Willa Cather spent much of her youth in rural Nebraska. My Ántonia contains much that was taken from those years. She knew a Bohemian girl who is the prototype for Ántonia. The area was being farmed by immigrants. Many of the book’s characters and incidents are drawn from life. Black Hawk is actually her home of Red Cloud. To some extent, the book is history, and much of it is autobiography. Cather reveals this aspect not only through factual elements but also through the pervasive nostalgic mood in which she wraps the story. Above all, however, My Ántonia is fiction. Cather has transmuted her past into a romantic story, one that goes beneath experience to deeper significance.
Woman is the key theme of this complex work: her roles, her ultimate meaning. Strong female figures dominate My Ántonia; the men are either basically nice but docile, like Jim and Cuzak, or repellent, like Ambrosch. Most of the women, with the exception of Mrs. Shimerda and some of the crabbed Black Hawk ladies, are admirable. The immigrant women are the real heroines who defy the male-dominated Victorian culture of respectability that posited women as sheltered, fragile, inferior beings. Through these girls, Cather says that women should be allowed to live the way they wish, have the same chance for pleasure as men, and be able to compete equally. Lena and Tiny show that women can break free. Escaping Black Hawk, which stands for the stultifying older America, they have established themselves in the more exciting urban scene. Although they are better off than the trapped women of Black Hawk, they seem to be hardened, lonely. There remains a void in their lives. At the time she wrote this book, Cather was living on her own in the urban East as a professional writer. She was a Lena, a Tiny who now perhaps looked back with envy at the pioneer girls who returned to the land. It is these women, patterned after ones Cather had known, who in My Ántonia most realize their potential. Producing large families and taking charge of their own farms, they prove to be the best models, the most complete women. Ántonia is their representative, their symbol. Cather gives her mythic stature. By the end of the book, she is the mother of a new stalwart race and the shaper of destiny. She also stands for the land’s goodness and fertility. Ántonia becomes an earth goddess.
Cather invests the land in My Ántonia with great meaning. This book is also about the prairie, about the vast environment that awaited those who sought to farm it. Although the prairie is presented as sometimes harsh and dangerous, especially in the winter, Cather, through Burden’s eyes, conjures up a basically beneficent land that is almost magical in its beauty during the growing seasons. When she lived in Nebraska, she was not enamored of the prairie; now she imparts to it Edenic qualities, especially after it has been farmed. It was magnificent before the coming of the pioneers, but the plow has made it sublime. This is a pastoral story, with the land as garden and farming as the ideal existence. It is an old theme leading back through American and European literature to classical times. It is significant, however, that it had almost always been a masculine story, told by men with males as protagonists. Willa Cather is the first American author to claim it for women and, through Ántonia as both pioneer and earth goddess, offer a female vision of the taming of the land.
That Ántonia and her female friends are immigrants is also critical. Cather was writing at a time when many native-born Americans demanded that immigrants should conform to their culture or be excluded from the country. Cather believed, however, that their heritages were important, that they brought energy and enrichment to the United States, to a society too much like Black Hawk. Ántonia and the other immigrants, while opening up new territories, were reinvigorating the older lands.
Although Cather celebrates Ántonia’s world at the book’s conclusion, there is nevertheless a growing elegiac tone. She sees signs that the next immigrant generation is becoming Americanized, losing its special qualities. Cather also knew that by 1918 there were really no significant farming frontiers left and that family agriculture was probably in terminal decline. She may well have thought that the Nebraska of Ántonia and of Willa Cather was disappearing.
Cather fashioned the novel in an unusual way. People emerge, disappear from the story for some time, and then reappear. Seemingly minor characters often have more real importance than do others with larger roles. The narrative continually stops for stories, some relating to the plot, others irrelevant. Yet everything eventually comes together. The stories are particularly effective. When the novel begins to become too sentimental, Cather provides a short tale of violence, and she has some extremely nasty ones: a tramp jumping into a threshing machine, a domestic murder-suicide, an attempted rape. Such episodes bring the reader back to reality quickly. When events become grim, however, softer incidents or lyrical descriptions of the environment appear to restore the more romantic mood. Cather utilizes archetypes, realistic details, metaphors, and symbols. Sometimes her prose is plain and direct, and sometimes it is supple or lush. She seems to be concerned primarily with using whatever will help her elicit feelings, an emotional rather than an intellectual response from the reader.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this book is its disarming simplicity. There are no witty phrases, no complicated characters, indeed, there is scarcely any plot. Yet there is a quiet, probing depth in Willa Cather’s writing. The figure of the pioneer woman Ántonia Shimerda concentrates in itself a complex of values, an axis about which My Ántonia revolves. The novel illustrates two classical themes of American literature, reaching back into the nineteenth century for its plot and beyond its time for its artistic and moral direction.
Cather, the product of a genteel Virginia upbringing, was early in life transplanted to the frontier and forced to confront those vast blank spaces over which humans had not yet succeeded in establishing the dominion of custom and convention. She saw a few brave settlers in the wilderness, meeting the physical and moral challenges of having to act straight out of their instincts without benefit of civilized constraints; for her these people, particularly the women, are a race apart. Ántonia, with her noble simplicity, is among other things a monument to that vigorous race.
Ántonia is also an embodiment of a long tradition of fictional heroes of British and American romantic tales. At the time the novel was written, literature and criticism in the United States were undergoing a change. The direction of literature in the new century owed much to the developing sciences; Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser appeared with their sociological novels that signaled the rise of naturalism. Fictional characters began to be viewed as interpreting in their acts the flaws and beauties of laws, institutions, and social structures. My Ántonia fits an older mold, in which the effects of colonial Puritanism can be detected. That mode demanded that the hero overcome or fail to overcome the strictures and hazards of his or her situation by wit, strength, or courage. This convention draws from the very wellspring of American life, the democratic belief in the wholeness and self-sufficiency of the individual, in personal culpability, and in the absolute value of the personal conscience.
Cather makes no indictment of the society that scorns and undervalues Ántonia and the other hired girls; the social conventions are, with the land, simply the medium through which she relates the tale. It is the peculiarly American sense of starting afresh in a new land, that sense of moral isolation, that adds poignancy to the struggles of individuals. This theme of American newness and innocence, which R. B. Lewis calls “The Theme of the American Adam,” has as a natural concomitant elements of temptation and fortunate fall. The serpent in Ántonia’s story is the town of Black Hawk, where she quarrels with her benefactors and runs afoul of Larry Donovan. Seduced and abandoned, she returns to the land but, as she tells Jim Burden, her experience made it possible for her to prepare her own children how to face the world.
If the town in one sense represents Ántonia’s downfall, it is also the grey backdrop against which she shines; in the same way, the prairie is both her antagonist and the natural force of which she is the flower. Significantly, Jim first finds her actually living in the earth. Early in the novel, she begins to take on characteristics of the land: “Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf.” “But,” the novel continues, “she has such splendid color in her cheeks—like those big dark red plums.” She works the land, makes gardens, and nourishes the Harling children with food and stories. Cather insists on her connection with the fertile earth, the virgin land, which is in this novel the source of physical vigor and the best resource of the soul. Jim describes his first experience of the land as a feeling of cosmic unity: Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.
The people who live on the prairie seem to him open and giving like the land; he says of Ántonia that “everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart.” By contrast, the life of the town is pinched and ungenerous: “People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution.”
Ántonia, in all her acts, shows the naturalness and boundless generosity of the plains; she gives unstintingly of her strength and loyalty to her surly brother, to Jim, and the Harling children, to Larry Donovan, and to her husband, Cuzak; and she pours out a flood of love and nurture upon her children. She alludes several times to her dislike of towns and cities and to her feeling of familiar friendship with the countryside. Toward the end of the book, the figure of Ántonia and the infinite fertility of the land come together symbolically in an extremely vivid and moving image. Ántonia and her children have been showing Jim the contents of their fruit cellar, and as they step outside, the children “all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight.” The cave might be the apotheosis of Ántonia’s first home on the prairie, the latter redeeming the former by its fruitfulness.
Above all, the novel celebrates the early life on the plains of which Jim and Ántonia were a part. The long digressions about Peter and Pavel, Blind D’Arnault, the Cutters, and others; the profoundly elegiac descriptions of Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs; and the sharply caught details of farm life, town life, and landscape are all elements employed in the re-creation of a simpler and better time, a hard life now beyond recall but lovingly remembered.