My Antonia Summary and Analysis
by Willa Cather
Book I, Chapters 11-19
Jake is supposed to go to Black Hawk to make the family's Christmas purchases, but it snows so much that it is decided that he shouldn't go. The family has a country Christmas instead and makes everyone's gifts. With Grandmother's help, Jim makes picture books for Yulka and Ántonia. On the day before Christmas, Jake brings the Shimerdas their Christmas gifts and returns with a Christmas tree. The family decorates it with gingerbread, popcorn, and candles. In addition, from a trunk containing all his cowboy possessions, Otto takes Christmas paper figures sent to him yearly from his mother in Austria.
Speaking in the present, Jim relates that he can still see Otto and Jake exactly as they looked then. Though they looked fierce on the outside, he knew that they were actually very vulnerable. They only knew how to fight, and though Otto loved children, he was destined to become a hardened, childless laborer.
In this chapter Cather idealizes simple country living. Since it snows so much that Jake cannot go to town, they celebrate Christmas without any artificial city contrivances, and they have a great time. Their Christmas gifts come from the heart, instead of being tokens of an overcommercialized society. They enjoy each other's company and conversation, something that is perhaps a rarity in today's modern civilization. By presenting such scenes of peace and harmony, Cather offers a subtle version of social criticism. Her views represent a quiet alternative to the bustle of modern industrialized society, but she is understated and balanced, never dogmatic, in her approach.
In depicting Jake and Otto as gruff, yet kind-hearted workers, Cather is going against the stereotype of the cowboy as hardened, ruthless desperado. She may, however, be creating a different kind of cliché. Instead of being naturally rough, they become so because of their environment. They are forced to become violent and unemotional because of the difficulties of living solitary lives in the West, while at heart they are still dutiful sons and gentle, kind men. In naturalist novels (and My Ántonia has elements of naturalism in it), characters are shaped by their environment, and Otto and Jake therefore become who they are not because of innate, inner qualities, but because their circumstances and physical surroundings determine the course of life they will take.
On Christmas morning, Jim wakes up, and the whole family listens to Grandfather solemnly and simply make morning prayers. Grandfather's prayers always reflect his present thoughts, and Jim asserts that it is through them that one got to know his thoughts and feelings. That day they all do miscellaneous chores and play games, and Otto laboriously writes his annual Christmas letter to his mother. In late afternoon Mr. Shimerda comes over to thank them for all the gifts they gave his family. After escaping from the dreary dugout, he welcomes the Burden's home as an oasis of peace and order. He rests there and is completely content.
When Jim lights the Christmas tree, Mr. Shimerda kneels in prayer in front of it. As Protestants, Grandfather and Grandmother are a little uncomfortable but say nothing. Mr. Shimerda stays over for dinner and watches everyone's face intently. While leaving, he thanks Grandmother and makes the sign of the cross over Jim. After he leaves, Grandfather says, "The prayers of all good people are good."
This chapter is a continuation of the previous two chapters and builds on the theme of country harmony, as opposed to city discord. The Burdens live a simple life, with simple prayers, and they have everything they need simply by being together. City diversions would simply disrupt the cozy family circle they have created on the frontier.
It is curious that neither Jim nor his grandparents comment on the fact that Mr. Shimerda celebrates Christmas with them, rather than with his family. It becomes apparent exactly how much he values their company only in later chapters, when we discover how unhappy he is with his own home life. Mr. Shimerda's eagerness to spend Christmas with the Burdens indicates just how peaceful and idyllic the Burden household is, and while Jim may be exaggerating the happiness he felt as a child, he is not overstating the truth by very much.
Though Jim's grandparents may not be the most progressive people in the world, they are remarkably tolerant of the Shimerdas' customs and religion. Even though they are not entirely comfortable with Catholicism, they do nothing to offend Mr. Shimerda for his differing religious practices. Through her portrayal of such open-mindedness, Cather seems to be advocating a climate of general tolerance for different people and different customs. However, as we shall see in later chapters (Book II, Chapter VII), even Cather does not maintain a universally progressive stance with regard to cultural and racial diversity. Though she is trying to advance a particularly enlightened social vision, she is nevertheless a product of her times and cannot entirely break free from contemporary social prejudice.
During the week after Christmas, the snow starts to thaw for awhile, and Ántonia and her mother come over to visit. Mrs. Shimerda had never been to the house before, and the entire time she looks at everything enviously and complains that the Burdens have so much more than she does. She asks Grandmother for a pot, which she gives to her. Jim is annoyed by Mrs. Shimerda, who lacks humility despite her misfortune. Ántonia explains to Jim that her father is sick and depressed at having left the old country. He misses playing the fiddle with his friends, and he had not wanted to come over originally. Mrs. Shimerda wanted to come to America because she thought that Ambrosch would be able to become rich here. Ambrosch is considered the most important person in the Shimerda family, and even Ántonia is in awe of him.
For three weeks it seems like it is almost spring. The bulls get into a fight across the fence between them and have to be separated. On January 20, Jim's eleventh birthday, however, a huge blizzard starts. It was the biggest storm in ten years, and Otto and Jack have to dig tunnels through the snow to get to the barn and the henhouse. All the water is frozen, and as soon as they finish the chores, they have to start over with them again. Jim calls that day very strange and unnatural.
The Shimerdas do not understand why the Burdens, who are rich, do not help them out more in adjusting to their new life, and this makes them seem arrogant and demanding. However, the problem seems to be more of communication than anything else. The Shimerdas do not know how to survive and prosper in their new country, but they also do not know enough English to ask for help and advice. Neither lazy nor unclean, they are simply unknowledgeable about farming life. However, the Burdens do not understand how destitute and lost their neighbors are, and they help them out of charity rather than anything else.
Despite all that Mrs. Shimerda heard in her homeland, she is not finding America to be the land of opportunity right now. The family is encountering difficulty and hardship quite unlike anything they had expected, and Cather's portrayal of them de-romanticizes the myth of America as the promised land. However, as we shall see in later chapters, once the family gets used to their new life, through hard work they are able to get ahead and become successful.
Though the novel is set around the turn of the twentieth century, Jim is surprised that the Shimerda family revolves around Ambrosch, the oldest son. Even though it is customary at this points in American history for sons to be given all of life's opportunities, he seems to think it remarkable that Ántonia defers to her brother. However, seeing as Willa Cather was a very successful, independent woman, perhaps Jim's seemingly naïve attitude functions more as social commentary rather than character development.
Finally, in this chapter, the Burdens witness the largest snowstorm in a decade, and winter begins to unleash its full force on the Nebraska frontier. Now nature becomes something that the family has to contend with, rather than simply admire and enjoy.
On the 22nd Jim wakes up excited because it sound like there is a crisis going on downstairs. Otto and Jake look exhausted and cold, while Ambrosch is asleep on the bench. Grandfather tells them that Mr. Shimerda is dead and that Otto and Jake had gone over in the middle of the night with Ambrosch. At breakfast, Otto says that nobody heard a gun going off and that Ambrosch discovered his father because the oxen were behaving strangely. Mr. Shimerda had washed and shaved beforehand, had arranged his clothes neatly, and then shot himself in the mouth with a shotgun while lying down. According to Jake, however, Krajiek's axe fits precisely into the gash in Mr. Shimerda's face, and Krajiek was skulking around and acting guilty. The family argues a little about what happened, but there is nothing that they can do until a coroner arrives.
Otto goes to Black Hawk to fetch the coroner, and Ambrosch devoutly prays the entire morning. Finally, Grandfather, Grandmother, Jake, and Ambrosch all leave to bring the Shimerdas clothing, while Jim is left alone. Jim is excited to be responsible for all the chores and thinks that the life of Robinson Crusoe is boring in comparison to his. He imagines that Mr. Shimerda's ghost is resting in the house before it goes away to his homeland. He is not afraid and just thinks very quietly about him.
When the family returns, Otto tells Jim that Mr. Shimerda is frozen solid outside in the barn and that the Shimerdas take turns praying over his body. Ambrosch wants to find a priest immediately so that his father's soul can get out of Purgatory. Jim knows that Mr. Shimerda's soul will not be stuck in Purgatory and realizes that he was just very unhappy in life.
Winter finally brings a horrible tragedy to the Shimerdas and the Burdens: Mr. Shimerda's suicide. While it may seem inexplicable why a loving, caring father, as Mr. Shimerda most decidedly was, would leave his family helpless and bereaved in the middle of the worst winter in ten years, his action is understandable when considered as a last, desperate attempt at communication. While Mr. Shimerda was unable to make his family prosper, by killing himself he is making one final plea for help. His neighbors will literally have to take care of his family now and help them survive the winter and coming spring. They will know that the Shimerda situation is dire and will realize exactly how much assistance the family needs. Paradoxically, by killing himself and depriving his family of their head of household, he is ensuring that his wife and children will be thoroughly taken care of.
While Jim is very respectful of Christianity and organized religion, in this chapter he experiences a feeling stronger than any religious sentiment he ever feels: the sense that Mr. Shimerda's ghost is present in the house. He knows that Mr. Shimerda is homesick and through death, wanted to return to his homeland and the pleasant places he knew in life, like the Burden household. This sensation is so strong that Jim adamantly disbelieves Ambrosch's assertion that his father's soul is trapped in Purgatory. His awareness of Mr. Shimerda's presence in the house indicates how the closeness and depth of emotion between Jim and the Shimerdas.
After returning from Black Hawk, Otto tells them that a coroner will arrive shortly but that it is impossible for the priest to come. He brings with him a young, strong, and confident Bohemian man named Anton Jelinek, who tells Grandfather that it is very bad that a priest is unavailable. Jelinek tells about how, during a war with the Austrians in his native land, he helped the priest carry the Sacrament around to dying men. Everyone except them got really sick with cholera, and ever since he has appreciated the power of the Sacrament and wishes that Mr. Shimerda could receive it.
Jelinek starts to break a road through the snow to the Shimerda's house, while Otto, who is the only cabinet-maker in the neighborhood, begins making a coffin. Otto is a good carpenter, and the sawing and planing noises are pleasant in the house. The postmaster Mr. Bushy and some neighbors drop by to talk about the news, and Jim is excited because he is not used to people being so unusually talkative. Later in the day the postmaster returns to tell Grandmother that the Norwegians refuse to let Mr. Shimerda be buried in their graveyard. Grandmother is upset and vows to start a more "liberal-minded" American graveyard in the spring.
The coroner decides that Mr. Shimerda did in fact commit suicide, even though Krajiek is continuing to act like a guilty man. Krajiek probably just feels bad for being so ruthless and unhelpful. During dinner the family talks about how Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch want Mr. Shimerda to be buried at the southwest corner of their land, which will someday become a crossroads. Nobody really understands, but they assume that there must be some Bohemian superstition about burying suicides at a crossroads.
In the previous chapter, Jim is impressed by how devout Ambrosch is, and in this chapter he meets another pious young Bohemian, Anton Jelinek. Even though Grandfather does not understand the value of the Catholic sacrament, he listens attentively when Jelinek tries to explain how much he respects his faith. Despite their religious differences, Grandfather and Jelinek are actively engaging in mutual discussion and learning something about the other's culture in doing so. Such depictions of tolerance and respectful engagement by Cather help advance her view that harmonious engagement is something one should actively strive for. In contrast, the Norwegians exhibit a very tactless intolerance in refusing to allow Mr. Shimerda to be buried in their cemetery.
When Otto makes Mr. Shimerda's coffin, it makes the entire house seem very pleasant and cheerful. Instead of being depressing, the coffin-making is very productive and expends a lot of creative energy. Rather than simply creating the box that contains Mr. Shimerda in his death, Otto is fashioning a resting place for him in his new life. In this way, Mr. Shimerda's death can be seen as a beginning, rather than just an end.
On the fifth day Mr. Shimerda is buried, but Jake and Jelinek have to chop him away from the pool of frozen blood surrounding him. When Ántonia sees Jim for the first time since her father's death, she clings to him so tightly that he seems to feel her heart break. Once the neighbors arrive, it's time to start the funeral. Outside all the children except Yulka, who is too young to understand, cross themselves over their father's body. The coffin is closed and placed on a wagon, then taken to the grave.
Mrs. Shimerda asks Grandfather to make a prayer, and Jim says that it was so remarkable that he still remembers it now. At Grandmother's suggestion (to make the funeral seem less heathenish), Otto begins to sing "Jesus, Lover of my Soul," which Jim still associates with the funeral and the "white waste" of snow there.
Jim relates that years later, the grave is still there, surrounded by a fence and marked by a cross. However, the roads do not pass over the grave but instead swerve around it. Jim thinks of the grave as an island and is glad that wagons have to pass by it and realize that it's there.
When Ántonia runs up to Jim sobbing, once again it is her emotions that come to the forefront of the narrative. Through Ántonia's behavior and reactions, we get a sense of how deep a tragedy Mr. Shimerda's suicide really is, and we realize how close the affective ties between Ántonia and Jim are. Jim appreciates Mr. Shimerda's death more on an intellectual, abstract level, whereas through Ántonia's grief, we appreciate the emotional depth of her and her family's despair.
Though the funeral is simple and performed somewhat haphazardly, it is poignant and still affects Jim as an adult. The fact that it lacks ceremony, ritual, and an official person to preside over it is a reflection of the kind of life that new settlers have to make on the frontier. In other words, new settlers like the Burdens and the Shimerdas do not really have any precedent or set procedure to follow, in the funeral as in other aspects of life, and they have to fashion an entirely new way of life out of remembered bits of their past. For example, Otto sings the first hymn that comes to mind when asked to do so and Grandfather improvises his prayer, yet the ceremony as a whole is intense and perfect the way it is. The act of creating something that is new and unique, though possibly a little disjointed and disorganized, renders the product beautiful.
Finally spring comes, and Jim says that the coming of spring in Nebraska is much different than anything he had experienced in Virginia. Spring is everywhere, and you can just tell that it's there. People are burning their pastures before the new grass starts to grow, and the smell pervades the prairie. Neighbors are helping the Shimerdas a lot and extending them credit, so now they have a new log house, a windmill, and farm animals.
One day Jim visits the Shimerdas to give Yulka her English lesson since Ántonia is now busy working in the fields. Mrs. Shimerda is very suspicious of everyone and thinks that people are trying to cheat her. When Ántonia returns from plowing the fields, Jim is amazed at what a strong, young girl of fifteen she has become. She is proud of how much work she can do and says she doesn't want to go to school because she is happy to be working with Ambrosch like a man. Jim worries that Ántonia is becoming boastful like her mother, but then he notices that she is secretly crying. As he helps her with some chores, she makes him promise to tell her the things he learns in school and not to forget her father, who also went to school.
Jim stays for dinner but is not having a good time. Ántonia and Ambrosch quarrel about who can do more work, Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch wrongly accuse Grandfather of trying to cheat them, and it is apparent that Ántonia has lost her gentle, ladylike ways. Jim is sad because Ántonia is always working and has no time for him anymore. He knows that Ambrosch is overworking her and that people are gossiping about it, and he imagines how sad her father would be if he were alive.
After the death of Mr. Shimerda and the hardship of winter, spring, life, and rebirth come to the land. Everything is blooming, and the Shimerdas are learning how to farm the land and are beginning to thrive. Thus, Mr. Shimerda's death just becomes a part of the life cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The burning of the grass becomes a symbol of the ever-changing life cycle.
Jim's attitude towards Ántonia during this time in her life is very ambivalent, though he doesn't acknowledge it in his narrative. Mostly he feels bad that Ántonia is working the land, cannot spend as much time with him as she used to, and is losing her girlishly feminine ways. At the same time, however, in his physical descriptions of her, he greatly admires and eroticizes her physical strength and masculine vitality. Even though he resents the fact that Ántonia is being forced to do a man's work, he cannot help finding her strong, athletic body very attractive. As usual, however, Jim never explicitly states his feelings, which are nevertheless apparent and implied.
Although Ántonia is helping her family to thrive by working the land, she is simultaneously sacrificing the opportunities she herself might have had. In an earlier chapter, Mr. Shimerda begged Jim's grandmother to teach Ántonia English, but in this chapter, she is being forced to give up education and all the life possibilities that it entails. Ántonia seems to recognize this when she tries to hide her crying from Jim, but she is determined that her family will succeed in America, no matter what the personal cost. Though Jim and his grandmother seem to realize exactly what Ántonia is giving up, there is really not much that they can do about it.
Jim starts school and tries to get back at Ántonia by becoming friends with his classmates, even though he thinks they're boring. He is resentful that Ántonia seems to worship Ambrosch, while she treats him with mild disdain. He recounts how the Burdens and Shimerdas were further estranged that spring.
Jim and Jake went to the Shimerdas to retrieve a horse-collar that Ambrosch had borrowed but not returned. Ambrosch is surly and gives Jake a collar in very poor condition. The two men get into a scuffle, with Ambrosch fighting unfairly and Jake knocking him down. Ántonia screams hatred at them, and Mrs. Shimerda threatens with the law. While leaving, Jim and Jake express their distrust of foreigners and say they're just not the same as other people. Grandfather simply laughs at the story and tells Jake to go to town and pay his fine. Jake happens to sell a pig at the same time, and the Shimerdas mock him because they think he needed to sell it in order to have enough money to pay the fine.
Despite the feud, the Shimerdas are always respectful to Grandfather, who gives them a lot of helpful advice and helps them when they have a problem with their horse. Ambrosch and Marek have started working for wages, and Grandfather decides to pay Ambrosch and Ántonia to help out on the farm. When he goes to the Shimerdas to ask, he graciously gives Mrs. Shimerda the cow that she has purchased on credit, and she falls to her knees and kisses his hand. Afterwards, the feud between the two families is forgotten, although Mrs. Shimerda wants to have the last word.
As the beginning paragraph of this chapter suggests, Jim at times structures his life around Ántonia, even if she is not directly involved or even present. For instance, he makes friends at school seemingly out of spite at Ántonia; in other words, he engages in normal human activity, but always with Ántonia in mind.
This chapter paints Ambrosch as a brutish, somewhat selfish creature that the reader simply cannot sympathize with. While this characterization may or may not be true, it does lead the reader to feel sorry for Ántonia, who is under Ambrosch's thumb and has to obey him. Jim's reaction to the Shimerdas in this chapter is somewhat uncharacteristic. While Ántonia's anger can be attributed to her intense feelings of family loyalty and devotion, Jim's prejudiced insults seem strikingly out of place, especially as they are directed primarily at Ántonia. However, as might be expected, they are probably just his pent-up feelings of frustration and resentment at no longer being the main object of Ántonia's affection.
In July the heat comes, and the corn grows fabulously. Jim notes that his grandfather has already predicted that in the future the American Midwest will produce enough corn for the rest of the world. During this time Ántonia is mostly working in the kitchen with Grandmother, but she also goes outside to work with Jim in the vegetable garden. She prefers to work outside like a man and is proud of her arm muscles.
One day there is a big thunderstorm, and Ántonia and Jim go outside to watch it. It is pleasant, and Jim asks her why she can't always be herself and why sometimes she tries to be like Ambrosch. She answers that if she lived with Jim in the Burden household, life would be easy and she would be different. However, she predicts that life will be hard for her and her family.
Though she has to give up her education, Ántonia is finding that working as a man has its advantages. She seems more independent, carefree, and sure of herself, and she appreciates the sense of added physical strength that she is acquiring. Jim doesn't like her so much because she acts boastful and arrogant like Ambrosch; however, it is interesting social commentary that these qualities, which are accepted or taken for granted in men, seem out of place to Jim when they occur in Ántonia.
This last chapter of Book I recounts the last moment of closeness that Jim and Ántonia share together in the country. Afterwards, things will change, and the two will no longer be innocent children exploring the country for the first time. Though their meeting is idyllic and it seems to Jim that Ántonia is like she used to be as a child, they are both older and wiser than they were when they first came to Nebraska. Ántonia is aware that her future will be difficult, and she does not have the same sense of unlimited potential that Jim still retains.
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- Willa Cather: Biography
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- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 1-10
- Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 11-19
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 1-9
- Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 10-15
- Summary and Analysis of Book III
- Summary and Analysis of Book IV
- Summary and Analysis of Book V
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