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Jim Burden, a boy who comes from Virginia to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska.
The antagonist of the novel is Antonia, especially as she comes to represent all the beauties and contradictions of the Midwest as it was settled in the late nineteenth century.
Antonia becomes infatuated with the dances in town and is given the ultimatum of not going to the dances or being fired. She quits her job with the Harlings and is, thereafter, ostracized from middle-class Black Hawk life. Jim sides with her at first, going to dances with the hired women.
Jim changes the direction of his life and conforms to the expectations of his elders. His and Antonia’s paths part for more than twenty years. When they meet again, Antonia is a happy mother and Jim is a happy lawyer who is not a happy husband.