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In Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia, Marek Shimerda is starved for attention because he is constantly ignored due to his mental retardation. It is solely because of his handicap and the assumption of his inability to help out with the farming and household chores that his family views him as helpless which results in Marek's strange and awkward actions. He is presented as an ill minded young man throughout the novel, repeatedly excused, and resides in the shadow of his healthy, fully functional older brother, Ambrosh Shimerda.
Marek is a token character that is simply taken for granted. He is portrayed as strange and useless. When Jim Burden and his family first meet the Bohemians, he is approached by Marek, the second eldest son. "As he approached us, he began to make uncouth noises, and held up his hands to show us his fingers, which were webbed to the first knuckle, like a duck's foot. When he saw me draw back, he began to crow delightedly" (Cather, 24). Everyone who encounters this poor boy instantly views him as `crazy'. All of his actions are presented as strange. "The crazy boy, seeing the food, began to make soft, gurgling noises and stroked his stomach" (Cather, 60), and evidently he is. "The crazy boy went with them [outside], because he did not feel the cold. I believed he felt the cold as much as any one else, but he liked to be thought insensible to it. He was always coveting distinction, poor Marek" (Cather, 82)!
Because of everyone's inability to understand and relate to Marek, he is pitied and constantly excused. After Jim`s reaction to Marek`s webbed fingers, Marek begins to express himself, maybe even trying to communicate with what could be a new friend, but he is immediately quieted. ""Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo!" like a rooster. His mother scowled and said sternly, "Marek!" then spoke rapidly to Krajiek in Bohemian. "She wants me to tell you he won't hurt anybody, Mrs. Burden. He was born like that..." No one bothers to befriend this young man or even tries to talk to him throughout the entire book. Although he is obviously mentally challenged, it is not evident that any one of the characters in Cather's novel tries to reach out to this young man or teach him to be a helpful resource around the Shimerdas' household.
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Marek's functional, older brother is greatly valued in his family, because of this, he is left in his towering shadow. Because of the family's great admiration for Ambrosch, the eldest son, "Ambrosch was considered the important person in the family. Mrs. Shimerda and Antonia always deferred to him...." (Cather, 74), it is very possible that Marek harbored some jealousy toward him. ."... He was born like that. The others are smart. Ambrosch, he makes a good farmer." He [Marek] struck Ambrosch on the back, and the boy smiled knowingly" (Cather, 24). Ambrosch runs the show and Marek is left behind to stay quiet and not draw any attention. It is apparent that this boy was ignored by his family and possibly picked on by the healthy, helpful eldest son Ambrosch.
Marek falls victim to assumption throughout Cather's novel. He is assumed to be a waste of space and is therefore treated as one. He is hardly mentioned throughout the book unless it is in conjunction with a strange and awkward action or random noise he's made. It is possible that a little positive attention could have helped him blossom into a useful, functioning adult. It is interesting as well that the adult Antonia has a son viewed as a bit on the strange side as well. But Leo is said to "possess a keener power of enjoyment than other people...."(Cather, 262) rather than being dismissed as `the crazy boy' like Marek is throughout the novel.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1995.