In the introduction to My Ántonia, the author establishes a frame story that provides context for the second, much longer section of the book. An unnamed narrator and their friend Jim Burden reminisce about a shared childhood together, with particular attention to the figure of a mutual friend:
[O]ur talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one’s brain.
This frame story, which is set in modern-day New York, serves as a contrasting backdrop to rural Nebraska, where most of the novel takes place. Jim's interaction with this unnamed narrator helps to explain why Ántonia is the "central figure" of the book. Everything is later shown to be "framed" around her, even though the novel is mostly told from Jim's first-person perspective. Jim's devotion to her is further emphasized in the title he gives the manuscript that the narrator "provides" for the reader. He calls it first "Ántonia" and then "My Ántonia":
Months afterward Jim Burden arrived at my apartment one stormy winter afternoon, with a bulging legal portfolio sheltered under his fur overcoat [...] “I didn’t arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia’s name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form. It hasn’t any title, either.” He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him.
The addition of the word “my” in front of Ántonia’s name reveals the depth of Jim's lingering feelings for that character. Because he makes this change, it becomes clear that even though the “legal portfolio” is supposed to contain Ántonia’s story, its title cannot only be her name but must reflect Jim’s bond with her. The “my” here is also an echo back to the first chapter of the book, in which a member of the Shimerda family calls her “my Ántonia” when Jim first becomes acquainted with her.
In Book 1, Chapter 3, Willa Cather employs a paradoxical simile to describe Mr. Shimerda's face and to foreshadow his later suicide:
His eyes were melancholy, and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes—like something from which all the warmth and light had died out.
This simile expresses both the strength and the frailty of the melancholy Mr. Shimerda’s appearance. On the one hand, his face is "ruggedly formed," which suggests strength and resilience; in the same chapter Cather also refers to the prairie as “rugged.” On the other hand, his face also "looked like ashes," implying a delicate, fragile quality that could crumble with a breath. This paradox emphasizes the power that has left him at this point in his life. Having one been a strong man, moving to America has burned away all his strength. Like a log that’s remained in one piece after turning to ash in a fireplace, he looks strong but is in fact incredibly delicate. The deep-set eyes that are “set back” underneath his brow add to the "melancholy" look of his face, suggesting that Shimerda is by nature sad and serious.
In his "rugged" face, something is gone: he was once full of "warmth and light," but it's been squashed, has "died out." The simile foreshadows his later depression and suicide—he is never truly happy in the United States, and the difficulties of prairie life prove too much for him. The contrast between the paradoxical elements of the simile highlights the sense of loss and disillusionment that Mr. Shimerda and many immigrants like him experienced in their new homes in the U.S. Nothing is quite as “rugged” or straightforward as it seems at first glance for this unfortunate character. His misery is barely concealed by the strength of his features.
In Book 1, Chapter 8, Cather uses a simile and a metaphor to describe Pavel's struggle for breath and to foreshadow his death, as he lies patiently fighting for air after an accident:
He lay patiently fighting for breath, like a child with croup. Ántonia’s father uncovered one of his long bony legs and rubbed it rhythmically. From our bench we could see what a hollow case his body was. His spine and shoulder-blades stood out like the bones under the hide of a dead steer left in the fields. That sharp backbone must have hurt him when he lay on it.
In this passage, the narrator compares Pavel to "a child with croup," an infection that makes young children cough loudly and constantly. Through this simile, the author emphasizes the severity of Pavel’s illness and his struggle to breathe. This simile creates a vivid image of Pavel's physical discomfort while also provoking a sense of empathy for his suffering. The comparison to a child with croup also highlights Pavel's vulnerability. As he's a grown man, comparing him to a child makes him seem even more fragile than he might otherwise.
The other simile Cather employs in this passage compares Pavel’s body to something that is already dead. Cather writes that his "spine and shoulder-blades" stick out from his body "like the bones under the hide of a dead steer left in the fields." This comparison to a corpse foreshadows Pavel's upcoming demise. The image of a dead steer left in the fields also reminds the reader of the precarious nature of life on the prairie: everyone is one accident away from a similar fate.
Cather also uses a metaphor to describe Pavel's body as he lies still, struggling for breath. She describes his body as a "hollow case," which emphasizes the delicacy of his physical form as he struggles to survive his injury. This metaphor suggests that Pavel's body has wasted away to a mere shell, with all the contents inside gone. The phrase "a hollow case" also evokes sadness and loss for the reader, as Pavel had previously been a joyful and vivacious person. The simile and metaphor work together in this passage to create a poignant image of Pavel's tragic situation.
In Book 2, Chapter 14, Cather uses visual imagery and hyperbole when describing Jim’s departure from the rural ways of his prairie childhood. This scene also foreshadows the changes soon coming to Black Hawk and the life of the prairie settlers:
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.
Cather paints a vivid picture of this farm tool silhouetted against the light. She describes its black shadow as "picture writing on the sun,” giving the reader a clear picture of its black shape on a bright white background. This image of a tool used regularly in 19th-century prairie life branded on the sun underlines how important the traditions of his Nebraska childhood are to Jim. It also foreshadows how rural farming traditions and Nebraska life are inscribed as “picture writing” on his character.
Cather further emphasizes the plough’s importance by representing it as being bigger than life, "heroic in size." This language is hyperbolic, since a plough is large but not enormous. But for the younger Jim in this moment, it takes up the entire sun, black against blinding light. The plough symbolizes the grueling work and the community efforts of the people of Black Hawk, so it literally looms large in Jim’s childish imagination. The image also suggests a sense of permanence and constant presence as it’s encapsulated in the sun: farm work is as much a part of Nebraska life in this novel as sunlight.
However, when Jim leaves for college, the plough and everything it symbolizes ceases to play nearly such a big part in his everyday existence. When he returns in the latter part of the novel, he finds his hometown almost unrecognizably modernized. His memories are all that remain. As Cather always aligns descriptions of light with change, depicting the plough as a stamp on the sun like this foreshadows the passing of the agricultural traditions Jim remembers in favor of more modern techniques.
In Book 3, Chapter 3, Cather alludes to Camille, an 1848 play by Alexandre Dumas. This allusion aligns Jim's heartsickness for Ántonia Shimerda with the storyline of the play, and foreshadows some of the girl’s later difficulties:
Toward the end of April, the billboards, which I watched anxiously in those days, bloomed out one morning with gleaming white posters on which two names were impressively printed in blue Gothic letters: the name of an actress of whom I had often heard, and the name “Camille.”
Cather alludes to this 19th-century French play—which would have been familiar to her readers at the time, as it was widely published and performed—to draw a parallel between Jim's feelings for Ántonia and those of the play’s male lead, Armand Duval. The billboards advertising the play catch the young protagonist’s attention. He is immediately drawn in by the striking, foreign glamour of the signs, much as he was drawn to Ántonia initially. He describes the posters as "gleaming" and "Gothic," highlighting the contrast between the decadent scenes of wealthy French life depicted in the play and the much less affluent life of rural Nebraska.
After the play, Jim is cast down and miserable because of the similarities he sees between his fate and that of Armand:
I tramped through the puddles and under the showery trees [...] sighing with the spirit of 1840, which had sighed so much, and which had reached me only that night, across long years and several languages, through the person of an infirm old actress.
This melodramatic “sighing with the spirit of 1840" suggests that Jim sees parallels between his own situation and that of Armand Duval, the young man who falls in forbidden love with the courtesan Marguerite in the play. This allusion to Dumas's play also foreshadows the struggles that Ántonia Shimerda will face as she grows up into a young woman. These are primarily fought around maintaining her good reputation and the public perception of her purity. In this passage, Cather's allusion connects Ántonia directly with Marguerite, a courtesan who faces public scrutiny for selling sex. In so doing, the author points to the challenges that Ántonia will encounter as a young, attractive woman in the small and restrictive community she lives in.
In Chapter 4, Book 4 Cather uses imagery, simile, and personification to describe the sun and moon appearing in the sky simultaneously. She does this to foreshadow the imminent separation between Jim and Ántonia. During Jim and Ántonia's emotional farewell, the sun and moon "confront" each other on each side of the horizon:
As we walked homeward across the fields, the sun dropped and lay like a great golden globe in the low west. While it hung there, the moon rose in the east, as big as a cart-wheel, pale silver and streaked with rose colour, thin as a bubble or a ghost-moon. For five, perhaps ten minutes, the two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.
In this passage, the author uses tactile and visual sensory language to describe the sun and moon, making the reader feel the imaginary contrasts in their weight and texture. This language is also densely interlaid with similes. The sun is heavy, "dropping" like a "great golden globe" in the "low" west, while the moon is "thin as a bubble" or a "ghost," silver and streaked with "rose colour.” The sun and moon are portrayed as being opposite in colour, weight, direction, and height. They are so majestic in their opposition that they're personified, "confronting" each other like boxers squaring up for a fight. The horizon of the prairie is so vast that the "edges of the world" seem visible to Jim and Ántonia, and these two celestial bodies become the markers of that boundary in this scene.
As light always symbolizes change in this novel, the similes in this passage foreshadow an enormous alteration of Jim's circumstances. After the sun and moon appear simultaneously to him, he leaves his home for college and doesn't return to Black Hawk or Ántonia for 20 years.In Jim's memories throughout the novel, Ántonia is the central figure. The world of Black Hawk and the prairie around it seems unlimited in scope when he is with her. When he leaves shortly after this, he discovered the world is bigger than even Nebraska: in this scene, however, the prairie encompasses the whole universe.