Pioneer life was harsh – some pioneers lived on the prairie because they wanted to; others had no choice. The privilege of choice often makes the difference between loving and hating the land. In their lives on the prairie, some characters in Willa Cather’s My Ã?Â?ntonia are successful, happy, and content because they are in their element. Other characters struggle to find happiness on the wide Midwestern plains. Ã?Â?ntonia, a key character in My Ã?Â?ntonia, is successful and fulfilled because she has learned to live in harmony with nature and find contentment in the life she has built for herself; however, other characters, such as Jim and Mr. Shimerda are unable to find contentment or learn to cooperate with the land.
Mr. Shimerda, Ã?Â?ntonia’s father and a Bohemian immigrant, longs for his native country and dislikes the harsh prairies of Nebraska. As Ã?Â?ntonia says, “At home he play violin all the time; for weddings and for dance. Here never [Ã¢Â?Â¦] he don’t like this kawn-tree” (59). Mr. Shimerda is refined; his place is with art and music, and he is unprepared for the harsh winter and endless expanse of prairie in which he discovers himself. It is not that Mr. Shimerda doesn’t understand the land. “He […] showed us three rabbits he had shot [Ã¢Â?Â¦] [He] stood looking down at the green insect. When it began to chirp faintly, he listened as if it were a beautiful sound” (29). Mr. Shimerda knows how to hunt and does understand appreciate nature; his personality and abilities clash with the prairie. Mr. Shimerda just cannot work with the land. He has none of the rugged requirements for a pioneer – he is “tall and slender” and has “white and well-shaped” hands (18). Mr. Shimerda does not even want to come. “My mamenka make him come,” bursts out Ã?Â?ntonia (59). Life is miserable for Mr. Shimerda, and he is overwhelmed by the land and his own gloominess and discontent. Mr. Shimerda decides he must do something to release his stress and commits suicide: “Old Mr. Shimerda is dead, and his family is in great distress” (62). The life that was so repugnant to Mr. Shimerda’s cultured tastes finally overcomes him. Mr. Shimerda fails because he is fundamentally incompatible with life on the prairie. Mr. Shimerda has not found contentment in his new life and has not learned to work with the life of a pioneer and the new nature that is so different from the environment of his native land.
While Mr. Shimerda has failed to work with, Ã?Â?ntonia succeeds. Ã?Â?ntonia learns about nature and how to work with it. If she works against nature, she will always lose, but if she learns to cooperate with it, then she will endure. Ã?Â?ntonia does not have to do the farming when she first arrives in America; only her brother must. Later, Antonia, too, has to take up the task and begin plowing the fields to support her family. “She kept her sleeves rolled up all day, and her arms and throat were burned as brown as a sailor’s [Ã¢Â?Â¦] Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½I can work like mans now’ “, she says (79-80). Here the author illustrates Ã?Â?ntonia’s transformation into her new role. She enjoys the work and equates it as a man’s job and feels dignity and pride in undertaking a masculine role. She is working the land and becomes strong, healthy, and vibrant physically and thrives mentally. Eventually, however, the long hours of routine farm work begins to manifest themselves. After Jim and Ã?Â?ntonia’s twenty year separation, the two friends are both in their forties and Ã?Â?ntonia has a large family. Ã?Â?ntonia herself exudes an aura of peace and contentment. Ã?Â?ntonia’s skin is “so brown and hardened”, proof of the many years her body has weathered (216). She extends “two hard worked hands” (214) when she sees Jim. Despite her hard work, Ã?Â?ntonia still has “not lost the fire of life” (216). Despite all of the hardships she has endured, she still is full of vitality; pioneer life has not beaten Antonia – she has even thrived. Earlier in her life, when Antonia is still working in town, she and a few others are driving on the outskirts of town. They see “a plough [that] had been left standing in the field [Ã¢Â?Â¦] the ball dropped [Ã¢Â?Â¦] that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness.” (156). The plough disappears, but nature and the prairie are still there. No matter what man may do, the land will always be there, because the land is huge and vast, much bigger than man. Man cannot tame the land. Ã?Â?ntonia, too, learns she cannot tame the land. This understanding, coupled with her love for the prairie, is what makes her successful. Ã?Â?ntonia is surrounded by her children in the end of the novel, with a happy and lively family. The love, maturity, and intimacy that the family displays are all reflections of Ã?Â?ntonia and her loving care. The quiet intimacy the family shows among each other are just testaments to Ã?Â?ntonia’s triumph. In his studies, Jim encounters a quote from Virgil: “Optima diesÃ¢Â?Â¦prima fugit.” Yet Ã?Â?ntonia’s best days are not the first to flee. Her best days are the ones later in her life. By working and cooperating with nature, Ã?Â?ntonia has reached a state of simple peace that helps her live in harmony with the land and feel content with what she has.
Jim, the protagonist of the novel, lives out his adolescence on the farm. This early connection to the prairie shaped Jim’s life. Jim uses Virgil’s quote, “a melancholy reflection that [Ã¢Â?Â¦] the best days are the first to flee” to characterize his own childhood and friendship with Ã?Â?ntonia (169). At a relatively young age, Jim has already become nostalgic, sentimentalizing the past, and wishing for his former carefree life because he is not fulfilled and not whole. There is something missing from his life. Ã?Â?ntonia is a sort of Ã?Â¯Ã?Â¿Ã?Â½earth mother’ for Jim; she makes him whole. Throughout the novel, Jim associates the color brown with Antonia. She represents the farm, earth, and prairie for him: “More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood” (2). She helped shape Jim and reminds him of his connection to the farm. Jim discovers that, in order to stay whole and fulfilled in his life, he must return to see Antonia because she represents the farm for him. When Jim returns to Antonia, he is also back with nature.
Once Jim returns to the farm and sees his old friend again, all his old affection for Antonia is revived along with all his memories. Jim becomes whole again and has “the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is” (238). Despite the time Jim misses with Ã?Â?ntonia, they still “possessed together the precious, incommunicable past” (238). Only after this revelation does Jim become reconciled with his past. Jim discovers that Virgil’s epigram is not necessarily correct and he can still recapture the moments of his early farm life. The days have not fled for Jim because Antonia represents a connection for Jim to his past. Jim is struck by the wide, landscapes as a youth; whenever he describes the prairie, his descriptions are couched in romanticized language. However, the city does not have any wide expanses – it is a bustling urban area and Jim loses his connection to the prairie. By this time, Antonia represents all of Jim’s memories of the farm – she symbolizes his connection to the prairie. Back with Ã?Â?ntonia and with nature, Jim fills his emotional void and can continue with his life with his newly found contentment.
All the characters in the novel are related to the land in some way. In Mr. Shimerda’s case, his personality and way of life is fundamentally incompatible with pioneering – he can find no contentment. Ã?Â?ntonia is directly related: she has worked the land; she spent most of her life on the farm; she is at the mercy of the land; and now she is cooperating and working with the land. Jim is related to nature because he lived his early life on it. The land plays a great role in Jim’s consciousness as it has shaped him and is really part of him. These three people succeed or fail in some way due to how they interact with nature. Nature is everywhere in these character’s lives; it encompasses them, envelops them, and shapes them. How one works with nature is the weight on the balance of life that decrees success or failure, and happiness or sadness.