The Russians and the treatment of Nature in “My Ántonia”

In Book I, ‘The Shimerda’s’, Cather continues to set up scenes, develop characters and unravel the relationships of her story.  Told through the eyes of Jimmy Burden, he describes in part VIII the misfortunes of money and health, that fall upon the two young Russian neighbors of the Shimerda’s.  After a description of how Peter goes into terrible debt, mostly because of his creditor, Wick Cutter, a “merciless Black Hawk money-lender, the action is set in motion when Ántonia and her father, Mr. Shimerda come to Jimmy’s grandmother’s house to get buttermilk.  As Jimmy describes. “where they lingered…until the sun was low”.  While they are there, Peter the Russian, comes to relate the unfortunate news of Pavel, who after having fallen in his chores, began to cough up blood and became bedridden.  He wants Mr. Shimerda to come, as Pavel has taken a turn for the worse and cannot get out of bed.  Jimmy, upon hearing this news, asks his grandmother if he can go with them.  In the first person, Jimmy explains, “My plan must have seemed very foolish to her, but she was often large-minded about humoring the desires of other people.” Large-minded is a perfect word to describe an open-minded person. The goodness of Grandma’s character continues to shine through as Jimmy, in his storytelling, elaborates, “She asked Peter to wait a moment, and when she came back from the kitchen she brought a bag of sandwiches and doughnuts for us.”   Thus, Jimmie would not have to go without supper and the others would also benefit from her generosity.

The treatment of nature in Cather’s book, is one way she shows the smallness of people in the universe.  As they are moving along in the wagon, Jimmy describes, “After the sun sank, a cold wind sprang up and moaned over the prairie.”  Developing an almost seemingly amorous relationship between him and Ántonia, he says, “We burrowed down in the straw and curled up close together, watching the angry red die out of the west and stars begin to shine in the clear, windy sky.”  Peter is anxious about his brother, Peter.  They continue down the road and the description of the ever powerful nature is resumed.  “Up there the stars grew magnificently bright.”  Speaking of himself and Ántonia, he says, “Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influence upon what is and what is not to be.”

When they arrive to the house, again the description of nature sets the tone for the dreary state of affairs.    “The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing throughout the big spaces.  Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others.  They made me think of defeated armies, retreating; or of ghosts who were trying desperately to get in for shelter, and then went moaning on.”  Then, “the coyotes turned up their whining howl”.  In these descriptions, there is another narrator, omniscient in character, showing how Nature itself is a character, playing its part in the series of events. Setting the background and creating mood, and presence, in the dreadful illness of Pavel.  These interludes with the stars, the sun, the wind and the howling wolves, tells us these are not always the thoughts of Jimmy, but the artistic expression of Cather herself, working her artistry, through Jimmy.  It is, like painting a picture of emotion, with her words.  Nature mimics the fears and apprehension of the characters.