Summary and Analysis
Book II: The Hired Girls:
Living at the Cutters', Ántonia has more time to spend with Lena, Tiny, and Norwegian Anna. One afternoon, the girls tease Jim about his grandmother's hope that he become a Baptist preacher when he grows up. Because Jim shows no interest in Black Hawk's young girls and prefers the older, hired girls' company, the townspeople begin to whisper among themselves that there must be something strange about him.
Jim discovers that he can't go to the Harlings' in the evenings; Mrs. Harling is cool to him because he is still associating with Ántonia. In desperation, he searches for something interesting to do, but every place he goes is dull, and everyone he talks to seems to be scheming for ways to get out of this small town because they too are bored. For a while, Jim goes to Anton Jelinek's saloon to listen to the talk, but Anton knows that Grandfather Burden doesn't approve, so he asks Jim not to come in any more.
Jim prefers the dances at the Firemen's Hall, where the hired girls go, rather than the dances at the Masonic Hall, where the so-called respectable young townspeople socialize. He knows his grandparents would disapprove, so he has to sneak out in order to attend. One night Jim walks Ántonia home. When he tries to kiss her passionately, she scolds him. Defensively, he tells her that Lena has let him kiss her like that. She warns him not to make a fool of himself like the other Black Hawk boys because he's going away to school to make something of himself. That night Jim dreams of Lena coming to him — sensuously, reaping hook in hand — across a harvested field. On waking, he wishes he could have the same dream about Ántonia.
Grandmother Burden learns that Jim has been sneaking out to dances, and she is so grieved that the boy stops going altogether. He's surprised to realize that he really is hurt by the townspeople's talk about him. He feels lonely and shut out and spends many spring hours reading Latin so he can do well when he enters college in the fall. At his high school graduation, Jim gives a stirring speech that surprises and pleases Mrs. Harling. Ántonia, Lena, and Anna congratulate him, too. He tells Ántonia that he was thinking of her father when he wrote the speech. She cries and hugs him, and he feels that her pleasure is his greatest triumph.
When he arrives for a summer picnic at the river with the hired girls, he finds Ántonia crying because the elder flowers remind her of Bohemia. She tells him about the Old Country and reveals that her father married her mother — against his family's wishes — because she was pregnant with his child. Jim tells her of the intensity he sensed when he was left alone after his grandparents went to see Ántonia's father's body; he is sure that her father's spirit stopped to rest at the Burden farm before starting its journey home to his native land. His words comfort her. When Lena, Tiny, and Anna return to the riverbank, they talk about their families and how difficult it has been for them to adapt to life on the plains. Jim tells them the story of Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden Cities. Late in the day, as the sun is going down in the distance, they see the silhouette of a plow, bold and black, against the setting sun; then, just as quickly, it vanishes as the sun drops below the horizon.
One day, the Cutters go to Omaha. Ántonia tells Grandmother Burden how strange Mr. Cutter acted, storing valuables under her bed and insisting that she promise to sleep there alone. Grandmother is apprehensive. She persuades Jim to sleep at the Cutters' while Ántonia sleeps at the Burden home. Cutter returns home unexpectedly in the middle of the night and, in the dark, begins caressing Jim in the bed where he hoped to find Ántonia. Enraged, he attacks the boy and accuses him of having an affair with Ántonia. Jim scrambles out the window and dashes home, bruised and lacerated. He's furious with Ántonia for putting him in a situation that could make him a laughingstock if word ever leaked out. Ántonia decides to return to her family on the farm for a while, and Grandmother accompanies her to the Cutters' to pack her trunk. While they are there, the irate Mrs. Cutter returns, and Grandmother learns that Mr. Cutter tricked his wife into boarding the wrong train, one bound for Kansas City, so he could come back a day earlier and seduce Ántonia.
Because of the rift between Ántonia and Mrs. Harling, Jim no longer feels comfortable visiting the Harlings. After the Vannis leave town, he starts sneaking out at night to attend dances at the Firemen's Hall but is forced to give them up when Grandmother discovers his deceit. The happy days of Jim's childhood are clearly waning. When Ántonia goes to work for the Cutters, we feel that she too has taken a wrong path and may be heading for trouble.
The scene in which Ántonia scolds Jim for fervently kissing her reveals her realistic, down-to-earth qualities, which stand in opposition to Lena, who is more romantic, fragile, and dream-like. Later, Lena foolishly wears high-heeled slippers to the picnic in the country and lazily draws her fingers through Jim's hair to get the sand out; in contrast, Ántonia pushes Lena away, declaring "You'll never get it out like that," and gives his hair a rough tousling, finishing with "something like a box on the ear." Also implied here is that Ántonia is annoyed with Lena's seductive games and takes out her annoyance on Jim.
The picnic is significant because it's the last such outing that Jim and Ántonia will have together as young people. Cather treats it like a summary of the past, a recap of the present, and a prediction of the future. Jim and Ántonia talk about Mr. Shimerda, life in Bohemia, and their own arrivals in Nebraska. Jim has indeed become Mr. Shimerda's cultural heir — as the old man knew he would when he promised to give Jim his gun. He often thinks about Mr. Shimerda. He feels a sense of peace when he visits the lone grave on the corner of the Shimerda property, and he tells Ántonia that he had her father in mind when he wrote his moving graduation speech. When the other girls arrive, they too talk about their families and their own plans for the future.
The most famous image in this book, perhaps in all of Cather's writing, comes at the end of this chapter: the momentary silhouette of a pioneer's plow against the sun. This symbol can be interpreted in a number of ways. On a grand scale, the image can represent the pioneers, larger than life, conquering the land, then fading into obscurity when the frontier was settled. The plow and its fading in the twilight can also mean that our own accomplishments, which seem so great to us, are really only a small part of a greater whole; recall Chapter II of Part I, when Jim is sitting in the garden and imagining himself part of "something complete and great." On a more personal level, the plough against the sun represents Jim's and Ántonia's childhoods, which are drawing to a close and will never again be the driving force for them that it has been until now.
a tall bonnet with bristling aigrettes a lady's tall hat with bunches of the long, white, showy plumes of the egret used for ornament.
arnica any of a number of plants of the composite family, bearing bright yellow flowers on long stalks with clusters of leaves at the base; here, a preparation made from certain of these plants, once used for treating sprains and bruises.
Cutter was one of the "fast set" of Black Hawk business men Cather is suggesting that Wick Cutter came to the frontier because there were fewer laws governing behavior, allowing him to get away with things that could have landed him in jail on the East Coast.
dumb-bell a device usually used in pairs, consisting of round weights joined by a short bar, by which it is lifted or swung about in the hand for muscular exercise.
elder any of a genus 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.
soft piles of chaff piles of husks of wheat or other grain separated in threshing or winnowing.
enter the freshman class at the university without conditions Jim does extra studying at home during his last year of high school so he won't have to take college preparatory courses in the fall.
poultice a hot, soft, moist mass, as of flour, herbs, or mustard, sometimes spread on cloth, applied to a sore or inflamed part of the body.
spring wagon a light wagon.
telling raw stories telling bawdy stories.
Wilber A small town in southeastern Nebraska, settled primarily by Bohemians.