Ántonia has a resilient inner strength that drives her to succeed and helps her survive adversity. In this way, like the plow against the sun, she symbolizes the invincible pioneer spirit. From the time of her arrival on the prairie, she believes that a person who works hard will become wealthy. "Wealth," of course, can mean a lot of land and money, but, more important here, wealth is synonymous with whatever is rich in spirit and understanding.
On the train that brings Jim and Ántonia to Black Hawk, the conductor comments on the young girl's "pretty brown eyes." Later, when Jim first meets Ántonia at her family's dugout, again he is caught by her arresting, unusual eyes: "They were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood." From the very start, Cather is imbuing Ántonia with the qualities of warmth, generosity, and earthiness.
Jim has met Ántonia for only a matter of minutes, but she immediately reveals her generosity and impulsiveness by trying to give him her ring. Later, she reveals her enormous capacity for compassion by crying for the little green insect that she knows will not survive the winter. She further reveals her maternal nature when she grieves for Peter and Pavel and when she feels protective toward Jim. Even after Jim kills the snake, ostensibly making himself her protector, she looks out for him, warning him about Lena's possibly distracting him from his future plans. Ántonia makes excuses for her mother's greedy, accusatory behavior when the Burdens bring food, but she herself never complains. She looks for the good in life and doesn't dwell on the bad. She is ambitious for her family, even for the overbearing Ambrosch.
When Ántonia's father dies, she is crushed, but because she is a realist, she recovers quickly and takes his place in the fields, working beside Ambrosch and picking up masculine traits that disappoint Jim. Cather again associates Ántonia with the earth when she says, "Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf." Ántonia's grasp on reality is reinforced when Jim accuses her of trying to be like Ambrosch and complains that she isn't "nice" all the time, as she used to be. "If I live here, like you," she tells him, "that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us."
After the Burdens move from the country into Black Hawk, Jim's grandmother persuades Mrs. Harling to hire Ántonia to work for them; she also convinces Ambrosch that such a move will benefit him because "any connection with Christian Harling would strengthen his credit." At the Harlings, Ántonia learns how chores are done in a well-ordered home. Because of the Harlings' many children, Ántonia learns how to be a good mother. She gets along well with Mrs. Harling because they both love life.
But Ántonia's spirit cannot be easily controlled. She is young, inexperienced, and likes to do things her own way. Although she believes that hard work is the path to success, she believes in indulging herself. This leads to her rift with her newfound family. When forced to choose between working for the Harlings and attending the dances, she chooses the dances and goes to work for the town's spiritually warped moneylender, Wick Cutter. Instinctively, Ántonia senses Cutter will try to seduce her, so she comes to Grandmother Burden for help. After Cutter assaults Jim in bed, thinking he is Ántonia, she goes to work as a housekeeper for the Gardeners, who own the hotel.
Ántonia begins dating Larry Donovan, a mere train conductor, but she talks of him as if he were "president of the railroad." She naively believes that he loves her, follows him to Denver, and cares for him when he's sick. Everyone else, however, particularly Jim, can see that he is leading her on. They are proven right when Ántonia's money runs out and Larry abandons her. Ántonia realizes that, despite the fact that she's pregnant, she must return to the farm.
Throughout her life, Ántonia does what must be done; as a realist, she accepts what happens as the natural course of things, and she accepts the consequences of her actions without complaint. When she goes into labor with Larry Donovan's child, she shuts herself in her room and gives birth without calling for help, without so much as a groan. Later, she is so proud of her baby that she allows the local photographer to display the baby's photo in a fancy frame in his shop.
In Book IV, when Jim meets Ántonia beside her father's grave, he realizes that adversity has caused her to increase in strength and understanding. Twenty years later, we see Ántonia as the mother of a large, loving family. The family members do not hesitate to touch one another nor to help one another. Ántonia's abundant potential for motherhood has come to fruition. "Battered but not diminished," she is the symbol of the earth, of all motherhood, the ideal for which all men search.