Captured by Jim in his nostalgic memoir of his younger days, Ántonia gradually emerges from Jim’s emotional presentation of her to become a believable, independent character in her own right. In fact, by the end of the novel, Ántonia has perhaps made more of an impression on many readers than Jim has. Many critics argue that Ántonia, despite the fact that she barely appears in the last quarter of the novel, is the real protagonist. Pretty, vivacious, and extremely generous, Ántonia fascinates Jim. He feels that Ántonia is unusually alive, a sentiment that he echoes even after meeting her as the mother of ten children at the end of the novel.
Throughout the novel, Ántonia is caught between her natural optimism and cheer and the extremely difficult circumstances that she faces after her emigration from Bohemia and her father’s suicide in America. She is also trapped by the cultural differences that make her feel like a perpetual outsider in Nebraska and lead, in part, to her inability to love Jim as more than a brother: the Shimerdas go hungry, and their poverty forces Ántonia to work as a servant girl; certain members of the Black Hawk community judge her harshly for her love of dancing; her fiancé betrays her and leaves her to raise a child alone. Yet she never loses her quality of inner grace and self-sufficiency. Ántonia always tries to make the best of her circumstances, but she refuses to sacrifice her independence to improve her life. For example, she would rather work for the wretched Wick Cutter than follow Mr. Hartling’s order to stop going to the dances.
Ántonia is based on an actual figure from Cather’s childhood—a girl named Annie Pavelka, like Ántonia an immigrant and a hired girl in town whose father committed suicide. Cather admired Annie’s inner radiance and her independence, and sought to capture those qualities in Ántonia. In the process, she created a character from whom the heart of her novel developed: Ántonia symbolizes the past, possesses a deep rapport with her landscape, and embodies the experiences of both immigrants and the Nebraska pioneers.