Book II The Hired Girls
After Jim lives in the country for three years, his grandfather, who feels like he is getting too old and that Jim needs to go to school, decided to move to Black Hawk. The Burdens sell their farm to the Widow Steavens and buy a house at the very edge of town. Otto decides to go West, and Jake follows him, even though the Burdens think he is too kind and trusting to live on the frontier. Jake and Otto help the Burdens move to the town, and Jim only hears of them once after that, when they are working in a mine.
Black Hawk is a nice, clean little town with a river that reminds Jim of the country. Soon the Burden family feels like town people, and Jim learns boyish ways at school. Country neighbors coming to town would generally stay with them at their home, although Ambrosch only came alone, wouldn't stay long, and wouldn't tell them much about his family. Mrs. Steavens, however, tells them news of Ántonia, whom her brother hires out like a man and whom everyone liked. Grandmother gets Ántonia a place to work with the Harlings, who live next door to them in Black Hawk, so she doesn't have to be hired out again for the fall.
In this section of the novel, Jim and his family make the transition from country to city. However, even though they are changing locale, they still see the people they knew in the country. Ántonia and other country girls come to the city, where there is more opportunity for them to work. Though Jim misses the country, he seems to realize that he must move to the city in order to eventually get ahead in the world. He can only get an education and meet important connections if he's living in the city, and city life thus entails more responsibility than his carefree, harmonious existence in the country did. However, it is important to remember that city life is essential only if one is attempting to attain a certain kind of financial and worldly success.
Like a man, Ántonia begins to work for wages in the fields. Whereas before people were gossiping about her because she was doing so, now the farmers respect her for her industry and reliability. By working in the fields, Ántonia is able to gain the respect and independence that men her age do. Her productivity becomes the measure of her worth, regardless of her gender. Though Ántonia's working as a farm laborer is perhaps unconventional, her success suggests that women should be allowed to make the same choices as a man can. By depicting Ántonia as a strong, determined woman, Cather is asserting that there should be no limitations set on a woman's potential.
Jim begins this chapter by describing their Norwegian neighbors, the Harlings. Mr. Harling is very successful and frequently away on business, and his wife generally runs the household. She is short, sturdy, and jolly. There are three Harling children around Jim's age: Charley, Julia, and Sally the tomboy. The oldest daughter Frances helps her father with his business and is trusted around the countryside because of her understanding of financial matters.
When the Harlings' cook leaves, Grandmother persuades Mrs. Harling to hire Ántonia. Mrs. Harling goes to visit the Shimerdas to get an impression of Ántonia and her family. Afterwards, Jim and the grandmother go hear what Mrs. Harling has to say. Mrs. Harling likes Ántonia and tells about how grumpy and demanding Ambrosch was. Ambrosch wanted all of Ántonia's wages to go directly to him, but Mrs. Harling mandates that a certain amount will be set aside for Ántonia's own use. Mrs. Harling comments on how pretty Ántonia is, and Jim and Grandmother are pleased at the praise. Grandmother then tells a brief history of the Shimerda family.
Jim's world at this time is an essentially female-dominated space, as he spends a lot of time with strong, independent women: his grandmother, Mrs. Harling and her daughter Frances, and, of course, Ántonia. Jim sympathizes with these women, who he clearly admires and respects. Mrs. Harling is responsible for running her household in her husband's absence and creates a lot of joy in the lives of Jim and her children. Though she does not have any real occupation, her role as a mother (and surrogate mother to Jim) is worthy of respect and much appreciated by Jim. Mrs. Harling's daughter Frances takes care of the finances of many people around the country, and though she is a woman, is very much trusted. These two Harling women exemplify female strength and initiative, and for this reason, Cather's work can be considered progressive and pro-feminist. Women like Frances can have the responsibilities usually granted only to men, but such a lifestyle should be a matter of personal choice. If women like Mrs. Harling choose to raise a family, they should be celebrated for doing that too, as it is clearly a pursuit to be admired.
In contrast, Ambrosch, the Shimerdas' male head of household, is selfish and not worthy of respect. His behavior towards Ántonia emphasizes how generous and wise the Harling women, as well as Ántonia, really are.
Ántonia soon comes to work for the Harlings, and Jim and Grandmother are very happy to see her. Ántonia likes working in town and learning English, and she plays with the children a lot. Jim is jealous because Ántonia has a crush on Charley Harling and is always trying to do nice things for him.
The Harling household is always very pleasant, except when Mr. Harling is at home. He likes to have everything quiet, and he makes Mrs. Harling devote all her attention to him. Later Jim realizes how important Mrs. Harling's presence in their lives was. Jim thinks that Mr. Harling is an arrogant man and walks around feeling powerful all the time. Whenever Mr. Harling is not around, the house is loud with a lot of music. Mrs. Harling is very serious about playing the piano.
In this chapter Cather offers a dramatic example of how marriage can be stifling to women. Although the previous chapter sets Mrs. Harling up as someone to be admired, in this chapter all her good qualities become invisible when she is forced to minister to her husband. Even though she is a cheerful person who enjoys life and loves music, she becomes simply her husband's caretaker when he is around. Though Cather is not condemning the institution of marriage, through passages such as these, she is implying that marriage is a bad, confining thing for women when it is not based on a relationship of equality. In addition, since it is easy for women's needs to become secondary to those of her husband, marriage should be a personal choice, not an inevitable destiny. This theme of questioning marriage is further developed in the chapters concerning Lena Lingard.
Ántonia loves playing with the Harling children, and her attitude towards them will acquire greater significance in the last section of the book. At the end of the novel, when Jim goes to visit Ántonia and her huge brood, he will note that her interactions with her children mirror those with the Harlings. In addition, Ántonia will tell him that working for the Harlings and taking care of the children was excellent preparation for her life as a mother. Though Jim does not realize it at the time, Ántonia's life with the Harlings is essentially a dress performance for her future life as the mother of many.
While Ántonia is making a cake for Charley and being teased because of it, a young girl from the country named Lena Lingard appears at the door. She is prettily dressed like a town girl, and Ántonia doesn't recognize her at first. Lena is going to work in town for Mrs. Thomas the dressmaker. Mrs. Harling warns Lena to be serious about her work and not go gallivanting around town like a lot of the country girls do when they come to town. As Lena leaves, she asks Ántonia to come visit her. Ántonia is not particularly friendly to her.
Afterwards Ántonia explains that she felt uncomfortable because Mrs. Harling might not have approved of Lena's being there. Jim then proceeds to recount the town gossip surrounding Lena. As a country girl, Lena was wild and extremely pretty, yet gentle and feminine. An unlucky man named Ole Benson, who was married to Crazy Mary, became enamored of her and used to sit in the fields all day watching her plow in her rags. After being urged to go to church, Lena finally appears one day, looking grown up and very beautiful. After the service, Crazy Mary screams at her threateningly in front of everyone. Crazy Mary continued to harass her by chasing her around in the fields with a knife, and one day Lena tried to escape by hiding out at the Shimerdas. Afterwards, Mrs. Shimerda scolded her, but Lena mildly said that it wasn't her fault and that she couldn't stop Ole Benson from sitting where he wanted to.
In this chapter we are introduced to Lena Lingard, who knows what she wants to do with her life. She sees marriage as a hindrance and a burden, and she is determined to remain unmarried in order to become a successful dressmaker. She believes that by remaining single she will be able to answer to herself only and to better support her mother, and she ends up doing just that. She is able to surpass her bad reputation through determination, hard work, and independence, though no one expects her to succeed. When Jim meets Lena later in college, he casually dates her and even believes that in doing so, he is saving her from pregnancy and a stifling marriage.
Like Ántonia, Lena is a child of the country. She farms the land, which nurtures her until she grows into a voluptuous and fertile young woman. And it is fitting that Ole Benson becomes obsessed with her as she is working the soil, alone in her fields. For part of what makes Ántonia, Lena, and the other immigrant girls so appealing is that they are so much a part of the land. However, unlike Ántonia, Lena tries to break free of the pull of the land and achieves a measure of worldly success.
Jim frequently meets Lena downtown, and they used to walk home together and talk. Lena tells him about a hotel called the Boys' Home where she and Tiny Soderball (another hired country girl) would listen to the entertainment being put on for traveling salesmen. The traveling men would give Tiny gifts.
One day Jim meets Lena and her young brother Chris going Christmas shopping. Chris shows all the presents he got for his family members and tries to decide which handkerchief to get his mother. After Chris goes back home, Lena tears up a little bit and confesses how homesick she gets.
In this chapter we see the toll that Lena's independence takes on her. She desperately misses her family, but she must remain alone in town, without her family as a base of support, if she wishes to make enough money to learn a trade.
We also get a sense of the distractions that the town holds for young girls like Lena. While going to visit traveling salesmen must surely be interesting for bored young women, it is also something that could threaten their future if they're not careful. In searching for diversions, young women like Lena run the risk of falling in love, getting pregnant, or acquiring bad reputations. Thus, while Lena has the freedom to pursue her own goals, she also faces a number of difficulties that independent single men simply do not.
It is winter again, and it seems like the cold, bleak light of the winter is the light of truth. Winter is like punishment for the summer. The streets become more and more deserted, as people run from building to building and stay in their warm homes. Jim would often stop in at the Harlings, and if Mr. Harling wasn't at home, all the children would play charades and Ántonia would make snacks for them. Ántonia tells a story about a day at work when she was throwing hay into a bin. A tramp came over and offered to help out. After working for awhile, he waved at Ántonia and then jumped headfirst into the bin, which chopped him up. Frances remembers the story also and how the only thing found on the tramp was a poem.
Ántonia and Mrs. Harling are very similar in nature: they are honest, independent, and strong people who like children and who take pride in keeping a good household.
During winter, people have to try hard just to survive, and they are able to focus only on the bare necessities, like keeping warm and eating enough food. For this reason, Jim calls the light of winter the light of truth. In winter there are no illusions; all is stripped away in the name of basic survival.
Jim wanders the streets alone and doesn't speak to anyone since everyone is preoccupied with keeping warm. Although there are more people in the city than in the country, it is just as easy, and perhaps even easier, to feel alone in the city. In the country, there was only Jim, his grandparents, Otto, and Jake, so they all appreciated each other's company, but in the city, because there is less need to become attached to particular people, people end up feeling perhaps more isolated.
However, Jim finds his refuge of coziness and warmth with the Harlings, who function as a surrogate family for Jim. There he can play with a lot of children his own change and feel the maternal presence of both Mrs. Harling and Ántonia. As noted earlier, Mrs. Harling represents the strength of maternal femininity, and she also functions as a role model for Ántonia.
Jim is bored of winter by March. During that month the only exciting thing that happens is when Blind d'Arnault, a negro pianist, comes to play at the Boys' Home on a Saturday night. The atmosphere is free and relaxed, particularly because the proprietor, the snobbish and proper Mrs. Gardener, is not present. Blind d'Arnault comes in to play for the men, and Jim describes him in racialized terms. Jim thinks he is the happiest-looking person he has seen since leaving Virginia.
After swaying back and forth on the piano bench, the mulatto plays negro tunes. Jim recounts Blind d'Arnault's story: When he was three, he lost his vision. His mother named him Samson and hid him away because he was ugly and dim-witted. Samson used to go listen to his mistress Miss d'Arnault practice the piano, and one day he stole into the house and began to play the piano. When he was discovered, he had a violent fit, but afterwards his mistress let him play the piano. Samson became a negro prodigy who played barbarously but in a way that was somehow more real.
Blind d'Arnault senses that there are girls dancing in the other room, and the men open the doors and invite Ántonia, Lena, and Tiny, who are listening on the other side of the wall, to come in. The girls are pretty, and Blind d'Arnault plays until they have to close the hotel.
Despite Cather's progressive attitudes towards women, marriage, and religion, she does not have the most enlightened attitude towards African-Americans. In this chapter her depiction of Blind d'Arnault makes him into an exotic, primitive spectacle. Everyone looks at him with wonder and awe, but they find him fascinating in a somewhat condescending and patronizing way. Blind d'Arnault is not an equal, but rather a performer who takes elements of his culture and transforms it into palatable entertainment for his spectators. This scene recreates a form of entertainment popular at the time: the Negro burlesque. For the white spectators, Blind d'Arnault is a member of a race that they find somewhat threatening, yet exciting. His race becomes neutralized as entertainment, however, when he performs, and he becomes a harmless, childlike object that his audience can gape at without fear of danger.
Though Jim enjoys Blind d'Arnault's piano-playing, he doesn't consider it real art or music. Instead, it becomes a perversion and a distortion of the traditional musical genres. Although his music is praised for being more "real," this "realness" is associated in the minds of the audience members with primitiveness, childishness, and lack of sophistication. While Cather may indirectly be praising African-American culture for being free of artificiality and formality, she is nevertheless presenting it as being at the earlier stages of cultural development.
Finally, Blind d'Arnault's piano-playing is described in highly sexualized terms. It is analogous to the act of copulation, with Blind d'Arnault characterized as being aggressive, with animal instincts and desires. Such a description conforms to negative stereotypes of the African-American male as hypersexual and driven by lustful passions, never by intellect or emotion.
Jim and the Harling children feel the happiest and most content that spring just playing in the garden. They do not yet know that the summer will change everything. In the beginning of summer, some Italians (the Vannis) come into town and set up a dancing pavilion in a vacant lot. They begin giving dancing lessons to children, and people start to gather and congregate around the lot. Now there is something for people to do and somewhere for them to socialize. Dancing becomes a city-wide craze, and every Saturday night there is a late-night dance. Jim goes all the time, as do many girls and boys from the country. At this point, Ántonia, Lena, and Tiny become known as "the hired girls" and are always at the dances too.
Although the dancing craze catches on very quickly, dancing during this time period is generally associated with frivolity, moral decline, and loose women. When Jim mentions the Vannis' arrival in Black Hawk, he does not indicate that dancing was met with any disapproval. However, the cultural stereotypes associated with dancing do emerge as more and more people begin spending time at the dance halls.
At this point in the novel, however, the dance halls fit well into the social order. They provide a space for the young people to interact and exist as the primary form of entertainment for a very bored town populace.