My Antonia, by Willa Cather, is a novel about Jim Burden and his relationship and experiences growing up with Antonia Shimerda in Nebraska. Throughout the book Jim reflects on his memories of Nebraska and the Shimerda family, often times in a sad and depressing tone. One of the main ways Cather is able to provoke these sad emotions within the reader is through the suicide of Antonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda. His death was unexpected by everyone and it is thought that homesickness is what drove him to take his own life. Homesickness was surely felt by Mr. Shimerda, as it was by many, but it was the failure to adequately find a way to provide for his family that sent Mr. Shimerda into a depressing downward spiral that left him no foreseeable alternative but to take his own life.
The first descriptions of Mr. Shimerda are that of a successful businessman that had always provided well for his family.
I noticed how white and well-shaped his own hands were. They looked calm, somehow, and skilled. His eyes were melancholy, and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes – like something from which all the warmth and light had dried out. Everything about this old man was in keeping with his dignified manner (24)
Mr. Shimerda was indeed a prosperous man in Bohemia, but had made his living in the business world, not by running a farm to provide for his family’s needs. His hands show that he rarely performed hard manual labor, but that he did work hard with his hands to weave. His face however shows signs that he was already having doubts about the welfare of his family and their survival. The apparent glow that he must have once had was now replaced by the look of heavy thoughts. This came from the burden of providing for his family by way of very unfamiliar and difficult means. He had already lost a great deal of money in the family’s traveling expenses and overpaid for their property. “They paid way too much for the land and for the oxen, horses and cookstove” (22). Mr. Shimerda must not have thought that he would have to support his family by means of plowing fields for food and actually building a home from materials gathered from the earth. He was a businessman and made a life for his family in Bohemia by working. “He was a weaver by trade; had been a skil...
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...tely the Shimerdas were the only Bohemian family for miles. Something as tragic as his suicide would surely bring at least some compassion from someone in the community towards his family. Mr. Shimerda had run out of options to choose from and decided that he could do nothing more and finally gave up. And of course it was not until his suicide that neighbors, such as the postmaster and the father of the German family, did finally come out of the woodwork, most likely out of shame for not doing anything about a known family in need. “The news of what had happened over there had somehow got abroad through the snow-blocked country” (88). And that spring, neighbors helped build a new home for the family and helped get the farm working. “The Shimerdas were in their new log house by then. The neighbors had helped them build it in March” (95). Mr. Shimerda’s suicide ultimately was a determining factor with getting the help he needed for his family’s survival. This could have been something he thought about when he took his own life. Regardless, if it were not for his inability to provide an adequate life for his family in the new country, Mr. Shimerda never would have committed suicide.
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