Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Hired Girls: Chapters I-IV
Jim has been living with his grandparents for nearly three years when they decide to move into the town of Black Hawk. Jake and Otto help them move, then they leave and go west together; except for a postcard from Otto, the Burdens never hear from them again. By April, Jim feels at home in town. "I could fight, play 'keeps,' tease the little girls, and use forbidden words as well as any boy in my class," he says. But he is restrained from savagery because Mrs. Harling, the Burdens' nearest neighbor, will not allow him to play with her children unless he behaves. Ambrosch Shimerda comes into town regularly and he puts his horses up in the Burdens' barn, but he never stays for dinner and won't talk about his mother and sisters. News about Ántonia comes from the Widow Steavens, who bought the Burden farm and grew fond of the girl. She tells the Burdens about Ambrosch hiring out Ántonia to work like a man.
In August, when the Harlings' Danish cook leaves them, Grandmother persuades Mrs. Harling to hire Ántonia; then she corners Ambrosch and convinces him that any association with Christian Harling will strengthen his credit. Ántonia fits into the Harling family immediately. Now that she's in town, she learns English so quickly that by the time school begins, she can speak it as well as any of the other children. Ántonia admires Charley Harling, who is slightly older than Jim, because he's always first in his class at school and is mechanically inclined. Ántonia's affection for Charley arouses Jim's jealousy.
In the autumn, Lena Lingard comes to town to learn dressmaking from Mrs. Thomas. She brings news that Tiny Soderball, another farm girl, has gone to work for Mrs. Gardener at the Boys' Home Hotel. After Lena leaves, Frances Harling asks Ántonia why she was not more cordial. Ántonia says that she didn't know if Mrs. Harling would want Lena in her home because Lena has a dubious reputation among her country neighbors. Beautiful, flirtatious Lena drove Ole Benson so out of his mind that his wife, Crazy Mary, used to chase Lena with a corn knife. Through it all, however, Lena remained easygoing and unperturbed. She is determined never to marry and never to live on a farm again.
The Burdens lead a more leisurely life in town. An interesting contrast concerns how town life changes Jim and Ántonia. Influenced by his schoolmates, Jim learns to fight, swear, and tease girls. When Ántonia comes to town, however, the roughness of her country life wears off and her "nice" ways return. This change illustrates that Jim is easily influenced by his environment, whereas Ántonia adapts to hers. Recall at the end of Part I, she tells Jim that she must be hard because her life will be hard. When Ántonia comes to town to live in a world more like the one that Mr. Shimerda envisioned for her, her refinement resurfaces.
Cather also contrasts Ántonia with Lena Lingard. Lena is the complete opposite of Ántonia. Ántonia wants a family and hopes to settle down on a farm; Lena wants neither of these things. Ántonia is not overly fastidious about her appearance; Lena wears cotton gloves and takes care not to get her fingers sticky while eating popcorn. Ántonia has a strong sense of what is right; Lena has rather loose morals. Ántonia represents the kind of girl who would make a good wife; Lena represents the sensual girl of young boys' dreams. Like Circe in Homer's Odyssey, she leads men astray.
Another contrast worth noting is between Mrs. Harling and her husband. Mrs. Harling is fun-loving, full of energy, and relates well to the children — both her own and the neighbors'. Mr. Harling is strict, demanding, and arrogant. He expects quiet when he is home, and he expects his wife to be attentive only to him. The children are put to bed early when he is home or else they are sent to the neighbors' to play; Jim avoids the Harling house when Mr. Harling is there.
ask lief of anybody ask permission of anyone.
grain elevators tall warehouses, often cylindrical, for collecting, storing, and discharging grain.
to husk corn to remove the dry outer covering of an ear of corn.
she went from farm to farm, binding sheaves or working with the threshers Ambrosch hired out his sister to help farmers with their harvest.
worsted a smooth, firmly twisted thread or yarn made from long-staple wool combed to make the fibers lie in the same direction.