Summary: Chapter I

Jim completes his academic program at Harvard in two years and returns to Black Hawk for summer vacation before entering law school. On the evening of his arrival, he is greeted at home by the Harlings. After Jim catches up with his family and friends, Frances brings up the subject of Ántonia. He knows that Larry Donovan never married Ántonia and that he left her with a child. Jim thinks bitterly of Ántonia’s lot, lamenting her misfortunes.

Summary: Chapter II

On a trip to the town photographer to arrange a portrait of his grandparents, Jim notices a prominently placed picture of a baby on the wall. The photographer informs Jim that it is a likeness of Ántonia’s baby, and that Ambrosch will be coming in to the studio to collect it over the weekend. On his way home from the photographer’s, Jim stops at Mrs. Harling’s and mentions to her his wish to learn more about Ántonia’s plight. She suggests that he go to visit Widow Steavens, the tenant on the Burdens’ old farmland.

Summary: Chapter III

At the beginning of August, Jim takes a horse and cart out to the countryside to visit Widow Steavens. She welcomes him warmly and invites him to stay the night, promising to speak to him of Ántonia after supper. That evening, Jim and the widow repair to the old sitting room upstairs, and she begins her story.

In the weeks leading up to her wedding, Ántonia had been hard at work, sewing various things for her new household and -anxiously awaiting the approaching date. When Donovan had -written to her soon after to inform her that his route as a train conductor had changed and that they would have to live in Denver, Ántonia was initially discouraged, but she quickly placed her doubts behind her. When the time to depart came, Ambrosch helped Ántonia pack up and drove her into Black Hawk to board the night train for Denver.

After receiving a couple of initial communications from Denver confirming Ántonia’s safe arrival, the Shimerdas heard nothing from her for several weeks. Then, suddenly, she reappeared at home one day, unmarried and devastated by Donovan’s desertion of her and subsequent running off to Mexico. Throughout the spring and summer, Ántonia worked in the fields, shutting herself in among her family. In the winter, she bore a child, to the surprise of her family, who had not observed her pregnancy because of the loose and bulky clothing that she had taken to wearing.

Widow Steavens concludes her story by telling Jim that Ántonia’s baby is nearly two years old now, healthy and strong. Jim retires for the evening into the room he slept in as a boy, and he lays awake watching the moonlight and the windmill.

Summary: Chapter IV

The next afternoon, Jim walks over to the Shimerdas’. After Yulka shows him Ántonia’s baby, he walks out to the fields to speak to Ántonia. They meet, clasp hands, and walk together to the site of Mr. Shimerda’s grave. Jim tells her his plans for law school and of his life in the East. Ántonia tells him of her resolution to bring her daughter up into the world. As they walk across the fields together at sunset, Jim feels a strong nostalgia for the Nebraska landscape. At the edge of the field, Ántonia and Jim part ways. Jim gives his promise to return, and Ántonia gives her promise to remember him always. As Jim walks back to his old farmhouse alone at dark, he has the sense of two young children running along beside him.

Analysis: Book IV, Chapters I–IV

With Jim at Harvard, away from the constancy of his Nebraska childhood, the narrative becomes even more piecemeal, and Jim’s memory begins to skip around from story to story. Jim contrasts Ántonia’s lot as a mother on the Nebraska prairie with that of her girlhood friends, Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, who in time come to establish themselves as women of fortune and position in San Francisco. The upward mobility that Lena and Tiny enjoy is somewhat undermined by Jim’s lukewarm description of it: he remarks of Lena that she “had got on in the world” and of Tiny that “she was satisfied with her success, but not elated.” For all of their victories, Lena and Tiny’s lack of earnestness and enthusiasm does much to tarnish their achievements in Jim’s eyes.

In contrast to these successful women in urban America stands Ántonia, who has returned to the country after a thwarted attempt to make a new life for herself in the big city. Like Jim, Ántonia has a powerful sense of place that supersedes all other considerations. But, unlike Jim, without the prospect of a career in front of her, she is quickly sucked back into her natural, if not native, environment.

Saddled with a child, deserted on the brink of marriage, Ántonia retreats to the idylls of her past in the face of an unacceptable present. Her labor is slow and intermittent, for, as she says to the Widow Steavens, “[I]f I start to work, I look around and forget to go on. It seems such a little while ago when Jim Burden and I was playing all over this country.” To the romantic individual, a specific place becomes invested with the quality of an emotion felt at a specific time, and such a mind is slow to disassociate such remembrances in a changing situation. Ántonia prefers to live in the past and is fully aware of her denial of the reality of the present; despite the fact that her father is long since dead, for instance, Ántonia tells Jim that her father “is more real to me than almost anybody else.”

What brings both Ántonia and Jim to an acceptance of change is their ability to come to terms with their own nostalgia. Rather than denying or feeling guilt about their yearnings to recapture and relive the old times, they indulge themselves by reminiscing. Thus, while their exteriors may shift radically, their interiors are constant and unchanging. This interior steadfastness gives them repose in the face of an unstable environment. Upon returning home for the summer before he enters law school, Jim sees the world changing, but he doesn’t mind because what is truly important to him—the memories—remain the same.