At the university, Jim comes under the influence of a young scholar named Gaston Cleric. He takes rooms with an elderly couple on the edge of Lincoln and quickly becomes engrossed in his studies. During the summer, he remains in Lincoln to study Greek under the terms of his enrollment.
One evening, during the spring of his sophomore year, Jim is deep in thought when someone knocks at his door. He is slow to recognize his visitor, but soon realizes that it is Lena Lingard, dressed in her city finery. She explains to him that she has set up in Lincoln as a dressmaker, and she describes the details of her business affairs. When Jim asks after Ántonia, Lena explains that Ántonia has taken up work with Mrs. Gardener at the hotel and is engaged to Larry Donovan. Jim greets this news with a mixture of pleasure and dismay, and he mentions an urge to go home and take care of her. Lena changes the subject to the theater, and Jim asks if she would like to get together for a theater outing in the near future. Lena agrees to this proposal and departs as quickly as she has come, leaving Jim among his books in the solitude of his study.
Throughout the spring, Jim and Lena attend a series of plays together. One play in particular, Camille, the story of a man’s love for a woman dying of tuberculosis, affects them both very strongly.
In addition to spending time with Lena at the theater, Jim visits her regularly at her dressmaking shop and takes Sunday breakfasts with her at her apartment. As the weeks wear on, Jim becomes less interested in his classes and spends more and more time hanging about with Lena and her circle. Near the end of the academic term, Cleric informs Jim that he has accepted an instructorship at Harvard College and wants Jim to accompany him east. After receiving the blessing of his grandfather, Jim resolves to leave Lincoln, and he visits Lena to tell her his decision. While sad to hear the news, she makes no attempt to hold him back. When the term ends, Jim returns home to be with his grandparents for a few weeks. He then makes a visit to his relatives in Virginia before joining Cleric in Boston.
Book III reflects another major narrative shift in the novel: Jim’s transition to college. Although Jim’s move from the farm to Black Hawk—the break separating Books I and II—makes for a change of scenery, his sense of place is still firmly rooted in the nearby countryside that he roamed as a boy. But with his entry into the university at Lincoln in Book III, a more permanent rift between his past and his present begins to establish itself. Jim’s initial impulse is to reject the lure of “impersonal” scholarship in favor of his “own naked land and the figures scattered upon it.” He finds himself torn between study and memory, excited by the lure of learning new forms, but at the same time plunged back into thoughts of his past. In the face of the new, Jim finds the old people and ways “strengthened and simplified,” though it is unclear whether such an improvement is more a virtue of the past itself or a result of thinking about the past in a new way.
In either event, the nostalgia that Jim begins to feel at the university is extremely intense, and it begins to hamper his ability to live in the present. The people that he carries with him in his mind are so alive to him that he “scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else, or how.” Ántonia soon comes to display a similar tendency to live in the past at the expense of her present.