Cather positions the characters Ántonia Shimerda and Lena Lingard as foils, using visual imagery to differentiate them and describing Ántonia with a simile linking her to the natural world. Jim Burden is attracted to both in different ways, and he struggles to understand his feelings for each girl. Ántonia is innocent, earthy, and physically captivating, as Cather describes when Jim first meets her in Book 1, Chapter 3. Jim is quite struck by her eyes:
They were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. Her skin was brown, too, and in her cheeks she had a glow of rich, dark colour. Her brown hair was curly and wild-looking.
The simile of “sun shining on brown pools in the wood” aligns Ántonia with the forests she later describes to Jim, and the forests of his own first home in Virginia. Like the prairie, Ántonia is rich with life (if not with money) and is “wild-looking.” The colors Cather uses to describe her are warm and deep, primarily "dark" and luscious browns and golds.
Lena, by contrast, is sophisticated, clever, pretty, and overtly sexualized. She could not be more different from Ántonia. Rather than natural images and earthy colors, Cather links her to artificial adornments and cool tones: she has “violet-colored eyes” and “long lashes” and “exhales a heavy perfume of sachet powder.” "Sachet powder" is a heavily perfumed, early 19th-century beauty product. Ántonia, who doesn't use any kind of makeup or scent, is aligned with the past and the natural world throughout the novel. Lena, though, represents the future, modernity, and sophistication. Jim loves Ántonia but struggles to see her as a sexual being, as she’s so tied up with his childhood and with his feelings about the prairie. Lena, who comes into the story later, is newer and less aligned with nature, and so Jim can feel sexual attraction to her in a different way.
These women also take opposing paths in life: Lena leaves Nebraska to pursue a more urbane life in San Francisco as she had long planned. Ántonia, on the other hand, stays in Nebraska and continues to live a life that more closely resembles the one Jim remembers from childhood. In their extreme differences, these women also represent the novel’s two opposing value systems: a respect for tradition and a hunger for innovation and exploration.