While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron. (Introduction.1)
Cather's vision of America is strongly rooted in physical setting. It is this setting that determines the lives of the characters, that tests their determination and limits. To be in America in the West is a unique experience in this novel.
Jim is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new people and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood friends remember him. He never seems to me to grow older. His fresh color and sandy hair and quick-changing blue eyes are those of a young man, and his sympathetic, solicitous interest in women is as youthful as it is Western and American. (Introduction. 4)
It's interesting that Jim represents America to the narrator, just as Ántonia represents to Jim the will and beauty of the American West.
One morning the two big bulls, Gladstone and Brigham Young, thought spring had come, and they began to tease and butt at each other across the barbed wire that separated them (1.13.13)
The cow, Brigham Young, is humorously named after the Mormon leader who helped the pioneer movement out West. The cultural references in Cather's novel help to firmly root the story in its very American setting.
The quiet was delightful, and the ticking clock was the most pleasant of companions. I got "Robinson Crusoe" and tried to read, but his life on the island seemed dull compared with ours. (1.14.26)
Jim does portray himself as a sort of American Hero, engaged in adventure in dangerous territory. His highly romanticized way of looking at his past only contributes to this sort of exaggeration.
I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper. (1.16.13)
This is a reminder that the "portrait of America" we see painted in this novel is decidedly color by Jim's attitude of romanticized nostalgia. The whole vision has a rose-colored veneer to it. In this passage, for example, Jim finds a sublime beauty even in Mr. Shimerda's death.
I thought my oration very good. It stated with fervour a great many things I had lately discovered. Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises, and I looked at her most of the time while I made my speech. Her keen, intelligent eyes never left my face. Afterward she came back to the dressing-room where we stood, with our diplomas in our hands, walked up to me, and said heartily: "You surprised me, Jim. I didn't believe you could do as well as that. You didn't get that speech out of books." (2.13.19)
Cather gave a similar speech at her own graduation. Details such as this one show how much of her own life Cather has chosen to insert into this vision of America.
Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings'. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers. (2.2.2)
The Harlings represent a typical life in town in the American West. Cather uses them to show her readers what life was like in this specific time and place.
The pale, cold light of the winter sunset did not beautify--it was like the light of truth itself. When the smoky clouds hung low in the west and the red sun went down behind them, leaving a pink flush on the snowy roofs and the blue drifts, then the wind sprang up afresh, with a kind of bitter song, as if it said: "This is reality, whether you like it or not. All those frivolities of summer, the light and shadow, the living mask of green that trembled over everything, they were lies, and this is what was underneath. This is the truth." It was as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer. (2.6.2)
In Cather's vision of America, the physical landscape and the weather play an important role in determining the lives, moods, and actions of the populace. Even after Jim and Ántonia have moved into the town, the natural elements still dominate.
I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard's grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn't speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Ántonia's father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all "hired girls" (2.9.5).
Social issues regarding immigrants is one of the focuses of Cather's portrait of America. She presents the situation as objectively as possible – the portrait is descriptive and not prescriptive.
"Jimmy, I sat right down on that bank beside her and made lament. I cried like a young thing. I couldn't help it. I was just about heart-broke. It was one of them lovely warm May days, and the wind was blowing and the colts jumping around in the pastures; but I felt bowed with despair." My Ántonia, that had so much good in her, had come home disgraced…" (4.3.20)
The characters in Cather's novel suffer through their share of hardships. Unfair and unwarranted suffering is par for the course in this difficult environment. But perseverance seeming to be a common trait here in this American landscape.