The prairie symbolizes many things in My Ántonia. To immigrants, the vast size of the prairie suggests both the opportunity for a new life and the overwhelming fear that goes with trying to create a new life. The prairie also symbolizes progress and a lost past: as the prairie is developed, its old, windy roads are replaced by straight ones, and the tall grasses are burned down to make room for farmland. Later, when Jim leaves Nebraska, the prairie symbolizes Jim's friendship with Ántonia and his nostalgia for his childhood.
Mr. Shimerda's Grave
When Mr. Shimerda dies, he is buried in the prairie on what later becomes a crossroads. Jim says of his gravesite, "in all that country it was the spot most dear to me" because when all of the land has been cleared for farming, this "island" where two roads meet is the only place where the tall prairie grass still grows undisturbed. The gravesite is a remnant of the prairie in its purest form, and it symbolizes Ántonia's and Jim's longing for the past.
The plough, a symbol of the farm work the Shimerdas and the Burdens do on the prairie, symbolizes man's "beautiful and harmonious" connection to the land. At the end of Book 2, before Jim leaves Black Hawk for college, he sees a plough silhouetted in the circle of the red sun setting behind it. The sky quickly grows dark, and the plough disappears from view. This image suggests Jim's impending separation from Ántonia—while Ántonia remains on the prairie, Jim leaves for good. The change also foreshadows the changes that the development of farming will inflict on the natural prairie landscape.
In My Ántonia, light symbolizes change. A vivid description of light prefaces every major change that occurs in the novel. When Jim first meets Ántonia, for example, he describes her glowing cheeks and her eyes as "like the sun", and for the rest of their lives, he associates her with warmth and vigor. One of his most vivid memories of Ántonia is reading with her "in the magical light of the late afternoon." In contrast, at end of Book 1—as Jim's and Ántonia's childhoods on the prairie come to an end—the two friends sit on the roof and watch the lightning of a loud and "electric" thunderstorm. At the end of the novel, after Jim leaves Ántonia for the last time, he stands alone on the prairie roads in "the slanting sunlight" and reflects on the "incommunicable" past he shared with Ántonia.