In this passage from Book 1, Chapter 2 of My Ántonia, the author uses a simile to describe Jim's contentment with his current situation, likening him to the pumpkins growing in his grandmother’s garden. Lying on the earth, Jim describes how he:
[...] kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy.
In this blissful scene, Jim Burden is happy and fulfilled by his surroundings. He’s so content to be in Nebraska, in fact, that he feels like one of the pumpkins that are nourished by the sun and soil of the place. This simile links Jim to the countryside life of farm and prairie that he has joined. The reader gets the sense that Jim is also now a "crop" of sorts. He will grow and develop from youth to adulthood in this spot, until he’s big and mature.
The image of the pumpkins also reflects the slow pace of life in the Nebraska countryside, as “nothing happened” exactly as Jim expects. As the boy lies in the sun, he feels overtaken by the sensation and is content to simply exist and “feel it” like the pumpkins do. This is an early instance of Jim’s deep and meditative interactions with nature, which turn out to be a major feature of My Ántonia.
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.
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.
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 5, Cather uses a simile to compare the face of Pavel to the watermelons he grows and devours, and to give a sense of his character for the reader. Jim, describing Pavel, recounts that:
His rosy face, with its snub nose, set in this fleece, was like a melon among its leaves.
In this passage, Cather compares Pavel’s face directly to a watermelon, emphasizing its roundness and “rosy” ruddiness and suggesting it has a friendly quality. His fluffy hair is the "leaves" of the melon plant, his chubby face nestled within it. This comparison also highlights the important role that melons play in Pavel’s hospitality: he consumes huge quantities of them and offers them to guests as a welcoming gesture. Later in the same passage, Cather describes Pavel’s method of cutting up watermelons to offer Jim and Ántonia:
Peter put the melons in a row on the oilcloth-covered table and stood over them, brandishing a butcher knife. Before the blade got fairly into them, they split of their own ripeness, with a delicious sound [...] He assured us that they were good for one—better than medicine; in his country people lived on them at this time of year. He was very hospitable and jolly [...] He said he had left his country because of a “great trouble.”
This second passage features tactile and auditory sensory language, giving a detailed impression of the scene for the reader as Peter prepares the melons. The author describes the wet sound of the ripe melons splitting as "delicious," appealing to both the reader's sense of sound and taste. It’s easy to imagine the melons cracking lushly open, as Cather writes they “split of their own ripeness” before the knife even gets all the way through. As he chats to them and prepares this meal, Peter assures Jim and Ántonia that the melons are “better than medicine” for a person’s health and explains that in his country, people live on them at this time of year. This creates a sense of cultural difference and local color for the reader, as well as highlighting Peter's generosity and hospitality. In this scene, Cather depicts the immigrant community of Nebraska as generous and selfless, with Pavel’s watermelon-rosy face at its center.
In Book 1, Chapter 8, Cather uses the simile of a frightening bird to describe the bad luck that befalls the Russians Peter and Pavel:
Misfortune seemed to settle like an evil bird on the roof of the log house, and to flap its wings there, warning human beings away. The Russians had such bad luck that people were afraid of them and liked to put them out of mind.
After remortgaging their house, Peter hurts himself when lifting timbers and dies of a related illness very shortly after. This causes a devastating chain reaction. The simile Cather uses to describe their “misfortune” compares it to an “evil bird” that “settles” on the roof the cabin the Russians live in, warning other people away. Invoking a watchful and frightening creature like this creates a sense of foreboding, and gives the reader a sense of the metaphorical darkness that looms over Peter and Pavel.
The author extends the simile in the following sentence, as the misfortune "flaps its wings" on the roof, apparently creating a reverberation of talk in the town. The misfortune is "warning" people to stay clear with its “flapping.” People fear both catching Pavel’s mysterious illness and being asked for help they cannot provide. This fear of association with the family causes the Russians to be "put out of mind." The use of this simile for misfortune here highlights the depth of misery and bad luck experienced by the Russian family, and it also creates a sense of foreboding.
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.
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 Book 4, Chapter 3, Jim reflects on the changes he can see in the Nebraska landscape between his childhood and his return as an adult using two similes:
The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea [...] I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.
In this passage, Jim describes the "windy springs and the blazing summers" that have enriched the prairie surrounding Black Hawk in his long absence. Cather evokes the expansive cultivation of the prairie through the description of its "long, sweeping lines of fertility." In so doing, Cather suggests that the land is a living, growing entity, much like the human beings Jim remembers growing up with. Jim says that he remembers the conformation of the land "as one remembers the modelling of human faces.” This simile implies that Jim’s memories of the land are as poignant as his memories of his companions. This linking of humans and nature is typical of novels in the pastroal genre to which My Ántonia belongs.
The changes in the land that Jim observes upon his return seem pleasing to him. Rather than being only disappointed by Black Hawk’s movement into the future, he sees them as evidence of growth and improvement. Cather uses another simile to compare the changes to the growth of “a great man or a great idea.” This simile suggests that the land (like Jim himself) can only change through experience and the passage of time. By linking it to the development of "greatness," Jim implies that he sees the benefits of Nebraska's modernization.
In likening the landscape of Jim’s childhood to a person who grows and ages, Cather suggests that the passage of time is beneficially transformative not only for Jim Burden in his role as protagonist, but also for the country itself.
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.
In Book 5, Chapter 3, Cather uses a pair of similes to describe the last remaining patch of the first prairie-road that crossed the Nebraska plains. When Jim returns to Nebraska as an adult, he notices that:
Everywhere else it had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed; this half-mile or so within the pasture fence was all that was left of that old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie, clinging to the high places and circling and doubling like a rabbit before the hounds.
In this passage, Cather uses two dynamic similes to describe the changes to the road Jim remembers. In the first, she compares the road to a "wild thing," an animal that runs freely across the prairie. When the road was being laid across the plains by the pioneers moving West it wasn’t built according to a plan, as they didn't know exactly where it was going—they were just heading West. Even though the road is manmade, it’s described here using the language of untamed nature. This is the opposite of the highly planned-out and structured development of the highway.
In the second simile, the author goes on to describe how the road "clings to the high places and circles and doubles like a rabbit before the hounds," emphasizing the unpredictability the old road had, especially when compared to the highway. It was so untamed in Jim’s youth that it was almost alive, “clinging” and “running” like a rabbit. Now that he has returned as an adult to a more modern Nebraska, it has been penned “within the pasture fence” and no longer "runs."