Book III Lena Lingard
At the University in Lincoln, Jim meets Gaston Cleric, who is his mentor in the Latin Department and who arrived at the same time he did. Jim stays in Lincoln during the summer studying Greek, and he spends a lot of time socializing with Gaston, who helps effect his mental awakening. During that time, the University is still very new, and it is full of earnest young men from the farms and enthusiastic, young instructors. Jim lives in a small cramped apartment where Gaston used to come visit him to talk about poetry and Italy.
Gaston talks very vividly and poetically, and Jim imagines that he might have been a poet if he didn't waste so much creativity talking to other people. Jim particularly remembers one conversation they had about Dante's admiration for his teacher Virgil. Although he admires Gaston, Jim knows that he cannot be a scholar because he loves the people and places of his past so much. He has very vivid memories of them sometimes.
With Gaston Cleric, Jim has the second close relationship of his life. While this section of the novel is entitled "Lena Lingard" and he does become romantically involved with her, he is close to her primarily because she reminds him of Ántonia and his childhood. His relationship with Gaston is entirely separate from Ántonia and his life in the country, and it is centered around intellectual pursuits.
Although Gaston is his instructor in the Latin Department, their relationship goes far beyond a simple teacher-student one. Gaston is his mentor and introduces him to new worlds of knowledge, and they have an intimate, intense relationship of equals. Just as Virgil inspires Dante, so does Gaston awaken Jim to scholarly pursuits and the world beyond Black Hawk. However, Jim feels tied to the land and his childhood friends much more strongly than he does to his scholarly pursuits. Jim's intense love of Latin and Gaston Cleric pales in comparison to the pull that Ántonia and the land has on him. In a sense, even this epoch of Jim's life, seemingly unrelated to Ántonia, is a way for him to discover the other possibilities that life has to offer and to see how they compare to his idyllic childhood experiences.
One day during September Jim is sitting in his room reading Virgil and thinking about one particular line which, translated, means, "I was the first to bring the Muse into my country." He thinks about how Gaston may feel like that about his New England hometown when suddenly, Lena Lingard appears at his door. He doesn't recognize her at first because she is smartly dressed in city clothes and looks grown up. Lena tells him that she is now living in Lincoln as a dressmaker and is beginning to save enough money to build her mother a house. Jim is impressed that she has been able to do so well all by herself.
Lena mentions Tony, and Jim is eager to hear about her. According to Lena, Tony is now Mrs. Gardener's housekeeper, has reconciled with the Harlings, and is engaged to Larry Donovan, whom she adores. Jim says he doesn't like Larry Donovan and unself-consciously remarks that he should go back to Black Hawk to look after Ántonia. Lena tells him that Ántonia is always bragging about him being so smart.
Before she leaves, Lena gets Jim to offer to take her to the theater sometime, and she tells him that she has to write a letter to Ántonia all about what he's doing. She whispers suggestively into his ear about his maybe being lonely and then leaves. Jim is happy after she goes because she reminds him of all the hired girls. He realizes that poetry like Virgil's would never exist unless there were girls like Lena. As he sits down to read, the sexual dream about Lena seems like an actual memory, and a line of poetry, translated "The best days are the first to flee," acquires special meaning.
When Lena comes to visit, their conversation not surprisingly centers around discussion of Ántonia. Though she flirts with Jim, Lena seems to acknowledge that he and Ántonia have a special, primary relationship that she can never really interfere with. Jim seems to feel the same way when he suggests going back to Black Hawk to look after Ántonia and when he feels jealous of Larry Donovan. Though Jim thinks that he is attracted to the flirtatious Lena, in reality he just desires the memories of his lost childhood that she evokes. He is in love with the carefree, independent attitudes of the country girls and with Ántonia in particular, and he imagines that by being with Lena he can recapture the innocence and excitement of playing with Ántonia as a child.
At the beginning of the chapter, Jim thinks of Gaston Cleric bringing the Muse into his own country, and his thoughts at the end of the chapter once more return to the poetry of Virgil. If fresh, country girls like Ántonia and Lena are the inspiration for poetry, then in a sense they are the ones who are responsible for bringing the Muse (aesthetic beauty and poetry) into the Nebraska frontier. Ántonia's entry into the country is a source of inspiration (poetic, moral, intellectual) for Jim, as his words at the end of the chapter imply. Though Jim loves the country and his childhood, it is Ántonia's presence that made it beautiful and a thing to be cherished.
Lena and Jim start going to plays together, with Lena insistent that she pay her own way. With excitement, they go see a new play called "Camille," set to the opera "Traviata" and written by Alexandre Dumas' son. Immediately, Jim is enthralled by the play. He loves the scenery and even now feels hungry when he thinks about the staged dinner. He admires the wittiness of the men and women in the play, and he is captivated by the famous actress who plays Marguerite, even though she is old and lame.
During intermission Jim is proud of Lena and realizes that they are both mature adults. Jim and Lena weep as the sad love story plays on before them. Even though the actress who plays Marguerite is melodramatic and ungraceful, Jim feels for her, as she dies in the arms of a man who no longer loves her. After Jim walks Lena home, he continues to mourn for Marguerite's fictional death because he thinks her story is timeless. He notes that whenever that play is performed, it is April.
Though the plot of the play is somewhat hard to follow in this chapter, it appears that Marguerite was having some sort of intrigue involving a father-son pair. She seems to be in love with the elder Duval, also called Varville, and in the beginning of the play, their love is idyllic and peaceful. By the end of the play, however, the younger Duval, Armand, feels betrayed by Marguerite and rejects her, throwing money at her like a whore. We can surmise from the last paragraph of the chapter that Marguerite dies a tragic death because of her frustrated love.
Even with this sketchy outline, however, we can discern why the play affects Jim so profoundly. In watching the play, he sees a story of perfect love lost that he connects with his own relationship with Ántonia. He sees his childhood relationship with Ántonia as being part of a near-perfect life that he has lost forever and can never fully recreate. Though Marguerite is played by a woman who is not really beautiful anymore, her physical flaws only make her seem more human and more real to him. Her despair at having lost the love of her life is Jim's own unspeakable sorrow, which is why he thinks that the play is timeless and universal.
For the first time in Jim's life, he finds the world of fiction as compelling as real life. In the past, the adventure novels he read always paled in comparison to the life that he was leading. Now, however, he finds that a different kind of adventure storyone of lovecan not only replicate the feelings he feels in real life, but can also provide a framework for understanding them.
Although Lena is not aggressive or high-strung, she is doing very well in her dressmaking business. People come to her because of her sense of style, even though she often gets behind schedule and over budget. Jim frequently sits in her parlor to wait for her, and they like to eat Sunday breakfasts together in a cozy nook at her place. Lena has a dog named Prince, and they both play with him a lot. Jim likes how Lena speaks colloquially and how pretty she looks in the morning. One day Lena explains that Ole Benson (the man who used to sit and watch her in the fields) was basically harmless and just liked to look at her to forget his troubles and as entertainment. He would talk to her in Norwegian, and they would look at his many tattoos because there was nothing else to look at in the fields. Lena tells Jim that Ole married Crazy Mary because he wanted her to keep him in line.
Two men in Lena's apartment are in love with her at the time: a Polish violin-teacher named Ordinsky, and her landlord, the Colonel, who liked to frequently renovate her rooms for her. Once Ordinsky, who usually glares at Jim in the hall, comes in to ask Lena to help him mend some clothes he's wearing. When Lena goes out of the room, Ordinsky warns him that his intentions had better be noble, and Jim assures him that they are and that he and Lena have known each other for a long time. Afterwards, Ordinksy is friendly to him.
Jim begins to be lax in his studies and spends all his time playing with Lena, Prince, Ordinsky, and the Colonel. Gaston notices and asks him to join him at Harvard, where he has been offered a teaching position. Grandfather approves, and Jim is somewhat sad and tries to convince himself that by dallying with Lena, he is preventing her from burdening herself with marriage.
He goes to see Lena, and they talk about how Ordinsky and the Colonel have crushes on her. Lena tells him that she will never marry because she doesn't want to be accountable to anyone and because she has had enough family life after helping to raise all her younger brothers and sisters. When Jim tells her he is going away, Lena says that maybe she shouldn't have begun their little fling by coming to visit him that one day, but she confesses that she always wanted to be his first sweetheart, especially because Ántonia always told her not to.
Jim leaves Lincoln, visits his grandparents and Virginia, and then joins Gaston Cleric in Boston.
In this chapter Jim and Lena start dating, and though they enjoy each other's company, there does not seem to be the kind of emotional or romantic attachment that one would except from a first romance. To be sure, Jim and Lena do spend a lot of time together, so much so that Gaston Cleric worries that Jim is no longer concentrating on his studies. Jim is clearly infatuated with Lena because of her beauty and finds it extremely pleasant to spend time with her, but there is none of the heartfelt, self-revelatory soliloquizing that occurs whenever he thinks about Ántonia. Lena simply does not open him up to self-discovery in the same way that Ántonia does.
In addition, Ántonia plays an indirect role in Jim and Lena's relationship, as Lena herself admits at the end of the chapter. Lena becomes interested in Jim primarily because Ántonia keeps telling her that he is inaccessible to her. In other words, Ántonia and Jim's relationship is the central one that Lena wants to disrupt. While Jim is sad to leave Lena, we get the sense that he accepts the closing of this chapter of his life. In contrast, his relationship with Ántonia never ends, though he may not see her for years at a time.
Lena refuses to get married because she wants to be independent and thinks that a man will simply drag her down. Such a view was quite radical at the time of the novel's publication, and Cather seems to endorse it by portraying Lena in a favorable light. Indeed, Jim and many of the hired girls never marry and instead follow individual paths to success. While Cather seems to suggest that marriage should be a matter of individual choice, she does not necessarily assert that remaining single is the better option. In the sections of the novel that follow, we will see how Ántonia's marriage prevented her from achieving financial success in life, but Cather suggests that motherhood and childbearing has its distinct advantages and rewards also.