Character Analysis Mr. Shimerda


Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia's father, is the most tragic character in Cather's story and his life is short-lived on the prairie. But his legacy lives on in his daughter Ántonia, her children, and in his influence on Jim Burden. His earlier years in Europe reveal a sensitive, artistic, and respected man, but his life on the prairie, filled with loneliness and suffering, are too devastating for his delicate nature. When he dies, Ántonia is left without his parental support, but she manages to endure.

In the Old World of Bohemia, Mr. Shimerda was a weaver or tailor by trade and a violinist by avocation. Respected by all, he had wages and a reputation as a man of honor. The gun he gives to Jim was a present from a rich man in Bohemia who gave it to Mr. Shimerda as a gift for playing at his wedding. In the Old Country they were not beggars but by the time they came to America and made money changes and bought train tickets, there was little money left. Ill-suited for a life in the wilderness, Mr. Shimerda was harassed by his wife, who thought that the New World would offer land to their sons and husbands for their daughters. Her greed was what brought the gentle weaver to the Nebraska wilderness.

Once in Nebraska, Mr. Shimerda's sensitive nature is disheartened by the snow and cold and inhuman life in a cave. This is not what he had envisioned for his wife and children and, as the husband and father, he should be the provider. He often went to see the Russians because he was homesick for Eastern Europe and Pavel would talk with him because Mr. Shimerda was a wonderful and patient listener. When Pavel dies and Peter leaves, Mr. Shimerda is depressed by their departure and the advent of winter. He no longer makes music and he is sad, longing for the Old Country. He has a hard time adjusting to the isolation and brutality of life in the wilderness.

When Jim and Ántonia see him hunting, Jim describes Mr. Shimerda's state of mind reflected in his "walking slowly, dragging his feet along as if he had no purpose." It is obvious that Mr. Shimerda brightens up when he sees his Ántonia, but Jim remembers that his smile "was so full of sadness, of pity for things, that I never afterward forgot it." When Jim visits the family with his grandmother, he sees the weariness and pain, the life of dirt and darkness, at the Shimerda cave. He imagines that "in the crowded clutter of their cave, the old man had come to believe that peace and order had vanished from the earth, or existed only in the old world he had left so far behind." How can he watch his family live like this? How can he provide for them?

The last time Jim sees Mr. Shimerda, the old man comes to Jim's grandparents' house at Christmas-time. The contrast between Jim's home and the Shimerda home must have been devastating for the old man. Here at Jim's grandparents' are warmth, light, happiness, and homemade presents. The old man's face changes from weariness to pleasure, and, stretched out before their fire, he remembers the Old Country and how life used to be.

Later, when Mr. Shimerda kills himself it is the depth of winter, and despair is all he sees. His suicide leaves Ántonia without a father and a spiritual support, because she was closest to him and she understood him with her heart. Often, Ántonia and Jim speak of Mr. Shimerda, and later they meet near his grave. Jim finds a peacefulness there that he cannot find in his adult life. He always felt Mr. Shimerda could see his future with "deep-seeing eyes," and the gentle man left Jim his prized possession: the gun from Bohemia. Jim is the keeper of Mr. Shimerda's memory, and he shares that with Ántonia. He often thinks of Mr. Shimerda and feels such a sense of peace that he makes Ántonia's father the subject of his graduation speech. He also comforts Ántonia by picturing her father's spirit heading back to his beloved Bohemia. Little Leo, Mr. Shimerda's grandson, is the legacy to the future, a child who lives on a free and clear farm and plays his grandfather's violin reluctantly.

In Mr. Shimerda's story is the human suffering, sacrifice, and endless struggle that marked the immigrant experience in the early days of the prairie. He would not live to see the next wave of immigrant girls who hired out, sent money home to their parents, and enabled them to buy the land for which they made such sacrifices. But his memory would live on in Ántonia and in the stories she tells her children about their grandfather.

Back to Top