My Ántonia By Willa Cather Summary and Analysis Book I: The Shimerdas: Chapters XIV-XVI

Summary

When Jim awakens on the morning of January 22, he learns that after dinner the night before, Mr. Shimerda committed suicide in the barn, putting the barrel of his gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger with his big toe. Ambrosch brought the news to the Burdens in the middle of the night and now is asleep on a bench behind the stove; when he wakes, he sits nervously, fingers his rosary, and prays incessantly.

After breakfast, Grandfather, Grandmother, Jake, and Ambrosch leave for the Shimerdas' while Otto heads for town to bring back the priest and coroner. Alone in the house, Jim thinks about what he's learned of Mr. Shimerda's origins. He wonders if Mr. Shimerda's soul is resting here in the Burden home, feeling warm and secure, before beginning its long journey home to Bohemia. Returning later, Otto reports that Ambrosch is obsessed with worry, fearing that his father's soul is in torment. Jim doesn't believe it possible — "Mr. Shimerda had not been rich and selfish: he had only been so unhappy that he could not live any longer."

At noon the next day, Otto returns from Black Hawk with Anton Jelinek, a young Bohemian farmer who has come to help his fellow countrymen. The coroner will arrive later that afternoon, Otto says, but the priest is at the other end of his parish. Jelinek explains how difficult the suicide and the lack of absolution are to the Shimerda family.

Otto begins to build a coffin, and neighbors begin to stop by to pay their respects. Neither the Catholics nor the Norwegians will allow Mr. Shimerda to be interred in their cemeteries. Mrs. Shimerda insists that her husband be buried at the corner of their land, where future roads will eventually cross. Grandfather asks Anton Jelinek if there is an Old Country superstition that a suicide must be buried at a crossroads; the young Bohemian thinks there once may have been such a custom, but he isn't sure. Grandfather declares that Mrs. Shimerda is mistaken if she thinks she will live to see the people of this country "ride over that old man's head."

Mr. Shimerda is buried on the fifth day after his death. Because of the severe cold weather, Ambrosch and Jelinek have to chop into the frozen earth with axes. Before the coffin lid is nailed down, the Shimerdas, in turn, make the sign of the cross on Mr. Shimerda's bandaged head — all except for Yulka, who cries hysterically, afraid to touch the bandage. At the gravesite, the men use ropes to lower the coffin into the hole. Grandfather Burden says a prayer, Otto starts a hymn, and all the neighbors join in singing.

Years later, Grandfather's prediction is proven true; the grave becomes a little island, the roads curving around it. Jim loves the quiet grave because of the spirit of superstition and conciliation that put it there and the spirit of kindness that would not permit anyone in the future to drive over it.

Analysis

Mr. Shimerda's death is the first major turning point in the novel. Ántonia has lost the one person who supported her most; her father was her role model, the family member to whom she was closest. Now she is in danger of coming under the influence of her mother and Ambrosch. In retrospect, we can see Cather is implying that Mr. Shimerda's sadness was caused as much by his feeling of isolation from his family — particularly from his wife — as it was from homesickness. Mrs. Shimerda didn't care about her husband's wants and needs when she decided to come to America; her thoughts were focused solely on Ambrosch. Ántonia was the only family member to acknowledge Mr. Shimerda's sadness; she mentioned it to the Burdens many times.

Cather demonstrates how death has a way of pulling people together: Jim is surprised to see Ambrosch, whom he thought had no feelings for his father, feverishly saying his rosary and praying; neighbors come to visit and offer their support, even though most of these neighbors probably did not make regular visits while Mr. Shimerda was alive. Yet death pushes people apart when the Catholics and Norwegians refuse to allow Mr. Shimerda to be buried in their cemeteries, and these decisions anger even Grandmother Burden, who is able to get along with almost everyone. She exclaims that "if these foreigners are so clannish," she'll get Grandfather to start an American graveyard that is more liberal-minded.

Mr. Shimerda's death is a picture of striking contrasts. He dies in a violent way, but a sense of peace hovers over his grave and will continue to reappear at intervals throughout the novel as a source of strength to Ántonia and as a symbol of tranquility to Jim.

Glossary

a white hart a female deer; here, a symbol of virginity.

Dives in torment The reference is to Luke 16:19-31.

victuals articles of food, especially when prepared for use; pronounced "vittles."

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As a child, Antonia faced many difficulties. Which of the following was not one of them?




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