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Literature / My Ántonia

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My Ántonia, published in 1918, is one of the most famous works of American novelist Willa Cather. The novel is written in the form of a fictional memoir. It is narrated by Jim Burden who tells a story of an immigrant girl called Ántonia. Jim and Ántonia quickly became friends and grew up together on their farms in Nebraska.

In part, the novel is inspired by Willa Cather’s life as she, like her character Jim, moved to Nebraska when she was ten, and she based many of the events, characters, and settings of the book on her own experiences. The novel forms a sort of "trilogy" with two other prairie novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915).

My Ántonia is sometimes considered an early modernist work. For its time and context, My Ántonia pressed the boundaries of traditional narrative techniques and contemporary literature. Its narrative structure is built from anecdotes and episodes, and time periods are often skipped or just brushed upon.

My Ántonia is also interesting from the perspective of gender issues. It is written by a woman but narrated by a man while the central character is a young woman. Additionally, its characters are nothing like common gender stereotypes – women are strong, physically fit and active, whereas men in the book are generally more passive or even weak. Willa Cather wrote about everyday people and the book explores lives of the early white settlers of the American West.

Tropes found in My Ántonia:

  • Alliterative Name: Lena Lingard.
  • Aerith and Bob:
    • Tiny Sodderball among other normal-sounding American names.
    • Ántonia is not all that common in America, but it was a very common Czech name for girls of that time.
  • Break the Cutie: Ántonia is a lovely, active girl who has faced more than a fair share of troubles—severe winters in poverty, her father's suicide, working in the fields like a man, taking care of her younger siblings, escaping a rapist (though her gut feeling prevented her from being attacked), her fiancé's abandonment, becoming a single mother (which was stigmatizing)—but she remains unbroken. What a girl. What a woman.
  • Dude Magnet: Men have always been attracted to Lena Lingard.
  • Driven to Suicide: Mr. Shimerda feels too desperate and too homesick that he sees no other way. He Ate His Gun and caused a great distress to his family.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Jim Burden. His narration speaks mostly of the fascinating people around him than of his own life, though it is clear from some throwaway lines near the end of the book that he has had an interesting one.
  • Friend to All Children: Ántonia is a natural-born mother and great with all children who in turn all love her back and adore her stories and her cooking.
  • Henpecked Husband: Ambrosch Shimerda ends up marrying a very fat woman with a farm of her own who bossed him around.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: This is a story of pioneers who are settled in the Great Plains in Nebraska. The heroine is a young Czech woman called Ántonia Shimerda, and the narrative also focuses on other women. This book shows that life was difficult for everyone on the frontier and the women were as capable, independent tough as male pioneers. Ántonia Shimerda and her family face many hardships — living on the prairie, doing tough work on the farm, starving through winter, not speaking the language, suicide and they have to deal with challenge of being a foreigner in a new country.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Jim Burden has those, and at forty he still looks young and his clear baby blues contribute a lot to this look.
  • Intro-Only Point of View: The introduction is told from the viewpoint of a character who meets an old friend, Jim Burden, and the two of them reminisce about their youth in Nebraska and their friendship with Ántonia. The rest of the book is a first-person narrative from Jim.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Yulka, Ántonia's younger sister, has a cat and plays with it often.
  • Language Barrier: When the Shimerdas came to Nebraska, they could use only several very basic (and not entirely correct) expressions. Mr Shimerda asks Jim to teach his Ántonia English and promises to give him his nice gun once Jim grows up. Jim narrates about their language lessons and mentions how the Czech language sounded to him when the Shimerdas talked to each other and he didn't understand. Mr Shimerda has a hard time in Nebraska, but he cheers up a bit when he befriends two Ukrainian guys.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings:
    • Lena Lingard has lots of siblings and as the eldest daughter, she has to take care of them. She's not too thrilled about it and says she doesn't want her own family as a result.
    • Ántonia ends up having a family of eleven children.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: When Jake and Jim Burden come to retrieve a harness they lent to the Shimerdas, they have an argument and fight because Ambrosch doesn't want to give it back and actually tries to give them a shabby one. Mrs Shimerda does this gesture:
    "Mrs. Shimerda threw her hands over her head and clutched as if she were going to pull down lightning. 'Law, law!' she shrieked after us. 'Law for knock my Ambrosch down!'"
  • Precocious Crush: Jim has a crush on Ántonia although she's about 5 years older, which is a significant difference for teenagers. Ántonia likes Jim as she would love a younger brother and she is somewhat aware of his feelings. His crush continues into his adulthood as his marriage is implied to be very loveless.
  • Murder-Suicide: Mr. Cutter kills his wife and then himself. He does it because he doesn't want her family to inherit their money.
  • Savage Wolves: A couple of Ukrainian immigrants narrate an incident from the old country, where a bridal party driving sledges at midnight in winter was attacked by a large pack of ravenous wolves, with extremely horrific results.
  • Suicide is Shameful: Ántonia's father shoots himself because he was too homesick and couldn't bear the hard life. The Shimerdas are Catholic while other familes in the neighbourhood are mostly Protestants. Jim's grandparents are sympathetic to the poor family and another Catholic explains to them that for the Shimerdas, the suicide is a terrible blow with extra layer of suffering.
  • Tomboyish Name: Ántonia also goes by Tony.
  • Translation by Volume: Jim's grandmother always talked to new settlers very loudly and slowly.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!:
    • Ántonia is a natural beauty and has beautiful brown eyes. Jim describes her eyes as "big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood".
    • Lena has deep violet eyes—very unusual colour. She's considered a great beauty with an exotic, Scandinavian touch.