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Almost three years after his move to Black Hawk, Jim and
his grandparents decide to leave their farm in the countryside for
a house on the outskirts of town. Finding himself out of work, Otto
decides to head out west in search of adventure, and Jake decides
to go with him. Before leaving, they help the Burdens move their
household. One Sunday morning, they set off on a train, never to
see Jim again.
Mr. Burden takes a post as a deacon at the Baptist church
in Black Hawk, and Mrs. Burden helps out with the church’s social
calendar. Jim begins attending the school in town and quickly adjusts
to the company of his new classmates. Jim questions Ambrosch for
any news about Ántonia whenever Ambrosch comes to town, but Ambrosch
is taciturn and says little.
The Burdens’ nearest neighbors are the Harlings, a Norwegian
family who also used to live on a farm. Three of the Harlings’ children are
around Jim’s age, and their older sister, Frances, works in Mr. Harling’s
office. In August, the Harlings’ cook leaves them, and Mrs. Burden
convinces them to hire Ántonia.
With her warm personality and easy way, Ántonia is right
at home among the Harlings, and she soon settles into a regular
One evening, a visitor calls for Ántonia at the Harlings’.
Lena Lingard, a local farm girl, has come to announce that she has
also found work in town, as a dressmaker. The Harlings welcome Lena,
but Ántonia treats her coolly, unsure how she is meant to receive
her visi-tor. Jim, thinking back to the stories he has heard of
Lena, relates her entanglement with a neighboring farmer, Ole Benson,
who became so smitten with Lena that his jealous wife attacked her.
During the autumn, Jim sees Lena often in town. He helps
her to shop for fabric and they trade gossip and stories about life
in Black Hawk. Shortly before Christmas, Jim sees Lena and her brother shopping
for Christmas presents for their mother. Lena advises her brother
to get her monogrammed handkerchiefs, and then, teary-eyed, tells
Jim that she misses her family very much.
As winter descends, Jim turns to various indoor amusements,
playing at charades and dress-up and dancing with Ántonia and the Harlings
in the evenings. Ántonia tells the Harlings a story about a man
who, for no apparent reason, dove into a threshing machine and killed
himself. The story upsets Nina Harling, but the memories of threshing
time make Mrs. Harling homesick for the country.
In March, with snow still covering the landscape, excitement
fills Black Hawk when Samson d’Arnault, a blind, black pianist,
comes to town. Jim makes his way to the Boys’ Home, where d’Arnault and
his manager are staying. He enters the parlor to find a raucous scene,
a full house listening to music and gossiping away. Eventually,
d’Arnault plays a concert of old plantation standards to an enthusiastic
audience. During one of his numbers, d’Arnault senses the patter
of women dancing in a neighboring room. A door opens to reveal Ántonia,
Lena, and two of their friends dancing among themselves. After a
bit of hesitation and plenty of encouragement from the men, the
girls come into the parlor and join the party, dancing until d’Arnault’s
manager shuts the piano. After the party breaks up, Jim and Ántonia
walk home together, excited and restless.
Once Cather settles the Burdens comfortably in Black Hawk,
her focused treatment of the landscape gives way to a scrutiny of
the townspeople. She introduces several new characters in a very
short time span, and, in turn, Jim’s narrative becomes less purposefully sequential
and more episodic and anecdotal. Whereas Cather earlier presents
an idyllic portrait of a group of people overwhelmed by a place,
the shift to Black Hawk is mirrored by a reduction of emphasis on
the power and importance of the land and an increased emphasis on
the individuals in the town. In a world of finance and industry,
people have a more businesslike and economic relationship to each
other, as epitomized by Frances Harling’s utilitarian approach to
Another major contrast between the farm and the town is
the emphasis that each environment places on gender roles. In the
countryside, Jim is free to be domestic and sensitive in the company
of women. But Jim’s arrival in town forces him to recognize his
social identity as a male. In adjusting to school and his classmates,
he seems to become “quite another boy,” learning to fight, swear,
and tease the girls. The pressure to assume gendered behavior is
equally acute on Ántonia, who gradually begins to make the shift
from tomboyish farmhand to polished town girl. Lena Lingard also
changes her costume, trading in her tattered farm rags for the smarter
costumes of a dressmaker. Cather’s title for Book II is
“The Hired Girls,” which serves as a reminder of the important connection among
occupation, place, and sexuality, for both the young women and young
men. This new pressure denotes another shift in the main characters’
lives: just as Book i describes life in the
country and Book II describes life in town,
Book I describes the characters as children,
while Book II describes them as young adults.
The move to town comes with a new shift to more urban, grown-up
interests, such as the dancing that takes place in Chapter VII.
Because the farm is associated with the past and the town
with the present, Jim and Ántonia become nostalgic for their former existence
in the country. Even Lena, who is most keen on the lures of the
town life, confesses her nostalgia for her rural family life. While telling
Jim one of her wild tales of adventure, she admits to him of her
rustic family, “I get awful homesick for them, all the same.”
Although the shift from farm to town marginalizes the
landscape, the harsh climate of the Nebraska prairie continues to
dominate the flow of the narrative. Jim finds the winter a nearly unen-durable
penalty for the pleasantness of summer. When Ántonia relates the
story of a tramp who committed suicide by leaping into a thresher,
the mystery for the Harlings is not in the tramp’s choice to kill
himself but that he did so in such a lovely season as late summer. It
is as if the Harlings conceive of pleasant weather as a boon from their
often unforgiving environment not to be taken for granted.
One of the few breaks in the monotony of Jim’s first long
winter in town is the visit paid to Black Hawk by Samson d’Arnault,
the itinerant black pianist. While some may take offense at the
coarse picture Cather paints of d’Arnault, it is difficult to imagine
that the insensitive nature of her characterization was intentionally
meant to wound. Although her descriptions of him at his piano—“enjoying himself
as only a Negro can” and later, playing with a gusto “full of strong,
savage blood”—may have been aimed to charm the audiences of 1918,
they are more likely to provoke outrage in a modern reader. Nevertheless,
her nostalgic and accurate portrait of part of America’s past is
of great value as a cultural document.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!