The Immigrant Experience in Willa Cather's My Antonia

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My Antonia is considered one of Willa Cather’s best works, even hailed as a masterpiece of a story in some quarters. The narrative is told in the first person by a character in the novel so as to capture the deep emotions underneath the surface.[1]

Consequentially, I posit that the author uses the characters and setting to show the positives and negatives for immigrants that moved to the US in the time of expansion. Cather weaves her narrative in such an interesting way that she was credited with bringing the American West back to life. In a testament to this notion, Terry Heller wrote that Cather’s story realistically evoked the spirit of the frontier west while at the same time banking on the “universality of the emotions.” Furthermore, it consequentially contributed to the spread of regional American literature as an acceptable segment of mainstream literature. [2]

An analysis of the novel reveals that the story explores the theme of the immigrant experience in the United States. The main plot of the tale takes the reader through the life-journeys of an orphaned boy from Virginia, Jim Burden, and the daughter of his Bohemian immigrant neighbors, Antonia Shimerda. The two children are coincidentally moved to the West at the same time and are brought up in 19th

century Nebraska in the pioneer setting of the time. Consequentially, their experiences in their new environment, especially within the first year, end up leaving significant impressions. Furthermore, it is symbolically instructive that both the first pioneers to tame the land for farming and the harsh but fertile land are prominent elements in the story. From the onset, the speaker briefly mentions the Nebraska climate and the setting generally which foreshadows how the tough environment played an important role in honing the personal and world perception of Jim Burden. In essence, the harsh but fertile setting in the story symbolizes the perceptions of development, evolution, and moral courage equated with modern America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It is fair to state that My Antonia solidly delves into the lives of immigrants in the United States frontier in the latter part of the nineteenth century thereby buttressing my claim that it showcases both the pros and cons of immigrant life at the time. The story’s Nebraska setting is a confluence of ethnicities encompassing American-born settlers and a variety of European immigrants like the Bohemian Shrimerdas.

Positively, the communal existence that was necessitated by the difficult existence in the frontier forged tight bonds that lasted and promoted integration between people who had to endure relatively common hardships. An example of this is the friendship formed between Jim and Antonia where they find a way to engage as acquaintances even though Antonia is still learning English. Furthermore, in one particular scenario that is a microcosm of the hardships faced and the unity it forges, Jim bravely killed a rattlesnake that had threatened them thereby earning Antonia’s respect:

“I never know you was so brave, Jim,” she went on comfortingly. “You is just like big mans; you wait for him lift his head and then you go for him. Ain’t you feel scared a bit? Now we take that snake home and show everybody. Nobody ain’t seen in this kawn-tree so big snake like you kill.”

This passage signifies a crucial moment in their relationship when they start to hold each other with special regard.

Conversely, on the negative side, the novel espouses an empathetic feeling for the many difficulties endured by foreign immigrants including; nostalgia for the past, language barriers, and a range of cultural and religious differences which should be overcome if one wishes to settle-in with the often prejudicial American settlers who are usually the taste-makers for mainstream culture. This struggle for opportunities is evidenced by the fact that Jim, whose grandparents are American-settlers, manages to go to school while Antonia must help her family secure an income after her father’s untimely suicide. This situation is encompassed perfectly in Antonia’s statement in the story while talking to Jim about their predicament:

“Why aren’t you always nice like this, Tony?”

“How nice?”

“Why, just like this; like yourself. Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?”

She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”

In conclusion, while My Antonia is definitely a sympathetic depiction of the immigrant experience, it is not an incendiary indictment of the hardships faced by many immigrants and a call to action for social transformation. Instead, it’s an emotional and empathetic personal tale that captures the reality of the lived experience by immigrants at the time of the expansion.          



Heller T. “Cather’s My Antonia Promotes Regional Literature.” In Gorman, Robert F. Great Events from History: The 20th Century: 1901-1940. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1915-1923.

Cather W. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1918.

Woodress J. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

[1] Woodress J. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987) p.289.

[2] Heller T. “Cather’s My Antonia Promotes Regional Literature.” In Gorman, Robert F. Great Events from History: The 20th

Century: 1901-1940. (Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1915-1923) Vol. 3, p.1403-1406.

November 13, 2023




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