderball
Hired girl who came from the countryside to work at the Gardener Hotel in Black Hawk. She opens a sailor's boardinghouse in Seattle, then makes her fortune in the Klondike gold rush, by feeding the gold miners, working her own claim and becoming a founder of the town of Dawson City in the Yukon. Then she settles in San Francisco, bringing Lena to settle there as well.
Gaston Cleric
Jim's teacher in Lincoln at the University of Nebraska and at Harvard.
Mrs. Harling and her family
Norwegian immigrant neighbor to the Burdens when they move to town, she hires Ántonia, age 17, as housekeeper for her, her husband Christian, and their children, Frances, Charley, Julia, Sally and Nina.

Minor characters include: Peter and Pavel, Ole Benson, Mr. and Mrs. Cutter, Widow Steavens, Larry Donovan, Anton Jelinek, Ántonia's children (Martha, Rudolph, Anna, Yulka, Ambrosch, Leo, Charley Jan, Lucie, Nina are named).


Cather chose a first-person narrator because she felt that novels depicting deep emotion, such as My Ántonia, were most effectively narrated by a character in the story.[2] The novel is divided into sections called Books: I The Shimerdas, II The Hired Girls, III Lena Lingard, IV The Pioneer Woman's Story, V Cuzak's Boys.

Plot summary

Orphaned Jim Burden rides the trains from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska, where he will live with his paternal grandparents. Jake, a farmhand from Virginia, rides with the 10-year-old boy. On the same train, headed to the same destination, is the Shimerda family from Bohemia. Jim lives with his grandparents in the home they have built, helping as he can with chores to ease the burden on the others. The home has the dining room and kitchen downstairs, like a basement, with small windows at the top of the walls, an arrangement quite different from Jim’s home in Virginia. The sleeping quarters and parlor are at ground level. The Shimerda family paid for a homestead which proves to have no home on it, just a cave in the earth, and not much of the land broken for cultivation. The two families are nearest neighbors to each other in a sparsely settled land. Ántonia, the elder daughter in the Shimerda family, is a few years older than young Jim. The two are friends from the start, helped by Mrs. Shimerda asking that Jim teach both her daughters to read English. Ántonia helps Mrs. Burden in her kitchen when she visits, learning more about cooking and housekeeping. The first year is extremely difficult for the Shimerda family, without a proper house in the winter. Mr. Shimerda comes to thank the Burdens for the Christmas gifts given to them, and has a peaceful day with them, sharing a meal and the parts of a Christian tradition that Protestant Mr. Burden and Catholic Mr. Shimerda respect. He did not want to move from Bohemia, where he had a skilled trade, a home and friends with whom he could play his violin. His wife is sure life will be better for her children in America.

The pressures of the new life are too much for Mr. Shimerda, who kills himself before the winter is finished. The nearest Catholic priest is too far away for last rites. He is buried without formal rites at the corner marker of their homestead, a place that is left alone when the territory is later marked out with section lines and roads. Ántonia stops her lessons and begins to work the land with her older brother. The wood piled up to build their log cabin is made into a house. Jim continues to have adventures with Ántonia when they can, discovering nature around them, alive with color in summer and almost monotone in winter. She is a girl full of life. Deep memories are set in both of them from the adventures they share, including the time Jim killed a long rattlesnake with a shovel they were fetching for Ambrosch, her older brother.

A few years after Jim arrives, his grandparents move to the edge of town, buying a house while renting their farm. Their neighbors, the Harlings, have a housekeeper to help with meals and care of the children. When they need a new housekeeper, Mrs. Burden connects Ántonia with Mrs. Harling, who hires her for good wages. Becoming a town girl is a success, as Ántonia is popular with the children, and learns more about running a household, letting her brother handle the heavy farm chores. She stays in town for a few years, having her worst experience with Mr. and Mrs. Cutter. The couple goes out of town while she is their housekeeper, after Mr. Cutter said something that made Ántonia uncomfortable to stay alone in the house as requested. Jim stays there in her place, to be surprised by Mr. Cutter coming to take advantage of who he thinks will be Ántonia alone and defenseless. Instead, Jim punches him, until he realizes it is the owner of the house.

One-and-a-half story wood house with peeling paint; in foreground, door leading to storm cave
Pavelka house in rural Webster County, Nebraska, setting of "Cuzak's Boys"[3]

Jim does well in school, the valedictorian of his high school class. He attends the new state university in Lincoln, where his mind is opened to a new intellectual life. In his second year, he finds one of the immigrant farm girls, Lena, is in Lincoln, too, with a successful dressmaking business. He takes her to plays, which they both enjoy. His teacher realizes that Jim is so distracted from his studies, that he suggests Jim come with him to finish his studies at Harvard in Boston. He does, where he then studies the law. He becomes an attorney for one of the western railroads. He keeps in touch with Ántonia, whose life takes a hard turn when the man she loves proposes marriage, but deceives her and leaves her with child. She moves back in with her mother. Years later, Jim visits Ántonia, meeting Anton Cuzak, her husband and father of ten more children, on their farm in Nebraska. He visits with them, getting to know her sons especially. They know all about him, as he features in the stories of their mother’s childhood. She is happy with her brood and all the work of a farm wife. Jim makes plans to take her sons on a hunting trip next year.

Reception and literary significance

My Ántonia was enthusiastically received in 1918 when it was first published. It was considered a masterpiece and placed Cather in the forefront of novelists. Today, it is considered her first masterpiece. Cather was praised for bringing the American West to life and making it personally interesting. It brought place forward almost as if it were one of the characters, while at the same time playing upon the universality of the emotions, which in turn promoted regional American literature as a valid part of mainstream literature.[4][5]:vii

"As Cather intended, there is no plot in the usual sense of the word. Instead, each book contains thematic contrasts."[6] The novel was a departure from the focus on wealthy families in American literature, "it was a radical aesthetic move for Cather to feature lower-class, immigrant "hired girls.""[6]

Cather also makes a number of comments concerning her views on women's rights and there are many disguised sexual metaphors in the text.[5]:xv

My Ántonia is a selection of The Big Read, the community-wide reading program of The National Endowment for the Arts.[7] For the communities and books in the program since 2007, see History of the program since 2007.[8]

Publication history

My Ántonia remains in print in a number of editions ranging from free Internet editions to inexpensive, mass-market paperbacks to expensive "scholarly editions" aimed at more serious students of Cather's work.

The original 1918 version of My Antonia begins with an Introduction in which an author-narrator, supposed to be Cather herself, converses with her adult friend, Jim Burden, during a train journey. Jim is now a successful New York lawyer but trapped in an unhappy and childless marriage to a wealthy, activist woman.[9]:15 Cather agreed with her publisher at Houghton Mifflin to cut that introduction when a revised edition of the novel was published in 1926.[9]:14 A brief introduction with Jim taking that train ride, speaking with an unnamed woman who also knew Ántonia about writing about her, is included in the version at Project Gutenberg.[10]

Allusions to the novel

Emmylou Harris' 2000 album Red Dirt Girl features the wistful song "My Antonia," as a duet with Dave Matthews. Harris wrote the song from Jim's perspective as he reflects on his long lost love.

The French songwriter and singer, Dominique A, wrote a song inspired by the novel, called "Antonia" (from the LP Auguri, 2001).

In Richard Powers' 2006 novel The Echo Maker the character Mark Schluter reads My Ántonia on the recommendation of his nurse, who notes that it is "[A] very sexy story. ... About a young Nebraska country boy who has the hots for an older woman" (page 240).

In Anton Shammas' 1986 novel Arabesques, the autobiographical character of Anton reads My Ántonia on the plane to a writers' workshop in Iowa. It is the first novel he ever read, and he expects Iowa to have the same grass "the color of wine stains" that Cather describes of Nebraska.[11]

Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware brews a continually-hopped imperial pilsner named My Ántonia.[12]



My Antonia (film), a 1995 made-for-television movie, was adapted from the novel.


The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, performed a stage adaptation of My Ántonia in December 2011. The adaptation was written by Celebration Company member Jarrett Dapier.[13]

See also


  1. Cather, Willa (11 December 2008). Sharistanian, Janet, ed. My Ántonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0-19-953814-X. The Bohemian name Ántonia is strongly accented on the first syllable, like the English name Anthony, and the i is given the sound of long e. The name is pronounced An'-ton-ee-ah. But note that English "Anthony" begins with a different vowel sound. Cather's explanation of the "i" and "a" phonemes is not entirely clear: "ee-yah" would be more accurate than "ee-ah". The Czech pronunciation can be heard here:
  2. Woodress, James (1987). Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. p. 289.
  3. Billesbach, Ann E. "Pavelka Farmstead (Antonia Farmstead), pdf [WT00-104] Listed 1979/04/13". Nebraska State Historical Society. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  4. Heller, Terry (2007). "Cather's My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature"". In Gorman, Robert F. Great Events from History: The 20th Century: 1901–1940 – Volume 3 1915–1923. Pasadena, California: Salem Press. pp. 1403–1406. ISBN 978-1-58765-327-8.
  5. 1 2 Murphy, John J. (1994). Introduction to Cather, Willa My Ántonia. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-018764-2.
  6. 1 2 "My Ántonia by Willa Cather: Introduction to the Book". National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  7. "Description of My Ántonia". The Big Read. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved July 28, 2015.
  8. "History/Overview of The Big Read". National Endowment of the Arts. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  9. 1 2 O'Brien, Sharon, ed. (1998). New Essays on My Antonia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-45275-9.
  10. "My Antonia by Willa Cather". Project Gutenberg. Retrieved September 9, 2015.
  11. Shammas, Anton. Arabesques. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988. p. 138.
  12. "My Antonia". Dogfish Head Brewery. Milton, Delaware. Retrieved July 28, 2015.
  13. "Past Seasons, Season 40". Urbana, Illinois: The Celebration Company at Station Theatre. Retrieved July 28, 2015.




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