Analysis Pages

Themes in My Ántonia

How Identity Informs the Concepts of Success and Happiness: My Antonia primarily follows the lives of Jim and Antonia, but they are surrounded by a wide range of characters with their own successes and hardships. One of the main thematic ideas of the novel is how success changes based on perspective. Jim stayed away from Antonia for twenty years out of fear that her circumstances had broken her, but he instead finds her worn but happy with a faithful husband and many children. In contrast, Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard both achieve their goals of independence, rejecting the narrative of the nurturing mother and wife because of their experiences as girls growing up on the frontier. Jim begins to understand the importance of perspective after reconnecting with Antonia, realizing that despite her poverty and hardships, she is happy with her role as a mother and laborer.

The Role of Memory in Shaping Identity: Memory plays a major role in shaping the way characters interact with each other. Even when Jim is far away from Black Hawk, his thoughts still wander to the figures from his childhood, like Pavel and Peter, Mr. Shimerda, and Antonia. As much as his family and Gaston Cleric want him to be a pure academic, his upbringing in the West left a lasting impression on how he views the world. Antonia comes to embody these memories for Jim, all while maintaining her photo collection as a physical tether between the adventures of their youth and their adult lives.

Academic Knowledge vs. Emotional Knowledge: Jim, as a wealthy Nebraskan, is expected to attend school and eventually go to college. Immigrant children were given less educational and financial options, which meant they primarily relied on their families and friends for life lessons and skills. The educational divides contribute to the prejudice towards immigrant characters, who often had different religious and linguistic backgrounds than their wealthier American neighbors. Jim rebels against this division, preferring the company of the immigrant girls when he moves to town and synthesizing the emotional and cultural lessons he learns from them with his academic pursuits. He takes this into his adult life as well, combining his profession as a lawyer with his emotional connection to the West.

Themes 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.

"sod houses and dugouts..."   (Book I - Chapter II)

Common building materials like wood and stone were in limited supply on the frontier, so pioneers had to make do when building shelters. Sod houses were made by stacking squares of sod, thickly packed soil held together by dense prairie grass roots, up into walls, which were then often covered with tarps or wood panels. They were incredibly cheap but also required routine maintenance since they were not water resistant. Dugouts were an older and even cheaper form of dwelling, made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a makeshift roof. The fact that the Burdens live in a wooden house, rather than a sod house or a dugout, indicates that they are relatively wealthy.

"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.

"inquisitions..."   (Book I - Chapter XV)

An “inquisition” is similar to a trial, in which an interrogator examines a suspect through a series of severe question. The most infamous inquisition is the Spanish Inquisition, and this is an allusion to that event, which took place in Europe from the Middle Ages until it was officially ended by decree in 1834. During the Inquisition, many people, specifically religious minorities, were tortured and killed because of supposed heresy. The fact that the Norwegians refuse to allow Mr. Shimerda to be buried on their land because of his Catholicism and his suicide showcases the religious conflicts that took place between the different groups in the West. Mrs. Burden alludes to the inquisition as a way of condemning the exclusionary treatment and plans to open a more “liberal-minded” plot in the future.

"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.

"Laplander's..."   (Book II - Chapter VI)

“Laplander,” sometimes shortened to “Lapp,” is a derogatory term for the Sami people, a largely nomadic group indigenous to northern Europe. The Sami have a long history of being discriminated against by their neighbors in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. As northern Europeans began immigrating to North America, they brought their prejudice towards the Sami with them. Many Sami families who came to the United States hid their heritage in order to avoid this discrimination, but the negative stereotypes surrounding them persisted, as evidenced by Jim’s unflattering depictions. On top of class divisions between wealthier americans and immigrants, national origin provided a further source of division between different immigrant communities.

" go into service. ..."   (Book II - Chapter IX)

Rather than allowing slavery to migrate west after the American Civil War, northerners devised the Homestead Acts of the 1860s, which offered free land to people willing to move to the West and farm. Many of those who took advantage of the Homestead Acts were poor and saw this as an opportunity to improve their circumstances. However, most had no farming experience and found the lands difficult to work. This led to the practice of sending daughters “into service” in nearby towns to become cooks, maids, and nannies for wealthier families so they could send money home. Jim’s ability to attend school and pursue college provides a contrast to the lives of Antonia, Lena, and the other working girls, emphasizing their very different socioeconomic circumstances.

"sea temples at Paestum:..."   (Book III - Chapter I)

Paestum is an ancient Greek city in modern-day Italy. It is known for three well-preserved temples to the Grecian goddesses Hera and Athena. During one of Cleric’s poetic lectures about the beauty of the ancient world and poetry, Jim begins to realize he is not meant to be an academic. His thoughts range to the lands and people of his childhood, and they “fill” his head and leave no room for more academic knowledge. Even though he has left the lands of his youth, his memories continue to tether him to it, emphasizing the idea that the frontier is a living presence kept alive in the memories of those it nurtured.

"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.

"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.

"tintype..."   (Book V - Chapter I)

A “tintype” is an early photographic process that helped popularize photography because it was cheap and quick. Antonia’s photo collection reinforces her role as a memory-keeper. She has remained in the country and become a loving mother to her children, sharing with them her memories of childhood and teaching them to cherish the frontier land as she does. Just as the land nurtured Jim and Antonia, now she has grown her own orchard and her children have their own adventures. Their experiences and lives emphasize the cyclical nature of life and the reciprocal relationship between farmers and their land.

"“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.

"befrogged riding costume..."   (Book V - Chapter I)

“Frogs” are braided decorative fastenings for jackets and are comparable to fancy buttons. That Frances Harling can afford a decorative jacket indicates that she has made a name for herself with her business smarts. Antonia’s photos of all her old friends serve as a reminder that while others have moved on, Antonia has kept their childhood memories alive. She tells stories to her children and keeps up with her old friends, acting as a tether to the lands of their youth and encouraging the same energy to continue through her kids.

"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.

"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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