My Antonia

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Themes and Colors
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in My Antonia, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Theme Icon

In late 19th century America, gender roles were strictly defined. Men were meant to act as providers, and women were meant to marry and care for the family. During his childhood, Jim believes strongly in these roles and looks up to working men like Otto and his grandfather, Jake. He tries desperately to earn Ántonia's respect by following their examples. Ántonia, however, does not want to conform to the typical female role. On the prairie, after her father dies, she insists on working in the fields with the men. After Ántonia moves to town, Jim is surprised when she forms female friendships and discovers dancing, fancy clothing, and etiquette. He is even more surprised when she laughs off his romantic advances.

Only when Jim moves to Lincoln for college does he really begin to question traditional gender roles. He dates independent women like Lena and comes to respect Lena for her ambition. He begins to look back on Ántonia's love for the fields and flirtatious behavior in town not as conflicting, but as different aspects of her personality. Eventually, Ántonia finds a compromise of gender roles when she becomes a mother but continues working in the fields alongside her husband. Jim, who grows into a liberal-minded New Yorker, sees this lifestyle as perfectly suited to Ántonia.

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Gender Quotes in My Antonia

Below you will find the important quotes in My Antonia related to the theme of Gender.
Book 1, Chapter 7 Quotes
This was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake – I was now a big fellow.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has confessed that although he liked Ántonia, it bothered him that she would speak to him in a superior tone because she was older. He recalls an occasion when he and Ántonia decided to dig into the prairie-dog holes, only to be attacked by a rattlesnake. Jim kills the snake with a spade, impressing Ántonia; in this passage, Jim announces that "she never took a supercilious air with me again." On one level, this story reflects the kind of innocent dynamics of power and courage that dominate childhood friendships. Despite the danger the snake poses, Jim frames the whole episode as an "adventure," one of many pleasant memories from his and Ántonia's shared past. 

On the other hand, the story of the snake also evokes more complicated, somber themes. Part of the reason why Jim objects to Ántonia treating him as an inferior is because, although younger, he is male and she is female. He considers Ántonia's precocious confidence as a violation of the proper dynamic of gender, and is pleased when he is able to assert his own masculine power through the bold act of killing the snake. This act foreshadows Jim's later attempts to romantically win over Ántonia, which remain unsuccessful. Ántonia sees Jim as a younger brother figure, a dynamic that, despite sustained effort, Jim is never able to change. 

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Book 2, Chapter 8 Quotes
Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has stated that he and the Harling children were never happier than in the first weeks of spring, when they helped Mrs. Harling and Ántonia garden after the end of winter. However, this idyllic scene is overshadowed by the coming summer, which Jim hints will "change everything." His description of the way that time moves for young people further emphasizes the idea that the coming events will prompt a loss of innocence. Indeed, Jim's words highlight a subtle connection between the innocence of children and the innocence of "the quietest of country towns"; like the land itself, children begin life in a natural, simple state, yet as adulthood approaches this existence is complicated in the same way that the land is developed and industrialized by the pioneers. 

Book 4, Chapter 1 Quotes
I was bitterly disappointed in her [Ántonia]. I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity, while Lena Lingard, for whom people had always foretold trouble, was now the leading dressmaker of Lincoln, much respected in Black Hawk.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda, Lena Lingard
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The summer after finishing college and before he begins studying at Harvard Law School, Jim returns to Black Hawk. Here, he learns that Ántonia is pregnant, and that her fiancee has deserted her; meanwhile, Lena Lingard is incredibly successful, "the leading dressmaker in Lincoln." The disparity between the two girls' fates highlights how dramatically the lives of people who grew up together can diverge. Indeed, Jim points to the unpredictability of the course of life when he mentions that "people had always foretold trouble" for Lena. This further proves the ignorance of people's judgments and expectations of recent immigrants. 

Jim's feelings about Ántonia's fate, meanwhile, seem overly harsh and unforgiving. He claims to be disappointed not for Ántonia, but "in her." Instead of resenting Ántonia's fiancee for abandoning her or the community for judging her, Jim states that he "could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity." It is possible to interpret this statement as emerging from Jim's longstanding admiration of Ántonia; perhaps because she is older than him, he cannot bear to see her in a weak and vulnerable position. On the other hand, the harshness with which he judges Ántonia is also related to her gender. Although the fact that Ántonia is pregnant out of wedlock is at least as much her fiancee's fault as her own, during the time women's sexuality was heavily controlled and women were harshly judged for promiscuity––as is demonstrated by the way people treat Ántonia.

Book 4, Chapter 3 Quotes
"After the winter begun she [Ántonia] wore a man's long overcoat and boots, and a man's felt hat with a wide brim."
Related Characters: The Widow Steavens (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

The Widow Steavens has been telling Jim the details of what happened to Ántonia. Ántonia's fiancee Larry, who had been fired from his job, ran away with her dowry money, leaving Ántonia pregnant, alone, and penniless. As a result, she began working in the fields and dressing like a man. This fact shows both the extent of Ántonia's destitution and the unusual strength of her character. Although Ántonia has been exploited and oppressed because of her gender, she refuses to wallow in her troubles, and instead subverts the strict gender roles placed on her by dressing like a man and earning her own money. Note that this decision reflects Willa Cather's own life––Cather never married, made her own money as an author, and during college wore men's clothes. 

Book 5, Chapter 1 Quotes
She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has avoided going to see Ántonia for 20 years, fearing how it would feel to see her as an old woman. When he finally returns to see her, they at first don't recognize each other. In this passage, Jim describes her as "a battered old woman," but adds that she still possesses the same vigor that emanates from her ability to find "meaning in the common things." Jim's words illustrate the way in which the past can live on within the present––although she has been worn out by a life of hard work and struggle, Ántonia's personality remains the same, and this is reflected in her physicality. 

Jim's description also highlights Ántonia's deep and fundamental connection to the land. The source of Ántonia's warmth and vitality can be found in her association with natural processes like planting and harvesting. Unlike humans, the natural landscape works in a cyclical motion, and thus never gets old in the way that people do.