The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to
enhance your group’s reading of Willa Cather’s My Antonia
and The Professor’s
. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at–and talking
about–two novels that represent Cather’s astonishing powers of narrative selection and
juxtaposition; her ability to create believably complex characters who take on mythic
dimensions in the reader’s imagination, and the historical vision that could celebrate
the American past without minimizing its hardships and moral ambiguities.
Perhaps the most popular of Cather’s novels, My Antonia
is at once the intimate
portrait of an American heroine, an elegy for a vanished frontier, and the story of an
unconsummated love affair. Jim Burden, the narrator, meets Antonia Shimerda as a
child on the Nebraska prairie. He is an orphan and a Protestant, she the daughter of
ill-adapted Bohemian immigrants; her father will kill himself when he is broken by the
harshness and solitude of their new home. Jim and Antonia grow up together, and he
harbors vague and contradictory romantic yearnings toward her. But they are separated in
their youth and spend most of their lives apart. While Jim pursues his education and
becomes a lawyer for the railroad, Antonia goes into domestic service, survives a
near-rape, is seduced and abandoned by a heartless lover, and bears a baby out of
wedlock. Much of her story unfolds secondhand, as Jim gathers it from other sources.
They are reunited only briefly at the novel’s end, and by then both of them are married,
Jim unhappily so.
What is it that makes Antonia a genuinely heroic figure? Partly, it is her ability
to emerge undiminished and unembittered from circumstances no less bleak than the ones
that killed her father, to improvise happiness in the same way she once improvised
stories. In the course of the novel, Antonia also becomes an embodiment of the
narrator’s memory, which has the power to withstand time and redeem its losses. Of
course, it is not only Jim’s memory that is in play: Antonia represents all the
strength, resilience, and unselfconscious nobility of a decisive moment in our nation’s
past. The virtues that Cather associates with her heroine have either become obsolete or
have receded into our collective unconscious, but the sight of her is enough to reawaken
our memory of them: "She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize
by instinct as universal and true….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." [p. 258]
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. For discussion: My Antonia
The first narrator in My Antonia is an unnamed speaker who grew up with Jim Burden and meets him years later on a train. Jim tells his story in response to this mysterious figure, who disappears from the novel as soon as the Introduction is over. How does this first narrator’s disappearance foreshadow other withdrawals within this novel, which at times resembles a series of departures? Why might Cather have chosen to frame her narrative in this fashion?
2. When Jim arrives in Nebraska, he sees "nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." [11-12] Yet at the novel’s end that landscape is differentiated. It has direction and color–red grass, blue sky, dun-shaded bluffs. We are reminded of the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and of God’s parting of the heavens from the earth. To what extent is My Antonia an American Genesis? What are its agents of creation and differentiation?
3. Just as My Antonia‘s setting is initially raw and featureless, its narrative at first seems haphazard: "’I didn’t arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people’s Antonia’s name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form.’"  Is Burden’s description really accurate? Although the narrative proceeds chronologically, its structure is unconventional, as Antonia is present in only three of the five sections and much of her story unfolds via exposition. What effect does Cather produce by telling her story in this fashion?
4. One of the greatest difficulties facing the Shimerdas and other immigrant families is that posed by their lack of English, which seals them off from all but the most forthcoming of their neighbors. Yet even American-born arrivals to Nebraska find themselves set apart. As the narrator notes in the Introduction, "no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said."  What is the nature of this freemasonry? What experiences do the inhabitants of this world share that are alien–and perhaps incommunicable–to people raised elsewhere? Does the shared experience of the novel’s pioneers end up counting for more than their linguistic and ethnic differences?
5. What is it that makes Mr. Shimerda unable to adapt to his new home and ultimately drives him to suicide? Is he simply too refined–too rooted in Europe–to endure the harshness and solitude of the prairie? Before we jump to too easy a conclusion, we might consider the fact that the novel’s other suicide, Wick Cutter, is a crass, upwardly mobile small-town entrepreneur. What do these two deaths suggest about the prerequisites for surviving in Cather’s world?
6. From their first meeting, when Jim begins to teach Antonia English, he serves as her instructor and occasional guardian. Yet he also seems in awe of Antonia. What is it that makes her superior to him? What does she possess that Jim doesn’t? What makes her difference so desirable?
7. At times Jim’s feelings towards Antonia suggest romantic infatuation, yet their relationship remains chaste. Nor does Jim ever become sexually involved with the alluring–and more available–Lena Lingard. Curiously, Antonia appears to disapprove of their flirtation. And, whether he is conscious of it or not, Jim seems wedded to the idea of Tony as a sexual innocent. Following the failed assault by Wick Cutter, "I hated her almost as much as I hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness."  How do you account for these characters’ ambivalent and at times squeamish attitude toward sexuality? In what ways do they change when they marry and–in Antonia’s case–bear children?
8. Just as it is possible to read Lena Lingard as Antonia’s sensual twin, one can see the entire novel as consisting of doubles and repetitions. Antonia has two brothers, the industrious and amoral Ambrosch and the sweet-natured, mentally incompetent Marek. Wick Cutter’s suicide echoes that of Mr. Shimerda. Even minor anecdotes have a way of mirroring each other. Just as the Russians Peter and Pavel are stigmatized because they threw a bride to a pursuing wolf pack, the hired hand Otto is burdened by an act of generosity on his voyage over to America, when the woman he is escorting ends up giving birth to triplets. Where else in the novel do events and characters mirror each other? What is the effect of this symmetry and its variations?
9. In one of her essays, Willa Cather observed, "I have not much faith in women in fiction." [cited in Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York, Vintage, 1991, p. 12] Yet in Antonia Cather has created a genuinely heroic woman. What perceived defects in earlier fictional heroines might Cather be trying to redeem in this novel? Do her female characters seem nobler, better, or more deeply felt than their male counterparts? In spite of this, why might Cather have chosen to make My Antonia‘ s narrator a man?
10. For her epigraph Cather uses a quote from Virgil: Optima dies…prima fugit: "The best days are the first to pass." How is this idea borne out within My Antonia? In what ways can the novel’s early days, with their scenes of poverty, hunger and loss, be described as the best? What does Jim, the novel’s presiding consciousness, lose in the process of growing up? Does Antonia lose it as well? How is this notion of lost happiness connected to Jim’s observation: "That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great"?
11. Although My Antonia is elegiac in its tone–and has been used in high school curricula to convey a conservative view of the American past–it is also notable for its striking realism about gender and culture. Not only does the novel have a female protagonist who prevails in spite of male betrayal and abuse (and two secondary female characters who prosper without ever marrying), it also portrays the early frontier as a multicultural quilt in which Bohemians, Swedes, Austrians, and a blind African-American retain their ethnic identities without dissolving in the American melting pot. Significantly, at the novel’s end Antonia has reverted to speaking Bohemian with her husband and children. How important are these themes to the novel’s overall vision? Do they accurately reflect the history of the western frontier?
Comparing My Antonia and The Professor’s House:
1. How does the small university town in The Professor’s House resemble or differ from My Antonia‘s Black Hawk? To what extent are those differences due to the different historical eras in which the two novels are set? Read together, what kind of relationship do these novels posit between towns and the prairie? Which region does Cather seem to identify with the "best times" of My Antonia‘s Virgilian epigraph?
2. How do the female characters in The Professor’s House compare with those in My Antonia? How do both sets of women confirm or challenge stereotypes about their gender? What significance do you see in the fact that Antonia marries relatively late, and her friends Lena and Tina not at all, while the St. Peter women have married early? What role does class play in Cather’s treatment of her female characters?
3. Why is suicide a theme in both novels? What do Cather’s suicides appear to have in common? Does she seem to associate the act with moral failure or mental breakdown or portray it as a natural, and even honorable, response to intolerable circumstances? What role did suicide play in the age and society in which Cather wrote? (You may want to look at such novels as Sister Carrie to see how some of her contemporaries treated the same theme.)
4. Given the evidence of these novels, how does Cather seem to view relations between the sexes? What prospects of happiness and fulfillment do they hold for both men and women? Which of her characters ends up happily married and for what reasons? Why do so many others–from Jim Burden to Godfrey St. Peter–end up regretting their attachments?
5. The Professor’s House has as its epigraph, "A turquoise set in silver, wasn’t it?…Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver." Although these words of Louie’s describe a ring that Tom once gave Rosamund and thus allude to the abandoned cliff-dwelling where Tom presumably unearthed it, they may also refer to the structure that Cather uses in this novel. Discuss the way in which the author embeds Tom Outland’s narrative within the professor’s story. What similarity do you see between this strategy and the embedded narratives in My Antonia?
6. In both My Antonia and The Professor’s House Cather uses two sorts of language, one conventional and expository, the other heightened and rhapsodically sensual, a language attuned to colors, fragrances, and grand effects of light and shadow. Where does she employ these different kinds of prose, and to what effect?
About this Author
Willa Sibert Cather was born December 7, 1873, near Winchester, Virginia. When she was about ten years old her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where many of her novels and short stories are set. "I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything," she told an interviewer many years later. "It was a kind of erasure of personality."
Following her education at the University of Nebraska, where she at first studied medicine, Cather became a newspaperwoman and teacher in Pittsburgh. In 1906, she moved to New York City to work as an editor on McClure’s Magazine
. She eventually left journalism to devote herself to writing fiction full time. Her novels include Alexander’s Bridge
(1912), O Pioneers!
(1913), The Song of the Lark
(1915), My Antonia
(1918), One of Ours
(1922), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, A Lost Lady
(1923), The Professor’s House
(1925), My Mortal Enemy
(1926), Death Comes For the Archbishop
(1927), Shadows on the Rock
(1931), Lucy Gayheart
(1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl
Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, in New York City.From the Trade Paperback edition.