Summary and Analysis
Book III: Lena Lingard: Chapters I-IV
Jim studies diligently during his freshman year at college and stays in Lincoln through the following summer. Gaston Cleric, a Latin teacher, becomes his mentor. Cleric awakens Jim's love for the classics. Although he admires Cleric's scholarship, Jim knows that his own mind is too crowded by memories of people and places from his past for him ever to be a scholar, and this fact annoys him.
One evening, Lena Lingard appears at Jim's door, and he learns that she's been in Lincoln all winter. She owns a small dressmaking shop and has done well, but she's hesitated to visit Jim because she heard that he was very studious. They talk of home and of Ántonia, who has bragged that Jim will someday be richer than Mr. Harling. Ántonia has made up with the Harlings and now works for Mrs. Gardener at the hotel. Lena also says that Ántonia is engaged to marry Larry Donovan.
Shortly thereafter, Jim and Lena begin attending plays together. They are particularly moved by Dumas' Camille, and Jim is glad he didn't invite a college girl, who would talk during the intermission about shallow things like college dances. Lena seems quite mature.
Jim often takes Sunday breakfast with Lena, and he discovers that her southern landlord has a crush on her, as has the Polish violinist, Ordinsky, who lives across the hall. At first, Ordinsky thinks Jim's intentions toward Lena are dishonorable, but he decides later that Jim wants what's best for her. In love with Lena himself, Jim begins to neglect his studies.
Cleric writes Grandfather Burden, asking that Jim be allowed to accompany him to Harvard to finish college. Grandfather gives permission. Lena is a little hurt when Jim tells her the news, but she understands his reasons for leaving, and she doesn't try to stop him.
At the end of the term, Jim visits his grandparents in Black Hawk, returns to Virginia to visit relatives, then heads for Harvard. He is nineteen years old.
Jim tries to study diligently at college, but he discovers that his mind is too full of memories of people and places from his past. He's frustrated at the amount of space Jake and Otto and Russian Peter take up in his mind. His obsession with nostalgia contrasts with Ántonia's way of living: She embraces her heritage and adjusts to whatever happens in life. Jim tries to shape his life; Ántonia lets life shape her. As a result, Ántonia is happier than Jim, who feels that his happiest days are over — "the best days are the first to flee."
Cather makes her characters often seem larger than life by presenting them through Jim's eyes and by linking them to the classics. For example, Jim compares the hired girls to the poetry of Virgil: "If there were no girls like them in the world," he says, "there would be no poetry." He also relates farm life to the classics when he recalls words from Virgil's Georgics, stating that "the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow."
Against the bleakness of the April prairie, Cather sets the glittering and tragic story of Camille. Jim compares himself and Lena to two jackrabbits running on the prairie; they are innocent and unsophisticated. The author adds a touch of irony when Jim and Lena walk home after the play under the umbrella that Mrs. Harling gave Jim as a graduation present. We know she wouldn't approve of his associating with Lena, just as Grandmother Burden wouldn't have approved of Lena using her name to gain entry to Jim's rooming house.
Lena is attractive to men because she is kind to all of them: the old ones, the lonely ones, the odd ones, and the young brash ones like Jim. Lena represents the delights of love — without ties or responsibilities. She is spring, youth, romance. Her colors are blue, white, and gold. She carries jonquils and hyacinths and has an aura of lilac and violet. Yet her easy-going, permissive way of giving love, and her idea of what marriage means, seem empty in contrast to the down-to-earth, solid qualities of Ántonia.
At the close of this section, Jim is nineteen, has had a youthful crush, and now seems destined to settle down to a respectable career.
"Optima dies . . . prima fugit" A Latin phrase meaning "the best days are the first to flee." The quotation is from Virgil's Georgics, which opens with this statement: "In the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee."
noblesse oblige the inferred obligation of people of high rank or social position to behave nobly or kindly toward others.