My Antonia

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Themes and Colors
The Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
The Prairie Theme Icon
The Past Theme Icon
Innocence and Maturity Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in My Antonia, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Past Theme Icon

Jim and the other characters in My Ántonia struggle between living in the present and remembering the past. They share a common longing for the years and places left behind. To Jim, the past represents the lost innocence of his childhood, while to immigrants like the Shimerdas, the past means the friendlier, more familiar villages they left behind in Europe. In Book I, the Shimerdas and other immigrant characters cling to the traditions, people, and places of the "old country." Mr. Shimerda never overcomes his homesickness for Bohemia, and Peter and Pavel cannot escape the dark secrets of their youth in Russia. But the past also functions as a kind of spiritual sustenance. Jim, for example, holds dear the memories of his childhood friendship with Ántonia. And Ántonia eventually moves back to the prairie, where her father's grave reminds her of her last years with him.

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The Past Quotes in My Antonia

Below you will find the important quotes in My Antonia related to the theme of The Past.
Introduction Quotes
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, the whole adventure of our childhood.
Related Characters: The Narrator - (speaker), Jim Burden, Ántonia Shimerda
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

An unnamed narrator has introduced his old friend James Burden, known as Jim. Both men now live in New York, though they grew up together in Nebraska. The narrator has recalled running into Jim on a train to Iowa, and in this passage states that their conversation was dominated by "a central figure"––Ántonia. It is clear from the moment Ántonia is introduced that she will have a vital, even mystical significance within the novel. The narrator admits that, to him and to Jim, she represented "the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." Even before the reader knows Ántonia's name, it is obvious that she is an extraordinary person. Furthermore, the narrator's framing of Ántonia as symbolic of his childhood establishes Ántonia's connection both to nature and the past. 


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Book 1, Chapter 10 Quotes
I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms. They had been gathered, probably, in some deep Bohemian forest...
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda, Mr. Shimerda, Mrs. Shimerda, Yulka Shimerda, Ambrosch Shimerda
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has described the Shimerda's poverty, which was so terrible that during one winter they are forced to share a single overcoat and subsist on prairie-dogs. When Jim and his grandmother bring the Shimerdas food, Mrs. Shimerda gives them some brown shavings in return; the shavings taste strange, and later Jim realizes they must have been dried mushrooms brought from Bohemia. This passage emphasizes the way in which an item as simple as dried mushrooms can take on huge and complex significance within the drama of immigrant and pioneer life.

By offering the mushrooms to Jim and his grandmother, Mrs. Shimerda refuses to accept the role of a charity recipient. This refusal is made more moving by the fact that the mushrooms are clearly significant to the Shimerdas, considering they brought them all the way to America from Bohemia. At the same time, this significance does not necessarily translate to Jim's grandmother, who finds the mushrooms suspicious and thus simply throws them away. This contrast highlights the way in which the past takes on vastly different meanings to different people. Objects and memories that some people "treasure so jealously" are completely meaningless to others. 

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 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. 

Book 5, Chapter 3 Quotes
For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
Related Characters: Jim Burden (speaker), Ántonia Shimerda
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Jim has left Ántonia's farm, promising to return soon. He takes the train to Black Hawk, only to find that most of his old friends are not there, having died or moved away. He watches the sunset and reflects on the fact that, although "fortune" has led him and Ántonia to live vastly different lives, they are inevitably bound together by "the precious, the incommunicable past." These thoughts highlight the way in which the past, present, and future are implicated in one another. Although they could not have known it at the time, Jim and Ántonia's futures were "predetermined" by small moments in their childhood. At the same time, it is their shared history that still connects them to each other many decades later.