Book IV The Pioneer Woman's Story
After graduating from Harvard two years later, Jim goes home for a visit before starting law school. He sees the Harlings and his grandparents, who look exactly the same. He is told that "poor Ántonia" had a baby after Larry Donovan ran off and is now living at the farm with Ambrosch, where she is barely heard of. Jim is heartbroken that Ántonia is now an object of pity in the town. In contrast, Lena Lingard is now a very respectable, successful dressmaker in Black Hawk.
Apparently, Tiny Soderball is running a sailors' lodging house in Seattle, and people insinuate that it will soon become a brothel. What actually happens is that Tiny becomes the most successful person from Black Hawk: After hearing about the gold rush in Alaska, Tiny sells the boarding house and travels to Dawson City, where she sets up a hotel and cooks for hundreds of homeless, single men. A Swedish man named Johnson leaves his land claim to her after she nurses him before his death, and she begins buying, trading, and selling other land claims. After ten years, she amasses a fortune and moves to San Francisco, where Jim later meets up with her. By this time, she is "hard-faced" and reserved, bored with everything except making money, and only cares about the Swedish man Johnson and Lena Lingard, who she persuades to move to San Francisco. Tiny says that Lincoln is too small for someone like Lena. Tiny is satisfied with her life, but essentially bored.
In Books IV and V, Jim describes what happens to various of the hired girls. Through this narrative voice, Cather subtly critiques the various definitions of success, as embodied in the fates of the different immigrant women. In this chapter Jim learns that Ántonia had a child out of wedlock, and he measures her by the same standard as the town folk do. Feeling pity for her and lamenting her lost potential, he compares her to Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, who despite their bad reputations as young women, have managed to become wealthy and well respected.
However, Tiny Soderball does not seem particularly happy or content when Jim meets her. Jim senses that all she cares about now is making money, and though he does not fault her for this, pities her for her lack of feeling and personality. To Jim, Tiny does not seem like a complete, engaging person, and her monetary success is thereby subtly undermined.
Jim doesn't seem to think that either Ántonia or Tiny have lived ultimately successful, rich lives. While Ántonia has an illegitimate child, is poor, and still works the land, Tiny is close to only two people and is jaded and bored with life. Despite their difference in income, at this point neither of them have lives that Jim is particularly envious of. In order to be truly successful, a person needs something else, and at this point Jim does not know what that is.
Jim takes his grandparents to have their picture taken, and while at the photographer, sees an elaborately framed portrait of Ántonia's baby. He decides that he must see her and is happy that Ántonia is not too ashamed to hide her baby from public view.
Larry Donovan is a passenger conductor for the railroad and acts like a superior, underappreciated individual. He spends a lot of time getting women to sympathize with his sad plight, and he convinces them that he is much better than he really is.
Jim goes to Mrs. Harling and tells her he wants to know about Ántonia's aborted marriage. She tells him to go ask the Widow Steavens, who knows the entire story and loves to talk.
Though Jim is disappointed in Ántonia's current mode of life, he does not feel disdain or contempt for her. Rather, he still feels a great deal of affection for her and is pleased that she feels no shame about having a child out of wedlock. By displaying her baby's portrait so prominently, she is indicating to Jim that she is still as strong and independent as ever and will do what she wants regardless of what people say, just as she did when she was working in the fields for Ambrosch. It is this quality that perhaps Jim most admires in Ántonia, though it is also the quality that sometimes causes him pain and distress.
On the way to see Widow Steavens, Jim looks at the country and seems to remember every single aspect of it. Mrs. Steavens asks him to stay the night, and after dinner she begins to tell Ántonia's story:
The summer before she was supposed to be married, Ántonia used to come to the Widow Steaven's house and sew her fine wedding linen, singing happily in Bohemian. Larry Donovan would write letters to her while working on the railroad, and he told her that they would have to move to Denver. When it came time for her to meet him, Ambrosch did the right thing and gave her a very nice dowry. In Denver, she sent a couple of postcards saying that they would get married soon, after Larry got his promotion.
One day, though, Ántonia came back on a wagon, and the next day Mrs. Steavens went to visit to see what had happened. Ántonia tells her that Larry had gotten fired and only lived with her in Denver until her money ran out, and then he left to go to Mexico to cheat railway passengers. Ántonia did not try to get a civil marriage because she didn't want to support him. Mrs. Steavens cries when she hears the story because she thinks Ántonia is a good girl (unlike Lena Lingard).
After her marriage fiasco, Ántonia starts working in the fields all the time and doesn't visit anyone. Mrs. Steavens worries about her and visits her as much as she can. One day Ántonia reminisces about her childhood with Jim and her father, and she says that she feels like she won't live very long so she's just trying to enjoy the fall. During the winter Ántonia wears men's outerwear. When she goes into labor, Mrs. Shimerda comes running to the house saying that Ambrosch is behaving like a devil, and Mrs. Steavens goes over and warns Ambrosch not to touch the child. Now the baby is a year and eight months, and Ántonia, a good mother, loves it dearly.
In the first paragraph of this chapter, it becomes clear exactly how important the land is to Jim. After seeing the world and all that it has to offer, the country still has a kind of harmony unattainable elsewhere. It is as important to him as an actual person, and indeed, in the novel it seems to acquire a life of its own. Jim is seeing the country from an adult perspective for the first time, and the fact that he sees it in much the same way as he did when he was a child renders the power and pull it has timeless and universal.
After being disgraced in her marriage, Ántonia shuts herself off from outside society and tries to regain her independence by working the land as she used to. In being jilted, Ántonia was helpless and at the mercy of another person. As a young girl, she discovered masculine independence and strength by plowing the ground, and after her marriage scandal, she returns to plowing as a way to rebuild the confidence she once had. She works industriously, begins wearing man's clothing, and starts talking about farming all the time. In this way, she hopes to compensate for the dependency she experienced in waiting for Larry Donovan to marry her. In other words, Ántonia returns to the land because it has nurtured and strengthened her in the past, and she hopes that it will do the same again now.
Jim goes to see Ántonia the next day and finds her looking strong and healthy, though a little wornout. She is only twenty-four. Jim tells her everything about his life: how he plans to study law in New York City and how Gaston Cleric had died last winter. Ántonia is sad that Jim is leaving Nebraska for good, but she knows she won't lose him because she still feels the presence of her father on the farm.
She tells Jim that she wouldn't like big cities and that she wants to live and die in the country, which she knows and loves. She wants to make sure that her daughter has more opportunities than she did. Jim tells her that he wishes that Ántonia could have been "a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sisteranything that a woman can be to a man" because she is so much a part of who he is. She is surprised because she feels like she disappointed him, but she is glad that they had such important shared memories when they were little.
They walk across the fields together, and Jim feels the pull of the earth and wishes that he were little so he could just stay there forever. Jim tells Ántonia that he will return, and she says that even if he doesn't, she will still be able to feel his presence.
When Jim sees her again, Ántonia seems very much a part of the land. She talks about wanting to stay there forever, even though people keep leaving and she is left alone. In a sense, she cannot leave the land that she came to as a stranger. It has become tied to her existence, though it treated her so harshly her first year there.
For the first time, Jim tells Ántonia how much she means to him, and perhaps it is because he realizes how much Ántonia and the land are intertwined. When he tells her that he wishes she could have been "anything that a woman can be to a man," he is speaking in mythic terms. He wishes that she could have been Woman to his Man: that is, nurturer, caretaker, mother of life. He does not specify which woman/man relationship he wishes they could have had because he believes they had all of them simultaneously. Ántonia was sweetheart, wife, mother and sister to Jim; she is his female complement because they grew up together in a new, undiscovered country. Only in such an unsettled, empty environment, without all the rules and customs of society as precedent, could Ántonia embody all the mythic qualities of womanhood: she can represent primitive, fundamental ideals of femininity without the hassles and constraints of modern life.
Ántonia is the "pioneer woman" of this section because she brings new lifeand the Museinto the land. Like the land, she is fertile, strong, and resilient. In essence, she is an earth mother, as the last section of the novel makes clear.