My Antonia

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The Prairie Symbol Icon
The prairie symbolizes many things in My Ántonia. To immigrants, the vast size of the prairie suggests both the opportunity for a new life and the overwhelming fear that goes with trying to create a new life. The prairie also symbolizes progress and a lost past: as the prairie is developed, its old, winding roads are replaced by straight ones, and the tall grasses are burned down to make room for farmland. Later, when Jim leaves Nebraska, the prairie symbolizes Jim's friendship with Ántonia and his nostalgia for his childhood.

The Prairie Quotes in My Antonia

The My Antonia quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Prairie. 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 1, Chapter 1 Quotes
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie, Light
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel is now being narrated by Jim, who has described his journey to Black Hawk following the death of his parents. Jim recalls the moment he first encountered Ántonia on the train and overheard her describing Black Hawk in broken English. In this passage, Jim remembers his own first impression of Black Hawk. It is night, and there is neither moonlight nor any natural features such as creeks or trees––"nothing but land." In some ways, this is a rather intimidating, desolate picture, and suggests that the prairie is not inviting to outsiders.

Jim's statement that the land doesn't resemble "a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" depicts the prairie as a blank slate, both literally and figuratively. Not only is the land uncultivated, it also serves as an empty space onto which the pioneers project their hopes and dreams for the future. The lack of light is also significant, as the "light" of Jim's childhood will originate in his friendship with Ántonia.

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Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes
I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie, Light
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has described his new life in Black Hawk, which is calm and pleasant. At one point, his grandmother takes him into the garden to dig potatoes, and after she leaves he remains lying under the sun, reflecting on his happiness about being in nature. Jim imagines that when people die, they "become a part of something entire," and this idea of unity with natural forces pleases him. His thoughts illustrate the sacred status of the natural world within the novel. Indeed, although the characters are Christian, Jim's words depict a kind of pagan spirituality based around respect and reverence of nature.

In contrast to one version of the American immigrant narrative, Jim does not seek individual success or glory––rather, he admits "I did not want to be anything anymore." This statement reflects a general theme in the novel, that living harmoniously within the natural world encourages people to adopt a kind of peaceful selflessness.

Book 1, Chapter 16 Quotes
The road from the north curved a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me."
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Mr. Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie, Mr. Shimerda's Grave, Light
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Shimerda's funeral has taken place, and his body has been buried on a corner of the Shimerda's land. Jim remarks that years later, roads were built at that point, and the grave becomes the only site at which the grass isn't mowed. Jim describes his strong emotional attachment to the spot, claiming that it became the place he most loved in the entire prairie. This statement is at first a little surprising, as we would likely expect the grave to be a sad reminder of Mr. Shimerda's suffering and misfortune. However, Jim's description of the grave's natural beauty shows that the tragedy of Mr. Shimerda's death has created a new source of joy, by preserving a small section of land in its untamed state. 

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. 

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 3, Chapter 1 Quotes
I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has begun college in Lincoln, where he studies Latin with an inspiring young scholar and stays during the summer in order to take a course in Greek. However, even as he finds success and pleasure in his studies, he admits that he "should never be a scholar," as he feels too attached to the landscape and people of his homeland. This confession illuminates the complicated effects of social class and mobility. Unlike many other members of the Black Hawk community, Jim has the opportunity to move to the city and attend college––a realization of the American dream. However, he feels inescapably tied to the simple, rural existence he left back home, suggesting that there is something almost magically appealing about the prairie that cannot be found in urban life.

Book 4, Chapter 4 Quotes
As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Prairie, Light
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has gone to see Ántonia at the Shimerda's farm, where she looks thin and worn down. They have a warm, pleasant conversation, and as Jim goes to leave, Ántonia tells him that his presence remains with her on the prairie, just as her father's does. As Jim walks away, he imagines a boy and girl running alongside him––the ghosts (or "shadows," continuing the novel's imagery of light) of his and Ántonia's childhood selves. This image emphasizes the way in which the past remains part of the present. Just as Ántonia feels Jim's lingering presence in the prairie, so does Jim imagine that he is accompanied by the "shadows" of himself and Ántonia when they were young. This description suggests that even though human life is transient, traces of it remain within the enduring natural landscape. 

Book 5, Chapter 1 Quotes
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, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Related Symbols: The Prairie
Page Number: 240
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has avoided going to see Ántonia for 20 years, fearing how it would feel to see her as an old woman. When he finally returns to see her, they at first don't recognize each other. In this passage, Jim describes her as "a battered old woman," but adds that she still possesses the same vigor that emanates from her ability to find "meaning in the common things." Jim's words illustrate the way in which the past can live on within the present––although she has been worn out by a life of hard work and struggle, Ántonia's personality remains the same, and this is reflected in her physicality. 

Jim's description also highlights Ántonia's deep and fundamental connection to the land. The source of Ántonia's warmth and vitality can be found in her association with natural processes like planting and harvesting. Unlike humans, the natural landscape works in a cyclical motion, and thus never gets old in the way that people do. 

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 Prairie Symbol Timeline in My Antonia

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Prairie appears in My Antonia. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Book 1, Chapter 1
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
...Before he falls asleep during the ride to his grandparents farm, Jim sees the Nebraska prairie for the first time. He feels "blotted out" by the wide-open spaces and the huge... (full context)
Book 1, Chapter 16
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
...that years afterward, roads were built that crossed at that spot, and after all the prairie grass had been eventually cut up by farmers, the grave is the only place where... (full context)
Book 2, Chapter 14
Friendship Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
...flowers. Jim arrives early and realizes how much he's missed the vivid colors of the prairie. (full context)
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
...sun is setting, Jim, Ántonia and the other girls see a black figure on the prairie magnified by the red sun sinking behind it. They realize that the figure is a... (full context)
Book 3, Chapter 1
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
...instructor named Gaston Cleric. He rents a room on the edge of town near the prairie and stays in Lincoln his first summer to take a course in Greek. (full context)
Book 5, Chapter 1
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
...has married a man named Cuzak, a cousin of Anton Jelinek, moved back to the prairie, and now has 11 children. At one point, he hears from Tiny, who describes Ántonia's... (full context)