My Antonia Plot Summary
An orphaned ten-year-old Jim Burden is sent to live with his grandparents on their farm in the country, just outside the town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. He is not the only one to discover and explore the country; early on, he meets the immigrant Bohemian family, the Shimerdas, who have come to Nebraska at the same time as Jim's arrival. They are the Burdens' nearest neighbors. Antonia Shimerda, the elder daughter, becomes his good friend and pupil. Antonia's father, Mr. Shimerda, who Jim finds to be intelligent and genteel, asks Jim to teach Antonia English. The Shimerdas have a hard life on the farm; they are very poor and live in a shabby dugout, but Antonia remains dedicated and determined to improve the conditions of her life and her family's.
From the first time Jim meets Mr. Shimerda, Jim feels his sadness and exhaustion. Antonia's father takes his family's poverty hard, and he is very homesick for his native land. It was Mrs. Shimerda, Antonia's mother, who had made the family immigrate to America so that Ambrosch, the Shimerdas' eldest son, would have the chance to become a wealthy farmer. Despite the Shimerdas' hard conditions, Antonia finds much comfort and happiness in the land. Together, Jim and Antonia, who is a few years older than Jim, explore the prairie - the animals, the river, and the hunting-grounds. During one of their many adventures, Jim kills a snake. Antonia suddenly views Jim with more respect, admiring his strength and courage. After the loss of Mr. Shimerda's only friends, Pavel and Peter, Mr. Shimerda becomes even more heartbroken and unhappy. At Christmas time, Mr. Shimerda comes to visit the Burden household to thank them for their kindness to his family. Jim notices how happy Mr. Shimerda is to feel the warmth and friendship in the Burden kitchen.
The New Year begins with terrible news - Mr. Shimerda has killed himself. Jim knows that Mr. Shimerda had been terribly unhappy with his life and felt homesick for his life in Bohemia. Mr. Shimerda felt he could never be happy again, and tired of putting up with the constant demands and complaints of his wife and eldest son, Ambrosch. Mr. Shimerda is buried in a corner of the Shimerda property. One day, this corner will be the intersection of two roads. After Mr. Shimerda's death, Antonia must work in the fields, helping to herd the cattle and tend the crops. She does not have time for English lessons anymore. When Jim asks her to go to school with him, she scoffs and replies that she must work like a man. Jim, knowing Antonia, can see how much Antonia wants to learn, but she does not have the freedom to take time off from farming. Jim witnesses with a sinking heart how Antonia is beginning to lose the genteel ways her father had taught her. Seeing Antonia working in the fields and doing heavy, male farm work does not seem proper.
The Burdens move to the town of Black Hawk. Jim's grandparents are getting too old for farm work and they want to become involved with town activities. The Burden's next-door neighbors, the Harlings, become good friends with the Burden household. Mrs. Burden, Jim's grandmother, suggests that Mrs. Harling hire Antonia as their cook; the Burdens fear that Antonia might be completely under her brother Ambrosch's harsh control and want her in town, where she will no longer have to do heavy farm work. Once the Harlings hire Antonia, Jim is happy to see her and spend time with her again. The Harlings and Antonia get along very well, until the Vannis' dancing tent comes to town. The young men of Black Hawk are attracted to the "hired girls" - immigrant girls (like Antonia and Lena) who have come to town to earn money for their family in the country and are viewed as free and promiscuous. Social custom separates the hired girls from the young men at all times, except for the evenings when the dancing tent is open. At the dancing tent, the hired girls and the young men all come together. Mr. Harling forbids Antonia to go to the dances because, to Black Hawk citizens, she now has developed a reputation as free and easy. Antonia, unwilling to give up her love for dancing or her freedom, quits. She goes to work for Wick Cutter, the shady and evil Black Hawk money-lender, and his wife. Jim graduates from high school with top honors. He and some of the hired girls: Antonia, Lena Lingard, and Tiny Soderball, all whom Jim had known from the country, have a picnic on the prairie. They are moved by the spetacular sight of a plough against the sunset in the horizon. One night, a troubled Antonia visits the Burdens. She suspects that Wick Cutter might have a scheme in mind, for he and his wife have gone off on a trip and he made specific instructions for Antonia to stay in the house alone at all times. Mrs. Burden suggests that Jim switch places with Antonia to watch the Cutters' house. On the third night that Jim stays at the Cutters', Wick Cutter comes home, apparently to rape Antonia, but finds Jim instead, and beats him up. Jim escapes, seriously bruised. He blames much of his ordeal on Antonia, and vows to stay away from her from now on.
Jim enters the University of Lincoln as the protege of Gaston Cleric, his Latin advisor. While in Lincoln, Jim is visited by Lena Lingard, who has also come to Lincoln. She has her own dressmaking shop. The two of them begin a relationship. Cleric finds out about Jim's relationship and warns Jim against Lena, for he can see that Jim is becoming distracted by Lena's attention. Also, Cleric wants Jim to follow him to Harvard, where he has accepted a job offer, and finish his education there. Jim accepts the offer. He finishes college and visits his grandparents' on his summer vacation before he enters Harvard Law School.
When Jim returns home, he learns what happened to Antonia while he had been in school. She had been engaged to Larry Donovan, but he deserted her and their unborn baby. Jim learns that she is living on her family's farm. He is disappointed in Antonia, and saddened that she let herself get taken in by Donovan. He is even more disgusted at the Black Hawk citizens who now view Antonia with pity and Lena with regard because she is successful in her job. Jim learns that the town looks down upon Tiny Soderball as well; however, this disdain is most likely jealousy. Tiny has become even more wealthy than Lena. She had been deeded a claim out West and invested her money wisely. When Jim wants to know more of Larry's desertion, Widow Steavens tells him the whole story. Mrs. Steavens also recalls the night Antonia gave birth to her baby. She remembers the happiness Antonia felt at that moment, and regrets that Antonia might never have a chance to be married and raise a real family. Jim goes to visit the Shimerdas' the next day. A tearful, happy Antonia greets him, and Jim is struck by Antonia's appearance. Antonia looks tired, but Jim sees that her will is extremely strong and confident. He and Antonia talk about the events that have occurred in the past few months. Antonia tells him that she is happy that she is back in the country; she knows she could never be happy living in a city. Jim admits that he thinks of her more than he thinks of anybody else, and that she will always be an important part of his life. Antonia agrees; she believes that Jim and her father will always be a part of her.
Jim promises to see her again, but twenty years pass before he is convinced by Lena Lingard to visit her. By now, Antonia is married to Anton Cuzak, Anton Jelinek's cousin, and has a number of children. His visit to the Cuzaks' farm turns out to be one of the happiest times of his life. He sees that Antonia is truly, genuinely happy, and she and her family are thriving on their farm. She is a rough-looking woman, big and worn, but extremely vibrant and lively. Jim is touched by how loving and caring everyone in the family are toward each other. Jim gets along well with two of Antonia's sons, Leo and Ambrosch, as he does with Antonia's husband, Anton Cuzak. Antonia and her eldest son, Rudolph, tell Jim the story of Wick Cutter's murder. Jim is extremely proud of Antonia and the way she has turned her life around to fit her vision of success and destiny. When he leaves the Cuzaks' farm to return to Black Hawk, Jim feels sad at the number of changes in town, but the sight of the unmarked, pure prairie erases his sadness. Highways and roads have destroyed the country, but Jim can still see the very first roads deeply imbedded in the land, the roads he and Antonia walked and ran upon as children. Jim knows that he can never forget the past between him and Antonia, and looks forward to the future that lies before them.