In the late 1880s, recently orphaned Jim Burden leaves his home in Virginia to live with his grandparents in rural Nebraska. On the same train is 13-year-old Ántonia Shimerda, an immigrant from Bohemia, whose family is buying the land next to the Burdens. Ten-year-old Jim feels immediately at home on the prairie. He quickly settles into his new life with Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs, the farm hands, and his loving grandparents.
The Burdens soon befriend the Shimerda family, and Jim and Ántonia bond over their love of the land. Ántonia learns English eagerly under Jim’s tutelage, although her parents are more hesitant to adapt to American life. Mr. Shimerda, frail and homesick, finds the adjustment to farm life especially difficult. His one solace is his friendship with Pavel and Peter, Russian farmers whose language is similar to the Shimerdas’. But when Pavel dies suddenly, Peter leaves to find a job in railway construction. Mr. Shimerda, having lost his one outside connection to his native culture, sinks into loneliness and depression. He is unable to provide properly for his family. When winter arrives, Jim’s grandparents discover that the Shimerdas do not have enough clothing or food to survive the winter. They do their best to help, but when Christmas snow traps them in their homes, the Shimerdas are trapped without hearty food or gifts. When the snow melts, Jim’s grandparents invite the Shimerdas to their home, but the visit goes poorly. Mrs. Shimerda is angry and envious, and Mr. Shimerda is saddened, reminded of his cozy village in Bohemia.
In January, two days after Jim’s birthday, Mr. Shimerda commits suicide in his family’s barn. A recently arrived Bohemian man named Anton Jelinek comes from Black Hawk to help bury Mr. Shimerda. Mrs. Shimerda demands that they dig the grave at the corner of their land, where the roads will cross when they are built.
When spring arrives, Ántonia insists on working in the fields alongside her brother Ambrosch, and is unable to go to school with Jim. They see less of each other, and Jim longs for their old friendship.
When Jim turns 13, his grandparents decide to move to town so Jim can be closer to school. Not long afterward, the Burdens’ neighbors, the Harlings, hire Ántonia as their housekeeper. Jim renews his old friendship with Ántonia, until she befriends other girls and starts dancing every night in the town pavilion. When she gains a reputation with the local boys, Mr. Harling fires her, and Ántonia goes to work for a moneylender named Wick Cutter. Jim sneaks out to the dances with Ántonia, until his grandmother finds out and stops him from going. He becomes lonely, and longs for his childhood on the prairie. Ántonia rejects his romantic advances, and tells him she cannot think of him as anything other than a younger brother.
When Wick Cutter attempts to rape Ántonia, she quits her job and starts working at the local hotel instead. Jim, meanwhile, graduates from high school. He makes one last trip to the prairie with Ántonia, where they reminisce about years past. They see the image of a plough magnified by the setting sun, and recognize it as a symbol of the end their time together.
Jim moves to Lincoln to attend college. One of Ántonia’s friends, Lena Lingard, takes a job in Lincoln as a dressmaker, and she and Jim begin dating. But Jim cannot stop loving Ántonia. Eventually he transfers to Harvard and moves to Boston.
After college, Jim returns to Black Hawk to visit his grandparents before he begins law school. He learns that Ántonia has had a child but is not married. He goes to see her and finally admits his love for her. But Ántonia disregards his confession, and Jim leaves to go back to Boston.
Jim does not see Ántonia again for 20 years. He marries and becomes a successful lawyer in New York City. When he finally visits Ántonia again, she is working on a farm with her husband, Anton Cuzak, also a Bohemian immigrant. They have 11 children. Memories of his childhood with Ántonia overwhelm Jim, but he leaves Nebraska satisfied that he and Ántonia will always be bound together by the past.