My Ántonia, Individualism

(Individualism: Its Influence over Lena, Jim and Ántonia During Their Childhood, Adolescence and Adulthood) “The longest journey is the journey inwards. Of him who has chosen his destiny, Who has started upon his quest for the source of his being”— Dag Hammarskjold.1 This individualist journey, Hammarskjold refers to, consists of two very important elements which contribute to individualism: (1) having the awareness of personal accountability before the Lord and Savior and (2) having a self-sufficient nature as a fountainhead of a person’s individuality which was required to settle the American frontier.

These key ingredients mixed with an untamed land tempered the settlers into what we know them today as Americans which may be observed within Willa Cather’s My Antonia as the reader follows the lives of three key characters: Lena, Jimmy, and Antonia.

Cather herself searched for her own individualism which she juxtaposed in this 1918 literary work with the character Jimmy. Both he and the author of the story were born in Virginia and at an early age were sent to Nebraska to join their grandparents.

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And much like the author, he had the pleasure of growing up with a variety of immigrants and stories. Such narratives inspired the author throughout her writing career. My Antonia follows the endeavors of the female protagonist, Antonia, and her foil, Lena, as they struggle in a new country, language, and culture seeking happiness and fulfillment in their lives which Cather so often observed in her childhood immigrant neighbors. Likewise, the reader learns about Jimmy with his own personal struggles as he strives for autonomy in a rugged territory with strict moral codes.

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Willa Cather’s My Ántonia addresses the notion of individualism which is best seen through direct and indirect characterization of three dynamic characters: Lena, Jimmy, and Ántonia by means of analyzing three stages of life: childhood, youth, and adulthood. A remarkable example of individualistic growth is depicted in Lena Lingard who lived in the countryside with her newly transplanted Norwegian family outside Black Hawk, Nebraska.

The reader first encounters Lena through direct characterization as she is described as being “bareheaded and barefooted, scantily dressed in tattered clothing” (106)2 when she was just a child looking after her family’s herd. In the first part of the book she is introduced as a wild, poorly dressed working girl in charge of farm tasks much like other foreign girls: “Lena lived in the Norwegian settlement west of Squaw Creek, and she used to herd her father’s cattle in the open country between his place and the Shimerdas” (106).

Further along in the novel, there is a clear change in this character’s life. She grows-up and changes her worn out rags for dressmaker quality clothing with hat and gloves as she begins a new phase in her life as a dressmaker’s apprentice in the town of Black Hawk: “’So you have come to town,’ said Mrs. Harling, her eyes still fixed on Lena. ´Where are you working?’ ´For Mrs. Thomas, the dressmaker. She is going to teach me to sew. She says I have quite a knack’” (104). As a young adult, Lena strikes-out on her own to the city of Lincoln in a supreme final exhibition of the independence she has forged for herself throughout her life through hard work and determination. “‘I live in Lincoln now, too, Jim. I’m in business for myself.

I have a dressmaking shop in the Raleigh Block, out on O Street. I’ve made a real good start’” (170-171). The path Lena has walked since her childhood, through her adolescence, and then adulthood has illustrated a noticeable achievement in becoming a self-sufficient young woman who quested for her destiny in an untamed land far from her native home. Lena’s personal accountability should also be explored, being one of the key elements of individualism, as she never turned her back on her family but always sent them money from her sewing work: “’After I learn to do sewing, I can make money and help . . . [my mother]’” (104).

These individualistic elements were key in developing her character as she was noted in taking care of herself as well as her parents and siblings which was required of those immigrants who founded America and became a new breed of people known as Americans. Individualism was also reached by two other primary characters within this classic American literature novel: Jimmy and Antonia.

Jim Burden, the narrator of the story and also one of the major characters of Willa Cather´s My Antonia, is as well and important example of how a human being can evolve trough his life to find completeness and self-sufficiency. At the beginning of the book, Jim had just suffered the loss of his parents; and sent to his grandparents. While he was in the train on his way to Nebraska he was in deep grieve and uncertain about his future. “´ I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter.
Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be´”. Nevertheless, that sad passage in his life did not let Jim down. In the same train that he was travelling there was a Bohemian family. One of the members of that family was Ántonia Shimerda, who would become his best friend in the near future. When Jim had enough age to start studying at School, coincidentally his grandparents also had to move to Black Hawk due to Mrs. Burden health situation. There he met new friends, worked hard on his studies, and also had fun.

Despite being sad and scared in the past, Jim managed to overcome these difficulties and successfully improve at school. So much so, that soon he would move to Lincoln to start his college career. There he met Gaston Cleric who joined him in his new adventure, and helped Jim to get over some obstacles that he had to face while living in Lincoln. “At the university I had the good fortune to come immediately under the influence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric had arrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I . . .” (165). Cleric also convinced him to move to Boston to finish his career, where Jim would finally reach his goal of becoming a professional. “Two years after I left Lincoln I completed my academic course at Harvard. Before I entered the Law School I went home for the summer vacation.”

(191) Just after getting his college degree, Jim travelled back to Black Hawk where he would find everything different, his friends either dead or gone, the kids were not the same, and even the town itself was all changed. He left Black Hawk being an adolescent with dreams and now he had returned as a professional. He felt he was complete, despite of the fact that he still had very present that sorrowful night in which he was moving from Virginia to Nebraska. “´I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is´.

(238)” By the time he came back to Black Hawk he knew that he had seized the opportunities he had and felt that his life had been worthy living. While back in town, he went to visit his beloved friend Ántonia, which also was happy. The happenings in Antonia’s life, and how she evolved from being a little girl in a foreign country to the women she became will be thoroughly developed next.

Ántonia Shimerda is the main character that we find in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. As well as Lena and Jim she is characterized during different stages of her life (childhood, adolescence and adulthood). One example of this characterization is portrayed in how Ántonia was developing her new language (English) and how it was influenced by the different periods of time she went through, as well as the places she moved to. At the beginning of the story we find Ántonia and her family moving from Bohemia to the prairie of Nebraska. In the prairie and as a child she met Lena Lingard and Jim Burden who would become one of the most important persons in her life.

Jim was going to be the one in charge of teaching English to Ántonia who did not speak much English before the arrival to the prairie; “´Ántonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known. Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her reading lesson with me. Mrs. Shimerda grumbled, but realized it was important that one member of the family should learn English’” (24). It is evident that Mrs. Shimerda did not like the idea of Ántonia learning English. But, she understood it was important for Ántonia to learn the language in order to adapt herself and to find herself in her new country and home, also this would help Ántonia to take care of her family as she felt it as an obligation.

As Ántonia was evolving her English was growing with her and with this some traits of her personality too. As explained before in the paper, Jim had to move to Black Hawk due to study reasons, but it was not going to be a long time before Ántonia also moved to Black Hawk, but with different intentions from one’s of Jim. Ántonia moved to Black Hawk to get a job, here she runs into Jim and Lena again. Now in her adolescence Jim says that Ántonia has very good English, “Tony learned English so quickly that by the time school began she could speak as well as any of us” (107). This shows that Ántonia kept practicing English to improve herself, as she felt that was one way to become better to help her family, and now in Black Hawk and with her job it was evident how the improvement in her English helped her.

However, Ántonia would began to attend to dances with her friend Lena and this would carry a lot of problems with it for her, including losing her job because she did not want to quit attending to dances as requested by her bosses. The story carried on and further ahead in the story, when Jim comes back from Lincoln and the time he spent at Harvard to finish his studies, he finds a happily married grown-up Ántonia with children. Ántonia had married a bohemian guy called Anton and now she has a family, and she is very happy with them. While Jim is talking with Ántonia, he notices that her English has become bad as it used to be when she was a child and she was learning it. Ántonia tells him that now she has many troubles with English because at home they speak almost only in Bohemian, “´I can’t think of what I want to say, you’ve got me so stirred up. And then, I’ve forgot my English so. I don’t often talk it any more.

I tell the children I used to speak real well. She said they always spoke Bohemian at home. The little ones could not speak English at all—didn’t learn it until they went to school” (224). Now in her adulthood Ántonia was really worried and a good mother as well as a good wife who take care of her family. Here is where the change that Ántonia suffered from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is characterized, how she passed from a little girl to a loving mother. Throughout this essay three fundamental characters that we find in the novel My Ántonia by the author Willa Cather have been characterized, these characters are: Lena Lingard, Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda. The characterization of these characters has been done under the perception of individualism that is represented with each one of them.

This perception of individualism of the characters has been shown based on the pursuit for autonomy that each character went through. At the same time three different moments in characters lives’ were chosen to describe them; the childhood, adolescence and adulthood. These moments in character’s lives’ were chosen because they are prior important stages in a person’s life. So, it was important to illustrate how the notion of individualism of each character could be characterized in these stages, taking into account crucial aspects that the characters faced in the search for themselves. Examples of these important aspects faced by the characters are a new country, language and culture in the case of Lena and Ántonia. Another example is the personal struggles of Jim as he attempts for autonomy in a rugged territory with strict moral codes.

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My Ántonia, Individualism. (2016, May 03). Retrieved from

My Ántonia, Individualism

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