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The characters in My Ántonia respond powerfully to their environments—especially Jim, who develops a strong attachment to the Nebraska landscape that never really leaves him, even after two decades in New York.
As Cather portrays it, one’s environment comes to symbolize one’s psychology, and may even shape one’s emotional state by giving thoughts and feelings a physical form. The river, for example, makes Jim feel free, and he comes to prize freedom; the setting sun captures his introspective loneliness, and the wide-open melancholy of Nebraska’s plains may play a role in forming his reflective, romantic personality—if it does not create Jim’s personality, it at least comes to embody it physically. Thus, characters in My Ántonia often develop an extremely intense rapport with their surroundings, and it is the sense of loss engendered by moving beyond one’s surroundings that occasions the novel’s exploration of the meaning of the past.