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In Willa Cather's novel, My Ántonia, the girl we meet at the beginning is very different than the woman we see at the end—if all we use is our eyes.
In the story's early chapters, we meet Ántonia, the daughter of a sensitive man pushed to leave all he loves in the old country, behind, by his wife who wants a new life in this harsh new land of Nebraska.
Ántonia is bright and engaging from the first. She has a lot of energy and a quick mind. She wants to learn to speak English. She works very hard on their farm, even through that first harsh and unforgiving winter. Ántonia's exuberance for life and and the land flow out of her. Little sets her back: she is very resilient.
After Jim's grandparents sell their farm to move to Black Hawk, the first real town nearby, it is not long before Ántonia follows, having been hired out to work for the family next door to Jim. Once again, she is a hardworking with enthusiasm and energy. She is well-received and loved. As she gets older, she loves to go out dancing, knowing that for people like her, workers, foreigners, fun lasts only so long in life, and it is life she embraces like the air she breathes.
Jim moves on to college and Ántonia takes a new job for a questionable member of the community. When the man of the house makes inappropriate advances, Ántonia quickly moves on to other work. Jim loses track of Ántonia for a while, eventually learning she has had a child out of wedlock when her fiancee left her at the alter. True to her strength of purpose, Ántonia decides to raise her child with all the love she has in her, while continuing to work.
The time passes again, until the years since Jim and Ántonia have seen each other yawn between them. Jim finally makes his way back to Nebraska, to the prairie where they grew up. When they first see each other, their outward appearance has changed. However, it is easy for Jim to find that same girl still thriving within the body of this older woman—the same spirited person, she has found all she has ever wanted. Jim recognizes these strengths as he prepares to sleep in the barn with Ántonia's slumbering sons:
Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade.... She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true.... She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination.... All the strong things of her heart came out in her body.... She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
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