Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Pioneer Values in Willa Cather's "My Antonia"


The Lesson


Willa cather feathered hat

Willa Cather

Credit: Library of Congress

Willa Cather's classic pioneer novel My Antonia fuses two stories to produce a powerful literary work that details nineteenth-century pioneer life in Nebraska, with all its hardships and beauties, and explores traditional American pioneer values, such as hard work, self-reliance, and the refusal to submit to adversity. Cather fuses the fictional life story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who symbolizes the grit and optimism of those coming to America to make a new start, with aspects of her own emotionally-rich life story to produce an archetypal tale that fully illustrates the struggle of American pioneers, the rewards of hard work, and the emotional price the pioneers sometimes paid for their modest successes.

Combining the study of history and literature, the goal of these activities is to guide students in a self-directed exploration of how Cather's novel interprets and represents the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life. How does literary form affect the ways readers perceive and interpret these values? How does literary form shape our perception of history? To help students explore these questions in some detail, this lesson begins with a brief review of key historical topics. Subsequent activities ask students to work together to analyze how our perception of these historical and social contexts is shaped by the style and form of My Antonia.

Guiding Questions

  • In her novel My Antonia, how does Willa Cather represent and interpret the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:

  • Name key pioneer values as demonstrated in My Antonia and background materials
  • Understand the relationship between the historical settling of the American Great Plains and the values of the settlers that enabled them to succeed as settlers
  • Analyze the cultural and historical context of a work of literature
  • Analyze how an author shapes his or her own life experiences and knowledge about a particular historical era to provide the setting, tone and theme for a work of fiction
  • Understand how literary form influences our perception of content and meaning.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson in this unit and select archival materials you'd like to use in class. If possible, bookmark these materials, along with other useful websites; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Both an objective close-reading quiz and an in-class/take-home essay test are included. They may be used at any point the teacher deems suitable.
  • This lesson assumes that, prior to beginning Activity 1, students have read and annotated My Antonia at home, perhaps using close reading techniques found in the EDSITEment lesson plan, Practical Criticism, which uses poetry to illustrate the basic principles of close reading. You can adapt the exercises in that lesson for students reading Cather's novel. For example, you could assign the following journal exercises: paraphrase key sections of the work, expressing in your own words; note the use of imagery, and explain how the imagery enhances the work by adding emotional color or associations to the plain sense; describe the overall tone or mood of the work, the "feeling" that it communicates to you as a reader; and express an opinion about the workis it good or bad literature, and why? (As an aid to students working on a specific passage of the text, you may wish to consult the annotated hypertext edition, described below.
  • Online resources. To gain an overview of Cather's life and literary contributions, as well as a broad sense of the cultural and historical context of My Antonia, begin with the EDSITEment resource Women of the West Museum, which can also be used by students in composing the synthesis and evaluation essays. The site contains biographical information on Willa Cather in an exhibit entitled Women of the West Online.

    A range of resources for teaching and studying Cather's The Song of the Lark are available from the EDSITEment reviewed American Collection: An Educator's Site; although focused on resources related specifically to Song of the Lark, this site also links to useful materials on Cather's life and career as a writer, such as the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation, from Red Cloud, Nebraska.

    A further source of information and activities related to the study of women in the American West is the EDSITEment lesson plan, Women's Suffrage: Why the West First?. In this lesson, students compile information to examine hypotheses explaining why the first nine states to grant full voting rights for women were located in the West. Although designed for grades 68, most of the activities and resources in this lesson can be adapted or are appropriate for older students as well.
  • E-texts. A scrupulously edited and annotated hypertext edition of My Antonia (based on the 1994 edition published by University of Nebraska Press) is available from The Willa Cather Electronic Archive, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Collection: An Educator's Site. This scholarly edition presents the text in a convenient and attractive format. Explanatory notes and essays, linked to specific locations in the text, provide historical and biographical contexts as well as illustrations, photographs, maps, and facsimiles relevant to My Antonia.

    Plain, but suitable for searching, is the etext version of My Antonia from Project Gutenberg, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library.

    Additional poems and stories by Willa Cather (although not the text of My Antonia) are available from the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia, a link on the EDSITEment resource, Center for the Liberal Arts.
  • Pioneer Values and Literary Form in My Antonia. American literary and historical mythology has enshrined the settlement of the heartland (the Great Plains) with a nostalgic glow, painting a picture of strong pioneers taming an unbroken wilderness through sheer determination and willpower. My Antonia reflects this vision of pioneer life and values in the character of Antonia, the female who takes on traditionally masculine characteristics to take equal part with her brothers in working the Shimerda homestead after her father's death: "Tony could talk of nothing but the prices of things, or how much she could live or endure. She was too proud of her strength."

    As this quotation suggests, the settlement of the Great Plains entailed great struggle, and could exact a heavy price. "[Antonia] was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl ... she was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." Mother of many sons, wife of an immigrant ignorant of the ways of farming, Antonia gave her youth and beauty as a sacrifice to build the American way of life in the heartland.

    In this lesson, students will consider how these and other examples illustrate how a literary text portrays and transmits, but also raises questions about, values. Careful attention will be paid to the links between literary forms and the content they convey. For example, how do readers' expectations about genre affect their interpretations of a work's meaning? My Antonia can be read as a memoir, told by Jim Burden, member of an established family in pioneer Nebraska; as a biography of Antonia Shimerda, member of a European immigrant family trying to adapt to the harsh conditions of pioneer life; as a social commentary on the trials and rewards of the American pioneer experience in Nebraska; as a moral tale, by comparing the happiness and satisfaction of Antonia's life of devotion to family with the superficiality of Jim and Lena's lives of self-fulfillment; or as a poetic celebration of the rare beauty of the untouched land found by the pioneers. By focusing on selected passages from the text in terms of one or more of these literary genres, students gain a more precise sense of Cather's methods and meaning. Taken as a whole, the novel encompasses all of these generic possibilities; by combining the conventions of several literary genres, Cather presents a rich and complex portrait of pioneer values, showing us their strengths as well as their costs for the men and women who settled the Great Plains.

    My Antonia is a useful novel to teach students about literary form and genre because, despite the interweaving of literary conventions suggested above, the prose of the novel is straightforward and reflects the diction of its characters. Character and plot development are easily traced. The tone is optimistic, in spite of the hardships encountered by all the characters. This optimistic tone is fitting for the exposition of traditional pioneer values of hard work, dedication, faithfulness to family and hope for the future.

    The contest between a fertile but sometimes unforgiving landscape and the spirit of those who worked it, is powerfully captured in the brief poem that serves as a preface to Cather's novel, O Pioneers!:

    EVENING and the flat land,
    Rich and sombre and always silent;
    The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
    Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
    The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
    The toiling horses, the tired men;
    The long empty roads,
    Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
    The eternal, unresponsive sky.
    Against all this, Youth,
    Flaming like the wild roses,
    Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
    Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
    Youth with its insupportable sweetness, Its fierce necessity, Its sharp desire, Singing and singing, Out of the lips of silence, Out of the earthy dusk.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Mapping the Great Plains: Nebraska

After you have begun your reading and discussion of My Antonia (see the third bulleted item in Preparing to Teach, above), ask students to produce, either individually or in pairs, a map of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, then trace Jim's journey from the Blue Ridge (Virginia) to Nebraska. Suitable maps of Nebraska may be found on the online exhibit, Solomon D. Butcher Photographs of the Nebraska Homestead Experience, a link on the EDSITEment resource, American Memory Collection.

Additional maps suitable for this assignment can found on the following websites:

By examining the path of Jim's journey, can students predict some of the possible dangers and surprises? How can this map of his journey help us to better understand Jim's perspective? (And why is it so important to keep Jim's perspective in mind as we read this novel?)

Activity 2. Living in the Great Plains

Next, ask students to read and annotate historical background information gained from the some of the Internet addresses described above to gain insight into pioneer living conditions. So that students develop a shared focus and common body of evidence, it is recommended that they incorporate primary and secondary resources found in archives of Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, part of the American Memory Collection's special exhibit, "Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862–1912," from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Students can record notes in a journal, or can tie historical artifacts to specific passages in the text of the novel, perhaps modeling their annotation on the example of the annotated hypertext edition of My Antonia, as discussed in the Preparation Instructions section.

As an alternative to or extension of students' independent annotation of the text, you can assign groups of students to one of the following tasks:

  • Class Presentation. Divide students into groups of three. Assign each group one of the following topics: laws on homesteading, portrait of a "typical" homestead, educational opportunities for homesteaders, especially females. Each group prepares a ten-minute oral presentation, using at least one visual aid, on its topic.
  • Quiz. Divide students into groups of two. Have each group produce a 5-question quiz, with answers.

Depending on the options chosen, students can then present their findings in class in one of several formats: an individual oral report, a presentation by each group, or an exchange of quizzes.

(For further ideas about projects for learning about pioneer living conditions in nineteenth-century Nebraska, see Extending the Lesson.)

Activity 3. Tracing the Autobiographical Aspects of My Antonia

Students can use information gathered thus far to explore parallels between Cather's own life and that of the Great Plains pioneers depicted in the novel. Further biographical materials are available from the following sources:

If each student or small group of students has access to a computer (if, for example, the class is held in the school's computer lab), students may go to the websites noted below and take notes individually. If this option is not available, you can go to the websites and collect resources, providing students with handouts or providing the information as a lecture.

However the biographical contexts of this novel are learned, there are several options for considering the links between Cather's life and the persons and events described in her novel. One option is for students to record notes in a journal, tying biographical information to specific passages in the text of the novel, and perhaps modelling their annotation on the example of the annotated hypertext edition of My Antonia (discussed in the Preparation Instructions section).

As an alternative to or extension of students' independent annotation of the text, you can assign groups of students to one of the following activities:

  • Present to the Class. Dividing students into groups of four, assign each group one of the following topics:
    • Important Values of Pioneer Life
    • Life story of Willa Cather
    • Comparison of My Antonia to the Song of the Lark
    • Life stories of women during the Western expansionEach group prepares a fifteen-minute oral presentation, using at least two visual aids, on its topic.
  • Design a Quiz. Divide students into groups of two. Have each group produce a 5-question quiz, with answers.

Depending on the options chosen, students can then present their findings in class in one of several formats: an individual oral report, a presentation by each small group, or an exchange of quizzes (one possibility is to collate the quizzes and choose the best five questions for use as a study guide).

Activity 4. Concluding Activities: Classroom Debate, Essay Exam, or Writing Assignment

There are several possible capstone activities for this lesson, each of which asks students to analyze the cultural context of a work of literature and to respond to the guiding question: How does Willa Cather represent and interpret the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life?

  • Classroom critical debate. Divide students into two groups. Assign each group one either the "pro" or "con" stand on this thesis: My Antonia is a thinly-disguised retelling of the life of Willa Cather. Allow the groups ten minutes to prepare, using this class lecture notes and any other information gained during the previous lessons. Use the balance of the class for the debate itself. The teacher may judge the debate or bring in an expert to do so. The debate may be videotaped.
  • Essay exam. Download and distribute the Essay Exam for Willa Cather's My Antonia, available here as a PDF.
  • Writing Assignment. The following are some examples of writing assignments that ask students to synthesize the research they completed for the activities above:
    • Write a 350-word formal essay, correctly citing all reference materials in MLA format, on this topic: "Pioneer Living Conditions in Nineteenth-Century Nebraska"
    • Invent a character of your own, and write a 450-word short story detailing pioneer living conditions from that character's perspective.
    • Write a 350-word formal essay, correctly citing all reference materials in MLA format, on this topic: "Willa Cather's Life: An Illustration of the Key Values of the Heartland."
    • Write a 450-word short story detailing pioneer living conditions from a woman's point of view.

Extending The Lesson

  • Additional activity: Students will write, as a group or in pairs, character sketches of Antonia, Jim, Lena, and Mr. Shimerda and analyze them as to the qualities and values they represent. Depending on class length, completing the sketches and producing the analysis can be individual homework. The focus in these sketches is to produce a list of pioneer values that enable a person to succeed, as Antonia did. Mr. Shimerda can be analyzed for lacking such values.
  • The lesson may be extended by an analysis and comparison of the short story "A Wagner Matinee" which has a similar theme of a woman giving up all the refinement of European culture for a life on the American frontier.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

6-7 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Sara Tusek (AL)