Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The most important and universal symbol in My Ántonia is the Nebraska landscape. Cather’s poetic and moving depiction of it is perhaps the most famous and highly praised aspect of the novel. The landscape symbolizes the larger idea of a human environment, a setting in which a person lives and moves. Jim’s relationship with the Nebraska landscape is important on its own terms, but it also comes to symbolize a great deal about Jim’s relationship with the people and culture of Nebraska, as well as with his inner self. Throughout the novel, the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings—it looks desolate when he is lonely, for instance—and also awakens feelings within him. Finally, the landscape becomes the novel’s most tangible symbol of the vanished past, as Jim, the lawyer in distant New York, thinks back longingly on the landscape of his childhood.
The plow, which Jim and Ántonia see silhouetted against the enormous setting sun, symbolizes the connection between human culture and the natural landscape. As the sun sets behind the plow, the two elements are combined in a single image of perfect harmony, suggesting that man and nature also coexist harmoniously. But as the sun sinks lower on the horizon, the plow seems to grow smaller and smaller, ultimately reflecting the dominance of the landscape over those who inhabit it.