The first-person introduction is written in the voice of a childhood friend of Jim Burden, who is the narrator for the remainder of the novel. The anonymous speaker in this introduction tells us that last summer, he unexpectedly met his friend on a train and that they spent the journey reminiscing about their childhood in Nebraska. It is hot and dusty on the train, and it reminds them of the weather growing up on the frontier.
According to the speaker, Jim Burden now works for the railroad in New York and is unhappily married to a dull woman who is a patroness to a number of mediocre artists and writers. A quiet man, Jim loves the American West that he grew up in and is able to pursue his passion through his work with the railroad.
That day on the train, they talk about a Bohemian girl that they both knew named Ántonia. For both of them, she symbolizes their childhood on the frontier, and Jim mentions that he thinks about her quite a bit. He tells the speaker that he has been recording his memories of the girl, and a few months later, he brings a folder containing his writing to the speaker. He had just finished it the night before and says that it was written haphazardly, just as he remembered it. Jim gives the folder to the speaker, but not before writing "My Ántonia" on the front of it.
The introduction of My Ántonia is called a frame, or framing device. It is a preface for the novel, and it is written in a voice other than the one that narrates the body of the text. It is called a frame because it provides a very specific context for the novel itself, and it forces the reader to see the novel from a certain perspective. Because it is written in the voice of an anonymous, relatively insignificant character, it creates a distance between the reader and what he is about to read. In creating the folder labeled "My Ántonia," Jim was writing primarily to himself, not to a larger audience. My Ántonia is like a private love letter to this Bohemian girl, and we therefore don't really know anything about Jim Burden. We are intruding on his private correspondence and seeing Ántonia through his eyes, but we don't have any real connection to him. My Ántonia thus becomes the story of Ántonia, not of Jim. She is the central figure of the novel and the person we are supposed to admire as much as Jim does.
What is crucial to remember is that Willa Cather, through her semi-autobiographical character Jim Burden, is writing in the voice of a man. Though Cather bases the character Ántonia on a real person that she knew during her Nebraska childhood, she chooses not to describe her from a female perspective. Cather is thus distancing herself from both Ántonia and the male narrator of the novel, and the framing device of the introduction further contributes to this narrative manuever.
In the introduction, the speaker's brief mention of the Nebraska climate will be further developed in the rest of the novel. In the novel, place, and specifically the Western frontier, will become very significant in shaping Jim Burden's view of the world and of himself. Setting will come to symbolize the feelings of growth, expansion, and moral fortitude associated with modern America at the turn of the twentieth century.