National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
My Ántonia

My Ántonia

by Willa Cather

An artist should have no moral purpose in mind other than just his art.


Willa Cather as managing editor of McClure's, 1908 (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Jim Burden begins his study of Virgil during his sophomore year of college. What is the significance of the novel’s epigraph, and what is the connection between it and his view of Ántonia? Is it important that Lena reenters his life while he reflects on his lesson from Gaston Cleric? Explain.
  2. Why does Mr. Shimerda commit suicide? Take into account as many different factors as possible. How does his death change his family’s fate, especially Ántonia? Why does it affect Jim so deeply?
  3. What double standard do the immigrant women in Black Hawk face? What unexpected results occur because of this standard? How does Jim Burden feel about the “hired girls”?
  4. Lena and Ántonia take different paths as adults. How do their personalities and choices in Black Hawk foreshadow their future destinies? By the end of the novel, are they both content? Have they both succeeded? Explain.
  5. When Jim finally tries to kiss Ántonia, she pushes him away and tells him never to succumb to Lena’s temptations.Why do Jim and Ántonia never have a romantic relationship? Why does Jim pursue one withLena?
  6. How important is figurative language to Willa Cather’s writing style? How does Cather’s use of imagery communicate the themes of her novel? Focus your essay on one chosen theme.
  7. As an adult, Jim tells Ántonia, “I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man,” and he tells her sons, “I was very much in love with your mother once.” Do you believe him? Why does Jim never try to marry her?
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