While Jim and Ántonia are by far the most important figures in My Ántonia, one should not overlook Lena’s importance to Jim’s youth (the third book of the novel bears her name as the title, indicating the extent of her impact on his life). Cather conjures Lena to contrast sharply with Ántonia: while Ántonia possesses an independence that gives her quiet inner strength, Lena craves excitement and autonomy, refusing to marry any of the men who fall in love with her beauty and charisma. Her choice to live in San Francisco is nearly as extreme for someone from Black Hawk as Jim’s decision to move to New York.
It is no coincidence that Lena becomes important to Jim’s life at the moment he begins to transition out of childhood and into adulthood. Just as Ántonia comes to embody Jim’s memories of childhood innocence and purity, Lena, with her desire for sophistication and her precocious sexuality, comes to represent Jim’s emergence as a young adult. Tellingly, Jim fantasizes sexually about Lena in a way that he cannot about Ántonia. Even as a young man in Black Hawk, Jim already associates Ántonia with a lost past and invests her with an aura of emotional purity that precludes sex. Lena continues to become more important to Jim as he attends college, when they are both in Lincoln together. Though Jim never grants Lena an exalted place in his memory as he does to Ántonia, she is still a pivotal figure in his growth from childhood to adulthood, and, given the importance he gives her in his story, she may continue to figure more largely in Jim’s dream of the past than even Jim -himself realizes.