My Àntonia is mostly set in Nebraska during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era marked by the westward expansion of the United States as a country. Western American literature of that period was often focused on the lives of the "pioneers" who settled in frontier regions, and on the close relationships they developed as communities facing the hardships of prairie life.
The vast grasslands, small towns, and farmland of rural Nebraska are vividly depicted in the novel. Cather portrays both the beauty and harshness of the natural environment as she describes idyllic summers and frigid winters. The prairie in which the town of Black Hawk is situated is described in ecstatic, brooding detail, a trait Cather’s writing is known for.
The enormous prairie with its great natural beauty provides a stark contrast to the small, cramped interiors of cabins and houses in which many of the novel's interactions take place. In the dialogue that happens in these intimate settings, Cather provides detail about the immigrant characters' origins in Bohemia, Russia, and elsewhere, highlighting the diversity of the experiences that made up rural communities of new and established Americans at the time.
The small and intense social environments of these communities are also a central component of the novel's setting. My Àntonia depicts both the kindness and judgmental attitudes of the people surrounding Jim and his companions, as they move from the “rural” life of their country cabins to the slightly more urbanized "town" upon growing up.
The novel also contrasts the "Old West" with urban life, as it references New York and San Francisco in its frame story. This pairing is juxtaposed with another geographical duo: the "Old World" from which the novel's immigrants came, and the "New World" of America. This juxtaposition reflects the tensions and contrasts that emerged during this period of American history. America has always been a nation of immigrants. However, even at this early stage of American history there was tension between the “old” and “new” communities of settlers.