Essays On My Antonia By Willa Cather

The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each topic is a sample outline to get you started.

Topic #1
When Mr. Shimerda dies, Antonia is left, through no choice of her own, without a father. She and her family are left poor and grieving in a strange new land. However, the rest of Antonia’s life after his suicide becomes shaped by the choices that she makes. Explain how these choices cause change at various points of her life.

I. Thesis Statement: After her father’s death, all of the changes that occur in Antonia’s life come from her own choices.

II. Chooses to work like a man in the fields
A. Develops knowledge of farming
B. Foregoes her education with Jim
C. Appreciates life on the land

III. Chooses to work for Harlings
A. Becomes part of a warm and friendly family
B. Learns to cook and sew
C. Learns the mannerisms of town life
D. Makes wages for spending

IV. Chooses to work for the Cutters
A. Leaves happy family life of the Harlings
B. Makes more money and does less work
C. Becomes irresponsible with her free time
D. Becomes victim to Wick Cutter’s advances

V. Chooses to marry Larry Donovan
A. Doesn’t listen to others’ opinions of him
B. Leaves Black Hawk for Colorado
C. Larry deserts her after a month
D. Comes home and lives quietly on farm
E. Bears her child alone

VI. Chooses to marry Anton Cuzak
A. Meets and marries a fellow Bohemian
B. Has many children
C. Teaches them customs and language of the old country
D. Lives a content and happy life on the prairie

VII. Conclusion: Despite some poor decisions, Antonia ends up happy and content with her life.

Topic #2
Many immigrants arrived on the Nebraska prairie from all over Europe. Most of them were very poor and they had little hope for survival. It can be said that the true meaning of their pioneer spirit rose from their perseverance, their sheer will to survive the harshest conditions. They braved the ordeals of prairie life for many years until they found comfort and established themselves in a new land. Discuss the many hardships these immigrants faced and how overcoming those hardships defined their pioneer spirit.

I. Thesis Statement: Immigrants on the prairie encountered many hardships which they overcame through courage and hard work.

II. Fighting the language barrier
A. Cannot ask for help when they need it
B. Shimerdas at the mercy of Krajiek
C. Were forced to make friends with neighbors

III. Surviving the harshness of the prairie
A. Mr. Shimerda has no knowledge of farming
B. Poor living conditions
C. Severe winters and snowstorms


(The entire section is 1230 words.)


Kelly McCormick

Brininstool 2nd Period

English III Research Paper

Longing for the American Dream

Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia, is a story about the plight of several individuals to achieve the American Dream. In this case, the American Dream is presented as living successfully and comfortably with a happy marriage, children and being true to oneself. Through her characters, Cather shows how the journey to the American Dream can sometimes be interrupted by poor choices and destruction.

There can be events in our pursuit of the American Dream that momentarily fulfill us; however, when we do not achieve the goal of happiness and success, we continue to long for pieces of it throughout our lives. Literary critic James E. Miller says, "… My Antonia does not portray, in any meaningful sense, the fulfillment of the American dream...the dreams of the pioneers lie shattered, their lives broken by the hardness of wilderness life… ". (Miller 103) Cather shows us that the path to the American Dream is filled with memories we long to relive. We yearn for the things that could have been. Miller compares the American Dream and its haunting memory to a "…road, leading not into the future, but into the past, fast fading from the landscape, fast fading from memory." (Miller 183)

One of the main characters of My Antonia, and the narrator, Jim Burden, plays an important part of Cather's story about the fleeting American Dream. In his later years, Jim looks back on his life finding that choices he made along the way caused him to miss what could have been some of the greatest moments in his life. What would appear to be a good decision - to pursue an education and a career - eventually leads Jim to a different life. Instead of living the Dream of having a successful career and family, he finds himself trapped in a marriage with a wife he barely knows and without beloved children. As he reflects back on the hired immigrant girls, he realizes that their lives represent what the American Dream is truly all about. "…Jim has all the appearances of one who has lived the American Dream and achieved fulfillment. But the material fulfillment has not brought the happiness promised…" (Miller 103). Other choices in his life have led to the destruction of his dream, including his intrigue with the hired girls whom he will never marry. He avoids the town girls whom he could wed and perhaps have a fulfilling life because of his infatuation with the hired girls.

The immigrants are a variety of characters whom Cather uses to support her theme of the destruction of the American Dream. Each immigrant's story represents a footprint in the journey to the American Dream. In the same way that Americans have sought to conquer the frontier in space, these immigrants had similar aspirations for the western frontier.

Jake Marpole, a farmhand who accompanies Jim to his grandmother's house, becomes a respectable friend. Otto Fuchs, an Austrian hired hand immigrant from the Burdens who works for Jim's grandmother, befriends both Jake and Jim. He frequently shares his childhood visions of the American Dream as becoming wealthy. Seduced by Otto's tales of a wealth of silver in Colorado, Jake decides to pursue these treasures and begins working in one of these silver mines, the Yankee Girl Mine. Along his journey to wealth, Jake contracts Mountain Fever and is never heard of again except by Otto's letter. Otto follows Jake to go out west to find his own fortune in the Yankee Girl Mine. Except for one letter to tell Jim that Jake is sick with Mountain Fever, Otto is never heard from again.

Pavel and Peter are two Russian neighbors who symbolize the actual destruction of the Dream. While living in Russia, they serve as groomsmen in their friends' wedding. On the wedding night, Peter and Pavel along with the bride and groom and others are chased and attacked by a pack of wolves. In desperation, Peter and Pavel leave the newly married friends to fend for themselves against the hungry wolves while they selfishly escape back to safety in the Ukraine village of Russia. From that point on, they are treated as outcasts in their native country, causing them to decide to move to America. Shortly after arriving and working in America, Pavel develops health problems due to stress and the conditions of the places where he worked. Peter, fearing for his friend's health, decides that they should try farming. Soon after they buy a ranch, Pavel dies from the effects of strenuous hard labor. Peter, who loves what America represents, works diligently to maintain the farm without the help of Peter. He is not successful and eventually has to sell the farm to pay off his debt to Wick Cutter. In his grief, Peter leaves America to work as a railway cook with Russian gang members at a railroad construction camp. Peter and Pavel's dream of wealth and the desire to get away from their past was ruined by the destruction of their dream.

Tiny Soderball, one of the hired girls with whom Jim is intrigued, is one of the few to actually achieve worldly success. She moves to Seattle, where many sailors travel, thinking she can find wealth by getting into the hotel business. The people of Black Hawk, the town that Jim moves to when he leaves the farm, believe that this career will be the end of her. They are very jealous of her and her good fortune when she goes to Alaska after gold is discovered. There she opens up a hotel, and a dying Swedish prospector comes into her life. After taking care of him, Tiny earns a deed to his claim and becomes wealthy. Even though she is more successful in terms of money than her peers, she becomes a cynical woman later in life. Unfortunately, this success leaves her as a thin, hard-faced woman satisfied with her success, but not really happy.

Lena Lingard, another of the hired girls with whom Jim is intrigued, and the one he possibly could have spent his life with, achieved some success. She leaves Black Hawk to go to Lincoln, the town where Jim went to school, to become a successful dressmaker. Lena is a flirt who says she never intends to marry. Like Circe of The Odyssey, she diverts ambitious men from their goals with her charms. However, she is infatuated by Jim and has always had romantic feelings for him. Although he has had romantic intentions for her, Jim escapes her charms and makes the decision to leave Lena and acquire an education. This leaves Lena to live the rest of her life without marriage. Their dreams of being together and possibly having a fulfilling life are lost forever.

The Shimerdas are the family who neighbored the Burdens. They live through many hardships and are also unsuccessful in reaching the "American Dream". Mrs. Shimerda is a greedy woman who forces her husband to leave the land he loves so they can acquire greater success in America. "It is as Mrs. Burden says, 'A body never knows what traits poverty might bring out in 'em'". (Jago Novels 2: 20 Volumes) She expects more than anyone can give to her, and more from her husband that he can possibly give or afford to give to her. This leads to the Shimerdas' dreams falling to the end of the cliff of destruction. Unlike Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Mrs. Shimerda remains shrewd her whole life and passes this trait on to her son, Ambrosch. She dreams of things that will never be within her family, including tremendous amounts of wealth for her and her son. She does things for the good of herself and her son instead of for the entire family. She is very disappointed with how Antonia's life is turning out and turns her scorn onto Antonia's first child. Her dreams fall apart in the end when she realizes that what she wanted can never be. Mr. Shimerda is the complete opposite of his wife. He longs to return home to Bohemia where he was well respected and living a comfortable life as a musician. He finds himself unable to cope with the harsh wilderness of the prairie life and longs for home even more. Finding that he finds no solace in this barren land, he becomes depressed. His only dream is to make sure that his family becomes happy and wealthy like his wife wants. More importantly, however, he hopes that Antonia can learn to read and become successful in her life. After finding that his wife's dream of America will never come true, Mr. Shimerda commits suicide. The family and their foolish dreams begin to wither and die after his death. The Shimerdas became harsh and cynical. Mr. Shimerda's dream for Antonia is only half-realized, for his girl did learn to read and become somewhat educated. However, her poor decisions did not lead her to success.

Antonia is the one girl that Jim has always loved but could never have. She is the one person that Jim can never forget, much like Americans can never forget the American Dream. When Antonia was younger, she tried to find the goodness in her life, even when she could find none. This led to a half-fulfilled dream. Like her father, she held on to dreams of her family becoming successful, but these were never realized. When her father committed suicide, she began to realize that the only way to make it through her life was to become a realist. At this point, she realized that her dream would never come true. In spite of what seems to be shattered dreams, Antonia's life turns for the better when Mrs. Burden persuades Ambrosch, her older brother, and Mrs. Harling, her mistress-to-be, to allow her to work for the Harlings. Here she works as a cook and caretaker of the children, but she is faced with several harsh distractions in life.

Antonia, in her own opinion, believes that if she is to be successful in work then she must take on the daily pleasures of life. This leads to her dancing nights and her infatuation with the men and boys who will lead her away from her dream. She meets Larry Donovan, a train conductor, whom she falls in love with. His foolings with her heart lead to one of her biggest mistakes as she runs out of money and becomes pregnant with his child. After being left at the altar by her husband-to-be, Antonia gives birth to an illegitimate baby girl, which disgraces her family. Years later, she meets and marries Cuzak, a respectable man who gives her a loving family and the comforts of home. Although she realizes her dream of having a happy family, Antonia does not live a completely fulfilled life with him, nor does she achieve success. The life that she wanted, the dream she had dreamed, was never realized. Antonia is somewhat like the symbol of Mother Earth, being very maternal and always looking for the good in life. Much like the American Dream, this symbol is something that humans have always wanted to grasp and capture, but can never hold.

"Antonia came in and stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had… She was there, in the full vigor of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well." (Cather 238)

My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a true depiction of how the American Dream is embedded in individuals from all walks of life. It is a dream that drives individuals to pursue higher standards of living, and yet the outcome of this pursuit is often bittersweet. As we strive to reach this goal, we are often blinded by things that will never be, and go through life regretting things that could have been.

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