Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
This passage from Book II, Chapter XIV, recounts a sunset that Jim and Ántonia watch the summer after Jim graduates from high school. Gradually, the sun sinks behind a plow on the horizon, so the plow is superimposed on the red sun, “black against molten red.” The passage is an excellent example of Cather’s famous ability to evoke the landscape, creating a sensuous and poetic picture of a sunset on the Nebraska prairie. It also indicates the extraordinary psychological connection that Cather’s characters feel with their landscape, as the setting sun perfectly captures the quiet, somewhat bittersweet moment the characters are experiencing—they care for one another and have had a wonderful day together, but they are growing up and will soon go their separate ways.
The image of the plow superimposed on the sun also suggests a symbolic connection between human culture (the plow) and the nature (the sun). As the plow fills up the disk of the sun, the two coexist in perfect harmony, just as Jim recalls the idyllic connection between the natural landscape and the settlements in Nebraska. But as the sun sinks beneath the horizon, the plow dwindles to insignificance (“its own littleness”), suggesting that, in the relationship between humankind and environment, environment is dominant.