My Antonia

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The Plough Symbol Icon
The plough, a symbol of the farm work the Shimerdas and the Burdens do on the prairie, symbolizes man's "beautiful and harmonious" connection to the land. At the end of Book 2, before Jim leaves Black Hawk for college, he sees a plough silhouetted in the circle of the red sun setting behind it. The sky quickly grows dark, and the plough disappears from view. This image suggests Jim's impending separation from Ántonia—while Ántonia remains on the prairie, Jim leaves for good. The change also foreshadows the changes that the development of farming will inflict on the natural prairie landscape.

The Plough Quotes in My Antonia

The My Antonia quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Plough. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Signet Classics edition of My Antonia published in 2014.
Book 2, Chapter 14 Quotes
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, a picture writing on the sun.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has spent the whole summer studying for college, except for one occasion when Ántonia, Lena, and his other friends invite him to pick elderflowers. He reminisces with Ántonia about the past, and that evening they watch as the setting sun gloriously frames a plough that has been left in the field. This is one of many moments in the novel where the natural landscape reflects the social experiences and emotions of the characters. The young people picking elderflowers are overwhelmed by feelings of fondness for the prairie, symbolized by the magnificent warmth of the sun.

At the same time, this is a turning point in the novel, and the setting sun represents the end of Jim and Ántonia's childhood together. Once the sun sets, the prairie will no longer be filled with light, just as Jim's life without Ántonia is devoid of the metaphorical light she brings to him. The fact that the plough is "magnified" such that it becomes "heroic in size" points to the fact that this seemingly simple moment is filled with grand significance for the characters who witness it. 

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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.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim, Ántonia, Lena, and their friends have all been picking elderflowers, and that evening they watch the sunset cast light dramatically behind a plough that has been left in the field. The sun's light magnifies the impression of the plough, and the friends feel that the sight is especially meaningful. When the sun sets, however, the plough sinks "back to its own littleness." The fleeting nature of the moment highlights the speedy passage of time and the transience of youth. Indeed, Jim's observation that "even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared" illustrates how quickly and suddenly eras of life can pass. Just at the moment when the friends recognize the meaning of the plough as symbolizing the end of their childhood, the sun sets and the entire scene disappears. 

Book 5, Chapter 1 Quotes
In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, The Plough, Light
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has met Ántonia's children, and Ántonia has shown him photographs she keeps of when they were young. That night, Jim sleeps next to Ántonia's children and brings to mind memories of Ántonia, which appear like "old woodcuts" in his mind. In each memory, Ántonia is slightly different, both in terms of the situation she is in and her stage of development. Each image involves a feature of the natural landscape: in the first, the pony and snake, in the second, the snowstorm, and in the third, the evening sky. Taken together, they trace Ántonia's growing maturity as she is faced with increasingly difficult challenges in life. However, they also depict her as strong and resilient in the face of these challenges. 

The final image of Ántonia walking home from work "along the evening sky" is reminiscent of the moment when Jim, Ántonia, and their friends watch the sunset behind the plough. Both memories illuminate the passing of time against the cyclical monotony of agricultural work. While Jim's memories of Ántonia––like her life––are finite, the land these memories are situated within possesses an enduring, eternal power. 

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The Plough Symbol Timeline in My Antonia

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Plough appears in My Antonia. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 2, Chapter 14
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
...magnified by the red sun sinking behind it. They realize that the figure is a plough left in the field that is now "exactly contained within the circle of the disk."... (full context)