Jim describes the social situation of the hired girls in this chapter. The hired girls from the country had generally made sacrifices in order to help their families survive their first year or two in a new country, and they were therefore less educated than their younger siblings. They were, however, wise, mature, and physically vigorous, and were thus different from typical Black Hawk women. Black Hawk women never exerted themselves physically and were more refined, but they were less attractive to Black Hawk men than the hired girls. Though their families might be poor, these American girls were not allowed to work for wages, as the Bohemian and Scandinavian girls did. As a result, the Bohemian and Scandinavian families quickly became prosperous, but they were still faced with small-town prejudice in Black Hawk.
The Black Hawk men were expected to marry Black Hawk women and live very proper lives, but they were tempted by the independent, free-living hired girls. The country girls were therefore considered something of a social menace, but Black Hawk men were actually more desirous of respectability than anything else. At the Saturday night dances, the town boys and country girls could interact. One man named Sylvester Lovett had an obvious crush on Lena, but he refused to do anything about it and married an older widow instead. Jim feels contempt for Sylvester.
This chapter provides an interesting example of the limitations of social mobility. Because the town girls have money and respectability, they are paradoxically limited in their life possibilities. They are not expected or encouraged to choose vocations for themselves, and they are just expected to get married. Their options in life are limited to becoming a wife and a mother. On the other hand, the country girls who are born poor have much more open to him. Since their families do not have the luxury of allowing them to stay at home, they have to go out into the world to work, and they there discover the myriad of possibilities open to them. They are thus able to actually choose a vocation, make money, and more fully engage in worldly pursuits.
While the hired girls are able to break free of traditional male-female constraints, they do so at a price: they lose social standing and respectability. Indeed, determined town girls, if they chose, could very well become employed, but they would risk a number of social privileges. Country girls have nothing to lose and only financial remuneration to gain. However, though their farm labor makes them more attractive than town girls, they will never be completely accepted.
The country girls do not really threaten the social order because social pressures prove stronger than male desire. While their presence does stir things up somewhat, the status quo inevitably triumphs.
Ántonia starts going to the dances all the time, and people begin to talk about her. Boys start hanging around the house at all times, and one night Mr. Harling happens to see a boy jumping over his fence. Ántonia explains that an engaged man had tried to kiss her after walking her home and she had slapped him. Mr. Harling tells her that she is hanging out with loose women and that she is getting the same reputation. He forbids her from going to the dances, and the next day Mrs. Harling backs him up. Ántonia decides to leave to go work for Wick Cutter instead. Mrs. Harling warns her that Wick Cutter will likely get her pregnant, but she is unable to change her mind. Mrs. Harling is bitter that she let herself grow attached to Ántonia.
After awhile, dancing is seen not just as an innocent pastime, but as a sign of moral lassitude and debauchery. Ántonia starts getting a bad reputation because she likes dancing, even though she is not especially flirtatious to men. Although Ántonia does become more irresponsible with her household duties, we should remember that dancing has been the one positive outlet that she has found in all her time in America. Up till now, she has done hard work in the fields and been hired out for wages. Dancing is the sole source of fun and pleasure that has entered her life.
In addition, music is very important to Ántonia. Her father was a musician in his native Bohemia, and as a child, she is sad when he refuses to play his fiddle anymore in America. Dancing provides a connection to her musical past, and while it is just an innocent diversion, it is also a lot more.
Wick Cutter the money-lender is a sketchy philanderer who likes to gamble, and he had gotten two Swedish servant girls pregnant. He and his wife fight constantly and viciously. Mrs. Cutter is a sharp and scary-looking person who obsessively paints china. The Cutters fight about the question of inheritance, and each blames the other for remaining childless. They never separate, however, and seem to find each other interesting. Jim remarks that Wick Cutter is a unique rascal but that Mrs. Cutter is just a prototypical shrew.
This chapter provides another example of domestic disharmonyanother example of a marriage gone awry. As discussed earlier, the theme of marriage as a potentially confining arrangement is one that is developed throughout the novel.
"Wick Cutter" is an especially sinister-sounding name, and it adds to the characterization of the Cutters as a particularly vicious and stingy couple. The name is particularly symbolic, as in the last section of the novel, we discover exactly how violent and "cutting" Wick can be.
Ántonia becomes obsessed with going dancing, and she starts wearing clothes that she copies from high-society ladies. Every afternoon Jim and his friends would watch Ántonia, Lena, and Tiny go downtown, and sometimes Jim would catch up with them and take them to an ice-cream parlor. He thinks Ántonia is still the prettiest, but he knows that people think he's a little "queer" because he's only interested in these older country girls. He refuses to join the Owl Club and socialize with town people his own age.
Jim is bored at Black Hawk. He starts hanging out at Anton Jelinek's saloon, but Jelinek asks him not to because his grandfather would disapprove. He wanders the streets of Black Hawk since there is nothing to do, and he is angered by the hypocrisy and timidity of the people living in their houses. He starts sneaking out of his house to go to Saturday night dances at the Firemen's Hall, where the "foreigners" go to dance. There everyone wants to dance with Lena and Tony. Dancing with Lena is like waltzing home to something, while dancing with Tony is like setting out on an adventure.
One night Jim walks Ántonia home. She is appalled when he kisses her, even though he says Lena lets him do the same with her. Ántonia tells him not to get mixed up with any of the immigrant girls, particularly Lena, because he is smart and needs to go make something of himself. Jim is proud of Ántonia and considers her a real woman: she is his Ántonia. Jim frequently has sexual dreams about Lena, but never about Ántonia, although he wants to.
At the time of the novel's publication, the word "queer" was beginning to have the same kind of connotations that it does now, and Cather would undoubtedly have been aware of its secondary meaning. If so, how is Jim queer? He doesn't like girls his own age, is a little bit antisocial, and hangs out with older girls who are not really part of his social stratum. Whether or not Jim might be a modern-day homosexual is somewhat irrelevant, but what is clear is that Jim does not display a "normal" attraction to girls his own age. Perhaps Cather intends the word "queer" to emphasize Jim's total lack of interest in girls his own age and background, but solely in order to underscore his total fixation on Ántonia and girls like her. He is therefore "queer" by focusing only on one girl at the expense of all others.
Marriage threatens the life possibilities of not just girls, but also boys. While Lena asserts that she doesn't want to get married because she wants to be a successful dressmaker, Ántonia warns Jim not to get mixed up with the Swedish girls for a similar reason. Ántonia fears that he may fall in love with someone like Lena, get married, and then never leave Black Hawk. In warning Jim not to flirt with Lena, Ántonia has Jim's long-term interests in mind.
Jim's grandmother is crying one afternoon because she has heard that he has been going to the Saturday night dances. He promises not to go anymore since she is so sad that he may be growing up to be a bad boy. As a result, he has a very boring spring and does extra reading to get some college requirements out of the way.
Frances Harling tells Jim that her mother does not disapprove of him but just wonders why he prefers to spend time only with older, country girls. Frances thinks it's because he's more mature than most boys and because he knew Ántonia and her friends in the country and romanticizes them.
Jim gives a speech at his graduation, which Mrs. Harling is very proud of. Ántonia and her friends run up to him afterwards and also praise him. Ántonia was reminded of her father during the speech, and Jim confesses that it was dedicated to him. Ántonia hugs him tearfully, and Jim says that that was the most poignant moment of his life.
Jim is shunned and treated as if he really were "queer" because he only likes spending time with older country girls like Ántonia. He doesn't have any friends, becomes depressed, and wants to get out of Black Hawk as soon as he can. The situation is apparently so serious that Frances Harling brings it up with Jim one day. Though she sees why Jim focuses all his energy on Ántonia and her friends, she does not see why he makes all the effort. Her comment that he romanticizes them implies that he is making more of them than is necessarythat there is really nothing overwhelmingly special about them. For the first time, we thus get a glimpse of what people other than Jim really think about Ántonia and the other hired girls. Frances Harling does not think that there's any special mystique surrounding them, which makes Jim's love and admiration only seem more sincere and genuine. Ántonia in particular is especially important to him, and though his opinion is necessarily subjective, it makes his relationship with Ántonia that much more personal.
After Commencement Jim begins studying Latin seriously for college. Only once during the summer does he take a break to go pick elders with the hired girls. Arriving at the river first and going swimming, he realizes he's going to miss Black Hawk and the country. The girls arrive when he's still in the water, and he gradually makes his way over to where they are. He comes up on Ántonia by herself and finds her crying because a certain type of flower is making her homesick. When she asks whether he thinks her father is back in the old country, Jim tells her how he felt her father's spirit in the house the day he died, and Ántonia feels better. She tells him how her father honorably married her mother, who was a servant, when she got pregnant and how her father's family never forgave the two of them. Jim is happy because Ántonia seems exactly the same as she did when he first met her and he tells her he will one day visit her homeland.
Lena appears, looking like she does in Jim's sexual dreams, and he leaps up to help her pick elders. In the hot afternoon, they all sit around and talk. Ántonia becomes irritated when Lena behaves flirtatiously towards Jim. The girls discuss how it is difficult for older adults to make the transition to a new country and how difficult it is to be the oldest child when more babies keep arriving. They play a game called "Pussy Wants a Corner," and then Jim tells them about how Coronado the Spanish explorer came as far West as Black Hawk. As they sit in silence, the clouds disappear, and all of a sudden, they see a distant black figure on the horizon. Jumping up to see what it is, they realize that someone had left a plow standing in the field, and it looks molten red and glowing against the backdrop of the sun. The image only lasts for a moment as the sun continues to set.
In the previous chapter Jim dedicates his commencement speech to Ántonia's father and calls the hug she gives him the most poignant moment in his life. In this chapter, he learns the story of the marriage of Ántonia's parents and promises to go visit her native village. In all these ways, Jim is becoming a part of the Shimerda family history and sharing Ántonia's past with her. While he is possibly just trying to become emotionally closer to Ántonia, he is also searching for the nuclear family that he never really had. While Jim did have his parents for ten years of his life and his grandparents after than, he never really had siblings or parents to guide him through the difficult years of his childhood. The Shimerdas are like his surrogate family, providing him with the rich cultural heritage and family scandals that were never a prominent part of his own life.
While Jim obviously loves Ántonia and considers himself emotionally and spiritually bonded to her, his feelings towards Lena are primarily sexual. He desires her sexually because though she is not Ántonia herself, she is very much like her. In addition, Ántonia seems beyond the realm of sexual desire, and her relations with Jim seem always chaste and innocent, though sometimes intense. Jim cannot think of Ántonia in a sexual light because she is more than just the beloved to him; she is a maternal, feminine presence in his life that cannot be limited simply to the role of lover.
The image of the plow has symbolic importance. It represents the shared past of Jim, Ántonia, and the other girls, but it is also a symbol for the future. At this point in time, right before many of them are going to leave Black Hawk and begin new lives, the plow is a reminder that the land that they grew up on will never really leave them and will always remain a part of them. A symbol of fertility and growth, the plow represents the past that created and nurtured them, as well as the new life that they themselves will create. Finally, the image of the plow is a legacy to them. Though they may leave their childhood farms, Jim, Ántonia, and the hired girls have a responsibility to the land to maintain and protect it.
At the end of the summer, the Cutters leave Black Hawk on a business trip, and Ántonia comes to the Burdens to complain about feeling uneasy. Mr. Cutter had put all the silver and important documents under Ántonia's bed and told her that she had to sleep there in order to keep them safe. Worried that Mr. Cutter is playing some sort of trick, she gets Jim to sleep at the Cutters in her bed, while she stays with Grandmother.
On the third night, Jim awakes to find Mr. Cutter trying to grope him. They get into a fight, with Mr. Cutter beating Jim fiercely about the face. Jim runs back home and in the morning feels disgusted, ashamed, and angry at Ántonia. He refuses to see her or a doctor and is worried about word getting around town.
When Ántonia and Grandmother go over to the Cutters' house to pack up Ántonia's belongings, they find her room in a disarray. They also find Mrs. Cutter, who is indignant because her husband intentionally put her on the wrong train so that he could come back to Black Hawk for an intended rendezvous with Ántonia. Jim notes that Mr. Cutter came up with a needlessly complex plan specifically to outrage Mrs. Cutter, and he comments that it was obviously Mr. Cutter's greatest joy to make his wife upset.
This section of the book ends on a rather sinister note of violence and messed-up sexuality. It is not a promising conclusion to Jim's life at Black Hawk, and it provides an interesting sequel to Jim's earlier characterization as "queer." Though Jim and Ántonia never become sexually involved, in this chapter Jim gets to sleep in her bed. However, this switching of beds confuses Wick Cutter, who mistakes Jim for Ántonia. Cutter starts to grope Jim, and after the two get into a fight, Jim feels ashamed, doesn't want anyone to see him, and is worried that the situation will incite a lot of gossip. After being considered "queer" for devoting all his attention to Ántonia, this story would, if word got about, insinuate that Jim was queer for another reasonnamely, for being involved with men. While doesn't mind the first connotation of the word, in this case he is resentful of Ántonia for once again making him seem "queer."
This episode of marital infidelity and aggressive sexuality is a fitting beginning for the next segment of Ántonia's life, which is not the happiest for her. In the Wick Cutter scenario, Ántonia is blameless and at the mercy of a rascal, and she is similarly not responsible for what happens to her during the next few years of her life.