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My Antonia Essay, Research Paper
The main theme of My Antonia is Jim Burden s fascination with
Antonia as she represents two things: first, she represents an
alternative to his life as a middle-class boy. She breaks out of the
boundaries of class and gender with seeming ease while he is
constrained within them. Second, Antonia represents a close tie to
the land. Jim loves the land, but is able to give it up for the
successes of the city, while Antonia is happiest when closest to it.
The minor theme of the novel is the changes in the Midwest as it
undergoes European-American colonization. Jim Burden
approves of these changes and even makes his living from them.
The novel is divided into five books with a framing introduction.
In the introduction, the character-narrator Jim Burden meets an
old friend with whom he grew up in Nebraska. She is the fictional
writer of this introduction. She describes him as a successful
lawyer who is unhappily married to a socialite. They discuss their
love of the Midwest and the fact that no one who didn t grow up
on the Midwest during its early days of colonization would
understand the experience. He tells her he has been writing about
a girl whom he grew up with named Antonia. Weeks later, he
brings her the completed manuscript.
In Book 1, Jim Burden is a boy of ten. He has been orphaned
recently and his relatives in Virginia have sent him to live with his
paternal grandparents in Nebraska. On the train to Black Hawk,
Nebraska he is accompanied by Jake Marpole, a man who has
been hired by Jim s grandparents. He hears about an immigrant
family on the train who are also headed for Black Hawk but is too
shy to meet them. They turn out to be the Shimerdas and they are
Jake finds life on his grandparents farm exciting and also
nurturing. He has Otto Fuchs, their Austrian hired hand, to
admire, his grandmother to care for him, his grandfather to
provide moral instruction, and soon he meets the Shimerdas. The
Shimerdas have been badly cheated in their move out to the land
and they are in great need. Jim is impressed with Mr. Shimerda, a
gentlemanly man who is respectful of children, but he is bothered
by Mrs. Shimerda s importunate manners and her eldest son,
Ambrosch s rudeness. He likes Antonia and Julka, the two
daughters of the family and begins to tutor them in English
immediately. They spend a great deal of time together and meet
several of the neighboring settlers. Two of these are Peter and
Pavel, Russian bachelors who have a nearby homestead. Antonia
tells Jim all about her father who was a trombone player in
Bohemia and greatly admired for his skill and general erudition.
He is very unhappy in the United States, though he tries to do his
best for his family.
One day Jim is feeling peeved at Antonia for treating him like a
kid. They are playing around a prairie dog town and happen upon
a five-foot long rattlesnake which Jim kills. Antonia begins to
respect him after that. During winter, Jim s family hears that the
Shimerdas are eating prairie dogs, and they set out with provisions
to help get them through the winter. They find them near
starvation with little warm clothing for the winter. On Christmas
day, the land is hit by a blizzard and no one can get to Black
Hawk to buy Christmas presents. They make gifts for the
Shimerdas and for each other. Otto Fuchs brings a tree home and
they decorate it with exquisite decorations his mother has been
sending him from Austria over the past years. Mr. Shimerda visits
to thank them for the gifts and stays for dinner. He is so pleased
with the tree that he bows before it and prays. He seems perfectly
contented in the Burden s cozy home. Weeks later, Mrs. Shimerda
visits along with Antonia. She snoops around the house
exclaiming over all that the Burdens have and all that she doesn t
have. Mrs. Burden tells Jim to understand that Mrs. Shimerda s
rudeness probably comes from seeing her children in want.
When Jim is eleven years old, Mr. Shimerda commits suicide.
Since the Catholic Church refuses to admit his body into its
graveyard, the neighbor’s appeal to the Norwegians in the nearby
Norwegian settlement, but they, too, refuse the body. Anton
Jelinek, a new immigrant from Bohemia, explains the Catholic
customs to the Burdens and helps with the funeral arrangements.
He tells a story of the Prussian war when he was an altar boy to a
priest. During a cholera epidemic, he and the priest went into the
killing fields to give the last rites to the dying soldiers and never
contracted cholera. Mrs. Shimerda wants the body to be buried at
a crossroads. All the neighbors come to the funeral. It is one of the
only times Jim sees all of them together. Jim has a special feeling
for this gravesite. The two roads by pass it and a fence is put
around it protecting it from all the development of the land so that
it is the last place where the red grass of the Nebraska prairie is
Spring arrives with a fury and Jim is euphoric over it. He is
saddened when Antonia can no longer play with him or take
lessons from him because she works the fields on her family s
farm. When a school is opened, Antonia cannot attend even
though she is fifteen years old and eager to learn. Jake Marpole
gets into a fight with Ambrosch Shimerda over a halter that
Ambrosch borrowed and then misused. He hits him and knocks
him down. Antonia and her mother come running and Antonia
tells Jake and Jim they are no longer her friends. Mr. Burden
sends Jake to town to pay a fine for the assault. While he is there
he sells a pig. The Shimerdas find out that he sold a pig the same
day he paid the find and think one was done to pay for the other.
They are satisfied that Jake has paid a high price and Antonia
taunts him whenever she sees him. Weeks later, Mr. Burden
decides to heal the rift by inviting Ambrosch to come help with
his harvest and Antonia to help Mrs. Burden in the house. He also
gives Mrs. Shimerda a cow that she has bought from him but only
partially paid for. Jim enjoys having Antonia in the house while
she is working for his grandmother and they get to have nice talks
as they used to.
Book 2, titled “Hired Girls” is begun three years after the novel s
opening. Jim s grandparents move to Black Hawk for their
retirement. Otto and Jake leave for gold prospecting in the West.
Jim settles into the ways of a town boy. He loves to spend time
with the Harlings, the Burdens next door neighbors. Mr. Harling
is a successful cattle buyer and is most times away from home.
Mrs. Harling is an energetic and loving woman who makes the
children s lives fun. Mrs. Burden arranges to get Mrs. Harling to
hire Antonia as her housekeeper. She wants Antonia to learn
manners and to save her from the drudgery of farm work.
Antonia, now seventeen years old, loves working for the Harlings.
Jim s happy times at the Harlings are periodically interrupted by
the return of Mr. Harling who takes all of Mrs. Harling s attention
away from the children.
One day Lena Lingard comes to visit the Harlings and asks
Antonia to come and see her sometimes. Antonia is reluctant to be
friendly to her. Jim learns that Lena has a bad reputation on the
prairie. She is the eldest daughter of a poor-farming family. Her
job has been to herd cattle. A neighbor man, Ole Benson, became
infatuated with her and spent his days with her. His wife, Crazy
Mary, tried to kill Lena. At Christmas, Jim sees Lena at a Black
Hawk store helping him make purchases for the family. He is
touched by her devotion to her family. She tells him she is
determined to build her mother a house some day.
Winter hits Black Hawk hard, but Jim enjoys warm times at the
Harlings where Antonia has become a second mother to the
children. Once she tells the story of a threshing suicide. She was
working on the threshing machine during a harvest and a man
came walking up out of the blue. He spoke strangely to her and
then called up to the man working the thresher to let him have a
go at it. As soon as he got up there, he dove into the thresher and
died. One day Jim hears that Blind d Arnault is coming to town.
He plays for the men at the Boys Club, a favorite hotel among
traveling salesmen and railroad men. He hears Blind d Arnault s
story. He is a Black man who grew up in the south on a
plantation. He was blind from birth and developed a habit of
rocking back and forth. His mother loved him but was ashamed of
him so she hid him away. He loved to get away and listen outside
the house of the white plantation owners to the piano music. One
day he crawled into the window and began playing. When the
white mistress found him, she gave him piano lessons. Since then
he travels around playing the piano for white audiences.
In the summer, the Vannis, an Italian couple, come to town and
set up a dance company. All the middle-class children in town
take dance lessons during the week and on Saturday night, there is
a dance open to all. Middle-class town boys get the chance to
dance with the hired girls who have come in from the country to
work. One of these boys is Sylvester Lovett, the town banker s
son. He becomes infatuated with Lena, but after dallying with her
for a time, he rushes into a marriage with a widow who has land.
Antonia begins to love dancing and spends all her free time
preparing for the dances. One night Mr. Harling hears her
slapping a man who has escorted her home and tried to force a
kiss out of her. He forbids her from going to the dances any more.
She refuses to let him dictate her private life and quits. Quitting
means she will be ostracized by the Harlings. She goes to work
for the Cutters, an extraordinarily quarrelsome couple. Mr. Cutter
has made his fortune by charging usurious interest rates to
Jim finds only the hired girls to be of interest and begins to
develop a reputation as a strange young man since he is
uninterested in spending time with boys and girls of his own
social class. He is bored and feels out of place in the town. He
develops friendships with various people in the town, many of
whom are like him in their inability to fit into the social life of the
town. He begins going to the Firemen s dances, sneaking out so
he doesn t have to deal with his grandparents disapproval.
Antonia comes to the Burdens one day with the news that the
Cutters have gone on a trip and Mr. Cutter had acted strangely
before he left, instructing Antonia never to leave the house at
night. She is uncomfortable in the house, so Jim stays there in her
place. He is mortified one night when Wick Cutter comes home
with the obvious intention of raping Antonia. Cutter beats Jim
severely. The next day, Antonia and Mrs. Burden go to the
Cutters to retrieve Antonia s things. While they are there, Mrs.
Cutter arrives home. She tells them that Mr. Cutter had sent her
on a train in the wrong direction the night before so he could get
away and come home alone.
Jim s enjoyment of the Firemen s dances are cut short one day
when he finds his grandmother crying over the shame it brings on
the family name. He vows not to go to the dances any more. He
settles down to studying for college and wins back the respect of
his elders. One day he goes on an outing with the hired women.
He and Antonia have a good talk. She tells him of their life in
Bohemia. Her father came from a respectable family. Her mother
worked in their kitchen. When her father got her mother pregnant,
he married her, and his family disowned him as a result. Jim
graduates from high school and gives a commencement address
that impresses his elders. He plans to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to
Book 3, “Lena Lingard,” is set in Lincoln, Nebraska where Jim
studies under the instruction of an admired scholar Gaston Cleric.
Lena Lingard moves to Lincoln to set up a tailoring business and
visits Jim. They start seeing each other regularly, going to the
theater, and spending Sunday mornings together. He enjoys her
company much more than that of the women of his own class who
are so interested in socializing that they seem to have no life in
them. Lena s shop is very successful. She tells Jim she plans
never to marry, having seen enough of marriages to know that it is
not for her. She wants to be able to determine her own choices in
life. Her plan is to make enough money to set her mother and
younger siblings up in a comfortable house. From Lena, Jim hears
about Antonia s boyfriend, Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor
who puts on airs above his status. No one likes Larry, but Antonia
will not hear anything bad said of him. One day, Gaston Cleric
comes to see Jim and tells him he will be teaching at Harvard. He
invites Jim to come with him. Jim reluctantly says good-bye to
Lena and then goes home for a visit before leaving.
Book 4, “The Pioneer Woman s Story,” takes place two years
later when Jim has finished his college courses and comes home
to visit before continuing on to law school. Antonia is now
twenty-four years old and has had a baby outside of marriage. Jim
is disgusted with her and doesn t plan to go see her where she is
living with her family again. However, one day he is in the
photography shop and sees a large picture of Antonia s baby. The
photographer says she is extremely proud of her baby. Jim decides
to go out and talk to the Widow Steavens, a woman who has been
renting his grandparents farm and who helped Antonia
throughout the preparations for her wedding and who helped her
after her child was born. Mrs. Steavens tells him that Antonia and
Larry Donovan got engaged and Antonia set to work on her linens
and her trousseau. She came to Mrs. Steavens house every day to
sew. Larry Donovan was in Denver working. He took a long time
to send for her and when he did he said they would be living in
Denver instead of Black Hawk. Although Antonia wasn t happy
with this plan, she soon reconciled herself to it and set off for
Denver with three trunks full of good linens and clothes and three
hundred dollars from her brother. The family heard that she
arrived and then they didn t hear anything else. Weeks later Mrs.
Steavens heard that Antonia had been seen returning home and
she went to see Antonia. Antonia told her Larry Donovan had
stayed with her until her money ran out and then abandoned her.
He had been fired from the railroad for cheating customers. In the
following months, Mrs. Steavens watched Antonia as she worked
in the fields. She noticed Antonia is pregnant and one night she
was called to come and help. Antonia had given birth without
help. She was ashamed of having had sex out of marriage but
proud of her baby. Jim decides to go see her. When he does, they
have the same strong connection they always did. They talk about
their lives and Jim tells her she means more to him that she could
Book 5, “Cusak s Boys,” begins twenty years later. Jim has
avoided seeing Antonia for fear that she has become old and run-
down. Lena Lingard, who has set up a successful tailoring
business in San Francisco, urges him to see Antonia. Antonia has
been married and has a large family. Jim arrives at Antonia s
house and is impressed by her healthy, loving, and well-mannered
children. Antonia is clearly a very happy woman in touch with the
land and greatly enjoying raising her children. The next day,
Antonia s husband, Cusak comes home. Jim likes him though he
finds him a small man, who doesn t much belong on a farm. He
leaves the next day and re-visits Black Hawk. He finds nothing of
interest there since his friends are dead or gone, but he walks out
to the north of town along the same road that had taken him out to
his grandparents farm when he was a ten year old boy. Not much
of the red grass of the prairie is left elsewhere, but this land is so
wild that it has not been colonized and the beautiful red grass
remains. He feels happy to feel connected to the land again. He
plans to come back often and visit the Cusaks.
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