Summary and Analysis
Book I: The Shimerdas:
Ántonia and Jim ride over to visit Pavel and Peter, two Russians whom Ántonia's father has befriended. Pavel isn't home, but Peter is delighted to see them. He shows them around the farm, feeds them watermelon, and entertains them by playing the harmonica. When they are ready to leave, he gives them some cucumbers for Mrs. Shimerda and a lard-pail full of milk.
Jim and Ántonia have a reading lesson on the bank near the badger hole. They discuss the badger, how he is esteemed in Bohemia, and they rescue a frail green insect, which, in return for the warmth of Ántonia's hands, chirps for them. Ántonia is reminded of Old Hata, a beggar woman in Bohemia who dug herbs in the forest and sold them. Children loved to hear the songs she sang in her old cracked voice.
On the way home, they see Mr. Shimerda on the hill where he's been hunting. He shows them the three rabbits he has killed and tells Ántonia that he'll make her a rabbit hat for winter. He says that someday he'll give Jim this gun, which he brought from Bohemia. The sadness of Mr. Shimerda's smile depresses Jim.
Ántonia is four years older and more traveled than Jim, and he resents her air of superiority. Her attitude changes one day, however, when they are on their way home after borrowing a spade from the two Russians. At the prairie dog town, Jim almost backs into a rattlesnake. Ántonia screams at him in Bohemian. He whirls around and kills the rattler with the spade, but he's cross with her for not warning him in English. After this adventure, Ántonia brags about how Jim killed the snake, and she begins to treat him as an equal.
As late autumn lingers, the Russians get into trouble with Black Hawk's moneylender, Wick Cutter, who forces them to pay a huge bonus on an overdue loan and give him a mortgage on their livestock. Later, Pavel injures himself while building a barn. When Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia, and Jim visit the Russians, thin and emaciated Pavel rouses himself from his sickbed and tells Mr. Shimerda why they left Russia, a story that Ántonia translates for Jim. A few days afterward, Pavel dies. Peter sells everything and goes away to cook at a construction camp.
Here, we get our first glimpse of the two Russians, Pavel and Peter. Pavel isn't home when Jim and Ántonia arrive, but Peter greets them jovially, shows them his chickens and his cow, of which he is very proud, and his garden, serves them slices of watermelon, and when they get up to leave, he entertains them by playing tunes on the harmonica because he wants their company. The tunes that he plays are either very happy or very sad. Peter's comment that they left their country because of a "great trouble" foreshadows Pavel's wedding party story later in the narrative.
In Chapter VI, Jim contrasts the end of autumn with the approach of winter. It is a day warm enough to be outside without coats, but as the sun sinks lower in the west, a chill sharpens the air. Seemingly, the insects are all dead — except for this green specimen that Ántonia holds in her hands and talks to in Bohemian because it reminds her of her home in the Old Country. When she and Jim get up to go home, Ántonia puts the insect in her hair and ties her scarf loosely over it. This act symbolizes Ántonia's wish to hold on to summer as long as possible, as well as to hold on to her memory of Bohemia. On the way home, they meet Mr. Shimerda, who notices Jim admiring his gun. In Jim, Mr. Shimerda sees himself as a boy; his promise to give Jim the gun when he is older symbolizes the passing of a legacy from one generation to the next.
An example of Ántonia's maternal nature has always been her protectiveness toward Jim. In order for them to become good friends, however, they must begin to relate to each other as equals. The snake-killing incident serves to cement their friendship; Ántonia is proud of Jim for killing the snake "like big mans," and when they arrive back at the Burden farm, she immediately begins telling the story. Her eagerness to make Jim seem important shows her unselfishness, which is also a maternal characteristic — mothers are proud when their children do well. Jim thoroughly enjoys Ántonia's bragging about him, even though he later realizes that the "big rattler was old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight in him." The snake itself can be seen as a symbol of the complacent settlers who, after having won the battle for their land and built their empires, no longer feel the overpowering need to struggle for survival.
The tale of the wolves, which Pavel unfolds on his deathbed, is another example of Cather's adding depth to the novel by weaving pieces of the Old World into her New World narrative; she used this technique earlier when she inserted the story of Old Hata in the Bohemian forest. The story of the wolves devouring the wedding party serves as a reminder of how harsh nature can be. Cather sets the tone for the story with a description of the onset of Nebraska winter: ". . . a cold wind sprang up and moaned over the prairie," "The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces," "The coyotes broke out again; yap, yap, yap — then the high whine." Jim and Ántonia keep Pavel's story a secret, shared only by them, and this bond draws them closer together.
The loss of his Russian friends weighs heavily on Ántonia's father. While hunting, he goes often to the Russians' empty log house, where he sits and broods until winter forces him to hole up in the dugout.
Bohunk [Slang] a person from east-central Europe; a derisive or contemptuous term.
the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed from Exodus 3, when an angel of God appeared as a burning bush, moments before God revealed himself to Moses.
harness the assemblage of leather straps and metal pieces by which a horse, mule, etc. is fastened to a vehicle, plow, or load.
He had twelve rattles, but they were broken off before they began to taper, so I insisted that he must once have had twenty-four. Jim is assuming, as many people do, that rattlesnakes grow one rattle each year of their lives. Actually, a rattlesnake grows a new rattle each time it sheds its skin, which is three or more times a year for a young rattler and once or twice a year for an adult; this makes counting the rattles an unreliable indicator of the snake's age.
lariat a rope used for tethering grazing horses, etc.
lariat-pin a peg fixing a lariat to the ground so the animal is restricted to that area.
Prairie dog any of a group of small, burrowing rodents of North America, having a barking cry and living in colonies.
sledge a sled or sleigh for carrying loads over ice, snow, etc.
team two or more horses, oxen, etc. harnessed to the same vehicle or plow.
windlass a winch, especially a simple one for lifting an anchor, a bucket in a well, etc.