Book I The Shimerdas
The story begins with the narrator Jim Burden, age 10, travelling by rail across the country to Nebraska. Having just lost both his parents in Virginia, he is travelling with a hired man Jake Marpole to live with his grandparents. During the journey Jim reads the "Life of Jesse James," which he thoroughly enjoys. Jim first hears of Ántonia (pronouced An´-ton-ee-ah, with the accent on the first syllable) on this journey, when a friendly conductor tells him that a Bohemian immigrant family, which can't really speak English, is going to Black Hawk, Nebraska and that they have a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl.
Jim travels all day through the huge expanse of Nebraska, and in the middle of the night they finally get off the train. There Jim catches his first glimpse of the immigrant family. Soon Otto Fuchs, a hired man, comes to pick them up. He looks like a cowboy desperado, and Jim is impressed. They get into a wagon, and Jim stares into the night, seeing nothing but land and darkness. He feels like he has entered into a completely different, empty world and that everything he has known before has been left behind.
In this chapter we are introduced to Jim the narrator, but as we shall see, the novel is primarily the story of Ántonia and of Jim's feelings towards her. Although we do find out certain details of Jim's past, the novel begins when he first sees Ántonia and her family, not at some earlier point. Jim only has a story to tellhis storyafter he meets Ántonia, which is why a number of critics consider Jim to be a secondary figure, though it is his voice that we hear throughout the novel.
It is interesting to note that Jim is reading the biography of Jesse James, a Western adventurer, at the same time that he is embarking on his own frontier adventure. During the novel, the books that Jim reads often acquire a particular significance when considered in the context of his life. Jim will compare real life with the fictional world that he is reading about, and he will find reality infinitely richer and more exciting. In this case, he will find Otto Fuchs and life in Nebraska much more interesting than anything he could possibly discover in the world of fiction. Although Jim does not realize it at the time, he and Ántonia are embarking on a shared adventure, and their lives will intertwine in complex ways. What begins as a casual encounter on a train will become the beginning of a mutual journey in the American West.
In the novel, setting is extremely important, and Jim's first impression of the Nebraska frontier is that it is extremely vast and empty. He feels like he is leaving civilization, and he is. Everything that happens to him in Nebraska will be a new experience, and he will have to learn new rules and codes of conduct. He is leaving his past completely, and he will have to become an entirely new person in the country. For this reason, he feels "erased" and "blotted out" as he travels on the wagon to his grandfather's house.
Jim wakes up in the afternoon in a small bed, with his grandmother smiling over him. She comments on how much like his father he looks, and he follows her to the kitchen to take a bath. Their home is very pleasant and clean, with flowers in the windows and plaster on the dirt walls. Jim's grandmother is energetic, with a strident, high voice, and she always seems to be thinking of something far away. His grandfather is solemn and kind, with a huge white beard and bald head. After supper, Jim is immediately befriended by Otto Fuchs, an Austrian cowboy, who tells him stories, teaches him how to throw a lasso, and has bought him a pony named Dude.
Before bed, Grandfather reads in a resonant voice from the Bible for everyone in the household. The next day Jim begins to explore his new environment. Outside, their frame house is surrounded by sod houses and dugouts, and Jim looks out at the windmill, corncribs, and huge cornfield. There is red grass everywhere, and it seems like everything is in constant motion. Jim accompanies his grandmother, who is carrying a cane as protection against snakes, to the garden, and he feels like he is at the end of the world. After warning him about snakes, Grandmother leaves Jim to play in the garden. He has a feeling of lightness and content and sits down to watch the insects. He feels completely happy and at one with the earth.
My Ántonia is written in the past tense and from the perspective of an adult Jim. Everything in the novel is therefore filtered through Jim's older and wiser adult personality and understanding. For example, in this chapter, Jim's description of his grandparents is very respectful and reverent, and it is obviously written by someone who has thought for awhile about what an important role that they played in his life. While the reader gets a very good sense of how Jim's childhood experiences fit into the larger pattern of his life, however, we do not feel his childish excitement and fearfulness at being in an entirely new place by himself. Jim seems a little bit too distant and removed, a little bit too knowing and self-aware, than a child his age would be. However, it is due to Cather's narrative ability that we feel this waythat it seems like an older, adult man wrote these passages describing his earlier life experiences. After all, it was Cather's intention to create this effect.
In this chapter Jim feels at one with nature as he sits in the garden and watches insects. He is completely content and feels like this is how life should be. In describing Jim's communion with nature, Cather is romanticizing the frontier, which is pure and innocent, free from the corrupting and crowding influences of the city, civilization, and industrialization. Although she does not offer any overt criticism of the industrialized East that Jim leaves, her vision of the frontier is meant to be seen as an implicitly better alternative. Jim's love for the country and the freedom of the West will further develop as the novel progresses.
On Sunday morning Otto, Grandmother, and Jim drive across fields of red grass to visit the new Bohemian family that has recently settled in the area. They are the first Bohemian family to move to this area, and they purchased their farm from another Bohemian man named Peter Krajiek. The farm and house are not particularly good, and the familythe Shimerdaspaid too much for it. In addition, the father knows nothing about farming. He was a weaver and a fiddler in his native land, is dignified and neatly dressed, and has white, skilled hands. The mother has shrewd eyes, and when she sees Grandmother, she points to her dugout house and says it's no good. She thanks Grandmother for bringing over bread and pies. The oldest son Ambrosch, age nineteen, looks sturdy and has shrewd eyes.
There is also a pretty little girl named Yulka, but Jim thinks that Ántonia is the prettiest, with big eyes and brown hair and skin. Marek, another son, is mentally challenged and has webbed fingers. Suddenly Ántonia comes up to Jim, and they run through the fields hand in hand, with Yulka following them. It is very windy, and after Jim tells Ántonia his name and the word for "sky," they lie down next to each other in the middle of a field and stare up at the blue sky. Ántonia tries to give Jim one of her rings, but Jim doesn't think it's appropriate and refuses.
Ántonia's father calls them back and stares deep into Jim's face. When they return to the dugout, he takes out a Bohemian-English dictionary and gives it to Jim's grandmother. Extremely earnestly, he begs her to teach Ántonia English.
Since the Shimerdas do not speak English, they are dependent on anybody who speaks their language, and they are thus taken advantage of by Krajiek. People who immigrate to the United States need a network of reliable people who can help them accommodate to their new environment, and since the Shimerdas lack this, they are unable to learn the basics of farming and keeping house on the frontier. Jim's grandparents do not really realize this yet and attribute the Shimerdas' destituteness to either cultural differences or Mrs. Shimerda's overbearing personality. They do not know exactly how much help the Shimerdas need, but they are prevented from finding out because of differences in language and culture. The theme of cultural separation between new immigrant families and "Americans" is a central one in the novel.
Despite their differences in language and culture, however, Jim and Ántonia immediately hit it off. Though the narrator doesn't say that much about their first interaction, Ántonia seems to be the leader and the initiator in their relationship. She grabs Jim's hand, speaks excitedly while he listens, and tries to give him her ring. Jim is clearly fascinated by her and is content to follow her around and observe her, and this dynamic will continue to be played out in the rest of the novel.
The chapter concludes with Mr. Shimerda begging Grandmother to teach Ántonia English. Mr. Shimerda recognizes the value of education and is a learned man, and he wants his daughter to have a fair chance in America. As the novel progresses, the role of education in Ántonia's life shifts a great deal, and it is important to notice what factors account for this shift.
Jim reminisces about the countryside in this chapter. He recounts how he used to ride his pony Dude to the post office and to give messages. During this time there are no fences, and Jim likes to ride on the roads bordered by sunflowers. He hears that the Mormons had planted the sunflowers when they were fleeing to Utah, and he therefore associates the roads with freedom.
There are very few trees on the landscape, and he and Ántonia like to go look at the earth-owls and prairie dogs. He describes Ántonia as very opinionated and tells that every day he would give her English lesson and then they would go eat watermelons in the garden. Ántonia would also help Jim's grandmother in the kitchen. According to Jim, Mrs. Shimerda isa very poor housekeeper and makes bad bread. During their first few months in their new home, the Shimerdas are dependent on Krajiek, who is the only person who they can speak to and who gives them bad advice. Krajiek tells them not to go to the city, and he lives with them.
In the novel road imagery is very significant. At this point in the history of the United States, the roads in the frontier are winding and follow the natural contours of the land. They go from point to point, but they do not have the same sense of directness and urgency that city roads have. There are no fences or obstacles blocking the roads, which are free to simply cut across the countryside in whichever way is most convenient. Roads thus represent the freedom, vastness, and unlimited potential of the Western frontier. They take explorers, as well as the persecuted Mormons, to entirely new places where the land is open and undivided and free from the laws and biases of civilization. Jim is discovering new lands and a new life (with his grandparents and Ántonia) at the same time that adventurers and pushing the new roads ever westward.
Even though the Shimerdas are having trouble getting used to their new home, the two young girls never complain and are always happy. One day Ántonia tells Jim that her father had met two Russian men, Peter and Pavel, who speak a dialect similar to the Shimerdas. Pavel is tall, skinny, and wasted-looking; he makes excited gestures, so people think he's an anarchist. Peter is short, fat, pleasant, and very friendly. The two men live together and work together as farmhands.
Mr. Shimerda visits the Russians almost every day, sometimes with Ántonia, and one day he takes Jim along with them. Peter is out washing laundry, and he shows them his cow, which he is very fond of. Pavel is not home, and their house is very neat and organized. Peter gives them fresh melons, and they eat many of them messily on the table. Looking at Ántonia, he sighs because he wishes he hadn't had to leave Russia, where he could have a daughter just like her. Before Jim and the Shimerdas leave, Peter plays the harmonica for them and gives them cucumbers and milk.
In this chapter the Shimerdas finally meet other immigrants that they can talk to. During the beginning of the twentieth century, the type of people immigrating to the United States began to change. Whereas before most immigrants had been of Northern and Western European origin, around the turn of the century, immigration from Eastern Europe increased dramatically. These new immigrants were initially greeted with a great deal of prejudice and were assumed to be inferior, both morally and intellectually, than their Northern and Western European counterparts. My Ántonia reflects the changing face of immigration during this time period, as most of the immigrant families are of Eastern European (and Scandinavian) origin.
As bachelors trying to survive together, Peter and Pavel form a household that though unconventional, works well for them. The two men have a clean house that is decorated and organized, even though there are no women around to take care of them. Jim is favorably impressed with how well put together their home is. In living together, Peter and Pavel are redefining the typical American household and demonstrating how two single men can effectively band together to survive the frontier.
One afternoon Jim and "Tony" are sitting outside in the sun for their English lesson. Tony begins talking about badgers and how they are hunted by special dogs in her native country. It is almost winter, so all the insects, except one, are dead. Tony picks the bug up and begins to speak to it in Bohemian, and it starts to chirp back at her. She begins to cry a little bit because the bug reminds her of an old beggar woman she once knew who used to sing songs for children. When they decide to go back, Ántonia puts the bug in her hair.
As they walk back, Jim marvels at the prairie surrounding them, covered in red grass and cornfields. Every day they walked back through the fields, and the moment seems triumphant, "like a hero's deathheroes who died young and gloriously." They see Mr. Shimerda up ahead and run to overtake him. Ántonia confides that her father is sick, and he shows them three rabbits that he killed for food and fur. As Ántonia shows her father the bug from her hair, Jim looks at Mr. Shimerda's gun. With Ántonia translating, the father tells Jim that he can have the gun when he grows up. The gun is a gift from a very wealthy man whose wedding Mr. Shimerda played at. Jim wonders that the Shimerdas are always wanting to give away their possessions, and he is touched by the old man's look of sadness and pity.
This chapter describes the near-perfect communion with nature that Jim and Ántonia have at this point during the year before winter comes. They feel triumphant and comfortable in nature, and they appreciate all forms of life, even the little grasshopper. Nature and humans are in harmony during the fall, and Jim feels like nature is celebrating him for his life and vitality when he walks home in the sunset. In passages such as these, Cather is once again idealizing the peaceful, wholesome life in the country. However, she does not maintain this fairy tale-like tone through the entirety of the novel, as Mr. Shimerda's failing health implies.
Unlike his daughter Ántonia, Mr. Shimerda is not thriving in the countryside and is becoming depressed. He does not have the luxury of being as carefree as his daughter, and he has to try to master and take advantage of nature in order for his family to survive. Thus, he has to go hunting for rabbits to feed and clothe his family; he must kill wild animals, unlike his daughter who wants to save even a little caterpillar. He has responsibilities that Jim and Ántonia do not have, and as the weather changes and the elements become fierce, he will feel the effects much more strongly.
As noted earlier, the Shimerdas have very different cultural values than the Burdens and other "American" families. Jim does not understand why Mr. Shimerda wants to give him his expensive gun, and he thinks it is foolish that the family is so generous. Raised in an American capitalist society, he values individual competition and private ownership, and he does not see how Mr. Shimerda is not just offering him a possession, but also lifelong loyalty and assistance.
According to Jim, Ántonia often treats him a little condescendingly, until one autumn adventure that changes her opinion of him. One day Jim takes Ántonia on his pony so that she can borrow a spade from Russian Peter. Afterwards, they go look at the ten-acre large prairie dog town. Suddenly, Ántonia screams in Bohemian and points at a huge, coiling snake as big as Jim's leg. Jim rushes up to it and digs into its neck with the spade, while it coils furiously around his feet.
After he kills it, Jim feels sick and is irritable. Ántonia comforts him and tells him how brave he is. They look at the snake, who is five and a half feet long and twenty-four years old. Jim drags the snake behind him on the way home and feels proud of having killed it. Otto Fuchs tells Jim that he is lucky to have killed the snake so easily, and Ántonia tells how brave Jim was. Afterwards, Jim realizes how lucky he was to have had a weapon available and how lazy and old the snake probably was at the time. Nevertheless, Ántonia treats him with more respect from then on.
In our culture snake imagery almost always has Biblical overtones, so we should consider how this chapter relates to the story of the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are inhabiting a paradise of nature, surrounded by fruit, trees, and animals of all sorts. Eve, however, introduces sin into the world by succumbing to the temptations of Satan, as incarnated in the body of a serpent. Like Adam and Eve, Jim and Ántonia are living in a pure, untainted environment that has not yet been exposed to the greedy, corrupting influence of the East. However, in their case, the threatening snake is destroyed. This snake represents the danger and destructiveness of nature itself, and it indicates what a threatening, untamed environment that they are living in. The Nebraska frontier is far from a paradise, as Jim and Ántonia learn during the winter. In addition, Jim is able to destroy the snake not because of any moral fortitude, but simply out of luck. In fact, he feels sick and panicky after killing the snake, not brave or proud.
In this chapter it is important to note how distanced Jim's narrative voice is from the action taking place. He barely describes his own thoughts and feelings when attacking the snake, and he seems to act almost passivelyas if he was drawn into the action without any volition on his part. He is barely present in his own telling of the story, and instead, it is Ántonia's voice and emotions that come through most clearly. Even though Jim kills the snake, Ántonia is the one who truly reacts to the its appearance. This narrative distance recurs throughout the novel but is strikingly apparent in this particular passage. It strengthens the critical interpretation of the novel as really being Ántonia's story, not Jim's.
In this chapter Jim relates the story of the two Russian men, Peter and Pavel. During the autumn they are having a lot of bad luck. Peter owes money to Wick Cutter, a ruthless money-lender from Black Hawk, and he is forced to mortgage everything. In addition, Pavel injured himself while at work and is now bedridden. One day, Jim goes with Mr. Shimerda and Ántonia back to Peter and Pavel's house. Pavel is very sick, and Peter is worried that he will never get better. When they arrive, the wind is blowing loudly, and the coyotes are whining. Delirious and emaciated, Pavel cries out, afraid of the coyotes. He takes medicine, but he seems resentful of Peter, who is described as being simple and docile.
Pavel begins to rage and tell a story that Jim cannot understand and that frightens Ántonia. Suddenly, he begins to cough up blood but then falls asleep again. On the way home, Ántonia tells Jim Pavel's story, and they talk about nothing else for days:
Back in Russia, Peter and Pavel were groomsmen for a friend. After the wedding, there was a big party with a lot of merrymaking, and then everyone got into sleds to go home. Peter and Pavel, with Pavel driving, were in the sled with the bride and groom. It was a moonless night, and wolves began to chase the sleds. One sled veered out of control and tipped over, and the wolves immediately pounced on them. More and more sleds tipped over, and Pavel focused on keeping his sled under control. Soon, all the sleds had tipped over, and Pavel's middle horse was having trouble running. Pavel told the groom that he must throw his bride out of the sled in order to make it lighter, and then he knocked both bride and groom out of the sled. Peter saw nothing. Peter and Pavel were the only two people who survived, and they were shunned by everyone in their village. They had to leave Russia and saved enough money to come to America.
After telling his story, Pavel dies. Peter sells everything in the household and then eats all the melons that were to be saved for the winter. When Mr. Shimerda and Krajiek come to take him to the train so that he can move away to be a railroad cook, his beard is covered in melon juice. Mr. Shimerda is depressed after his friends leave and frequently goes to sit in their empty log house. Ántonia and Jim keep Pavel's secret between them, and Jim often thinks about it before he goes to bed.
In this chapter Jim hears the fairy tale-like story of Pavel and the wolves. Pavel's illness and death marks the beginning of the winter hardship for the frontier inhabitants, and his story emphasizes how much at the mercy of nature humans actually are. The wedding guests that Pavel talks about were helpless when chased by the wolves, and similarly, the Shimerdas and the Burdens will be intensely vulnerably to the bitter, impersonal cold. After a long and idyllic autumn, Pavel's death is the first of a number of winter tragedies.
Pavel's story is also significant because it brings Jim and Ántonia closer together. It is scary and exotic, much different from the huge, empty prairie that surrounds them. Since they tell no one else Pavel's secret, it is something that only they share. In addition, Pavel's story casts America as the land of opportunitythe only place where he and Peter can go to escape their past. Only in America can the two men begin anew and keep their dramatic tale a well-hidden secret.
Pavel's death emphasizes how important human relationships are on the frontier. With Pavel's death, Mr. Shimerda loses his one friend and can now only speak to his family and, brokenly, to the Burdens. He becomes completely isolated from outside social contacts and loses the only people who can really offer him good help and well-meaning advice.
In December it snows for the first time. A little way from the house, there is a circle in the grass where the Indians used to ride their horses around, and Jim thinks that the pattern in the snow looks like a good omen. Jim begins to ride around in the snow in a sleigh that Otto Fuchs makes him. One day Jim takes Ántonia and Yulka for a ride. Though they do not have adequate winter clothes and are very cold, they are excited to be away from their shabby home and scolding mother, and they go all the way to Russian Peter's house. The two girls want to stay there forever.
When they go back, it becomes unbearably cold, and after dropping the Shimerdas off, Jim drives back alone and catches quinsy, which keeps him in the house for two weeks. Jim is cozy indoors and reads "The Swiss Family Robinson" to his grandmother. During the winter, the family's life revolves around eating food and keeping warm. Sometimes they sing and eat popcorn or taffy around the fire.
Jim greatly admires Otto and Jake. Otto has done all sorts of work, while Jake is barely literate and often violent, although very soft-hearted. Both are very hard workers. Otto tells a funny story about how he had to accompany a woman on the boat to America and how he got a very bad reputation because she had three babies on the way over.
At first the winter is very pleasant and non-threatening, and Jim likes to admire the winter landscape and drive his sleigh around. The Indian circle in the grass reminds the reader that though the fields are empty and undeveloped, they have a long history that stretches way back before white settlers came west. Though Jim's family and the Shimerdas are new settlers in Nebraska, the land had been inhabited by Native Americans for centuries before. While Jim thinks that the Indian circle is a good omen, it is also a sign that the white settlers never know the land as well as they think they dothat it will surprise them and that it will endure long after they are gone.
When Jim, Ántonia, and Yulka visit Russian Peter's house, they talk about staying there forever. Although Jim mentions the episode casually, it is clear that the little rendezvous had a lasting impression on him. In fact, his tone during the entirety of Book I is one of happy contentment, and he is very much infatuated with Ántonia, though he doesn't overtly say so. He recounts their shared adventures in a tone of simple delight which makes it obvious that those simple, innocent experiences are ones that he wishes could have gone on forever.
After Jim gets sick, he reads "The Swiss Family Robinson," which is about an idealized, traditional family that lives an adventurous, happy life together in a treehouse. As in the first chapter of the novel, Jim finds this fictional world much less interesting than the one that he is actually living in. In addition, though Jim is an orphan and therefore has a less than ideal family situation, he is clearly very happy living with his extended family: his grandparents, Otto, and Jake. Jim does not long for a mother and father, but instead rejoices that he has found new, caring people to spend this epoch of his life with.
For several weeks Jim doesn't hear anything from the Shimerdas because he's inside sick. One day Otto says that he saw Mr. Shimerda hunting, wearing the one winter coat that the whole family shares. Apparently the family is so poor that they eat prairie dogs, so the next day Grandmother decides to bring over food and chickens. When they arrive, Mrs. Shimerda speaks accusingly to them in Bohemian and shows them how little food they have. The dugout house is dingy and sad.
When Jake brings in the food, Mrs. Shimerda begins to weep. Grandmother is appalled to discover that the girls sleep in a small cave in the dirt wall, and Mr. Shimerda, with Ántonia translating, explains that in the old country they were a very respectable family. They still have some money left, and once it is spring, they will be ready to build a nice farm. They are just having trouble their first winter. Grandmother gives them some advice.
Before they leave, Mrs. Shimerda measures out a pint of some pungent, earthy substance to give to the Burdens. On the way back, Grandmother comments on how lacking in sense and resources the Shimerdas seem. When she looks at what Mrs. Shimerda gave her, she doesn't know what it is and throws it out. Jim tastes a bit of it, and only much later in life realizes that the food was dried mushrooms that the Shimerdas carried over from their homeland.
In this chapter Grandmother finds it a little hard to reconcile two conflicting cultural values: the American appreciation of individualism and self-sufficiency on the one hand, and a Christian commitment to goodwill and caretaking on the other. So when she visits the Shimerdas, she feels as if they should be able to take care of themselves, but she also feels guilty that they are so impoverished and wants to help them. She repeatedly says that the Shimerdas lack common sense, but at the same time she fails to realize that they are immigrants to a new country and have no experience with farming. She wants to give them things to help out, but she is irritated when Mrs. Shimerda acts as if she deserves help. In the end, she does help them, despite Mrs. Shimerda's demanding atttitude and inability to quickly adapt to the family's new environment.
It is interesting, but not particularly surprising, that a lot of the cultural distance between the Shimerdas and the Burdens is played out in issues surrounding food. In an earlier chapter, Grandmother criticizes Mrs. Shimerda for making bread that she perceives as being gray and sour, and in this chapter she is distrustful of the powdered mushrooms that the other woman gives her. As is often the case, differences in culture are often most noticeable in terms of what people eat, and though a good woman, Grandmother is no stranger to cultural prejudice. Although the adult Jim is aware of this lack of understanding surrounding Bohemian culture, in recounting his childhood experiences he is careful to maintain a distant, reserved, and nonjudgmental tone. He does not criticize his grandmother for not understanding the Shimerdas' customs, and he even reveals his own failures in understanding them. The adult Jim presents both perspectives, and once again, it is due to Cather's narrative skill that she is able to believably manage this narrative juggling.