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1. “During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had both known long ago. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, and the whole adventure of our childhood.”
This passage from the Introduction is the first the reader hears of Antonia. The narrator of the Introduction, who grew up with Jim and Antonia in Nebraska, describes a train ride taken with Jim many years later and details their conversation about Antonia. They agreed that Antonia, more than any other person, seemed to represent the world they had grown up in, to the point that speaking her name evokes “people and places” and “a quiet drama . . . in one’s brain.”
This quotation is important because it establishes that Antonia will both evoke and symbolize the vanished past of Jim’s childhood in Nebraska. It situates Antonia as the central character in Jim’s story and explains Jim’s preoccupation with her by connecting her to his memories of the past. Finally, it establishes Jim’s character with its implication that Jim shares the unnamed narrator’s romantic inclination to dwell on the past and to allow people and places to take on an extraordinarily emotional, nostalgic significance.
2. “Why aren’t you always nice like this, Tony?”
“Why, just like this; like yourself. Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?” She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
This dialogue from Chapter XIX occurs as Jim and Antonia sit on the roof of the chicken house, watching the electrical storm. The two have grown apart somewhat following Mr. Shimerda’s suicide, as Jim has begun to attend school and Antonia has been forced to spend her time working on the farm. Jim has found himself dismayed by Antonia’s increasing coarseness and her pride in her own strength. As they sit watching the lightning storm, Jim feels his old intimacy returning, and he brings himself to ask Antonia why she has changed.
Antonia understands Jim’s question and, because she is four years older, understands better than he does why their lives have begun to move in separate directions. Jim has opportunities and a bright future ahead of him, but for Antonia, life now means simply helping her family get by. Antonia acknowledges this unalterable circumstance with her customarily wise simplicity: “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
3. “Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, picture writing on the sun.”
“Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.”
This passage from Chapter XIV, recounts a sunset that Jim and Antonia watch the summer after Jim graduates from high school. Gradually, the sun sinks behind a plow on the horizon, so the plow is superimposed on the red sun, “black against molten red.” The passage is an excellent example of Cather’s famous ability to evoke the landscape, creating a sensuous and poetic picture of a sunset on the Nebraska prairie. It also indicates the extraordinary psychological connection that Cather’s characters feel with their landscape, as the setting sun perfectly captures the quiet, somewhat bittersweet moment the characters are experiencing—they care for one another and have had a wonderful day together, but they are growing up and will soon go their separate ways.
The image of the plow superimposed on the sun also suggests a symbolic connection between human culture (the plow) and the nature (the sun). As the plow fills up the disk of the sun, the two coexist in perfect harmony, just as Jim recalls the idyllic connection between the natural landscape and the settlements in Nebraska. But as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, the plow dwindles to insignificance (“its own littleness”), suggesting that, in the relationship between humankind and environment, environment is dominant.
4. “She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, which had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
This quotation is basically the conclusion. Where we find the adult Jim still contemplating the fascination he feels for Antonia. Here he attributes her significance to her nurturing and generous presence, which suggests an enviable fullness of life. Antonia evokes “immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true” because she is full of love and loyalty. As Jim portrays it, Antonia is a “rich mine of life,” an inexhaustible source of love and will from which others draw strength and warmth. This portrayal explains why Antonia lingers so prominently in the minds of so many people from Jim’s childhood (Jim, Lena, the narrator of the introduction). In her presence they have been filled with the love and strength that she exudes, and they will never forget the way it made them feel.
Apart from standing as the novel’s final important analysis of Antonia, this quote is important because it reveals the psychological changes that the passage of time has wrought in Jim. Whereas before he avoided Antonia for twenty years because he did not want to see the lovely girl he knew transformed into a hardened, overworked matron, he can now see beyond Antonia’s age to her essential inner quality, which he finds can still “stop one’s breath.” This newfound connection to the present indicates that Jim can finally move beyond his dreamlike preoccupation with his nostalgia for his youth and contemplate Antonio as more than a symbol of the past.