The Inability to Provide for His Family, and Why it Drove Mr. Shimerda to Suicide 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 skilled work man on tapestries and upholstery materials” (22). There was no work for him in this new country and he did not have the money to relocate his family. Certainly before he left Bohemia he believed that they had more than enough money to get by. The reality of his family’s circumstances was just beginning to show their impact. Antonia points out to Jim that Mr. Shimerda looks ill “My papa sick all the time” Tony panted as we flew.
He not look good, Jim” (36). It is obvious that Mr. Shimerda was terribly stressed and was staring to show it physically. Most likely he looked ill due to not sleeping and eating. Nevertheless, Mr. Shimerda wanted desperately do the best that he could for his family. He moved his family with the hopes of finding good husbands for his daughters and wealth and land for his son. He calls onto Jim to teach Antonia to read. He does so in a very pleading, helpless way which leaves an unforgettable memory in Jim’s mind.
Jim takes on the task, but unfortunately Mr. Shimerda gets little help from anyone else in the town for anything. Mr. Shimerda never really understands why he receives virtually little help from neighbors getting the farm going. He knows nothing about running the farm, and didn’t even have the appropriate tools necessary. He and his family on the other hand are very trusting and would give the shirts off their backs to anyone who needed anything from them. “There never were such a people as the Shimerdas for wanting to give away everything they had” (38).
He loses more hope for help when Krajiek tells him that even going into town for anything would be risking what little the family had left. The burden of not providing for his family only gets worse. His family has to bear the cold winter in a dugout with no food. This is when his family starts to lose hope and he feels the pressures of ultimate failure. Mrs. Shimerda certainly put a lot of this unneeded pressure on him as well. She was use to being taken care of and now shows little love or compassion towards him. She constantly whines and reminds him how miserable they all are.
Also, the burden of having no one to lean on for support, such as for advice and to borrow equipment, leaves Mr. Shimerda feeling helpless. His two Russian friends that were his main source for information about running the farm are gone. One dies and the other moves away. This leaves him with no one for advise and help but the Burtons. Everything for Mr. Shimerda is a failure. He has proven to himself that there is nothing more that he can do for his family. Perhaps he believed that if he sacrificed his own life, maybe then people would show compassion and come to the needed assistance of his family.
In this new country Mr. Shimerda came to the realization that no one was really going to help them. It was as if all immigrants stuck with their own nationality and only helped there own kind. Jim recalls how this wore on Mr. Shimerda. “I suppose in the crowded clutter of their cave, this old man had come to believe that peace and order had vanished from the earth, or existed only in the world he had left so far behind” (71). Unfortunately 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.