Jim Burden, a successful New York City lawyer, gives an acquaintance a memoir of his Nebraska childhood in the form of a recollection of their mutual friend, Ántonia Shimerda. This memoir makes up the bulk of the novel.
Jim first arrives in Nebraska at the age of ten, when he makes the trip west to live with his grandparents after finding himself an orphan in Virginia. On the train out west, Jim gets his first glimpse of the Shimerdas, a Bohemian immigrant family traveling in the same direction.
As fate would have it, the Shimerdas have taken up residence in farm neighboring the Burdens’. Jim makes fast friends with the Shimerda children, especially Ántonia, who is nearest to him in age and eager to learn English. Jim tutors Ántonia, and the two of them spend much of the autumn exploring their new landscape together.
In late January, tragedy strikes with the suicide of Mr. Shimerda. After an emotional funeral, the Shimerdas retreat into despair, and the Burdens struggle to be as accommodating as possible. As a result of the hardships that the Shimerdas suffer, Ántonia and Jim find that a wedge has been driven between them.
A couple of years later, the Burdens decide to move into town, and shortly thereafter Ántonia takes a job as a housekeeper with a neighboring family, the Harlings. Jim begins to see more of Ántonia once again, especially when a dancing pavilion comes to town and enlivens the social scene.
Jim’s high school years quickly come to a close, and he is offered a spot at the university in Lincoln. He makes a great success of his high school commencement speech and spends the summer hard at work in preparation for his course of study. Before leaving, he takes one last trip out to the countryside with Ántonia and her friends, where they gather to reminisce about old times together.
In Lincoln, Jim throws himself into his studies, which take up the majority of his time in the first year and a half of his course. In the spring of his second year, he begins to see a good deal of Lena Lingard, a mutual friend of his and Ántonia’s who has always intrigued Jim. After a few months of theatergoing and dalliances about town, Jim decides that he needs to make a fresh start of things and prepares to transfer to Harvard University for his final two years of college.
While Jim is away, Ántonia gets engaged to a local boy and moves to Denver in order to be with him. Days before the wedding, the boy -abandons Ántonia, and she returns to Nebraska heartbroken. She covers up an unexpected pregnancy throughout its term, but in giving birth to a daughter incurs the disapproval of her family. However, she resolves to take care of her baby and continues to work on the farm with her brother.
After graduating from college, during the summer before entering law school, Jim returns to Nebraska to be with his grandparents. Upon hearing of Ántonia’s situation, he decides to drive out to the countryside and visit her. They spend a happy day together reliving old times, and Jim parts with a promise to visit her again very soon.
Twenty years pass before Jim is able to visit Ántonia again. In the intervening period, he establishes himself as a prosperous New York City lawyer, and Ántonia marries and has many children with a man named Cuzak, also of Bohemian origin. Jim’s visit to the Cuzak farm is a happy one, with plenty of laughter and stories. Ántonia and Jim renew their old ties, and Jim resolves to be in closer contact with the Cuzaks in the -coming years.
As he prepares to leave Nebraska and return to New York City, Jim walks along the outskirts of town, near the overgrown road that leads to his childhood home. At peace with himself in this familiar landscape, he feels that his life has come full circle, and he reflects in the moonlight on all that his past with Ántonia has meant to him.