Whereas Ántonia represents the pioneer who builds an abundant, promising future from a wasteland, Jim Burden represents the established settlers who have grown complacent, superior, and rigid in their thinking. To Ántonia, the road to success in life has many possible branches; to Jim and other Black Hawk citizens, there is only one acceptable road. Jim symbolizes the pioneer gone soft.
Jim's memories of Ántonia comprise the main body of the novel. He admires her and is drawn to her in such a way that his memories of her have been burned into his mind. In the opening chapter we see him as a 10-year-old orphan, arriving for the first time in Nebraska. Although the journey pleases and excites him, he sinks into a deep depression as the wagon carrying him to his grandparents' farm bumps along through the pitch-blackness. He feels erased from existence, blotted out. Cather is revealing his keen sensitivity and is suggesting that the slate has been wiped clean, that the future is his to create, that he has no limitations. This is also implied at the end of the opening Chapter I: " . . . here, I felt, what would be would be." In the next chapter, when Jim daydreams in Grandmother Burden's garden, he feels a part of something whole: " . . . that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
While Jim grows up on the farm, we see him eagerly absorbing new experiences, but we also see some indications of his conventionality. For example, he is irritated with Ántonia for treating him like an inferior because she is older; he feels that he should be the dominant one — regardless of age — because he is a boy and she is a girl. After Ántonia's father's death, he disapproves of her working in the fields like a man, because it isn't feminine. Jim is upset when reality differs from his concept of the world. His attitude contrasts with Ántonia's acceptance of whatever happens as the natural course of events. Ántonia is a realist; Jim is too often a romantic idealist.
Jim's idealism is illustrated by his attitude toward the hired girls. He admires them and criticizes the townspeople for arrogantly looking down on them — that is, the girls are good enough for the boys of Black Hawk to have fun with, but they're not good enough to marry. Ironically, it won't be long before Jim will do precisely what he's condemning these boys for.
Still young, Jim is easily influenced by the judgments and opinions of others. He is thrilled when the hired girls admire his graduation speech, and he agrees — if reluctantly — to stay the night at Wick Cutter's house (in place of Ántonia). When his grandmother objects to his attending the dances at the Firemen's Hall, he stays away. Later, when Jim decides to marry, he doesn't choose a wife from the hired girls; he marries a woman with both money and class.
At college Jim learns a greater appreciation of the classics than he'd had at home, and he compares the people from his own childhood to people in the works of Virgil. He's introduced to a new world of music and opera, which he asks Lena Lingard to share. Their brief love affair causes him to neglect his schoolwork and this somewhat parallels Ántonia's affair with Larry Donovan, but the consequences are not so devastating for Jim as they are for Ántonia. When he realizes how time spent with Lena is affecting his work, he breaks off their affair and transfers to Harvard.
When Jim returns to Black Hawk, he sees a photograph of Ántonia's baby and longs to visit his old friend, but he initially finds it difficult to forgive her for throwing herself away on such a cheap fellow as Larry Donovan. Even now, he appears irresistibly drawn to Ántonia. Widow Steavens tells him the story of Ántonia's betrayal, and when he finally visits Ántonia, he can't deny that she is very important to him, yet he goes away and will not see her again for twenty years. He is afraid to return, afraid he will be disappointed.
After two decades, however, Jim's curiosity overcomes him, and he visits Ántonia and her family on their farm in Nebraska. Although Jim has prospered materially, he seems spiritually empty. This emptiness in Jim's life, twenty years later, is contrasted with the fullness of Ántonia's. Ántonia has not achieved great material wealth, but her spirit is free, full, and vital, and it is as optimistic as it was when they were children. He is glad that he has found her again, and he plans to spend more time with her and her family. Although his life has turned out as sterile as the lives of Lena and Tiny, he recognizes that through Ántonia's family, he can come home again.