MAIN THEME 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. MINOR THEME 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. PLOT SYNOPSIS 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 from Bohemia. Jak 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 Julia, 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 grave site. 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 left natural. 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 Vann is, 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 farmers. 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 college. 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 know. 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 Cusak. 31 c.