One afternoon in late autumn, Ántonia takes Jim to visit a pair of Russian immigrants whom her family has befriended. Only Peter is at home, but he shows Ántonia and Jim his milking cow and feeds them a snack of melons. He then entertains them by playing a number of tunes on his harmonica. As Ántonia and Jim leave, Peter presents Ántonia with a sack of cucumbers for her mother, along with a pail of milk to cook them in.
On another fall day, near sunset, Ántonia and Jim encounter Mr. Shimerda, who has recently caught three rabbits. This bounty will provide food for the family and a winter hat for Ántonia. Mr. Shimerda promises to give his gun to Jim when Jim is older. Jim notes that Mr. Shimerda seems sad, which leaves a deep impression on Jim. As daylight wanes, the Shimerdas return to their farm, and Jim races his shadow home.
Several sections of My Ántonia preface the novel’s actual narrative: in addition to the introduction, Cather includes an epigraph and a dedication. The epigraph, from Virgil’s Georgics (a long poem about farming life), reads: “Optima dies . . . prima fugit,” a Latin phrase meaning “The best days are the first to flee.” Cather’s -dedication—“To Carrie and Irene Miner” above the words “In memory of affections old and true”—further emphasizes the nostalgic intent of the novel. From the very beginning, My Ántonia presents itself- unmistakably as a novel imbued with strong yearnings for a -vanished past.
Yet certain elements of the novel temper this nostalgic intensity. First and foremost, Cather provides a frame for the narrative by way of a narrated introduction, which gives the reader some psychological distance from the intensely personal voice of the memoir that forms the core of the novel. Although the introduction’s content is fairly straightforward, it remains a curious document nonetheless—indeed, we are not sure whether we are supposed to consider the introduction as fact or fiction. The only concrete biographical information revealed about the narrator of the introduction concerns a childhood spent in rural Nebraska and a present existence in New York. While it may be plausible to assume that this narrator is Cather herself, given that Cather has these locales in common with the narrator, the text offers no proof of this hypothesis.
Several critics have noted My Ántonia as a bold departure from American literature of its time, one of the first novels written by a woman to feature a male narrator and deserving of special attention because of the autobiographical elements in the text. Jim begins the novel as a ten-year-old orphan, moving cross-country from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. Although Cather was not orphaned at age ten, she too made the move from Virginia to Nebraska to live with her grandparents, and the change of scenery had a profound effect upon her experience and her memory. It is always difficult to assess the importance of biography and invention in fiction, but it seems reasonable to assume that Cather employs a liberal amount of each. Cather was a rather tomboyish child, a trait that would certainly enhance her own capacity to get inside the head of a male narrator. In addition, her many intense childhood and adult friendships with women would allow her to paint a nostalgic picture of an immigrant frontier girl. To say that Cather herself is Jim Burden, however, may be to overstep the mark. Rather, it is Cather’s willingness to combine biographical recollection with fictional experimentation (the use of a male narrator, for example) that merits note.
Jim’s remark, upon presenting his portfolio to the narrator in the introduction—“I didn’t take time to arrange it; I simply wrote down pretty much all that her name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form”—prefigures the novel’s extremely episodic nature. The memoir, the core of the novel, features little snippets of memory pasted loosely together. In place of a focused plot, Cather gives her attention to lengthy descriptions of the characters who populate the novel and, perhaps even more important, of the austere landscape that they inhabit.