Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
As the generation to which the main characters (Ántonia, Jim, and Lena) belong grows from young children into adults, the novel indirectly evokes many of the characteristics and feelings of children as they make the transition into adulthood. As a result, the vanished past for which many of the characters long is often associated with an innocent, childlike state that contrasts with the more worldly, grown-up present. But the motif of childhood and adulthood is propagated in the novel mostly by the feelings of the characters as they gradually begin to experience independence, responsibility, and sexuality, leading to a natural contrast between the before and after states of their lives. Once Jim begins to fantasize sexually about Lena, his earlier years become less relevant; once Ántonia begins to live for the town dances, she is never again the same simple farm girl. In marking these sorts of divisions, the novel charts the growth of its principal characters, who eventually gain the maturity to understand the relationship between their past and their present.
Of all the cultural differences between the European immigrants and the American settlers (and there are many, often complicated differences, as we see when Jim’s grandmother attempts to give the Shimerdas a gift of food), the one that recurs most interestingly is the difference in religion. Most of the Europeans are Catholic, as the Shimerdas are, and most of the Americans are Protestant, as the Burdens are. In addition to this dichotomy, there are smaller cultural differences, such as language and attitude, which the novel explores from time to time. The motif of religion is most visible during the novel’s depictions of Christmas and the circumstances surrounding Mr. Shimerda’s suicide.