My Antonia

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The Immigrant Experience Theme Analysis

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.
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon

In 1862, the United States government urged colonization of Nebraska and other territories by creating The Homestead Act, which stated that any person who was an American citizen, or had declared his intention to become one, could claim 160 acres of government land. Some Eastern Americans, like Jim's grandparents, simply moved west, while others, like the Shimerdas, came all the way from Europe to try their luck at farming the Nebraska prairie. Both groups were in search of a better life, and, as depicted in My Ántonia, both can be considered immigrants in that they suffer the trials of a new and unfamiliar life. But while both Jim and Ántonia encounter loneliness and homesickness for the lands they left behind, in My Ántonia the foreign-born immigrants experience the greater struggle. They face extreme poverty, the barriers of not speaking the English language, and the challenge of cultural and religious differences. In many ways, Cather's novel is the story of these immigrants' acclimation to the American Midwest, as seen through Jim's eyes.

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The Immigrant Experience Quotes in My Antonia

Below you will find the important quotes in My Antonia related to the theme of The Immigrant Experience.
Introduction Quotes
During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had both known long ago. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.
Related Characters: The Narrator - (speaker), Jim Burden, Ántonia Shimerda
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

An unnamed narrator has introduced his old friend James Burden, known as Jim. Both men now live in New York, though they grew up together in Nebraska. The narrator has recalled running into Jim on a train to Iowa, and in this passage states that their conversation was dominated by "a central figure"––Ántonia. It is clear from the moment Ántonia is introduced that she will have a vital, even mystical significance within the novel. The narrator admits that, to him and to Jim, she represented "the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." Even before the reader knows Ántonia's name, it is obvious that she is an extraordinary person. Furthermore, the narrator's framing of Ántonia as symbolic of his childhood establishes Ántonia's connection both to nature and the past. 


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Book 1, Chapter 10 Quotes
I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms. They had been gathered, probably, in some deep Bohemian forest...
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda, Mr. Shimerda, Mrs. Shimerda, Yulka Shimerda, Ambrosch Shimerda
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has described the Shimerda's poverty, which was so terrible that during one winter they are forced to share a single overcoat and subsist on prairie-dogs. When Jim and his grandmother bring the Shimerdas food, Mrs. Shimerda gives them some brown shavings in return; the shavings taste strange, and later Jim realizes they must have been dried mushrooms brought from Bohemia. This passage emphasizes the way in which an item as simple as dried mushrooms can take on huge and complex significance within the drama of immigrant and pioneer life.

By offering the mushrooms to Jim and his grandmother, Mrs. Shimerda refuses to accept the role of a charity recipient. This refusal is made more moving by the fact that the mushrooms are clearly significant to the Shimerdas, considering they brought them all the way to America from Bohemia. At the same time, this significance does not necessarily translate to Jim's grandmother, who finds the mushrooms suspicious and thus simply throws them away. This contrast highlights the way in which the past takes on vastly different meanings to different people. Objects and memories that some people "treasure so jealously" are completely meaningless to others. 

Book 1, Chapter 16 Quotes
The road from the north curved a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me."
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Mr. Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, Mr. Shimerda's Grave, Light
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Shimerda's funeral has taken place, and his body has been buried on a corner of the Shimerda's land. Jim remarks that years later, roads were built at that point, and the grave becomes the only site at which the grass isn't mowed. Jim describes his strong emotional attachment to the spot, claiming that it became the place he most loved in the entire prairie. This statement is at first a little surprising, as we would likely expect the grave to be a sad reminder of Mr. Shimerda's suffering and misfortune. However, Jim's description of the grave's natural beauty shows that the tragedy of Mr. Shimerda's death has created a new source of joy, by preserving a small section of land in its untamed state. 

Book 1, Chapter 19 Quotes
"Why aren't you always nice like this, Tony?" "How nice?"

"Why, just like this; like yourself. Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?"

She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. "If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us."
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda (speaker), Ambrosch Shimerda
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

School is out for summer, and Jim and Ántonia have been spending more time together. One night, while they sit on a roof to watch a lightning storm, Jim asks why Ántonia isn't always "nice like this." Ántonia replies that life is different for her family than for Jim, and this is why she behaves as she does. Ántonia's response shows that she has understood that there is a division between herself and Jim––a division born out of economic disparities, and that will widen as they grow older.

Her prediction that "things... will be hard for us" is correct: while Jim eventually goes to college, then law school, and becomes a successful professional in New York, Ántonia lives a much more difficult life, getting pregnant out of wedlock before getting married and having eleven children. Jim, on the other hand, remains romantically hopeful about his and Ántonia's relationship, idealizing their bond as more simple and innocent than is really the case. This passage raises the question of whether Ántonia's romantic rejection of Jim is entirely because she sees him as a younger brother, or if she perhaps also makes the decision due to her awareness of the class differences between them. 

Book 2, Chapter 9 Quotes
If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Lena Lingard
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

At the dances, Jim has noticed that the young men tend to be attracted to the immigrant girls; he has theorized that this is because their struggle makes them more energetic and vigorous. However, the immigrant girls are also openly "pitied" and looked down upon. Jim observes that the fact that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a respected clergyman in Norway is meaningless; now that she is in America, she is simply seen as an uneducated, "ignorant" outsider. Jim's understanding of the complicated, contradictory dynamics between the "foreigners" and Black Hawk townspeople highlights the nonsensical and hypocritical nature of the townspeople's attitudes. Note that the dismissal of immigrants as "ignorant people who couldn't speak English" has survived as a central part of anti-immigrant discourse even in the present. 

Book 2, Chapter 14 Quotes
On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has spent the whole summer studying for college, except for one occasion when Ántonia, Lena, and his other friends invite him to pick elderflowers. He reminisces with Ántonia about the past, and that evening they watch as the setting sun gloriously frames a plough that has been left in the field. This is one of many moments in the novel where the natural landscape reflects the social experiences and emotions of the characters. The young people picking elderflowers are overwhelmed by feelings of fondness for the prairie, symbolized by the magnificent warmth of the sun.

At the same time, this is a turning point in the novel, and the setting sun represents the end of Jim and Ántonia's childhood together. Once the sun sets, the prairie will no longer be filled with light, just as Jim's life without Ántonia is devoid of the metaphorical light she brings to him. The fact that the plough is "magnified" such that it becomes "heroic in size" points to the fact that this seemingly simple moment is filled with grand significance for the characters who witness it. 

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim, Ántonia, Lena, and their friends have all been picking elderflowers, and that evening they watch the sunset cast light dramatically behind a plough that has been left in the field. The sun's light magnifies the impression of the plough, and the friends feel that the sight is especially meaningful. When the sun sets, however, the plough sinks "back to its own littleness." The fleeting nature of the moment highlights the speedy passage of time and the transience of youth. Indeed, Jim's observation that "even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared" illustrates how quickly and suddenly eras of life can pass. Just at the moment when the friends recognize the meaning of the plough as symbolizing the end of their childhood, the sun sets and the entire scene disappears. 

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. 

In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has met Ántonia's children, and Ántonia has shown him photographs she keeps of when they were young. That night, Jim sleeps next to Ántonia's children and brings to mind memories of Ántonia, which appear like "old woodcuts" in his mind. In each memory, Ántonia is slightly different, both in terms of the situation she is in and her stage of development. Each image involves a feature of the natural landscape: in the first, the pony and snake, in the second, the snowstorm, and in the third, the evening sky. Taken together, they trace Ántonia's growing maturity as she is faced with increasingly difficult challenges in life. However, they also depict her as strong and resilient in the face of these challenges. 

The final image of Ántonia walking home from work "along the evening sky" is reminiscent of the moment when Jim, Ántonia, and their friends watch the sunset behind the plough. Both memories illuminate the passing of time against the cyclical monotony of agricultural work. While Jim's memories of Ántonia––like her life––are finite, the land these memories are situated within possesses an enduring, eternal power.