Reading Questions for Willa Cather’s My Ántonia
Willa Cather (1873-1947) remains one of the greatest American novelists. She was born in Virginia a few years after the Civil War, while Reconstruction was still in full swing. She was the daughter of a farmer and a schoolteacher. When she was nine, Willa’s parents moved west to the Nebraska Territory, where they built a small homestead and Willa grew up on what was then (1882) the Western Frontier.
The family tried farming on the harsh Nebraska prairie, but found it a very tough way to live. After less than two years, Mr. Cather moved the family into the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, and opened a real estate business. This illustrates nicely a key point about the West: the people who got rich there were not the ones who farmed or mined for gold. They were the people who set up businesses that sold things to all those people who did the mining and the farming. Mr. Cather did well in real estate (he also sold insurance) and the Cather children were able to go to school for the first time in their lives. Willa was smart, and she went on to attend the University of Nebraska (one of those Land Grant Universities we talked about: there would have been no universities on the frontier without Federal aid to education, and the University of Nevada as well as many other “universities of” are a direct result of that Federal aid) as a science major. However, she showed a natural talent for writing, got an essay published her freshman year, and switched to an English major. She graduated with a BA in English in 1894.
After graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to work as a writer for a magazine. She also worked for a number of other companies and taught high school. In 1906, she received a job offer in New York City and moved there, and remained there for the rest of her life. She published numerous novels, including her “Prairie Trilogy” about life on the frontier. My Ántonia is the final book in the series, and universally recognized as the best. Cather also won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1922 novel about World War One (One of Our Own). However, it was her last critical success. As automobiles, radio, telephones, talking motion pictures, urbanization, and electrification radically transformed American culture, then as the Great Depression slammed people back down into desperate poverty and despair, Cather’s works about self-reliant frontier men and women seemed less and less relevant to people’s everyday lives. She lived through World War Two, dying in the age of television, jet planes, and atomic bombs. That must have been an intensely strange experience for someone born into a world of horses, steam locomotives, and muskets.
Nevertheless, her achievements were great, and she captured better than anyone the feel and sense of place of the Great Plains in its frontier days, when Nebraska was still “The West.”
There are a few things worth mentioning before we get started.
Black Hawk, Nebraska in the book is a fictional name for Red Cloud, where Cather grew up. Red Cloud is still pretty much the definition of “the middle of nowhere”: about 60 miles south of I-80 and 100 miles north of I-70. It is just about 3 miles north of the Kansas border, on the open prairie with only two-lane roads for access. Current population is around 900. We are talking small and isolated, even now.
At the time Cather lived there, when the story begins, it was even more isolated, underpopulated, and generally nowhere. The first white settlers moved into the area in 1870, and Red Cloud grew up over the next few years. The area was still mostly covered with wild prairie grasses, and it was only in the course of the next half century that farmers replaced it with crops, creating its current look. That transformation is a key theme in the book. When “Jim” remembers first arriving on the prairie, it is wild grasslands. When he returns, everything has been plowed up, planted over in crops, fenced in, and tamed. Wagon rut trails have turned to roads, and people are driving around in automobiles. This is a larger metaphor for the taming of the land, but also the loss of childhood innocence, and the wildness and freedom of the frontier.
The book has an interesting and fairly unusual structure. It begins in 1918, with Cather herself describing meeting up with Jim at age 40, and talking about Ántonia. She suggests that they each write down everything they can remember about this remarkable girl, and Jim agrees. When he later brings his manuscript to Cather, she admits she hasn’t written her story down, but then proceeds to publish Jim’s story. We then move on to the “story” itself, starting out on a Westward-bound train sometime around 1884, when Jim is ten years old. Unlike many novelists, Cather did not “bookend” the novel with her meeting with Jim. Instead, she tells us about him in the introduction, then she herself disappears, and the rest of the story is from Jim’s point of view. Keep in mind that while the story is allegedly the reminiscences of a wealthy 40-something male New York attorney, the real author is a woman.
A few notes on the text:
Hastings, Nebraska, where Jim goes toward the end of the book, is a real town, about 40 miles north of Red Cloud/Black Hawk, now connected by State Route 281.
A few of the vocabulary terms may be unfamiliar to you, since they are either regional or archaic. Just look up unfamiliar words as you read…
I recommend that you use the Dover Thrift edition of the book (the cheapest edition out there by far): ISBN 0486282406. As you read, think about the following:
1. According to the book, what was life as a farmer (or a member of a farming family) out on the prairie like? What challenges were there, and what rewards? Overall, is this portrayal negative or positive?
2. What was it like to be a girl growing up in Nebraska? What challenges did girls face, and what opportunities did they have? To what extent did the book portray women as equal to men?
3. How did the book portray university life on the frontier (and elsewhere)? What was the admissions process like, how good was the education, what subjects did students study, and what obstacles did they have to overcome? How similar to (or different from) your own experience was their college experience?
4. How did the book portray love, romance, sexuality, and marriage? To what extent did the frontier environment influence or change these experiences? In your view, did Cather support the idea that women should marry and have children? Why or why not?
5. How does the book portray immigrants? How does this differ from its portrayal of native-born white Americans? Which group comes off in a more positive light and why?
6. How does the book portray small town social conventions and social pressures? How do these forces affect the lives of different individuals, and to what extent are the effects positive or negative, for individuals, but also for society as a whole?
7. According to the book, how important are money and material possessions to happiness? What other less tangible factors affect our happiness, and how important are they?
8. The book spans a period of time when the prairie was plowed up, planted, settled, and civilized. What indications of this are there in the book? How was life on the prairie in 1918 different from life on the prairie in the 1880s? What forces changed it, and does Cather suggest they were negative or positive?
9. Despite the title, Jim is in some ways the main character. How does his life correlate with the American Dream and with the growth of the United States? How does his return to Nebraska near the end change or color that correlation, and what does the ending suggest about the book’s ultimate meaning?
10. There are quite a few deaths in the book. Who died, how did they die, how did their deaths affect others, and how in general did the book portray death on the frontier?
11. According to the book, what, ultimately, is the meaning of life? What is worth fighting for, and what isn’t? Where and how can we find happiness and fulfillment?
12. Overall, what is the thesis of this book?