My Antonia Essay: Women on the Frontier

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Women on the Frontier in My Ántonia

In 1891, marking the elimination of "free land," the Census Bureau announced that the frontier no longer existed (Takaki, A Different Mirror, 225). The end of the frontier meant the constant impoverishment, instead of the wealth they had dreamed of, for a large number of immigrants from the Old World: they came too late. My Ántonia, however, illuminates another frontier, a frontier within America that most immigrants had to face. It was the frontier between "Americans" and "foreigners." The immigrants were still "foreign" to the "Americans" who came and settled earlier. They had to overcome the language and cultural barrier and struggle against the harsh conditions of life. The novel focuses on
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Shimerda gave the Burdens as a present. (Jim's grandmother threw it away.) Mrs. Shimerda's keeping dishes under the feathered quilt, including many aspects of her housekeeping, brings about disgust.

While the cultural barrier forces the foreigners to give away their own culture, the language barrier blocks the foreigners from economic success or social respect and contributes to the class division between foreigners and Americans.

All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Ántonia's father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all "hired girls." (129)

All foreigners are assumed ignorant because they cannot speak English and thus cannot but be poor. Their intelligence is of no use, not knowing English. Their daughters become the wage laborers in town for their family. No matter what background they have, the girls are at the base of social pyramid as "foreigners" and "hired girls." The daughters themselves cannot get a well-paid and respected job as teachers because "they had had no opportunity to learn the language" (128). They, thus, work as a waitress, a housemaid, a dressmaker, or a launderer.

The hired girls, who are foreign, uneducated, and burdened with their family, realize the frontier spirit,…