In Book 1, Chapter 1 of My Ántonia, Cather makes an allusion to the real 19th-century outlaw Jesse James. She does so as part of the visual imagery that describes the frontiersman Otto Fuchs. When they meet, Jim observes Fuchs intently and notes that:
He might have stepped out of the pages of “Jesse James.” He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian’s. Surely this was the face of a desperado.
Jesse James was a famous and controversial figure of the American “Wild West.” Born in 1847, James was variously a bank and train robber, a Confederate Civil War “hero,” and a fugitive from the law many times over. By comparing Fuchs to this character, Cather adds another dimension to the novel's, realistic portrayal of early 1900s Nebraska. Even at this point in the book, this figure establishes for the reader that Jim has come to a “wild” frontier state where bandits and outlaws operate. The visual cues in the imagery of Fuchs's “lively and ferocious” appearance—especially his curling mustache, sombrero, and the "bright buckle" on his belt—align him with the cowboys of the “Wild West” and Jim’s journey to Nebraska with that sense of adventure and risk.
Near the beginning of Book 1, Cather uses a simile and some sensory language evoking the ocean to describe Jim's bewildered first observations of the Nebraska landscape:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
In this passage, Cather compares the prairie to the ocean, with the red grass resembling “certain seaweeds,” and the land "moving" like the sea. The language of motion and fluidity used to describe the prairie adds to this sense of the unknown, as everything seems to be "running" and in constant motion. There’s no earth or soil to Jim’s childish eyes, only endless grass. Indeed, the grass "is" the entirety of the land, just as the ocean's body is made up of water. Even the color of the dry grass has a liquid analogy: it is "winestained." Nothing about it looks like land the young protagonist is familiar with. Cather uses this visual imagery to convey the vastness and immensity of the prairie, which is new to both Jim and the reader at this early point in the book. Through these oceanic images, Cather evokes a sense of wonder and unfamiliarity, inviting the reader to try to contemplate the scale of the views as Jim does.
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.
In Book 1, Chapter 6, Willa Cather uses vivid visual and tactile imagery to evoke a scene of fast-approaching winter in Jim’s grandmother’s garden. Stepping into the garden, Jim describes the scene:
It was a day of amber sunlight, but there was a shiver of coming winter in the air. I had seen ice on the little horsepond that morning, and as we went through the garden we found the tall asparagus, with its red berries, lying on the ground, a mass of slimy green.
The "amber sunlight" Cather describes in this passage provides a warm contrast to the "shiver of coming winter in the air." The contrasting warm and cool imagery evokes the changeable weather of late autumn for the reader, in which the Nebraska atmosphere can be balmy one minute and chilly the next.
The dead and slumped-over asparagus is a strong visual image of decay, as it once stood "tall" and proud, but is now lying on the ground in a "mass" of "slimy green." This pile of green goo serves as a reminder of the precariousness of all life in their remote community, and of the impending threat of death as the frigid prairie winter approaches. Additionally, the "slimy green" quality of the asparagus adds an unpleasant tactile quality to the image, bringing it to life for the reader as something unpleasant to touch as well as to look at. Green is a color that usually represents vitality, but here it’s also the early stages of rot.
The passage also contains a visual evocation of the Christmas season soon to come, as the red berries of the asparagus against the bright green are a reminder of the traditional colors of that holiday. This adds nuance to the unpleasant idea of the approaching winter, as the Christmas celebration is usually a pleasant prospect for Christian children in communities like the one Jim grows up in.
In this passage from Book 1, Chapter 7, Cather uses hyperbole and visual imagery to describe the rattlesnake that the child Jim later kills. Sizing up the snake, Jim says:
He was not merely a big snake, I thought—he was a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick. He was as thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn’t crush the disgusting vitality out of him. He lifted his hideous little head, and rattled.
The hyperbolic language used to describe the snake as a "circus monstrosity" emphasizes the serious danger that Jim will shortly face. However, it also captures something of his childish sense of wonder and exuberance as he tells the story: all snakes might seem enormous to a young boy. Millstones are huge lumps of rock used to pulverize grain to make flour. The idea that these couldn’t destroy the snake further exaggerates both its size and Jim’s sense of its invincibility. The exaggerated language used to describe the snake's "abominable muscularity" and "thickness" serves to inflate the snake to the size of a dragon in Jim's mind, adding to the spectacle of the story.
Cather's visual and auditory imagery is just as vivid as her hyperbole in this passage. The reader’s gets a sense of Jim’s focus becoming increasingly tight and strained as the snake begins to move and make noises. Its "little" head on that enormous body is uncanny and threatening, especially as both Jim and Ántonia know that its teeth are full of deadly venom. Because of the intensity of the language used to describe the snake's size and power, its rattling seems almost insignificant in comparison. Its audible warning to stay away is subtle, but its physical presence is overtly terrifying.
In Book 1, Chapter 8, Cather uses a flashback full of frightening visual and auditory imagery to describe an event from Pavel and Peter's past in Russia. The narrator recounts a dramatic scene (translated for him later by Ántonia) where Pavel describes to Mr. Shimerda how he and his brother were the only survivors of a wedding party eaten by wolves:
The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it [...] The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.
The intensity of this scene is heightened by Cather's vivid description of the black wolves running like “streaks of shadow” against the winter tundra. The reader gets a graphic sense of the horror of the racing mass of dark, ravenous bodies approaching against the white snow. She also provides auditory imagery for the reader that builds the tension of the scene as she describes the “howls” of the wolves “quickening” as they converge on the group. The scene is oppressive and scary, which explains the desperate action Peter and Pavel were forced to take.
The flashback gives the reader a glimpse into the danger and harshness of life in the tundra of Russia, which Cather places in direct contrast to the life Jim, Ántonia, and their companions live on the Nebraska prairie. Living in either place contains similar risks, such as harsh winters, unpredictable weather, and wild animal attacks. The scene also provides context for the close bond between Pavel and Peter and complicates their characters. At the end of the flashback, Pavel reveals that he and Peter threw the bride and groom to the wolves in order to survive the onslaught. Later in the same passage, Cather describes this incident as the trigger for the men leaving Russia:
They went away to strange towns, but when people learned where they came from, they were always asked if they knew the two men who had fed the bride to the wolves.
Because the two men are remembered as "the men who had fed the bride to the wolves," they are forced to leave their own community. When they aren’t welcome even in “strange towns,” they migrate to the United States. This flashback describes a brutal and shocking act that paints these otherwise kind and charming characters in a new light for the reader. The scene also underscores the novel's theme of chosen community within immigrant settlements: Pavel and Peter managed to find a life of belonging and safety in Black Hawk despite their troubled past.
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 2, Chapter 15 of My Ántonia, Cather uses vivid and unsettling imagery to describe Jim's experience staying at the dastardly Wick Cutter's house in Ántonia's place:
I held my breath and lay absolutely still. A hand closed softly on my shoulder, and at the same moment I felt something hairy and cologne-scented brushing my face. If the room had suddenly been flooded with electric light, I couldn’t have seen more clearly the detestable bearded countenance that I knew was bending over me.
In this passage, the book uses sensory details related to touch, smell, and sight to convey the intensity of the situation. The tactile imagery is particularly effective in conveying Jim's sense of fear and discomfort in Cutter's home.
When Cutter unexpectedly enters the room in the night, Jim feels a "soft" hand on his shoulder, and he is startled by the brush of hair on his face. The imagery of the room “flooded” with “electric light” emphasizes how clearly Jim can sense Cutter's presence in the darkness. Jim is so shocked by it that he can practically “see” the “detestable” face of Cutter leaning over him. These details emphasize the sense of violation that Jim feels in this moment, as Cutter's presence is both alarming and unwanted. The “softness” of his hand is particularly uncanny given the reason he has entered the room: Cutter thinks Ántonia is asleep in the bed and has come home alone to try to sexually assault her.
Because of this, the description of the strong scent of cologne is also unpleasantly significant in this passage. Cather implies that Cutter is trying to make himself more appealing to Ántonia by masking his bodily odor. He has come into the room to try to rape her, and this overpowering smell reinforces the menacing danger he represents. The smell is a physical manifestation of Cutter's attempt to violate Ántonia, and it adds to the unsettling nature of the scene.
Early in Book 3, Chapter 2, Cather uses several similes and idyllic visual imagery, invoking the hazy, lazy beauty of the Spring Nebraska landscape. Jim sits in his new bedroom gazing out of the window and observes:
My window was open, and the earthy wind blowing through made me indolent. On the edge of the prairie, where the sun had gone down, the sky was turquoise blue, like a lake, with gold light throbbing in it. Higher up, in the utter clarity of the western slope, the evening star hung like a lamp suspended by silver chains—like the lamp engraved upon the title-page of old Latin texts, which is always appearing in new heavens, and waking new desires in men.
This passage contains several comparisons between unusual pairs of things, such as the "earthy wind" and the sky like a lake with "light throbbing" in the water. Wind is intangible and so is not usually “earthy,” and the idea of the sky being “like a lake” seems initially difficult to imagine. However, Cather uses these similes to create unbroken links between the landscape and the heavens. These impossible pairs make the landscape itself seem unearthly, portraying Nebraska as an uncanny and idealized place full of wonder to the young Jim.
The fact that all the comparisons the author makes in the passage are to real, non-imaginary things implies that the older Jim—who is "narrating" his “memoir”—truly remembers Nebraska as being this ethereal. The “sky” really was like a “lake,” and the light of the stars really did seem “suspended by silver chains" to him at the time.
Cather further strengthens the link between earth and sky in this passage as she describes the Nebraska sky in the language of its landscape. The sky itself has the gentle "slope" of a prairie and is solid enough to hang a lamp on. This blurring of descriptive images creates a sense of unity between everything in the scene. These similes also link all the visual registers of Jim's world together as one organism, from “old Latin texts” to “stars.”
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.