Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Hired Girls: Chapters VIII-X
In June, four Italians — the Vannis — arrive in town and set up a dancing pavilion. Dancing becomes the trend this summer, just as roller skating was the trend last summer. Parents send their children to take dancing lessons from the Vannis. On Saturday evenings, the local boys go to the dance pavilion, risking "a tiff with their sweethearts and general condemnation for a waltz with 'the hired girls.'"
Jim explains that the foreign girls from the country are hired out in town so that they can give financial help to their large families on the farm. Because the daughters of Black Hawk townspeople are not used to doing physical labor, they have "a confident, unenquiring belief that they [are] 'refined,' and that the country girls, who 'worked out,' [are] not." Jim remembers the foreign girls having a zest for life that made them attractive to the local boys, but like Sylvester Lovett, who is infatuated with Lena Lingard, the boys who live in town don't have the courage to marry the hired girls. This flaw outrages Jim.
Ántonia becomes extremely popular with the town boys at the Vannis' tent, and her social life soon begins to interfere with her domestic work at the Harlings'. One night, Harry Paine, who is engaged to be married in two days, walks her home. When he tries to kiss her, she slaps him. Mr. Harling hears the commotion and gives Ántonia an ultimatum: Either she must quit going to the dances or else she will have to find another position. She decides to go to work for the Cutters, even though Mrs. Harling warns her that it will be her ruin.
Cather reminds us again of the changing seasons and the ticking of the clock. To mark the passage of time, the author uses such words as these: weeks, all day, every morning, every day, every evening, as well as such phrases as "sat on the shady side," "lounged in the sun," "sit out in the grass plot," "sat like images," and "our feet hurried." This last phrase is symbolic; their feet are hurrying toward adulthood. Jim lets us know that he is conscious of his youth slipping away when he says that boys and girls are growing up, and "life can't stand still, not even in the quietest country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no."
In her description of Mrs. Vanni, Cather uses color to communicate the air of excitement surrounding this woman: Mrs. Vanni wears "lavender with a great deal of black lace," and "red coral combs" in her hair. In addition, she has an "important watch-chain lying on her bosom." Jim is glad that the dance pavilion is in town; since moving to Black Hawk, he has been desperately searching for activities to replace the active life he led on the farm.
As an adult, Jim is contemptuous of the attitude of the townspeople in Black Hawk, those who felt superior toward the foreign, hired girls, but he doesn't seem to realize that he did the same thing — that is, he left Black Hawk and married someone with money, someone who wasn't a first- or second-generation immigrant. Remember, this story is being told by the adult Jim Burden looking back on his youth.
Perhaps it is inevitable that Mr. Harling and Ántonia eventually clash. Mr. Harling is an authoritarian; he is accustomed to being obeyed. Ántonia is an individualistic free spirit who doesn't like restrictions. When given an ultimatum to stop going to the dances or find another job, she makes her decision easily: She will leave the Harlings and go to work for the Cutters. The Cutters have no children to look after, and there will be less work to do; Ántonia will have more time to enjoy life.
brood-sow a sow kept for breeding.
elder any of a group of shrubs and small trees of the honeysuckle family, with compound leaves and flat-topped clusters of small white flowers followed by red or purple berries.
fancy-work needlework, tailoring, stitchery.
parasol a lightweight umbrella carried by women as a sunshade.
dray a low, sturdily built cart with detachable sides, for carrying heavy loads.
pavilion a large tent, usually with a peaked top.
plough a farm implement used to cut, turn up, and break up the soil.
Progressive Euchre Club a club for playing euchre, a card game basically for two, three, or four players, played with thirty-two cards (sevens up through aces), five cards being dealt to each player.
reaper a machine for cutting grain.
steer a castrated male ox, especially one raised for beef.