Analysis Pages

Character Analysis in My Ántonia

Jim: James Quayle “Jim” Burden is the narrator of the story. He was orphaned when he was ten and moved from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. He comes from a relatively wealthy family, and his friendship with Antonia and the other immigrant girls often puts him in conflict with the social expectations that come with his status. Jim is characterized as smart and well-liked, graduating as high school valedictorian before attending college and eventually becoming a successful lawyer. Despite his financial success, Jim stays in contact with the figures and places of his youth, devoting his legal career to developing and settling the West. His feelings for Antonia are a complicated mix of platonic, familial, and romantic.

Antonia: In contrast to Jim, Antonia is the daughter of poor immigrants from Bohemia. Cheerful and hardworking, she takes on a large amount of physical labor, which ages her prematurely but does not break her spirit. She becomes like an older sister to Jim during their childhood, and he undertakes the task of teaching her to speak English. Although she comes to Nebraska as a stranger and suffers many hardships, she comes to genuinely love the land. Despite her many misfortunes, she remains resilient and carves out a happy life for herself.

Mr. Shimerda: Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda leaves a lasting impact on Jim and Antonia. He was a well-respected weaver and musician in Bohemia and only moved to the United States at his wife’s insistence that it would provide a better life for their son. He becomes increasingly depressed over the way his life has changed after moving and eventually dies by suicide. His death remains a source of shared grief between Antonia and Jim, with the two often convening at Mr. Shimerda’s grave to talk or sit. Antonia continues to cultivate the land that he sacrificed everything for, nurturing his memory in the process.

Gaston Cleric: Cleric is an academic who takes Jim under his wing after Jim begins attending University in Lincoln. He introduces Jim to “the world of ideas” and helps him transition into the world of academia. Cleric has a strong admiration for Greek and Roman mythology, often referencing sites and stories during his lectures and discussions. When Jim starts neglecting his schoolwork in favor of spending time with Lena Lingard, Cleric convinces him to relocate and attend Harvard.

Lena Lingard: The stories of the Black Hawk immigrant girls provide a subversion of the usual narratives of women’s financial dependence. Lena Lingard, who the people of Black Hawk viewed as an immoral flirt, becomes a successful and independent dressmaker. Jim and Lena enjoy a brief romance in Lincoln before he moves on to Harvard, and she tells him when they part that she never intends to marry because she doesn’t want to be accountable to anyone. Men are drawn to Lena because of her good looks and carefree disposition, but Lena is ambitious and driven, allowing her to find the success and independence she desires.

Character Analysis Examples in My Ántonia:


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" More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood...."   (Introduction)

Antonia’s introduction establishes her as less of a person and more of an idea or concept. Rather than an individual, Antonia represents the frontier itself through all of the memories and people she came into contact with. This introductory statement foreshadows the events of Jim’s story and the importance of Antonia to his development and life. She is his inspiration for writing this story, and she represents more than just a childhood friendship to Jim. Instead, she embodies his boundless passion for the West that he has made a career out of exploring and developing.

"hieroglyphics..."   (Book I - Chapter I)

Hieroglyphics were the written symbols used by ancient Egyptians. Jim notices the hieroglyphics on the cufflinks of the passenger conductor and further describes the man’s gaudy display of his membership badges and buttons. This impresses the young, inexperienced Jim, highlighting his relative youth and fascination with anything “exotic” or outside of his realm of knowledge.

"trundled..."   (Book I - Chapter V)

The noun “trundled” means to be transported by a wheeled object, like a wheelbarrow. Peter and Pavel, despite being relatively isolated from the rest of the community, have carved out a living for themselves on the frontier. Peter’s pride at being able to own a cow speaks to the reason why so many people decided to migrate west: it was hard living but there was opportunities for upward mobility and the pursuit of the “American Dream” that didn’t exist in the more established areas of the east.

"feeble minstrel..."   (Book I - Chapter VI)

Grasshoppers have a very short life cycle: hatch in the spring, lay eggs in the fall, and die shortly after. As the seasons change, the “feeble minstrel” that Ántonia and Jim catch is likely the last of the mature grasshoppers, indicating that winter is coming. It also serves as a metaphor for the homesickness both Ántonia and her father feel, through the comparison to Old Hata: the grasshopper “sings” because Antonia has shown it kindness, just as the old beggar woman would back in Bohemia. For Mr. Shimerda, the sound is beautiful but also a sad reminder of what he has left behind.

"stag's head on the cock...."   (Book I - Chapter VI)

To have a “stag’s head on the cock” means that the gun had a carving of a deer’s head on its hammer. The ornateness of the gun and Mr. Shimerda’s story about receiving it in return for playing at a rich man’s wedding indicate the loss of status that the Shimerdas have experienced. Despite moving to the United States for a “better life,” Mr. Shimerda has been forced to give up his career and social connections, resulting in his increasing depression.

"child with croup..."   (Book I - Chapter VIII)

The disease croup affects a breathing because of congestion in the lungs and is most common in infants and young children. It is possibly an older name for whooping cough, a disease that killed many young children in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Pavel’s rage leaves him, he is left weak and childlike, barely able to draw breath. His decision to tell the story of the wolves and the wedding in this moment indicates that he knows he is going to die and wants to confess to someone before doing so.

"I help make this land one good farm.”..."   (Book I - Chapter XVII)

Rather than taking Mrs. Burden’s suggestion and going to school with Jim, Antonia chooses to work the land with her family. She takes a great deal of pride in her growing strength and begins to develop a mind for money. She starts taking on work that Jim and other Black Hawk residents find unbecoming for a young woman. However, Antonia is proud of the work she does, and rather than complain about the tasks, she tries her hardest to keep up with Ambrosche and help the farm flourish. Most of her motivation seems to come from her memory of her father, who sacrificed everything to bring his children to the frontier. Rather than resenting the land and its impact on her father, she instead chooses to nurture it.

"perfunctory..."   (Book II - Chapter II)

The adjective “perfunctory” refers to an action carried out without interest or effort. Mrs. Harling cannot do anything perfunctorily, characterizing her as someone who does everything with thought and intentionality. Throughout the novel, she is portrayed as a charismatic and energetic woman who ends up leaving a lasting impact on both Jim and Antonia.

"an age when she should still have been in pinafores...."   (Book II - Chapter IV)

Pinafores are aprons worn over dresses in order to keep them clean while working or playing. Since Lena was one of the older children in her family, she had to do farm work from a young age and was often out in the fields working in tattered clothes. Ole Benson takes notice of her at an age when she should “still have been in pinafores,” leading to the rumor that she seduced him despite her youth. Lena laughs off the incident and seems largely indifferent towards the opinions of the townspeople, who are quick to blame her for the indiscretions of grown men.

"schottische..."   (Book II - Chapter XII)

A “schottische” is a type of dance done in the round with hops at certain intervals. Dances like the ones Jim starts going to with Antonia and the other working girls at the Firehouse were seen as “improper” for respectable young people. Jim, who comes from a wealthy family, is looked down on for associating with the immigrant girls rather than socializing with other wealthy americans.

"Dante's veneration for Virgil...."   (Book III - Chapter I)

The Italian poet Dante Aligheri (1265–1321) is best known for writing the three-part narrative poem The Divine Comedy. Over the course of the poem, Dante travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven. For his journey through hell and most of purgatory, Virgil serves as Dante’s guide, establishing a strong link between the first and second parts as well as highlighting Dante’s admiration for Virgil, which Cleric and Jim discuss. The relationship between Dante and Virgil is one of student and mentor, which echoes the dynamic between Jim and Cleric.

"“the bride of old Tithonus”..."   (Book III - Chapter I)

In Roman mythology, Aurora (Eos, in Greek), the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with a mortal man named Tithonus. He was granted imperfect immortality, living forever but still aging. Cleric watching “The bride of old Tithonus” rise out of the sea is a metaphor for watching the sun rise. This characterizes Cleric as worldly and knowledgeable about Roman traditions and mythology and as someone who enjoys flaunting it. In contrast to the wisdom that comes from living on a farm, Cleric introduces Jim to “the world of ideas” and helps him see life differently.

"Tragic Theater at Pompeii,..."   (Book III - Chapter I)

The Tragic Theatre of Pompeii is a famous Roman structure buried by the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The excavation of the site began in 1748 and has continued intermittently over the years. Roman culture and history has always occupied a significant space within academia. Jim’s new lodgings and his friendship with Gaston Cleric represent a shift in his social situation. He is no longer running around with immigrant children in the West but has instead entered “proper” society as his family has been hoping he would.

"Yet I found curious survivals; some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new...."   (Book III - Chapter I)

As Jim begins his new life as an academic in Lincoln, he finds himself reflecting on his childhood in Black Hawk and the people and places he left behind. Despite describing his time at the university as “some of the happiest of his life,” he finds the most meaning through connections to the frontier. The “world of ideas” that Gaston Cleric introduces him to is not enough to consume his attention entirely. It is worth noting that while the story follows Jim’s life, it is a story he wrote about Antonia. Even in parts of the story where she is not physically present, the land and memories she represents continue to be important to Jim and his development.

"Muse..."   (Book III - Chapter II)

In Greek Mythology, nine Muses were thought to embody and inspire the arts. They were daughters of Zeus and were often invoked by artists at the start of epic poems, histories, or songs. As Cleric lectures about what it would mean to “bring the Muse” into the country, Jim reflects on their relationship and Cleric’s personal investment in the concept. For Cleric, who idolizes Virgil and talks in poetic metaphors, academia and the world of ideas is home. However, despite Jim’s induction into the world of scholarly pursuits, it is the simple pleasures of his home and Antonia that call to him.

"Traviata”..."   (Book III - Chapter III)

La Dame aux Camelias, meaning “the lady with the Camellias” and often shortened to Camille, is an 1848 novel and play by Alexandre Dumas. “La Traviata” is an opera adapted from Dumas’s work by Giuseppe Verdi in 1853. Jim and Lena go to Camille together and are mutually impacted by the tragic love story between the courtesan Marguerite, the titular lady with the Camellias, and a naive young man named Armand. Jim looks on Lena with pride and genuinely enjoys spending time with her because she is easygoing and reminds him of home. He also notes her independent nature as she refuses to allow for others to pay her way.

"noblesse oblige,”..."   (Book III - Chapter IV)

The French expression noblesse oblige translates to “the obligations of the nobility.” Its historical roots lie in the belief that those with status and wealth have an obligation to help the poor. However, in the context of the conversation between Jim and Ordinsky, the implication seems to be more that Ordinsky expects Jim to behave nobly towards Lena since he has claimed his intentions are noble. The situation with Ordinsky and the Colonel echoes what happened with Ole Benson when Lena was younger. Her looks and easygoing manner are attractive to men, and her general indifference towards how people view her suggests that she does not bother to discourage the attraction.

"shocking wheat..."   (Book IV - Chapter IV)

“Shocking wheat” is the act of harvesting and bundling wheat. Antonia has continued living in Black Hawk and working the land, saying that she is happier there than in the city. Jim plans to attend law school in the city, but throughout his education his thoughts have always wandered to his childhood adventures with Antonia. This conversation suggests a symbolic connection between Antonia and the land. She feels her father’s spirit and likes the familiarity of everything. While Jim and the others have branched out into the world, Antonia has stayed behind to continue nurturing the rocks and trees that raised the Black Hawk kids. She has also brought a daughter into the world, continuing the cycle of life in the country.

"“He wasn't any Rockefeller,”..."   (Book V - Chapter I)

This is an allusion to John D. Rockefeller and his family, who made a fortune in the oil industry. Leo’s knowledge of the world and sarcastic tendencies establish him as one of the smartest of Antonia’s children and the most like his mother. He also inherits Mr. Shimerda’s beloved violin and plays it “quite well,” which emphasizes the multigenerational aspects of frontier life. Antonia is happy with her circumstances, and her children are a continuation of her family and herself. Rather than viewing Antonia as common and battered, as he feared, Jim comes to understand that what she lacks in the material wealth of the Rockefellers, she makes up for in vitality and love.

"kolaches,..."   (Book V - Chapter I)

“Kolaches” are a type of European sweet bread. They are made out of pockets of dough filled with fruits, jams, or nuts. The kolaches and the fact that Antonia primarily speaks Bohemian with her children indicate that she has blended the culture of her early childhood with frontier life. She lives a simple, hard life, but she is still full of vitality and has shared the joys of her childhood with her own children by telling them about her adventures with Jim and the rest of the Black Hawk kids. Jim stayed away for twenty years because he was afraid of seeing Antonia broken down by the years, but his visit shows how she has thrived as a farmer and mother.

"journeyman..."   (Book V - Chapter II)

A “journeyman” is someone who has finished an apprenticeship in a trade and is able to set up their own business. As Anton Cuzak tells Jim his life story, a companionship forms between the two. Anton and Antonia have a good relationship, both of them easygoing and mild. According to the introduction, Jim is married by this point, but he makes no mention of his own wife. Instead, he seems to carve out a space for himself in the Cuzak family, offering to take the boys on hunting trips and wanting to grow closer with Anton. Rather than being a husband or sweetheart to Antonia, Jim is becoming family in a different sense as he supports her goals as a mother and nurturer of the land.

"yokemate...."   (Book V - Chapter II)

Horses and cattle that pull carts have their heads held in a wooden device, called a yoke. Yokemates were pairs of oxen or horses that were harnessed together. Anton Cuzak looks at everyone “sideways,” like an horse looking at its yokemate. Yokemates were equals in terms of the duty they were performing, which suggests that Anton looks at everyone as an equal, including his wife. The metaphor also fits with the Cuzaks’ circumstances as farmers. Their way of life is simple but they share a respectful and equal partnership.

"trips I meant to take with the Cuzak boys..."   (Book V - Chapter III)

Jim plans to become more involved with Antonia and her family going forward, offering to take her boys on hunting trips and spend time with Anton in town. Antonia was like an adoptive mother or sister to Jim as a child, and Jim’s complicated romantic feelings for her likely stem from that aspect of their relationship. Their romance never came to fruition, but their mutual love for the lands of their childhood and each other holds strong. For Jim, Antonia and the landscapes and nostalgia she represents have always been home. Now he has returned to her, coming full circle to the simple joys of his childhood.

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