Messages from Urban Settings in My Antonia, a Novel by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia mostly takes place between rural settings, but throughout the novel messages from more urban settings take place. These messages upset the social fabric of the characters in the novel in ways that, as described by the narrator, affect the characters in ways either less or more dramatic than how the contents of the messages are portrayed by those in the urban centers relating them. These interactions and ruminations by the narrator elicit a theme of contrasting attentions to detail and dramatic effect between urban and rural settings.

There is an emphasis on attention to the natural setting in My Antonia, as the narrator uses long descriptive passages many times throughout the novel. These are sometimes book ended with the narrator’s observations that the slowness of rural life has allowed him to appreciate these details. For instance, the sky and fields are often described with characterizations, which help to create an effect of having observed the sky and fields for long periods, and even suggest an intimacy with these aspects of the setting.

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This same effect the narrator describes of a heightened attention to detail is used to describe dramatic moments within the novel, fleshing out the relation of the perspective of a rural inhabitant. For instance, the Shimerda elder in the first chapter is given greater characterization by the narrator’s attention to Shimerda’s slow and patient mannerisms. Meaning is drawn from the tone of his voice, the man’s grooming habits, the simplicity of his words and routines, and even from the long silences the man uses between speaking.

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The overall effect this achieves allows the reader to be drawn in to the perspective of a rural social life where smaller details may contain greater meaning. For instance, Shimerda’s family prayers are simple and given in the same way, but the emphasis is on Shimerda’s weight and thoughtfulness in delivery, rather than the objective content of the prayers. This stretching of attention to smaller detail also lends dramatic effect to the novel. For instance, the narrator’s encounter with a giant rattlesnake punctures the novel with sudden action in the same way it would inhabit the memories of an actual rural child. The rattlesnake scene comes on suddenly and in violent detail, in contrast to the slow and descriptive scenes that relate the environment or daily rituals on the farm. In fact, this scene is later drawn on as one of the few memories that Antonia relates to her children as an instance from her childhood. The same effect also gives further weight to serious dramatic instances in the novel, such as the death shrouded in mystery as either a suicide or homicide. This event rips apart the social fabric of the Shimerda family’s usually mundane lifestyle, and this is shown by the splitting of the children out to new locations.

The brothers leave for foreign lands and heightened adventure, the sister leaves for the city as it better suits her temperament of seeking more rapid achievements, and the narrator and Antonia leave for different farming communities. It’s as if the instance of this death overwhelms the Shimerda family and their community, and it must disperse and re-settle in order to move on from it. The events of My Antonia are framed by the attention that the narrator relates, which primes the reader to take in these events with the weight and seriousness that someone living a pastoral lifestyle would likely see things through. This lends the novel great purpose as a window into other lifestyles and how living differently can affect one’s perspection.

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Messages from Urban Settings in My Antonia, a Novel by Willa Cather. (2022, Feb 27). Retrieved from

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