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My Ántonia

Book II, Chapters VIII–XV

Summary Book II, Chapters VIII–XV

The dancing pavilion brings the difference between the sheltered American daughters and the immigrant working girls into relief. As Jim observes, the presence of the dance hall upsets the established social order. With little to lose, the displaced immigrant girls from Bohemia, Denmark, and Norway take advantage of their working-class freedom to gain a foothold among the young men of Black Hawk, while the more respectable girls of established families are left to hang back in the shadows.

From the distanced perspective of a man writing a memoir, Jim can look back on this curious social order and analyze it as the natural evolution of the American immigrant experience. The same girls who were initially held back by barriers of language and wealth applied the strength of character acquired through hardship in order to better their lot in life. As a result, the servant girls of Jim’s youth become the property-owning mistresses of his adulthood.

That such radical changes are afoot is clear from the pressing march of time. Jim himself is very conscious of the fleetingness of existence, soliloquizing that “when boys and girls are growing up, life can’t stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no.” Although Jim clearly understands the inevitability of growing up, we get the sense that his romantic side is loath to do so.

Jim grows to dislike the stillness of Black Hawk, however, shuffling aimlessly as he does in his senior year among the “malcontent” in their “flimsy shelters.” But at the same time, he longs to recapture the innocence and purity of his childhood affection for the domestic and the mundane, as shown when he hangs a May basket for young Nina Harling, taking a “melancholy pleasure” in the action.

As Book II comes to an end, the feeling that the characters are moving out of childhood and into the world of adulthood is nearly complete. The story’s increasing emphasis on sexuality—including Cutter’s bizarre attempt to sleep with Ántonia—reflects this transition. Jim’s reluctance to grow up manifests itself most strongly in his inability to reconcile his emotional and sexual urges. When he attempts to kiss Ántonia in the same way that he has kissed Lena, she curtly but politely rebuffs him; he does not protest, but is pleased by her modesty. Although he is “not half as fond” of Lena as he is of Ántonia, it is Lena that he dreams of passionately embracing, and though he wishes it were Ántonia in her stead, he is never able to dream about her in the same way.

Ántonia, too, harbors nostalgia for a purer, more childlike past. She arranges for Jim to meet her and her friends at the river, in a last attempt to re-create old times. While her tears are ostensibly shed in longing for a lost Bohemia, she perhaps feels another grief—equally strong but subconscious—for the loss of her and Jim’s shared childhood in the Nebraska countryside.

Once again, Cather reverts to the majesty of the landscape to provide a visual analogue for the nostalgia and sense of loss that her characters feel. As Jim and the girls continue to reminisce late into the afternoon, a plow emerges against the red disk of the setting sun, heroic in its loneliness, a symbol for the romantic imagination. But, inevitably, like the romantic imagination itself, this heroic image can enjoy only a fleeting moment of distorted importance. As the sun slowly sinks, the plow is returned “back to its own littleness” beneath the darkening sky, symbolizing how helpless humankind is in the face of indomitable forces of the universe such as time.