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My Antonia

About the Book

My Antonia

Perhaps the most popular of Cather's novels, My Ántonia is at once the intimate portrait of an American heroine, an elegy for a vanished frontier, and the story of an unconsummated love affair. Jim Burden, the narrator, meets Ántonia Shimerda as a child on the Nebraska prairie. He is an orphan and a Protestant, she the daughter of ill-adapted Bohemian immigrants; her father will kill himself when he is broken by the harshness and solitude of their new home. Jim and Ántonia grow up together, and he harbors vague and contradictory romantic yearnings toward her. But they are separated in their youth and spend most of their lives apart. While Jim pursues his education and becomes a lawyer for the railroad, Ántonia goes into domestic service, survives a near-rape, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless lover, and bears a baby out of wedlock. Much of her story unfolds secondhand, as Jim gathers it from other sources. They are reunited only briefly at the novel's end, and by then both of them are married, Jim unhappily so.

What is it that makes Ántonia a genuinely heroic figure? Partly, it is her ability to emerge undiminished and unembittered from circumstances no less bleak than the ones that killed her father, to improvise happiness in the same way she once improvised stories. In the course of the novel, Ántonia also becomes an embodiment of the narrator's memory, which has the power to withstand time and redeem its losses. Of course, it is not only Jim's memory that is in play: Ántonia represents all the strength, resilience, and unselfconscious nobility of a decisive moment in our nation's past. The virtues that Cather associates with her heroine have either become obsolete or have receded into our collective unconscious, but the sight of her is enough to reawaken our memory of them: "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true....she 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." [p. 258]

My Antonia
by Willa Cather

  • Publication Date: March 15, 1994
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books
  • ISBN-10: 0679741879
  • ISBN-13: 9780679741879