The Human Condition in Cather’s My Antonia

Dr. Johnson remarked that a noble purpose of great literature “is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Willa Cather’s My Antonia, a novel about immigrants travelling to the Midwest to farm the land as pioneers, provides great wisdom on the art of enduring life better. Portraying the universality of the human condition, it tells the story of a Bohemian family’s struggle for survival in a new land as they leave their beloved old country for the opportunity promised in America. In a small frontier farming community in Black Hawk, Nebraska, Cather presents the human condition as a constant struggle for survival and economic security, as a moral battle between good and evil, a conflict between reason and passion, and as the trials of the vicissitudes of fickle fortune. As in the marriage vow—for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; till death do us part—the Shimerda family experiences great goodness and tragic suffering, an abrupt transition from the cosmopolitan musical culture of Europe to the rugged life of pioneers, a contrast between the comforts of financial stability in the old country and the dire poverty of the new world, and the joy and sorrow that compromise the human lot.

The Shimerda family undergoes great struggles as they adjust to the harsh cold and scorching heat of the prairie, as they plunge into the labor of farming the land, as they experience extreme poverty, and as they struggle to learn the English language. Motivated to leave the old country for the sake of their oldest son Ambrosch (“But my mama, she want Ambrosch for be rich, with many cattle,” Antonia remarks), the family sacrifices the comfort, familiarity, and culture of Europe for the sake of the future of their children. They now live in a dugout cave on an isolated prairie rather than in a normal human habitation. The long hours of physical labor to produce food on the land leave no leisure for the cultivation of beauty. Despite the perquisites of civilization the family enjoyed in Bohemia, Mrs. Shimerda convinced her husband to uproot the family for the prospects of wealth in the new world. The mother remarks, “America big country; much money. Much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.” Mr. Shimerda, a professional musician and cultured man homesick for the old world, does not adapt to frontier life. Antonia notices his profound sadness, his grim silence, and his loss of all interest in music: “At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never.” Indeed, human life looms as a burden in which much is to be endured with little relief.

Heartbroken, depressed, and despairing, Mr. Shimerda—the father of four children—commits suicide with a gun to the shock of not only his family but to all the pioneering farmers. Mrs. Burden, known as Grandmother, remarks, “How could he forget himself and bring this on us!” and “I don’t see how he could do it!” As if Mrs. Shimerda and his children had not already suffered and endured much in their struggle to survive and provide, this tragedy overwhelms them as the greatest of tribulations. Mr. Shimerda’s death not only destroys the strength of a family by leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless but also burdens them with a fear for his soul. As a fellow Bohemian remarks, “Their father has done a great sin…. Our Lord has said that.” In a harsh winter of blizzards and impassable roads, the family and neighbors must exert themselves to find a Catholic priest and a Catholic cemetery. There is the uncertainty of whether a man who committed suicide could be buried in a Catholic cemetery, and there is the decision of the Norwegian church not to allow burial in their graveyard. Thus Mr. Shimerda’s life ends with his body buried on a farm with no last rites, no church funeral, and no priest offering prayers for his soul. One neighbor says a prayer and another begins a hymn so that “it would seem less heathenish.” The Shimerdas have been reduced to the most abject misery and desolation by the combination of all these great sufferings and sorrows.

The novel shows, however, that Mr. Shimerda’s violent death proceeded from a cynical view of the future with no basis in hope. He assumed that his new life on the prairie offered nothing but burdensome toil, endless deprivation, and tedious monotony. What C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters calls “the horror of the same old thing” afflicted the father’s spirit, and he could not envision the future with hope, imagine the idea of good coming of evil, or entrust his life to Divine Providence. The rest of the novel, however, demonstrates a more spacious view of the future than Mr. Shimerda ever speculated. One of the lessons My Antonia teaches on the subject of how to endure life better is the knowledge that life goes on. As Homer writes in the Iliad, even after the agony of Hector’s death, “rosy-fingered dawn came once again.” Nature abhors a vacuum, and the void left in the loss of a father and husband must be filled. The two oldest children, Antonia and Ambrosch, plow the land the next spring with determination. Insisting that she can do the physical labor of her older brother, Antonia is resolved to succeed: “I can work as much as him…. I can make this land one good farm.” In the next year the neighbors sell the Shimerdas a cow and help them to build a new log house with “four comfortable rooms to live in, a new windmill—bought on credit—a chicken house and poultry.” Life not only goes on but also the future does not always resemble the past. These two ideas offer comfort and strength in enduring the hardships that often seem endless and unchanging but which are temporary and always subject to change.

The novel shows that the future is filled with surprises and that one thing leads to another which leads to another in a combination of events that no one ever anticipates. In one of the most bountiful growing seasons of the Midwest when “it seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night,” Antonia marvels at the produce of the fertile land and regrets that her father could not behold the abundant harvest that awaited him: “I wish my papa live to see this summer”—a testimony that, in the proverbial saying, “where there is life there is hope.” At the time of Mr. Shimerda’s death in the harshest of winters and at the time of a blizzard, no one could have guessed the future that awaited the family. In the dark night of the soul amid the agony of grief– the tragedy of the father’s suicide foreshadowing disaster for wife and children—Antonia’s life assumes a surprising new beginning. After producing a harvest and succeeding at farming with her brother, she discovers that her life has taken a new turn. The Burdens, farming neighbors who have recently moved from the country to town, recommend Antonia to Mrs. Harling, a mother of a large family seeking to hire a cook. From Europe to frontier to town and from farmer to cook, Antonia finds her life and her future unfolding like a great adventure with opportunities rather than continuing as an oppressive burden. Once she moves to town and begins her new position, Antonia’s world enlarges as she finds new interests and new pleasures that make her life abundant and rich rather than a struggle for survival and economic gain. While she works and saves money for the education of her younger siblings and to provide for her mother, Antonia is introduced to the pleasure of the opera and the delight of dancing. Antonia’s new life with the Harling family—a house full of music, mirth, and lively children—represents a welcome contrast, something “like Heaven” compared to the long uneventful evenings on the farm “with Ambrosch’s sullen silences and her mother’s complaints.” The life of noble, patient endurance finds relief as life’s possibilities renew the spirit.

As Antonia’s life in town as a hired servant with the Harling family enlarges her circle of acquaintances and activities, Jimmy Burden, the narrator of the story, writes, “When boys and girls are growing up, life can’t stand still. Not even in the quietest of country town; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting.” Antonia’s situation in Black Hawk introduces her to the Saturday night dances at the pavilion on the vacant lot, “the most cheerful place in town” because the girls found an occasion that provides relief from work and an opportunity to dress with elegance. Life on the prairie with its endless labor and little pleasure became a memory of the past as the struggle for survival changed to the honest work for a livelihood that provided savings and allowed recreations for the weekend. When warned of the possible loss of her position because of her constant attendance at the dances and her association “with girls who have a reputation for being free and easy,” Antonia resists the threat and protests the unreasonableness of Mrs. Harling’s demands. When told, “You can quit going to those dances, or you can hunt another place,” Antonia insists, “I won’t give up my friends,” “Then I’ll just have to leave.” She insists, “A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can.” Antonia resists the view of life as a mere struggle for survival and the idea of a life of work without play, friendship, and recreation. The constancy of honest effort and quiet endurance soon bears fruit in creating surprising new opportunities and introducing new pleasures.

After a separation of twenty years as Jim and Antonia settle into their adult lives and now live in different states, Jim finds an opportunity to pay Antonia a visit as he travels by railroad from the West coast to New England. Even after twenty years of ageing, managing a farm with her husband, and caring for ten children, Antonia impresses Jim as a woman whose “inner glow” had not faded: “Whatever else was gone, Antonia had not lost the fire of her life.” Her many children, “a veritable explosion of life,” find their mother a storehouse of delight as Jim did in his childhood as they turn to her for stories and fun. Seeing Antonia in middle-age after the passage of many years, Jim sees on even a larger scale than ever that “She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races”—abundant in the generous giving of herself in all the expressions of love. Mr. Shimerda’s despair that viewed the future as doomed and tragic could never have envisioned the mystery of good coming out of evil and joy out of sorrow that simply needed the time, patience, perseverance, and long-suffering of Antonia to bring back all the vitality and life he thought was dead and existed only in the old world he left behind. The virtue of hope makes all the difference in the life of one person and for an entire family.

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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