The novels opens with an unnamed narrator meeting up with a childhood friend, Jim Burden, who is a successful lawyer situated in New York for a major railroad company and is in an unhappy marriage to a woman who helped further his career. The narrator discusses their childhood on the prairie and talks about Antonia, another friend from their childhood. They decide to write down their memories about Antonia. The rest of the novel shifts to Jim’s childhood memories of Antonia.
After Jim Burden’s parents die he goes off to Nebraska to live with his grandparents on their farm. While on a train headed there, he meets his new neighbors, an immigrant family from Bohemia, named the Shimerdas and their daughter Antonia. He soon adjusts to life on the prairie and befriends the Shimerda’s daughter, Antonia, teaching her English. The Shimerdas struggle with farming and must leach off their neighbors in order to survive, often appearing ungrateful for the assistance they receive. After a bad winter in which everything seems to go wrong, Mr. Shimerda in a state of loneliness and depression, missing his homeland which he only left at the insistence of his wife, commits suicide.
Eventually Jim’s grandparents retire from farming and move with him to the town of Black Hawk. Antonia soon joins him, finding a place as a domestic servant in the town. Many other immigrant girls also leave their family farms to work in town such as the pretty and flirtatious Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball. Many in town speak badly of these immigrant girls, critical especially of their flirtatious behavior, which they fear will lead to no good. Jim, too, is often criticized for hanging around these girls and attending dances with them at late hours.
Jim overcomes these distractions and manages to succeed in school, which allows him to attend college, first in Lincoln and then at Harvard, where he trains to become a lawyer. At Lincoln he meets up with Lena Lingard and goes out with her to the theater. His time with her proves to be distracting to his studies. Lena has opened up a successful dress-making business in town and despite her flirtatious nature reveals to Jim that she has no desire to ever get married. Tiny Soderball ends up becoming rich thanks to speculations in Alaska during a gold rush and moves to California, inviting Lena to join her there. Meanwhile, Antonia gets engaged to Larry Donovan, a dishonest man that works for the railroad, who ends up impregnating her and abandoning her without marriage. Antonia ends up returning to her family’s farm and working for her brother, the surly and selfish, Ambrosch. Eventually she finds a man from Bohemia who will marry her despite the fact that she had a child and ends up having twelve children by him. As an adult Jim finally comes to visit her, after avoiding it for many years, and finds her happy, but poor, with a big family on her own farm.
On the surface the novel has elements of quite a few novelistic traditions. It is tempting to see it as a bildungsroman, the so-called coming-of-age education novel, but Jim’s epiphany happens only at the end of the novel as he reflects on the nature of the past and memory as embodied in his relationship with Antonia. It isn’t quite a picaresque novel either, even though it is episodic and composed of vignettes of memories, and at the same time it isn’t a more traditional novel in that it doesn’t really consist of a linear plot with a concrete problem to be solved. Indeed, in some ways Jim is boring and bland, while strangely interesting in his boring and blandness when all these temptations surround him. In a typical novel, we would expect Jim and Antonia to eventually end up together as romantic interests, but Willa Cather subverts these expectations too. She not only challenges the American Dream and the false expectations it can bring to those who believe in its ideal in an uncomplicated way, but also challenges our expectations of what a novel should be.
The story describes the immigrant experience struggling to make it in America. As the story shows it is not all success stories. The Shimerdas come to America with the belief that they will strike it rich with ease in this land of opportunity, even though, the story gives the impression that Mr. Shimera was fairly successful in his home country. Mrs. Shimerda convinces her husband to leave Bohemia for the sake of Ambrosch. Farming proves to be hard work. Mr. Shimerda is unable to adapt to this new country, suffering from a terrible homesickness that leads him to commit suicide. His wife especially has an arrogance and weariness of outsiders; there is a sense that she fears they will cheat them. Other characters such as two pairs of Russians also struggle to make ends meet and end up with heavy debt to Mr. Cutter, only to sink worse and worse each year. As we see, they manage to make enough to survive, but they never quite strike it rich. On the other hand, many other immigrants manage to do very well by marrying into successful farms. The novel critiques the simplistic ideal of the American Dream that these immigrants imagined would be waiting for them. Some immigrants were successful in adapting to a new life America, while others were not.
The story also explores the nature of memory since the whole narrative is framed around Jim in the future remembering these events that make up the bulk of the novel. The past constantly reasserts itself in the narrative for many of the characters. Jim’s current life, while a success, is depicted as lackluster and unexciting; the frame narrative allows us to see that it is Jim’s memories that are important to him, which sustain him in his lackluster life as a lawyer in New York. Why does he marry his wife? The impression the opening gives is that they don’t have much interest in each other. At best, the marriage merely helps his career. This is the key. The direction Jim has chosen for his life is one focused on his education and career. We see this shift happen via his memories. He gives up his passions, centered on the immigrant girls, for financial security and success in his career. In this sense, he parallels the immigrant experience, these people who give up their homelands for the possibility of success in a distant world. It his memories of the past that sustain him. One doesn’t need happiness now as long as one has a past that made them happy and whose memories can provide happiness throughout a lifetime. It would seem so simple; however, the novel’s perspective on memory seem far more complicated to me.
Mr. Shimerda kills himself because the joys of his past contrast with the misery of his present. He looks on the past with fondness, but contrasts it with the emptiness and unhappiness he finds in the present. With the Russians, they hope to outrun their past. On his death bed, one of the Russians tells a story about a late night wedding party back in the old country in which a huge pack of wolves picks off one person at a time as they head home. In order to save himself, the Russian sacrifices the bride and groom, literally throwing them to the wolves. They survive, but return home to social condemnation. So they leave their village and try to find a new home, but wherever they go people know what they did, so they run to America to escape it. In America, they have nothing but bad luck, sinking into debt and sickness. Their past forces them into their situation. They never can outrun this story of their past in Russia and their initial bad luck after coming to American compounds into their future; the past literally haunts their future. While Jim turns to the memories of his past with a fond nostalgia that gives him comfort and meaning in his sterile life as a lawyer in New York City, which a reader gets the impression is full of regret. Cather seems to be suggesting that the past always informs our future, but also that we choose how to respond to our memories: will they be a tragic event we try to outrun (the Russians)? A lost happiness that destroys any possibility of happiness in the now (Mr. Shemirda)? Or a fond looking back that gives meaning in an otherwise unfulfilling present (Jim)?
From these instance, we see that everyone’s idea of happiness is different. A coquette like Lena Lingard might seem interested only in flirting and having a good time, but her real interest is in her own independence and she actually has no interest in getting married. She tells Jim that she had the experiences raising a family of kids when she was younger and doesn’t want that for herself in the future; her past informs her desires for the future. Not only does she not want children or marriage, but she also is uninterested in returning to life on the farm; there is a distinct impression that she is a city girl at heart. Meanwhile the seemingly ambitious Antonia accepts poverty and a large family with a smile; she finds joy and fulfillment in her loving husband, a large family of children, and the farm life in the countryside of her youth. This idea goes deeper though. What is success and what is its relationship to happiness? The Shimerda’s fail to achieve material success and lack happiness, but Jim achieves financial success and is still unhappy; meanwhile, Antonia, after she grows up, remains dirt poor, but finds happiness, despite never achieving the promised material success of the American Dream. Cather is not only critiquing the American Dream for immigrants, but for all people. Success is not the same thing as happiness. There are many a poor person who finds happiness in other aspects of their life and there is many a successful person, supposedly living the American Dream, who are miserable. Jim chooses a good education and an upper-class city lifestyle, which isn’t quite fulfilling. Why does he choose such a life? Why doesn’t he ask Antonia to marry him? There is a sense that the two are connected. Perhaps he realizes his feelings for Antonia stems from what she represents; his first human connection as an orphan living in a strange land, and to marry her would be to see her not as a symbol, but also as a human being with many sides that would weaken the symbol that has become so important to him. Yet it is precisely these questions that I find bother me the most after finishing the novel, the ones that linger and make me continue to think about the novel, why does he choose such a life and why doesn’t he ask Antonia to marry him? For all his seeming blandness, it is precisely these questions that make Jim so interesting.