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.