In My Antonia by Willa Cather, Jim Burden tells the story of his friendship with Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl living on a farm in Nebraska. After becoming an orphan at ten years old, Jim travels from Virginia to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live on his grandparent’s farm. The Shimerdas, who live on the neighboring farm, quickly befriend Jim and his grandparents. Throughout the novel, Jim experiences awakenings that teach him about himself and the people who surround him.
After a long, harsh winter, Mr.
Shimerda commits suicide. Jim believes that it is homesickness that killed Mr. Shimerda. He wonders whether his spirit would “eventually find its way back to his own country.” Jake, a farm hand working for Jim’s grandparents, says “it will be a matter of years to pray his soul out of Purgatory, and right now he’s in torment.” Jim is almost certain this is not true. Still, he refrains from saying his thoughts on Mr.
Shimerda’s spirit returning to his old country. After he goes to bed, the idea of punishment and Purgatory come back to him. He believes Mr. Shimerda’s suicide was not an act of selfishness, but an act of desperation. He was so unhappy that he could not bear to live any longer. The shock and sorrow of Mr. Shimerda’s suicide greatly awakens a young Jim. He finds himself questioning what he has been taught all his life. Not only does Jim show his admiration for Mr. Shimerda in this moment, he also shows compassion for all other suicide victims condemned by ancient teachings.
After an older Jim graduates from Harvard, he returns to Nebraska before beginning law school. He finds that Antonia has since given birth to a daughter out of wedlock. The two talk about what life has been like on the farm and at school. They walk across the fields and watch the sun set. Jim wishes he could be a little boy again. The two part and Jim promises to return.
Twenty years pass before Jim keeps this promise. Antonia is now married with several children, having never left the countryside. As the novel progresses, Jim finds himself growing more and more nostalgic. He constantly wishes to return to his youth. It is not until now that Jim understands the value of his memories. He walks the road he and Antonia walked the night they first came off the train at Black Hawk, expressing his appreciation for these recollections, “The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.
For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.” (222) Now, Jim realizes he should not dwell in the past, but rather to simply be thankful for the times he enjoyed as a child. The novel as well as Jim’s awakenings, deal with themes of love and memories. Although he has left the country for New York, he remains loyal to the land he once called home. Jim’s awakenings throughout the novel shape him into the person he eventually becomes.