One of the primary structures of the book is the image of the two children, Jim and Ántonia, repeatedly shocked and struggling with some new wickedness or corruption, beginning with the rattlesnake that Jim has to kill and ending with Ántonia’s abandonment by Larry Donovan.
Ántonia becomes what people want her to be, and fails to accomplish her own goals because so many people take advantage of her (or try to take advantage of her). She seems to be cynical about her own fate, but she completely trusts people that she shouldn’t, such as Larry Donovan. She loses her trust in Wick Cutter, but even then she doesn’t suspect the worst, and is surprised when he tries to molest Jim.
Lena Lingard suffers a loss of innocence, too. The apparently innocent interactions between her and Ole Benson are perverted by the townspeople into things that are unfair. Because of her appearance and her manner, Lena is considered impure and talked about unfairly. Through this lost innocence, Lena acquires a premature worldly experience, which might be part of her eventual success. The same might be said of Ántonia. When she meets Jim after Donovan has abandoned her, she seems to have acquired new strength and wisdom through her experience.
Jim seems to have a more difficult time coping with a loss of innocence. He struggles to understand Ántonia, and he seems to constantly refuse and deny the passing of time and the changing of the seasons. He is shaken by Mr. Shimerda’s death, and he becomes convinced that Mr. Shimerda’s soul stops in the Burden house on its way back to its Bohemian homeland – a kind of refusal to accept his death. Later, Mr. Shimerda’s grave becomes one of Jim’s favorite reminders of his childhood because of its unchanging appearance. He resents both Wick Cutter and Ántonia for making him feel victimized after Cutter’s assault, and he seems unable to rescue himself from Lena Lingard’s permanent and unresolvable courtship.
Limited Roles for Women
Throughout the novel, women are constrained by men’s expectations, and, with a few notable exceptions, are farmer’s wives with a dozen children and more work than they can handle. Even Frances Harling marries and makes her husband a partner in her father’s company. Jim seems unconvinced that Lena Lingard will be able to avoid marriage, even though she has clearly said that she won’t marry. Lena and Tiny are clear examples of strong women who undermine the traditional feminine roles, though there are many more examples of women who are unhappy with their roles than women who are content.
The pressure on women in Black Hawk seems extreme – as shown in the attitudes toward the “hired girls,” especially Ántonia and Lena. It is some otherwise positive characters, such as Mrs. Harling, who help to apply that pressure. Sometimes young women only need to be pretty to attract the disfavor of judgmental townspeople. The Widow Steavens, similarly, makes the comment that Lena does not deserve her success because of her questionable morals. At the end of the book, the reader seems to be challenged to imagine another fate for Ántonia. Is it possible to think of another path that she could have taken, even if she hadn’t tried to marry Donovan? Perhaps her daughter’s marriage to a successful farmer might have been her own best-case scenario.
In the end, the immigrant women are rewarded for their hard work with the management of several successful farms in the area. A few exceptions – such as Tiny, Lena, and the narrator from the introduction who receives Jim’s manuscript – manage to go beyond this fate, but they are the exception.
The Life-giving Land
Throughout the novel, the land plays an important part in the description and the action. More than that, the land becomes a powerful presence to Jim, and his connection between the land and Ántonia makes both more important to him. This first becomes clear when Jim arrives from his first train-ride, and he describes the vast prairie as the stuff that countries are made of. He makes frequent allusion to features of the land, such as the circle that becomes clear in the early snowfall near their property that might be a remnant of a prior Native American settlement, or Squaw Creek, where he spends time with Ántonia early in the book and where the flower-hunting scene at the end of “The Hired Girls” takes place.
The narrator emphasizes the developing importance of Nebraska and Kansas to the world grain market, and characters such as Ambrosch seem to understand the future of the land, and are rewarded for that understanding. Ántonia’s fate also parallels the land. Because of her fertility she emerges as a kind of earth-mother, with so many children that she can’t keep all of their names straight. She, unlike Jim, learns to handle a plow, and is hired out to other farms to work. She has a strong connection to the land through farming, and she seems to turn into a good farmer herself.