Wila Cather was probably born in Virginia in 1873, although her
parents did not register the date, and it is probably incorrectly
given on her tombstone. Because she is so famous for her Nebraska
novels, many people assume she was born there, but Wila Cather was
about nine years old when her family moved to a small Nebraska
frontier town called Red Cloud that was populated by immigrant
Swedes, Bohemians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, and Russians. The oldest
of seven children, she was educated at home, studied with a Latin
neighbor, and read the English classics in the evening. By the time
she went to the University of Nebraska in 1891-where she began by
wearing boy's clothes and cut her hair close to her head-she had
decided to be a writer.
After graduation she worked for a Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper,
then moved to Pittsburgh and finally to New York City. There she
magazine, a popular muckraking periodical
that encouraged the writing of new young authors. After meeting the
author Sarah Orne Jewett, she decided to quit journalism and devote
herself full time to fiction. Her first novel, Alexander's
, appeared in serial form in McClure's
But her place in American literature was established with her first
Nebraska novel, O Pioneers!
, published in 1913,
which was followed by her most famous pioneer novel, My
, in 1918. In 1922 she won the Pulitzer Prize for
one of her lesser-known books. One of Ours. Death Comes for the
(1927), her masterpiece, and Shadows on the
(1931) also celebrated the pioneer spirit, but in the
Southwest and French Canada. Her other novels include The Song
of the Lark
(1915), The Professor's House
My Mortal Enemy
(1926), and Lucy Gayheart
Wila Cather died in 1947.
From the Paperback edition.
1. For discussion: My
The first narrator in My Antonia is an unnamed
speaker who grew up with Jim Burden and meets him years later on a
train. Jim tells his story in response to this mysterious figure,
who disappears from the novel as soon as the Introduction is over.
How does this first narrator''s disappearance foreshadow other
withdrawals within this novel, which at times resembles a series of
departures? Why might Cather have chosen to frame her narrative in
2. When Jim arrives in Nebraska, he sees "nothing but land: not
a country at all, but the material out of which countries are
made." [11-12] Yet at the novel''s end that landscape is
differentiated. It has direction and color--red grass, blue sky,
dun-shaded bluffs. We are reminded of the beginning of the Book of
Genesis, and of God''s parting of the heavens from the earth. To
what extent is My Antonia an American Genesis?
What are its agents of creation and differentiation?
3. Just as My Antonia''s setting is initially
raw and featureless, its narrative at first seems haphazard: "''I
didn''t arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself
and myself and other people''s Antonia''s name recalls to me. I
suppose it hasn''t any form.''"  Is Burden''s description really
accurate? Although the narrative proceeds chronologically, its
structure is unconventional, as Antonia is present in only three of
the five sections and much of her story unfolds via exposition.
What effect does Cather produce by telling her story in this
4. One of the greatest difficulties facing the Shimerdas and
other immigrant families is that posed by their lack of English,
which seals them off from all but the most forthcoming of their
neighbors. Yet even American-born arrivals to Nebraska find
themselves set apart. As the narrator notes in the Introduction,
"no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know
anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said."  What
is the nature of this freemasonry? What experiences do the
inhabitants of this world share that are alien--and perhaps
incommunicable--to people raised elsewhere? Does the shared
experience of the novel''s pioneers end up counting for more than
their linguistic and ethnic differences?
5. What is it that makes Mr. Shimerda unable to adapt to his new
home and ultimately drives him to suicide? Is he simply too
refined--too rooted in Europe--to endure the harshness and solitude
of the prairie? Before we jump to too easy a conclusion, we might
consider the fact that the novel''s other suicide, Wick Cutter, is
a crass, upwardly mobile small-town entrepreneur. What do these two
deaths suggest about the prerequisites for surviving in Cather''s
6. From their first meeting, when Jim begins to teach Antonia
English, he serves as her instructor and occasional guardian. Yet
he also seems in awe of Antonia. What is it that makes her superior
to him? What does she possess that Jim doesn''t? What makes her
difference so desirable?
7. At times Jim''s feelings towards Antonia suggest romantic
infatuation, yet their relationship remains chaste. Nor does Jim
ever become sexually involved with the alluring--and more
available--Lena Lingard. Curiously, Antonia appears to disapprove
of their flirtation. And, whether he is conscious of it or not, Jim
seems wedded to the idea of Tony as a sexual innocent. Following
the failed assault by Wick Cutter, "I hated her almost as much as I
hated Cutter. She had let me in for all this disgustingness." 
How do you account for these characters'' ambivalent and at times
squeamish attitude toward sexuality? In what ways do they change
when they marry and--in Antonia''s case--bear children?
8. Just as it is possible to read Lena Lingard as Antonia''s
sensual twin, one can see the entire novel as consisting of doubles
and repetitions. Antonia has two brothers, the industrious and
amoral Ambrosch and the sweet-natured, mentally incompetent Marek.
Wick Cutter''s suicide echoes that of Mr. Shimerda. Even minor
anecdotes have a way of mirroring each other. Just as the Russians
Peter and Pavel are stigmatized because they threw a bride to a
pursuing wolf pack, the hired hand Otto is burdened by an act of
generosity on his voyage over to America, when the woman he is
escorting ends up giving birth to triplets. Where else in the novel
do events and characters mirror each other? What is the effect of
this symmetry and its variations?
9. In one of her essays, Willa Cather observed, "I have not much
faith in women in fiction." [cited in Hermione Lee, Willa
Cather: Double Lives. New York, Vintage, 1991, p. 12] Yet
in Antonia Cather has created a genuinely heroic woman. What
perceived defects in earlier fictional heroines might Cather be
trying to redeem in this novel? Do her female characters seem
nobler, better, or more deeply felt than their male counterparts?
In spite of this, why might Cather have chosen to make My
Antonia'' s narrator a man?
10. For her epigraph Cather uses a quote from Virgil: Optima
dies...prima fugit: "The best days are the first to pass." How
is this idea borne out within My Antonia? In what
ways can the novel''s early days, with their scenes of poverty,
hunger and loss, be described as the best? What does Jim, the
novel''s presiding consciousness, lose in the process of growing
up? Does Antonia lose it as well? How is this notion of lost
happiness connected to Jim''s observation: "That is happiness: to
be dissolved into something complete and great"?
11. Although My Antonia is elegiac in its
tone--and has been used in high school curricula to convey a
conservative view of the American past--it is also notable for its
striking realism about gender and culture. Not only does the novel
have a female protagonist who prevails in spite of male betrayal
and abuse (and two secondary female characters who prosper without
ever marrying), it also portrays the early frontier as a
multicultural quilt in which Bohemians, Swedes, Austrians, and a
blind African-American retain their ethnic identities without
dissolving in the American melting pot. Significantly, at the
novel''s end Antonia has reverted to speaking Bohemian with her
husband and children. How important are these themes to the
novel''s overall vision? Do they accurately reflect the history of
the western frontier?
Comparing My Antonia and The Professor''s
1. How does the small university town in The Professor''s
House resemble or differ from My
Antonia''s Black Hawk? To what extent are those
differences due to the different historical eras in which the two
novels are set? Read together, what kind of relationship do these
novels posit between towns and the prairie? Which region does
Cather seem to identify with the "best times" of My
Antonia''s Virgilian epigraph?
2. How do the female characters in The Professor''s
House compare with those in My Antonia?
How do both sets of women confirm or challenge stereotypes about
their gender? What significance do you see in the fact that Antonia
marries relatively late, and her friends Lena and Tina not at all,
while the St. Peter women have married early? What role does class
play in Cather''s treatment of her female characters?
3. Why is suicide a theme in both novels? What do Cather''s
suicides appear to have in common? Does she seem to associate the
act with moral failure or mental breakdown or portray it as a
natural, and even honorable, response to intolerable circumstances?
What role did suicide play in the age and society in which Cather
wrote? (You may want to look at such novels as Sister
Carrie to see how some of her contemporaries treated the
4. Given the evidence of these novels, how does Cather seem to view
relations between the sexes? What prospects of happiness and
fulfillment do they hold for both men and women? Which of her
characters ends up happily married and for what reasons? Why do so
many others--from Jim Burden to Godfrey St. Peter--end up
regretting their attachments?
5. The Professor''s House has as its epigraph, "A
turquoise set in silver, wasn''t it?...Yes, a turquoise set in dull
silver." Although these words of Louie''s describe a ring that Tom
once gave Rosamund and thus allude to the abandoned cliff-dwelling
where Tom presumably unearthed it, they may also refer to the
structure that Cather uses in this novel. Discuss the way in which
the author embeds Tom Outland''s narrative within the professor''s
story. What similarity do you see between this strategy and the
embedded narratives in My Antonia?
6. In both My Antonia and The Professor''s
House Cather uses two sorts of language, one conventional
and expository, the other heightened and rhapsodically sensual, a
language attuned to colors, fragrances, and grand effects of light
and shadow. Where does she employ these different kinds of prose,
and to what effect?