“Punished For the Loveliness of Summer”: Willa Cather’s My Antonia

In Book II, Chapter 6 of My Antonia, Jim, the young protagonist, is fighting against the cold winter wind which has just overtaken the land. As he reflects,

“The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify—it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: “This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth.” It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer.”

This passage embodies so much of the book itself, where the stark, cold truth of existence casts long shadows over the beautiful reverie of the author’s ‘summer.’ My Antonia is a book suffused with longing and regret, as the writer of the book looks back on the most fascinating woman he’s ever known, the Czech immigrant Antonia Shimerda, and his bucolic prairie upbringing in Nebraska. As the story begins, his life is in the grips of winter—a man of the city, with a rather cold marriage, he runs into a friend who also knew Antonia (the actual author/editor of the book—establishing a clever frame story, to which the novel never returns). His life explodes into one final spring, prompting him to write the story of his life with Antonia, though she fades in and out of his reminisces. He offers the book to his friend as a hastily written draft, though he claims “I didn’t arrange or rearrange.  I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Antonia’s name recalls to me.” This suggests that what follows is not a novel per se, but a fictional memoir, or a beautiful poem of the plains. It’s also a kind of innocence/experience story much as William Blake might haven written had he been a woman and raised in Nebraska. The novel’s epigram “optima dies...prima fugit” (the best days are the first to flee) carries through the novel, as the author’s hopes and dreams are all realized, yet his best days were those of his childhood, when he and Antonia were young, watching thunderheads on the horizon and listening to tales of the old country.

The novel opens with Jim moving from Virginia to Nebraska after his parents die, so he can live with his grandparents (slightly autobiographical, since Cather made the same move, but with her parents). As he arrives in town, he notices a family of immigrants, whom he later learns are the Shimerda family, come to make a life on the plains. Jim’s kind-hearted grandmother takes pity on the family, who have purchased a miserable hovel from a fellow countryman and struggle to eke out an existence. Indeed, the father is a nostalgia-plagued musician who has no head for farming and no love for the new world; this leaves his wife, a somewhat vain, grasping woman, to keep their three children fed and their farm in some sort of working order. Jim befriends the children, particularly Antonia, the middle child, who longs to learn English and go to school. With the father’s blessing—but much less the mother’s—Jim tutors Antonia in English and brings her into the family fold.

Together, the two children go off on adventures, meet the other immigrants in town— including two Russians who have a terrible past—and learn that not everyone finds the life they’re looking for in America. As Antonia tells Jim, “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.” This strikes a surprisingly modern note, as few in the community welcome the new immigrants, though they work themselves to the bone to prosper—and become the true inheritors of the prairie (as future chapters reveal). However, Antonia is also speaking of her own father, who cannot find peace away from home, dreaming of old friends and old lands. Eventually, he kills himself, despite the love he has for his children. As Jim reflects, “I remembered the account of Dives in torment, and shuddered. But Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish; he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer.” For so many people in the book, the winter always threatens to eat up the promise of spring as punishment for past joys. In his old age, Jim can perhaps relate even more to poor Mr. Shimerda, as he finds himself stranded in his own foreign country: the future, where he has success, stability, but only memories of the ones he loved.

Each chapter can almost stand alone as a short story, haunting in its evocation of landscape, character, and memory. Some are mere vignettes, as when Jim and the immigrant girls (all teenagers now) witness the sun set behind a distant tractor: “Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.” Others are dramatic narratives, as when Russian Peter recounts a fateful trip across the wolf-haunted plains of Russia with a wedding party. Each “book” of the novel roughly traces Jim’s development, with the longest being the first book, documenting his childhood relationship with Antonia and her family. “The Hired Girls” is the second book, which recounts the immigrant girls migrating to town to become servants and setting the polite, hypocritical society aflame with dancing and intrigue. Here Jim becomes smitten not only with Antonia, but also the Norwegian Lina Lingard, with whom he embarks upon a tenuous relationship. Antonia watches from afar, and remains his distant admirer and protector, as their childhood bond is stronger than blood or marriage. In one of the most touching scenes of the book, Jim gives a graduation speech which the entire town attends, including all the “hired girls.” At the end, Antonia rushes over to him and says his speech reminded her of her father, now long dead. Jim admits he thought of her father the entire time. She then “threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears. I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.” His speech was for Antonia, the one gift he could offer her in a world where her father was just a memory, lost in an unmarked grave at the corner of a forgotten country road.

The last two books of the novel are brief, and Antonia scarcely makes an appearance until the end. In “Lina Lingard,” Jim is at college in Lincoln and takes up with Lina, who has opened up her own business making clothes for the prairie elite. The two take in the local theater and embark upon a romance of high culture, though remain otherwise chaste. These chapters crackle with understated passion, as Jim can never quite bring himself to settle down with Lina, and Lina herself worries that she isn’t good enough for Jim. In the end, he leaves her forever, going off to follow his mentor to Harvard. The final chapter, “Cuzak’s Boys,” is some twenty years later, when Jim finally decides to track down Antonia who has settled down in the country with a husband and nearly a dozen children. Terrified to encounter an aged, worn-out wife, he instead finds her brimming with life and laughter. Her children are like Antonia herself—full of cleverness and curiosity, and immediately take to Jim, whom they have heard endless stories about. It’s a bittersweet ending, as Jim learns that not everyone has given up hope and become snowed in by the storms of old age.

As part of the earth herself, Antonia is reborn every spring, her youth shining through her gray hairs and failing limbs, quite unlike the women of the towns and cities—or even Jim himself, who only looks to the past for comfort. Reflecting on Tiny, one of the “hired girls” who traveled to Alaska and became a canny businesswoman, he writes, “She was satisfied with her success, but not elated. She was like some one in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out.” The same, sadly, was true for Jim as well, until he heard the casual mention of Antonia’s name. His manuscript is a final flicker of spring, or perhaps an autumnal burst of color before the flame goes out forever. Yet out on the plains, Antonia and her children will live and laugh in the language of the old country, still remembering how to be interested in life and not terribly concerned with the modern mania for success. My Antonia is Cather’s definant, yet poetic, rebuttal against the American propensity of drying up in a delusion of self-satisfaction.