Summary and Analysis
Book IV: The Pioneer Woman's Story:
It takes Jim two years to finish his pre-law studies at Harvard. During a brief visit back to Black Hawk, he finds the town buzzing with gossip. Ántonia went to Denver with Larry Donovan, who jilted her, and she returned home unmarried and pregnant with his child. Now back on the farm, she has become Ambrosch's drudge.
Tiny Soderball went to Seattle and opened a hotel for sailors, which will be the ruin of her, the townspeople say; Jim gives us a glimpse into the future: Tiny will go to Alaska when gold is discovered and open a hotel; a dying Swedish prospector whom she cares for will deed her his claim, and she will become wealthy. Later, Tiny will persuade Lena to open a dressmaking shop in San Francisco.
When Jim stops in the photographer's shop to arrange sittings for his grandparents, he sees a photo of Ántonia's baby in a large gilt frame. He feels a compulsion to talk to his old friend. When he asks Mrs. Harling what happened to Ántonia, she suggests that he visit the Widow Steavens, who is closest to Ántonia and will know better than anyone else.
In early August, Jim visits the Widow Steavens, who tells him Ántonia's story. Larry Donovan wrote Ántonia that his railroad run had been changed and they would have to live in Denver. Ambrosch took her to the station and gave her $300, wages she'd earned while she had been hired out. In Denver, Ántonia cared for Donovan when he was ill, then he deserted her when her money was gone. She learned that he'd been fired and had not even tried to find another job. She returned to the Shimerda farm, where she bore her baby alone in her room. The Widow Steavens wishes Ántonia could marry and raise a family, but can see little hope for that now.
The next afternoon, Jim walks over to the Shimerda farm, where he sees Ántonia's baby. Later, he and Ántonia visit beside Mr. Shimerda's grave, feeling that it's the fittest place to talk to each other. He tells her that he plans to join a law firm owned by a relative of his mother's in New York City. Ántonia says she couldn't live in a city. "I like to be where I know every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly," she says. She tells him that even if he never comes back, he will always be with her in memory, and she will tell her daughter about all they did together. Her father, she says, has "been dead all these years, and yet he is more real to me than almost anybody else." As they part at twilight, Jim feels the earth pulling at him; he wishes he could be a little boy again and stay here. As he walks back to the Widow Steavens' farm, he feels that a little boy and girl are running beside him, "laughing and whispering to each other in the grass."
The author contrasts both Tiny and Lena with Ántonia. Lena has made money, has never really loved anyone, and has never been hurt by a romantic attachment. Tiny has wanted only money and that is all she has found. At this point in the novel, Ántonia, a good soul with greater inner strength than either Lena or Tiny, has experienced nothing but grief, hard work, and her illegitimate baby. Cather describes the emptiness of Tiny's life: "She was like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out." In contrast, "the faculty of becoming interested" is what constitutes much of Ántonia's strength.
Jim describes the changes that have taken place on the land since he went away: Wooden houses have replaced the old sod ones, and beside them are little orchards and big red barns. This progress pleases him; he feels as though he is "watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea." Here, Cather is making a correlation between Jim and the land; they have grown up together.
Ántonia exhibits her maternal qualities by not complaining about carrying Larry Donovan's baby, nor complaining when she gave birth. She continued to work on the farm until the baby was born and then, proud of her child, she allowed the baby's photo to be displayed in a fancy gilt frame at a photographer's shop.
The character of Larry Donovan is vividly drawn: He seems to be a man without any principles. In contrast, we glimpse Ambrosch's good side; we saw his concern for Mr. Shimerda's soul, when he gave $300 to Ántonia, helped her pack, and took her to the train. But, as he did after Mr. Shimerda was buried, he reverted back to his surly self again.
As Jim and Ántonia are saying good-bye, he seems to realize why he has always been attracted so strongly to her. She is tied to the land. No matter where he goes, she will always go with him, just as the land and his heritage will go with him. He tells her: "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister — anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."
Jim has gotten an education. He has the promise of a job, with the implication of great financial success. Yet from this excerpt in the final paragraph of this section — ". . . I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass" — we are left with the impression that Jim doesn't really enjoy life anymore. We see that he is leaving his roots because that's what is expected of him. Consciously or unconsciously, he is following the path that the Black Hawk townspeople believe leads to success. Jim, like the other town boys, has become another cog in the machine of mediocrity and will never have the kind of personal success that even the hired girls will have.