Willa Cather’s novel explores immigrants and Americans settling in Black Hawk, Nebraska. The unusual frame narrative is that of Jim Burden, whom the unidentified narrator meets on a train and asks to tell Antonia Shimerda’s story. Jim, like Nick Carraway, has blind spots in his idealized, Georgic view of Antonia. We see his narrative, but also its flaws, its failure to cohere, its overdetermined symbolism.
The novel has an episodic/epiphanic structure at the start and end, almost like the land it describes, which “was not a country, but the material out of which a country is made.” In between, it has a more normative structure around Antonia’s extended adolescence and nascent sexuality. It is iterative, quotidian, and insists on a sense of routine even when the events it describes are too particular to have been repeated. It is a kind of double bildungsroman, in which Jim is the ascetic scholar and Antonia the earth mother.
Part of this is to explore the different positions for women – Antonia breeds at home, Tiny loses her toes making a fortune in Alaska, and Lena has a rags to riches story as a successful seamstress. The magic of “my Antonia” is a kind of incantation of the future of America, an embodiment of the frontier after its 1890 “end” according to the US government. The phrase is repeated by her father, Jim, the neighbor widow, and even Antonia herself, who calls her husband “my Anton,” having met the other half with whom she becomes a (re)productive (w)hole.
- The Shimerdas – the longest book within the novel. It covers Jim’s early years spent on his grandparents’ farm, out on the prairie.
- The Hired Girls – the second longest section of the novel. It covers Jim’s time in town, when he spends time with Ántonia and the other country girls who work in town. Language, particularly descriptions, begin to become more sexualized, particularly concerning Ántonia and Lena.
- Lena Lingard – this chronicles Jim’s time at the university, and the period in which he becomes reacquainted with Lena Lingard.
- The Pioneer Woman’s Story – Jim visits the Harlings and hears about Ántonia’s fateful romance with Larry Donovan. This is the shortest book.
- Cuzak’s Boys – Jim goes to visit Ántonia and meets her new family, her children and husband.