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In Willa Cather's My Ántonia, the two characters that work both with and against each other are Jim and Ántonia.
Both arrive as children on the harsh Nebraska frontier, where they grow up together. Whereas Jim's family is comfortable enough to survive his first winter, Ántonia's family is just beginning, and the winter is a bleak and tragic one.
Jim has certain advantages that Ántonia and her family do not: after all, Antonia and her kin are foreigners hoping to find a new life in this country, but are still considered foreigners. Jim's grandparents have been settled on their land for sometime.
Jim works the farm, but eventually goes to school. Antonia works her farm as hard as any boy, but is only able to learn through Jim's schooling—but she works very hard. (Eventually she is hired by a family in Black Hawk to help around the house.) The two young people become great friends, but although Jim cares deeply for her, he has certain expectations of her and finds it difficult to look past her failure to live up to them. (We see this, eventually, when she gets pregnant.)
While both care for the other, they ultimately must pursue different paths: Antonia likes to go out with her friends and dance and have fun. Jim knows certain behaviors are expected of him by his family, and he does his best to adhere to their wishes. Where Antonia is hardworking, but life-loving, Jim is cautious and careful. He always opts for the safest path.
After high school, Jim goes to college and then law school, and Antonia works in town until she leaves to get married and comes home in disgrace.
By the time they come together again at the end of the novel, Jim and Ántonia are joined within their hearts like the grasses that are a permanent part of the Nebraskan landscape. Neither has lost the attachment of their childhood. However, their lives are very different.
Jim has a respectable job, but travels around a great deal. He has no family—no children. It seems, too, that he has lost his connection with the Nebraska plains where he grew up.
On the other hand, Antonia has a large family, a loving husband, and a successful farm. They have worked hard for what they have, and their lives are complete. Antonia is full of enthusiasm for every aspect of her life, feeling every bit at home with her children as well as her orchards.
Jim has lost his grounding, while Antonia has realized all that she ever wanted. Ironically, where Jim followed the strict dictates of society, he was never encouraged to embrace life with his entire being, and now leads an isolated existence. But by ignoring society's dictates, Antonia has achieved a full and happy life, which she would not trade. Even in light of their differing circumstances, Jim is able to see the woman Ántonia has become, a heroic figure in her own right.
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