Lesson Plan

Pioneer Values in Willa Cather's My Antonia

Portrait of Willa Cather.
Photo caption

Portrait of Willa Cather.

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

How are the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life presented and interpreted?

What cultural and political issues are addressed within the text?

Learning Objectives

Examine key pioneer values as demonstrated in My Antonia and their relation to other customs and practices in the U.S.

Examine the relationship between the historical settling of the American Great Plains and the actions of 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.

Analyze the relationship between literary form and perception of content and meaning.