Parts V – VIII
Jim’s relationship with Ántonia and Yulka develops further, and he enjoys their ability to be lighthearted despite the struggles of their family. Ántonia announces to the Burdens that her father has made friends with two Russian immigrants from the town, Pavel and Peter. Neither speak very good English, but Ántonia says that her father had a good time with the two men, and that she saw her father laugh for the first time in their new country. The Russian language that they speak, Ántonia says, is not that different from her family’s Bohemian, so the two men are able to communicate. Mr. Shimerda begins regular visits to the Russians, and Jim and Ántonia accompany him on one of his visits. Peter is home washing his clothes, and he shows the three of them his cow, which he takes great pride in. Pavel is helping someone dig a well, and is not present. Peter feeds them with watermelon, then plays his harmonica for them. He sends them off, in the end, with a sack full of cucumbers and a lard-pail of milk to cook them in.
The story skips ahead to a typical day of reading lessons between Jim and Ántonia. They are sitting by the badger’s hole, talking about badger hunting in Bohemia, and enjoying the late summer weather. Ántonia finds a small insect and talks to it playfully, and it starts to sing while in her hands. The insect reminds her of an old woman in Bohemia who used to sing old songs by the fire to the children in a cracked voice that resembles the insect’s weak song. She cries as she tells this story. Ántonia decides to take the insect home with her, and puts it in her hair, protecting it with a piece of ribbon. Ántonia and Jim start walking back home together, mostly in silence, when they see Mr. Shimerda. Ántonia confides in Jim that Mr. Shimerda is not doing well, and that he might be sick.
The two children discover that Mr. Shimerda has killed three rabbits, and he tells his daughter that he will make them into a hat for her. She shows him the insect, and he listens sadly to the song that it makes. Jim picks up the gun that Mr. Shimerda had dropped, and Mr. Shimerda offers to give him the gun someday, saying that it was given to him by a wealthy Bohemian gentleman. Jim muses for a moment on the generosity of the Shimerdas, and thinks that they might be too generous.
Later that fall, Ántonia is sent to Peter’s to borrow a spade. Jim offers to give her a ride on his horse. They stop at Peter’s and warm up at his fire, then start the trip home. On the way, Ántonia suggests that they use the spade to find out more about the prairie dogs that live close to Peter. They get off the horse and start exploring a “dog town,” a prairie dog community. They are looking at two prairie-dog burrows when Ántonia screams in Bohemian and points to something behind Jim. He turns and sees the biggest rattlesnake he has seen in his life. He notices that the enormous rattlesnake is coiling slowly to spring at him, and he strikes at it with the spade, crushing its head and killing it. Jim is a little sick and irritable from the confrontation, and Ántonia tries to soothe him a little, talking about how impressive the snake is and how brave Jim must be to have killed such a large snake. They measure the snake, and spend some time admiring him, before they drag him back to the horse. The horse refuses to go near the snake, so Jim tells Ántonia to ride the horse, and he walks behind, carrying the snake with the spade.
When they arrive at the Burden farm, they meet Otto Fuchs. He asks about the snake, and Ántonia begins to embellish the story, though Fuchs is not fooled. Fuchs is impressed, though, and they allow Ántonia to further “color” the story as she tells it to the rest of the family. Jim comments to himself, in retrospect, how lucky he was about the circumstances. The snake was old, rather lazy, and had probably just eaten. He happened to be carrying a good weapon for such a confrontation, and was quick enough to make use of it. Despite all of the circumstances, the family hangs the dead snake on their fence for the neighbors to admire, and many people comment on how large the snake is.
Soon after this, Jim finds out that Peter is in serious financial trouble with the local moneylender, Wick Cutter. Peter isn’t entirely sure how much he owes since he has borrowed so much so often. Shortly after he is forced to again borrow money from Cutter, his friend and roommate Pavel becomes violently sick, falling down while working and coughing up blood. Some time after this, Peter drives his wagon to get Ántonia and Mr. Shimerda, saying that Pavel had taken a turn for the worse and was asking to speak to them. Jim asks to go along, and does. The four of them arrive at Peter’s and find Pavel asleep, breathing loudly and with a rattling noise. He eventually wakes up when they hear coyotes howling on the prairie. Peter gives him a drink of whiskey, and Pavel starts telling a story to Mr. Shimerda and Ántonia. Jim, who doesn’t speak Russian or Bohemian, can’t understand, but Ántonia tells him that it is about wolves. Pavel seems to become angry as he tells the story, as if he is outraged at the way he was treated. At the end of the story he is overcome with coughing, and he coughs up blood all over his handkerchief. Shortly thereafter, Pavel falls asleep.
On the way back to their farms, Ántonia tells Jim the story that Pavel had told. Many years ago in Russia, when Pavel and Peter were young men, they were asked to be groomsmen at a wedding nearby. The wedding was in the middle of winter, and the wedding party traveled in sledges (runnerless sleds). The reception lasted far into the night, and there was much drinking and dancing. When it was over, the bride and groom said goodbye to the bride’s parents and climbed into the lead sledge, with Pavel driving and Peter next to him in the front seat. There were five sledges full of wedding guests behind them, and they were all inebriated and exhausted from hours of celebration. They started to hear the wolves howling, and the wolves gathered behind them. The rear sledge ran off the trail and spilled its occupants, and the wolves swarmed over them. The remaining sledges heard the screams of the people and the horses, and suddenly everyone was terrified, and started to drive their sledges hard. Many were carrying ten or twelve people, while the groom’s sledge stayed in the lead because it had the best team of horses and the lightest load (only four people). Another sledge was lost, and the survivors heard their screaming again. There were hundreds of wolves, and they kept coming. The groom watched his father and sisters spill onto the snow and become engulfed, and the bride barely kept him from jumping out to help them. The wolves caught up to the second-to-last sledge and scared the horses into turning the sledge, and only the groom’s sledge was left, with Pavel driving. Pavel noticed that one of his horses was getting tired, and he knew there were still enough wolves left to kill them. He gave the reins to Peter and went to the back of the sledge to try to convince the groom to throw his bride out of the sledge and lighten the load. The groom refused, and Pavel somehow managed to knock the groom out of the sledge, and then threw the bride after him. The two men made it back to their village. But once the people in the town learned their story, the two men were shunned, and fled the town and eventually the country to escape their infamy.
Pavel dies a few days after he tells this story, and Peter sells his belongings and moves away. Before he goes, he presides over the sale of his belongings with enormous sadness, apparently kissing his cow goodbye. When all of his belongings are sold, he sits down in the middle of his barn and eats the entire stock of melons that he had put away for the winter. After Pavel and Peter are gone, Mr. Shimerda becomes even more dejected, and acquires the habit of visiting their empty house and sitting there, brooding silently. Ántonia and Jim talk incessantly about the story of the wolves and the bride, though they never tell anyone else about it. Jim confesses to having recurring dreams about wolves and sledges.
Analysis, Parts V-VIII
Much of this part of the novel seems to be told in episodic fashion, with sections told as almost separate or removable units. It’s not entirely clear how the story of Pavel and Peter fits into the larger story of Jim and Ántonia, when they have appeared and disappeared in a matter of twenty pages. Pavel and Peter are strange friends for Mr. Shimerda, and the narrator seems to show affection for Peter’s easy and simple generosity. The other lasting effect of the story might be to highlight Mr. Shimerda’s struggle to find happiness in his new country.
The important elements of this section of the story involve the developing and almost romantic relationship between Jim and Ántonia, and how the two start to see each other as equals despite the age and cultural differences. Jim’s adventure with the snake brings out some unpleasant reproaches toward Ántonia, and some thoughtful analysis of his achievement and his behavior. The incident establishes Jim as a faithful narrator, who will try to be objective and honest, though he might still be erring on the side of self-congratulation.