THE STORY, continued
BOOK II: THE HIRED GIRLS
After two more years on the farm, the Burdens move to Black Hawk. Jim is thirteen and ought to be
going regularly to school, and his grandparents feel too old to enjoy farming. The farm hands will have
to find other work, so Otto decides to go back out West, and Jake goes with him. They have been like
brothers to Jim, but he will never see them again.
From his bedroom, Jim can see the bluffs of the Republican River two miles south. When he misses
the countryside (a constant theme for him), the river view comforts him.
The Burdens live on the outskirts of Black Hawk, a neat little town where the newer buildings are
made of brick. For the first time Jim has children his own age to play with. Although Antonia never
comes to town, her doings are reported to the Burdens by the Widow Steavens, who has rented their old
farm. Grandfather is concerned about Antonia, whose brother is hiring her out as a farmhand.
To save Antonia from this masculine work, which her father would never have allowed,
Grandmother recommends Antonia for a domestic position with the neighbors, the Harlings.
The Harlings are a Norwegian family with five children. The husband buys and sells grain and cattle,
and is often away on business. The wife rules the house with enthusiasm and decisiveness. Their eldest
child is tall, dark Frances, old enough to be a partner in her father's successful business. Next are
Charley, 16, musical Julia, 14, tomboy Sally, 13, and sensitive little Nina.
NOTE: THE HARLINGS
Cather based the Harling family on her neighbors, the Miners, in Red
Cloud, Nebraska. She claimed the portrait of Mrs. Harling was the only one she ever took wholly from
real life. You may have noted that the novel is dedicated to Carrie and Irene Miner, the models for
Frances and her littlest sister, Nina.
When their cook leaves the household, Mrs. Harling and Frances drive the long way out to the
Shimerdas to negotiate with Antonia and Mrs. Shimerda. After an argument with Ambrosch and Mrs.
Shimerda, it is agreed that Mrs. Harling will pay them the generous sum of $3 a week, and keep $50 a
year out for Antonia to spend as she wishes. Mrs. Harling reports to Grandmother that 17-year-old
Antonia, though barefooted and sunburned, seemed beautiful, and will learn quickly to be helpful.
Jim loves having Antonia nearby again. She is so good with the Harling children that she sometimes
neglects her work to play with them. It is a jolly, noisy household, except when Mr. Harling is at home.
"Autocratic and imperial," he "not only demanded a quiet house, he demanded all his
One day a Norwegian farm girl named Lena Lingard comes to the door. At first Antonia doesn't
recognize her because she is all dressed up. Then she doesn't seem very glad to see Lena. Frances and
Mrs. Harling invite her to sit down and talk. She has come to town to work for Mrs. Thomas, the
dressmaker. She says she's glad to get off the farm and excited about living in town. Mrs. Harling cautions
her to remember her obligations to her family, and not to get caught up in dances and dubious social life.
Frances, who knows all the country folk and their news, asks about the boy who had been planning to
marry her. She answers that his father refused to give him any land unless he married someone else
instead. Lena doesn't care; he was "awful sullen," and anyway she doesn't ever want to be
After Lena goes, Frances asks why Antonia wasn't friendlier to her. Tony answers that Lena had a
bad reputation out in the country, and Mrs. Harling might not like her visiting the house. Jim remembers
that Lena, the eldest of many children, used to herd cattle on the prairie for her father. Though she was
poor and ragged, her yellow hair, pale white skin, and soft, violet-colored eyes made her attractive. Also
she had a gentle, easy personality.
Someone else was impressed with Lena; this person is Ole Benson, a fat, unlucky Norwegian farmer
who used to love to come and sit with her. This was a scandal to the neighborhood, and Ole's insane wife
threatened to kill Lena for "making eyes at the men." But Lena only laughed in her innocent,
sleepy way and said, "I never made anything to him with my eyes. I can't help it if he hangs around,
and I can't order him off. It ain't my prairie."
NOTE: LENA LINGARD
Lena is an interesting character who will become more important as
the story goes on. Is she aware of the effect her good looks have on men? Is she deliberately sexy?
Although she and Antonia are friends, they are very different. Tony wants to make money so her family's
farm will prosper. You will see later that having a family and running a farm is her goal. She forms
passionate attachments to people. Lena, though, is disillusioned about family life, and never wants to
return to the farm. She is a more easygoing, detached person, who wants to be left alone to have a good
Lena's friend, another farm girl named Tiny Soderball, has also come to town. She works as a
waitress at Mrs. Gardener's Boys' Home Hotel, the best one for miles around. On Saturday nights when all
the traveling salesmen are singing and telling stories in the parlor, Lena and Tiny listen from behind the
closed double doors. It's the most romantic life the girls can imagine, and Lena often tells Jim, whom she
likes, that he ought to be a "traveling man" when he grows up. (Of course, you know from the
Introduction that in a way he does become one as a lawyer for a railroad.) Lena enjoys town life, and Tiny
even shares with her some of the gifts the salesmen are always giving her. But when Lena's little brother
comes to town just before Christmas to buy some Christmas presents, she realizes she misses her family
despite her dislike of the farm.
When winter comes, it is bitterly windy and cold in town. On the bleak, gray days, any color, such as
the stained glass church window, is welcome. The Harlings' house attracts Jim, who finds life too quiet
with his elderly grandparents. Antonia, too, finds the house "like Heaven." They act out
charades or listen to Mrs. Harling play operas on the piano as she tells the stories. Frances teaches them
to dance, and predicts that Antonia will be the best of them all. In the evenings Tony cheerfully builds
another fire in the stove to bake treats for the children, and tells tales in her wonderful deep voice about
old Bohemia or life on the prairie. Once she tells of a tramp who came to a Norwegian farm one very hot
day where she was helping thresh wheat. He offered to operate the threshing machine for a while, and
then jumped into it headfirst, killing himself.
NOTE: THE TRAMP
Nobody knew where he came from. He had nothing in his pockets but a
penknife, a wishbone, and a popular poem cut out of a newspaper. When Antonia commented to him that
it was so hot they might have to pump water for the cattle, he seemed to find it ironic that cattle will
always be taken care of- even before a person like him. What do you think of this tramp? Why did Willa
Cather tell us his story? Do you see a connection between him and Mr. Shimerda? This is another of
Cather's unexpected anecdotes which seem to carry a deeper message.
Antonia has a strong effect on the Harlings, Jim, and everyone around her. As she matures, she
adapts naturally to domestic routines. She finds a role model in Mrs. Harling. (Grandmother was right to
suggest she come to the Harlings while still at an impressionable age.) In many ways Tony and Mrs.
Harling share the same pioneer values: a love of children, the earth, domestic comforts, independence,
honesty, and generosity. Jim is deeply attracted to their "hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-
delicate, but very invigorating."
The winter drags by, but in March a musician comes to town to give a concert. He is a black pianist
named d'Arnault (pronounced Dar-no'), who is blind. As a slave child on the d'Arnault plantation in the
Deep South before the Civil War, he had been drawn to the main house whenever he heard the piano
being played by Miss Nellie, the owner's daughter. One day when she had left the room, he crept in
through the window, even though his mother had threatened that the master would feed him to his dog if
he found him near the big house. Instinctively, he touched the keys of the piano, and began to play things
he'd heard Miss Nellie play. Overhearing this child prodigy, Nellie arranged music lessons for him.
NOTE: BLIND D'ARNAULT
The description of the slave child's wonderful talent is typical of
the extended anecdotes that Cather's characters relate. This one introduces a taste of the South where Jim-
and Willa Cather- were originally from. You will notice that d'Arnault's story is a complete break in
setting and mood from what precedes it. Why did Cather insert this anecdote? The two groups of people
she admired most were pioneers and artists. Here, in the midst of a novel about pioneers, is the life story
of a natural musician. Perhaps this anecdote also has a broader meaning. In spite of being blind and born
a slave, d'Arnault becomes a well-known artist. And in spite of her early hardships, Antonia eventually
triumphs as a pioneer mother and farmer.
The night Blind d'Arnault is staying at the hotel, Jim goes there to hear the informal music-making.
Mrs. Gardener, the hotel's well-dressed, strict manager, is out of town. Her pleasant, wishy-washy
husband Johnnie can't object when d'Arnault begins to play plantation songs, spirituals, and waltzes. The
pianist senses that behind the doors the hired girls are dancing. The men throw open the doors and draw
the fleeing girls into the parlor, despite Johnnie's protests that his wife wouldn't approve. Antonia and
Lena and Tiny are there, and also Mary Dusak, another Bohemian girl, pretty and bold.
Excited by the dancing, Jim and Antonia walk home together, and linger talking a long time. Their
first big taste of adult town society has made them restless.
Spring brings its usual quickening of activity. The Harlings' garden is planted and the children play
outdoors. In June some Italians arrive in Black Hawk and set up a dancing pavilion. Mr. and Mrs. Vanni
will give lessons and hold dances in an open tent under the cottonwood trees across from the Danish
laundry. This gives the young people something to do besides walk up and down the wooden sidewalks.
The harp and violin music entices everyone to the tent where, for a small price, they can dance until 10
P.M. On Saturdays, the tent is open until midnight, and all the farm hands and hired girls are there.
A tension exists between the immigrant farm girls and the young people who've been brought up in
Black Hawk. You might view this as the theme of the conflict between the immigrants and their American
neighbors. Pretty and capable, but unschooled, the immigrant girls still remember the old country. They
grew up early through the hard work of helping their families dig up the prairie sod to make the first
fields. Now about twenty of them are working in town in order to help their parents get established and
send their younger siblings to school. They are proud, jolly, free, and physically strong.
In contrast, the town girls would never consider working as domestic servants in someone else's
home. They think of themselves as refined. Their parents, whether farmers or merchants, are just as poor
as the immigrants, but have come from the Eastern states, rather than directly from Europe. They are
snobbish toward the "ignorant" foreigners, not realizing or caring that Lena's grandfather was
a well-known clergyman back in Norway, or Antonia's father had been so respected in Bohemia that
priests would come to talk with him.
Jim is annoyed by the prejudice of the townspeople against the hired girls. He knows that eventually
these girls will be prosperous because they are so hard-working. The Black Hawk town boys look
longingly at the fresh, free country girls, but they will doubtless marry town girls. Why do you think this
irritates Jim so much? Is he justified in criticizing the other boys when he himself seems to have no
intention of marrying one of the hired girls?
Some of the hired girls are fond of a good time, perhaps eager to make up for their lost youth. Their
bad reputations are in some cases deserved (at least according to the morals of that day): of the three
Bohemian girls named Mary, two become pregnant out of wedlock. Though the conservative townspeople
consider them all "as dangerous as high explosives," they are excellent cooks and can always
At the dancing tent the town boys and the hired girls meet. A banker's son falls in love with Lena,
even though he feels she would not be a suitable wife. He marries someone else in order to drown his
feelings about Lena. Jim is disgusted at the boy's lack of courage.
Antonia loves to dance, and at the tent she has lots of admirers. Her personality has changed: she has
outgrown the Harlings' little world, and has become inattentive to her work. Mr. Harling is increasingly
annoyed about the male callers who linger around the back door. One Saturday night on the back porch
after a dance, a boy tries to kiss Tony. She slaps him "because he is going to be married on
Monday," as she explains to the angry Mr. Harling, who heard the slap. She's been associating with
girls with bad reputations, Mr. Harling says, and now she'll either have to quit going to the dances or quit
working for him.
This is a crisis. Tony has loved being at the Harlings', but nothing can make her give up the dances.
In spite of Mrs. Harling's pleas, she resolves to take a place closer to her friend Lena, at the house of the
notorious moneylender and womanizer, Wick Cutter. Mrs. Harling is heartbroken and warns that the
unscrupulous Cutter will ruin her.
Wick Cutter is the man who cheated Russian Peter in Book I. He is a hypocrite who preaches
"moral maxims" while practicing usury (charging overly high interest rates) and extortion. He
plays poker, races horses, and visits prostitutes. He's fussy about his appearance (he carefully brushes his
yellow moustache) and about his house (he gets boys to cut his lawn and then won't pay them because he
claims their work isn't neat enough).
He is married to a huge, ugly, high-strung woman. Cutter and his wife fight constantly about
everything from his immoral habits to money. In fact, they both seem to get some needed excitement from
their warlike relationship. Later in his life Jim will meet other fanatical women who remind him of Mrs.
Cutter- some are mental patients and others are religious zealots.
When Tony leaves the Harlings, she devotes herself entirely to having a good time. She's very pretty
and popular. With Lena's help she has learned to copy the new dresses of the town's leading ladies, much
to their annoyance. Jim is now a senior in high school and feeling restless. He's not interested in town
girls but likes to chat with Tony and the hired girls. They tease him about what he's going to be when he
grows up. Everyone, including Jim, believes he will go into some profession because he's so smart at
But Jim is restless all winter. Because he still sees Antonia, Mrs. Harling is not very friendly to him.
As a result, he can't spend any more warm evenings at her house. Instead he walks and walks. He starts
going to the saloon that the respectable Anton Jelinek runs, but then Jelinek asks him not to, since it
would upset Grandfather Burden. He haunts the drugstore, the tobacco factory, and the train depot, but
meets only other dissatisfied, restless people, mostly old men. In this mood, he finds the town ugly and the
people repressed. He doesn't want to join the Owl Club with its respectable young people. So on Saturday
nights he slips out his ground floor bedroom window to dances at the Firemen's Hall. There he meets the
country folks such as the simple, pretty girls who work at the Danish laundry. He dances with Lena, who
always seems dreamy and detached. When he dances with Antonia, though, he is more impressed by her
enthusiasm and talent for dancing than by anyone else's.
NOTE: ANTONIA'S POTENTIAL
Jim realizes that Antonia has a natural greatness. She is
musical, energetic and creative. If the Shimerdas had stayed in New York and become involved in the
music world, for instance, instead of coming to Nebraska, her life might have been different. You should
keep in mind this observation of Jim's about Tony's potential. In the very next paragraph a character
appears who will have a tragic effect on her.
Antonia looks beautiful at the dances with her black velveteen dress, bright eyes, and deeply colored
cheeks. She is often with a young man named Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor who is "a kind
of professional ladies' man." Naturally, because all the boys admire Antonia, Larry wants to make a
conquest of her.
One night Jim walks Tony home. When his goodnight kiss is romantic instead of brotherly, she is
shocked. She's even more shocked to hear that Lena lets him kiss her that way. She cautions him against
seeing too much of Lena or of getting involved with anyone who would keep him from going away to
college. He replies that she is the only one he likes, but that she treats him like a younger brother. (Tony
is nineteen and he's fifteen.) She admits that he's a kid, "but you're a kid I'm awful fond of,
anyhow!" she adds, hugging him. Later Jim keeps having a dream about Lena walking across a
field toward him in a short skirt, but when he dreams about Tony, they are always children together.
Grandmother Burden hears the upsetting rumor that Jim has been going to the Firemen's dances, and
so he promises not to go anymore. More lonely than ever, Jim throws himself into extra academic work to
prepare for college. One of his only friends is Frances Harling, who tells him her mother isn't as angry
with him as he thinks. This proves true when Mrs. Harling comes to Jim's high school graduation and is
very impressed by his commencement oration.
After the speech, Tony and her friends are waiting down the street to congratulate him. When
Antonia says the speech reminded her of her father, Jim confesses that he dedicated it to the memory of
Mr. Shimerda. As they hug each other, she is crying. Why do you think he feels it is the most triumphant
moment in his whole life?
All summer Jim works hard on trigonometry and Latin. Only one July day breaks the monotony,
when he secretly meets Tony and her friends for a picnic at the river. The girls are going to collect
elderflowers to make wine.
NOTE: THE RIVER PICNIC
Though this novel cannot really be said to have a formal plot or
traditional climax, this chapter is centrally important for several reasons. This will prove to be the last
shared afternoon of Jim and Antonia's youth. He will soon be going away, so the future looms near. The
past also seems near: when Antonia invites him along, she says, "It would be like old times,"
and the day does remind us of Book I. Everything in the chapter contributes to a sense of nostalgia, from
the beautifully described countryside to Tony's homesickness for Bohemia when she smells the
elderflowers. The relationship we've been watching between Jim and Tony is more defined now. Though
she thinks of him as a child, they're extremely fond of each other, a bond which is celebrated and
confirmed in this chapter. The theme of the land representing freedom returns here like a musical
refrain, as it will again in Book V.
Early in the morning, Jim walks the two miles to the river. The road is bordered with richly colored
wildflowers. At the riverbank he takes a swim and realizes that when he leaves Black Hawk to go to
school he'll miss this river, which he knows so well from fishing, playing, and skating here.
The girls arrive, and begin gathering elderflowers. When Jim is dressed, he goes in search of them
and finds Antonia sitting alone, crying under the overhanging elder bushes. They remind her of Bohemia,
where her father used to talk about music and philosophy with his friends. They both feel that her father's
spirit returned to his beloved country when he died. Tony confides that her mother had been a young
servant in her father's parents' household. When she became pregnant by Tony's father, he married her out
of kindness, even though his brothers and parents thought he should just give her money. (Now perhaps
we can understand Mr. Shimerda's suicide more clearly. In addition to homesickness and the hardships in
the pioneer dugout, his marriage was not a happy one.) As Tony tells Jim this personal story, she seems
to him as full of trust and love as she used to be when they were children.
Lena Lingard breaks into their private conversation. Jim and the girls eat their picnic on a bluff
overlooking the farmland. The four country girls talk about their families. Lena starts to stroke Jim's
hair, but Tony puts a stop to it. Lena tells of her grandfather rebelliously marrying a Lapland woman.
Lapp girls were considered dangerously attractive to the men in Norway. "I guess that's what's the
matter with me; they say Lapp blood will out," says Lena, referring to her weakness for men.
In the hot afternoon, Jim tells the story of the Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado (1510?-1554). In
the New World he was looking for the mythical Seven Golden Cities and was known to have come north
as far as today's Kansas. But Jim thinks he actually came even farther, to this river, because in a field
nearby a farmer once found a Spanish stirrup and sword. Coronado didn't return to Spain, according to
the schoolbooks, because he "died in the wilderness of a broken heart." Antonia added,
"More than him has done that," referring to her father.
They think sadly about the disillusioned Coronado and Mr. Shimerda, and the struggles of the first
generation of pioneers. The sun is setting. The prairie almost seems to catch on fire. (Remember the
earlier description of the prairie "like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.")
As the sun meets the earth, it suddenly magnifies a lone plough silhouetted on the horizon. The plough
against the fiery red circle looks "heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun."
NOTE: THE PLOUGH
What is the significance of this image? You can view it as a symbol of
several different themes. First, it stands for the farmers' toil and triumph over the unbroken prairie. The
efforts of the pioneers to tame the land are rewarded, despite the disillusioned deaths of people like
Coronado and Mr. Shimerda. Second, when the plough has "sunk back to its own littleness
somewhere on the prairie" it stands for the vastness of the land, which makes all man's activities
The slow, nostalgic, philosophical mood of the last chapter contrasts sharply with this one. Antonia's
employer, Wick Cutter, acts strangely before going out of town with his wife. He tells Antonia to stay
home at night and not have any girlfriend stay with her. Suspecting something, she asks Grandmother
Burden what to do. Jim arranges to sleep at the Cutters' house until they return. One night Cutter returns
and sneaks into Antonia's bedroom where he finds not her but Jim. They have a terrible fistfight in the
dark, and both are badly beaten up before Jim knocks Cutter down and escapes through the window. Jim
runs home in his nightshirt, disgusted by the whole sordid experience. He makes Grandmother promise
not to tell anyone the story, for fear he would be laughed about all over town.
It turns out that Cutter has fled town, with his face bandaged and his arm in a sling, but not before
trampling and tearing both the clothes from Tony's closet and the ones Jim had taken off before going to
bed. While Tony and Grandmother Burden are back at the Cutters' empty house packing up her things,
Mrs. Cutter arrives, furious. Her husband had tricked her by putting her on the wrong train so he could
get home without her. it was an elaborate scheme designed to make her as angry as possible. Mr. Cutter
surely enjoyed the ensuing quarrel with his wife as much or more than the lust which started it.
BOOK III: LENA LINGARD
Jim goes to Lincoln to the university. He passes the tough entrance exams on the condition that he
study Greek the following summer. One of his favorite people at university is his Latin teacher, Gaston
Cleric, a brilliant but frail young scholar who opens Jim's eyes to an intellectual world. Cleric (whose
name means clergyman and scholar) often visits Jim in the room he rents and talks movingly about
poetry, the classics, or his stay in Italy. Charmed and excited as he is by Cleric's fascination with the
classics, Jim realizes that his own interest is not in history, but in the people of his particular past, who
seem to live on in his mind even though he's away from home.
One balmy spring night during his sophomore year, Jim is trying to keep his mind on his Latin
homework. He is reading the Georgics by Virgil (70-19 B.C.), the ancient Roman author who died before
he could finish his masterpiece, The Aeneid. The first line Jim sees is: Optima dies... prima fugit,
meaning the best days are the first to flee. They seem to strike a nostalgic chord for him- and in fact they
sum up such an important theme in the novel (the importance of the past) that they appear on the title
page as an inscription.
Jim turns back to another interesting passage: Primus ego in patriam mecum... deducam Musas. It
means, I will be the first to bring the Muse into my own country. By "country" (patriam or
patria), Virgil meant the local neighborhood of his father's fields, and by "Muse" he meant
literature. The great literary tradition of ancient Greece was beginning to trickle into the Roman empire
through the influence of such writers as Virgil.
Why is Jim moved by this idea? Virgil had brought the Muse home. Perhaps
Gaston Cleric is also bringing the Muse into his own region by making classical literature come to life for
his students. Or perhaps Cleric's patria is the rocky New England coast of his birth. Jim, by writing an
account of his youth in Nebraska, will also bring the Muse of literature home. Do you think Cather was
also speaking of herself? She was one of the first writers to depict Nebraska in books that would be hailed
as great regional (as well as American) literature.
As he is reflecting on these thoughts about the past, Jim hears a knock at his door. He opens it to find
his hometown friend Lena Lingard. Now working as a dressmaker in a successful shop, she has been in
Lincoln all winter, though Grandmother did not write that news to Jim. Lena is saving money for the new
house she'll build for her mother next summer.
Lena reports that Antonia is now managing Mrs. Gardener's hotel, has made peace with the Harlings,
and appears to be engaged to the conductor Larry Donovan. Though no one likes Larry, Tony is crazy
about him and won't hear him criticized.
When Lena has gone, her soft laugh seems to remain, reminding Jim of all the country girls. He
decides that the feeling he has about these girls is what inspires poetry. (Can he be giving himself an
excuse to see more of Lena and read less Latin?)
That spring Jim and Lena see several plays together, including Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils (son
of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo). This French tragedy dazzles them with its portrayal
of sophisticated society and doomed love. The actress playing Marguerite (known as Camille) is past her
prime, but delivers a forceful performance which has both Lena and Jim in tears.
In the story of Camille, a young nobleman named Armand Duval falls in love
with an older woman of the world. She has tuberculosis, and they go to live in the country in hopes that
she may get well. Of all her affairs, he is the first person she has truly loved. His father persuades Camille
to give up Armand rather than spoil his future. So Camille pretends she loves someone else. Armand
cruelly rebukes her. Her health worsens, and, finally learning the truth, Armand visits Camille to
apologize. She dies, happy, in his arms.
Why do you think Cather uses the play Camille? Like Camille, Lena is older, and has a good heart but
a reputation for being easy with men. Jim, like Armand, is intense but inexperienced. Do you think Jim
will fall in love with Lena? If so, will she marry him? Or will she- like Camille- renounce Jim in order not
to spoil his chances for the future? Certainly Cather intends a parallel between the play and Jim and
Lena has grown from a barefoot farm girl into a well-groomed, accomplished young woman. Her
customers know that although the dresses will take longer to make and will cost more than estimated, they
will have a special flair.
Jim enjoys occasional dinners and leisurely Sunday breakfasts at Lena's place. They play with her
dog and laugh at her stories. He finds her very pretty and sees now why the Norwegian Ole Benson used
to hang around her. She claims that there was never anything to that: she was lonely, and he loved being
with women. He was too generous to be sensible, she says, and she still feels sorry for him.
Across the hall from Lena lives an emotional Polish violinist who is jealous of Jim's attentions to her.
The violinist is also jealous of the landlord, a widower who has a soft spot for Lena. Jim declares that all
three of them are in love with Lena. One night the violinist is going to play a concert. He hasn't worn his
evening coat in so long it has split down the back where it was folded. He knocks on the door and asks
Lena for some pins. Jim is there for supper. While Lena goes to mend the coat, the rivals glower at each
other. The violinist makes insinuating remarks about Jim's interest in Lena. Jim responds gently that he's
known Lena for years and "I think I appreciate her kindness." The violinist apologizes, and
from then on treats Jim like a special friend in a world of enemies. Berating the citizens of Lincoln for
their lack of musical appreciation, he writes a letter to the newspaper calling them "coarse
barbarians." He sees everything in terms of chivalry and sentiment, and provides Lena and Jim with
Jim realizes that ever since he started seeing Lena he has paid less attention to his studies. Gaston
Cleric observes, "You won't recover yourself while you are playing about with this handsome
Norwegian." Since Cleric has been offered a job teaching at Harvard, he wants Jim to come East,
too. So Cleric writes Grandfather Burden for permission. Jim never expects Grandfather to agree, but he
does. (Do you think Cleric could have mentioned Lena in the letter?)
Jim's feelings are mixed about leaving. He longs to escape the stifling small-town atmosphere of
Lincoln, but he hates to leave Lena. He goes to see her to discuss it. Lena informs him she's planning
never to get married. She has seen too much poverty and hard work in her family brought on by too many
babies. She'd slept three to a bed till she left home at nineteen. Now she's determined to keep her
independence and not be "under somebody's thumb."
It isn't hard for her to guess that something's on Jim's mind. Confessing that he's distracted and
captivated by her, he tells her he's moving to Boston. She replies that she's always liked him. Though she
probably shouldn't have looked him up, it seemed natural to spend time together in Lincoln. (Compare
this with Antonia's earlier warning to Jim about Lena's fondness for men.)
When they part for the evening, Lena kisses Jim as usual: "She always kissed one as if she were
sadly and wisely sending one away forever."
NOTE: LENA AND JIM
Jim is clearly attracted to Lena, but we're never told whether they have
had an affair. Jim, who probably would not lie, assures the violinist his intentions are honorable. Still,
much has been made so far in the novel about Lena's sexy manner and lenient morals, and Jim is certainly
infatuated and distracted from his work. But does it seem to you that either has any intention of getting
seriously involved? We remember that Jim once said to Antonia: "I'm not half as fond of [Lena] as I
am of you." And although she likes kissing Jim, Lena's kisses seem to send him away, or renounce
him, rather than encouraging him. In his heart, Jim has already decided to go.
BOOK IV: THE PIONEER WOMAN'S STORY
Between graduating from Harvard and entering its law school, Jim comes home for the summer.
Little has changed, except Antonia, whom Frances Harling, now married, calls "poor
Antonia." Unmarried and a mother, she lives on her family's farm and works in the fields for
While Antonia suffers, her friends do better, which seems unfair, since Antonia had so much
potential. Lena is now Lincoln's best dressmaker, and Tiny has set up a residence hotel for sailors in
Seattle. Black Hawk gossip to the contrary, Jim thinks she'll run a respectable place. In a flash forward,
Jim narrates Tiny's success story. Hearing of gold in Alaska, she crossed snowfields and shot river rapids
to help found Dawson City near the soon-to-be-famous Klondike Creek. She started a hotel, then made a
fortune in real estate and by developing a gold claim. Part of the price she paid was the loss of three toes
to exposure. She limps a bit. Years later, Jim has met her again. She is a hard-driving business woman but
has always stayed close to Lena, whom she's persuaded to set up a dressmaking shop in San Francisco.
Jim finds Tiny a bit weary with all her success. She isn't interested in life anymore, unlike Antonia.
At the town photographer's shop, Jim sees a picture of Antonia's baby on display in an expensive
frame. How like Tony, Jim thinks, to be proud of her baby even though it is illegitimate.
NOTE: JIM AND ANTONIA
Why do you think Jim has felt so possessive about Tony, ever
since they were children? Possible reasons are that they were close neighbors for three years; that, though
younger, Jim, as a boy, felt like her protector; that he was her tutor in English and in softening her
foreign ways; and that they had a kind of personal or spiritual kinship which kept them close. Perhaps that
is why he uses the word my in the title. A result of this possessiveness is that Jim is bitterly disappointed
when Tony does something he disapproves of. He is crushed that she has let herself be deceived and
publicly shamed (and to a middle class person at the turn of the century, a child out of wedlock was
considered a terrible shame). "I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity," he
says, but after seeing the photo of her baby, he begins to weaken: "I could forgive her... if she hadn't
thrown herself away on such a cheap sort of fellow." Though he is very critical of Antonia, Jim can
never stay angry with her for long.
Larry Donovan had been an arrogant train conductor who felt himself above such lowly tasks as
making the passengers comfortable. He was fond of women, whom he liked to impress with stories of
"his unappreciated worth." How had Antonia been so thoroughly fooled by him? Jim asks
Mrs. Harling. She tells him to go talk to the Widow Steavens, the only person who has kept in touch with
Jim drives a horse and cart out into the country to his grandparents' old farm, still rented to the
Widow Steavens and her brother. The land, much of it now under cultivation, seems "beautiful and
harmonious... like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea."
Mrs. Steavens invites him to stay overnight, and after supper she tells him Antonia's sad story.
Antonia, eager to be married, spent much of the summer in preparation. On the Widow's sewing machine
she made clothes and underclothes, trimming them with lace her mother made for her. Larry wrote her
often. One letter said he'd been transferred to a different "run," or train route, and they would
be based in Denver. This momentarily crushed Antonia, who wanted a farm life. Finally Larry summoned
her to Denver. Ambrosch, who gave her a set of silverware and a generous check for $300 as a wedding
present, drove her with three trunks to town. On the way they stopped so she could say good-bye to the
Widow, and Antonia also whispered, "Good-bye, dear house!" probably thinking of happy
times with the Burdens. (You may remember her father's contentment in that house a short while before
When she arrived in Denver, Antonia wrote Mrs. Steavens that they would be married when Larry got
his promotion. However, over a month later, mournful and disgraced, the once-hopeful bride-to-be was
back at home. It seemed that Donovan didn't have a job after all. He'd been fired and blacklisted. He had
also been sick, lived off her $300 until it was gone, and then disappeared to Mexico to get rich cheating
the railroad company. Now Antonia is not married and is going to have a baby.
The Widow had cried to hear this story. She could have seen this fate for Lena, but not for Antonia,
who "had so much good in her."
NOTE: A QUIRK OF FATE?
Lena, though she often gave her affections easily, cherished her
independence, and never became involved enough with anyone to threaten her freedom. In contrast,
Antonia's deepest need was to love someone and to be a mother. She wanted this so much that she was
blind to Larry Donovan's unsuitability, and became pregnant. To the Widow Steavens, this outcome seems
like a cruel quirk of fate, but you may see it as an indication of Antonia's desire to be part of a loving
During the spring and summer the pregnant girl worked in the fields for Ambrosch. (Marek had
grown violent and had been sent to an institution.) Antonia never went to town because she didn't want to
see anyone she knew. She had toothaches, but wouldn't go to a dentist. Mrs. Steavens was the only one
who went to see her. Once the Widow suggested to Ambrosch that by working so hard the girl would lose
her self-respect. Ambrosch responded angrily that the Widow should keep those ideas to herself.
Ambrosch was obviously the boss, so she stayed away after that. In the fall when Antonia was herding
cattle, Mrs. Steavens would sometimes meet her on the prairie and talk. Antonia liked to soak up the
autumn sun. She reminisced to the Widow about her father and the old days of playing with Jim on the
In winter Antonia dressed in heavy men's clothes. One day in December, after herding her cattle in
the snow, she went into her room, closed her door, and delivered her baby alone. Her mother came to
fetch the Widow, who took care of the newborn. When the Widow showed it to Ambrosch, his response
was to "put it out in the rain-barrel"- his way of saying the whole situation was a disgrace and
But the baby did well. It's now a year and eight months old, and Antonia loves it "as dearly as
if she had a ring on her finger." Mrs. Steavens calls her a natural-born mother, but says there's little
hope now of her being able to marry and have a family.
The next day Jim walks over to see his old friend. She is thin and her face has a strong new
seriousness, but she has the same deep color in her cheeks that has always made her look healthy and
They walk to her father's gravesite, and Jim pours out all his plans and dreams. She realizes that his
studying law and then working in New York City may mean she won't see him again. But she won't lose
him. She will keep him alive in her heart, as she's done with her father's memory:"... he is more real
to me than almost anybody else." Antonia feels her own purpose in life is to give her little girl a
better chance than she had. Also, she knows she belongs in the country, "where all the ground is
Moved by her assuredness as well as her love for the child and the land, Jim suddenly confesses his
feelings for her; he thinks of her more than anyone else from his youth. Her personality continues to
influence him. "I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister-
anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind."
She is overwhelmed and pleased. Their shared past means much to her, too. As they start homeward,
the richly described sunset reminds us of other sunsets they've shared.
NOTE: WHY DON'T JIM AND ANTONIA MARRY?
What prevents Jim from asking Tony to
marry him? Several intangible barriers stand in their way, and neither considers the possibility. She's four
years older, they're from different social classes, and he's now far more educated than she is. Though Jim
admires Tony more than anyone else he's ever met, he must believe they would not be happy living
together. The very fact that they do not plan to marry perhaps frees them to be such close friends.
This scene, like other important ones in the novel, shows several different emotions happening at
once. The two friends are glad to see each other, but sad to be parting. Jim's excited about his plans, but
wishes he "could be a little boy again...." He holds Antonia's hands against his breast for a
long time in what might be called their most romantic moment, yet they both know they will never be
lovers. Though they have reaffirmed their close friendship, they might not ever see each other again,
despite Jim's promise to come back.
BOOK V: CUZAK'S BOYS
Twenty years pass. Jim learns that Antonia married a Bohemian named Anton Cuzak. They are poor
and hard-working with a large family. Jim's afraid to part with his cherished memory of her strength and
beauty, so he avoids going to see her.
Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard live in San Francisco, both successful, independent, and unmarried.
When Jim visits them, Lena urges him to go and see Antonia. So on his way back East he rents a buggy
and team of horses and finds the Cuzak farm.
Face to face with Antonia, Jim is deeply moved. Though work-worn and older, her eyes still show
"the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished." For a moment she doesn't
recognize him because he's standing against the light from the doorway. Then, ecstatic to see him, she
calls her children round her.
There are eleven in all. The eldest girl, Martha, whom Jim had seen as a baby, is married and living
on her own farm. The eldest boy, Rudolph, is away at the fair in Wilbur, with his father. (Antonia has no
trouble persuading Jim to stay overnight until they return.) Two helpful teenaged girls are Anna and
Yulka. Three of the older boys are Ambrosch, Anton, and Charley. Leo is the devilish twelve-year-old
whom his mother loves best of them all. The youngest three are Lucie, Jan, and Nina.
Sitting in the kitchen, Jim and Antonia chat together. Though she has lost her youth and quite a few
of her teeth, she has not lost what other people lose, her "inner glow... the fire of life." She
seems to Jim like her old self, and he feels young again with her.
They all go to look at the family's new fruit cave, an underground storage room for home-canned
goods. The small children, who don't speak English, point out all the jars. It takes a lot of food to keep
this big family going. "It's no wonder their poor papa can't get rich," says Antonia. Jim and
Antonia leave the cave first and the little ones run out after them, "a veritable explosion of life out of
the dark cave into the sunlight."
NOTE: THE FRUIT CAVE
Cather experienced this very scene in the fruit cave at the farm of
Annie Sadilek Pavelka, on whom the character of Antonia is based. The author claims it was at that
moment she knew she would write the novel. The image of life emerging out of a dark cave is a central
symbol for several reasons. The Shimerdas lived in a "cave" (their dugout) at first, and the
hardships there contributed to Mr. Shimerda's suicide. Also, Antonia has emerged from her
"dark" trouble and shame to the "sunlight" of happy fulfillment.
The Cuzak farm is well managed and pleasant. The ten children have been trained to help. As they
tour the property, Jim notes the names of all the plants and animals as he has at other times in the
narrative when he feels especially close to the earth. In the sheltered apple orchard Antonia tells him how
she and her husband worked hard to make a farm. She remarks that since she's had children she doesn't
like to kill anything, even an old goose she's going to roast. (Do you remember Grandmother Burden
feeling "friendly to the animals" early in the book?)
Despite the struggle to make ends meet, Antonia says she's happy on the farm. In town, she
sometimes used to be sad. Perhaps, suggests Jim, she should never have gone to town. But Tony insists
that she learned from Mrs. Harling how to keep house and bring up children well. She learned a lot from
working in someone else's home, but she's glad her own daughters will never have to.
Jim goes with Anton and Ambrosch to milk the cows. The older boys treat Jim as if they have always
known him- and indeed Antonia has talked about him often. Jim tells the boys he "was very much
in love with your mother once, and I know there's nobody like her." With his old possessiveness,
he lectures the boys to be considerate and appreciative of her.
After supper Leo is persuaded to play his grandfather's violin. He obviously has inherited talent and
sensitivity from Mr. Shimerda- and his grandmother's critical skepticism. He is a restless, wild boy with a
sharp tongue but a winning sense of humor and passion for life. He's somewhat competitive with Jim for
his mother's attention (and it seems from his description of the boy that Jim might slightly resent Leo's
place in Antonia's heart).
As she shows Jim her photograph collection, Antonia's children crowd close around her, making an
almost photographic real-life grouping. Here are pictures of the three Bohemian Marys, all formerly
known as "dynamite," now steady farm wives. Here are Lena, Frances, and Mr. Harling.
Here, too, is a photo of Jake, Otto, and Jim, which brings back many memories.
That night Jim sleeps in the hayloft with Ambrosch and Leo. As he lies looking at the stars through a
big window, he thinks about this striking family. They leave vivid pictures in his mind, just as Antonia
has always done, images "that grew stronger with time." Antonia has a strong body and a
strong heart. To Jim she represents activities and ideas "which we recognize by instinct as universal
Antonia has kept Jim's memory fresh in her heart as she said she would. Clearly, he has done the
same with her image. They represent the happy past for each other. More than that, he sees her as almost
mythically fulfilled: "a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." This is especially
meaningful because he has no children of his own.
Awakening in the sunny barn, Jim enjoys secretly watching Leo, who, like his mother, "seemed
conscious of possessing a keener power of enjoyment than other people." After breakfast Antonia
tells Jim how sad she had felt when Martha got married. They'd never spent a night apart. The family
was so close that the other children hadn't known Martha was not their full sister until her engagement.
In the mid-afternoon, Papa Cuzak returns from the fair with Rudolph. Antonia's husband is short,
with one shoulder higher than the other- "a crumpled little man"- but he is lively and
friendly. Jim immediately likes him and his tall son. They are full of stories about the tightrope dancer
and Ferris wheel at the Bohemian fair. As Cuzak tells his wife in Bohemian all the greetings from people
she knows, Jim drops back and observes them. They seem friendly and comfortable together. Cuzak
watches for her responses to everything he says.
In the kitchen Cuzak brings presents out of his pockets for the children. He seems gentle and very
fond of them and also amused that there are so many. He has brought Bohemian newspapers home. One
news item involves the singer Maria Vasak. She is from Cuzak's own section of Prague (now the capital
of Czechoslovakia), and he's delighted to learn that Jim has heard her sing in Europe.
At dinner Rudolph tells Jim the story of Wick Cutter, who turned out to be more wicked than anyone
would have thought. In his old age, his fear that his wife's relatives would inherit his money became an
obsession. Two years ago he bought a pistol. He shot his wife at five in the afternoon, wrote a letter
stating that he had survived her, and then shot himself at six. He managed to fire a second shot through
the window, and point out to the passersby who came running that he had survived his wife and was the
sole heir. Thus, adds Rudolph, he "killed himself for spite"- surely a strange thing. Cutter's
fortune turned out to be $100,000 (a huge amount of money in those days), and much of it went to the
lawyers who handled the estate.
When they first met, Jim had the impression Cuzak knew all about him. Now, after supper, Cuzak
tells Jim his own story. After bad luck in the fur business in New York and the orange business in
Florida, he came to Nebraska to visit his cousin, Anton Jelinek (who was so helpful at Mr. Shimerda's
funeral and later ran a respectable saloon in Black Hawk). He fell in love with Antonia and they were
married immediately (in contrast with Larry Donovan, who had kept putting her off). Turning the prairie
sod into farmland was tough, but Antonia was strong enough for both of them- and anyway babies kept
coming, so they had to stick at it. A city man, Anton never thought he'd settle permanently in one place,
especially a farm. But it's clear he's still in love with his wife. It is a testimony to her powers of attraction
to have kept him contented for all these years.
NOTE: ANTONIA'S FULFILLMENT
"Cuzak had been made the instrument of Antonia's
special mission," writes Jim, meaning that Cuzak allowed himself to be fitted into her earthy vision
of a thriving family and fruitful farm. Some readers have referred to Antonia as an earth mother because
she seems to represent fertility, harvest, and harmony with nature. She has almost bewitched Cuzak, who
wonders at how quickly the years have passed.
Leaving the Cuzak farm the next day, Jim waves good-bye to Antonia and her children, who make
another memorable picture grouped by the windmill. Thoughtful, affectionate Ambrosch opens the gate
for the buggy, and Jim hates to leave him. Jim has made a plan to take the older boys hunting at the
Niobrara (a river in northern Nebraska) which he is looking forward to as much as they are.
On the way home he spends a disappointing day in Black Hawk, where very few of the people from
his youth remain. Walking out to the edge of town, he finds a half-mile stretch of the old wagon-road
"which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie." Out there he experiences once
again the beauty of sunset and autumn (recurring images). The memory of his first ride over that road
comes to him strongly. Now he feels that this road has brought him and Antonia back together. It is
"the road of Destiny" along which their lives have traveled. "I had the sense of coming
home to myself," he writes, "and of realizing, in the context of the vast prairie, what a little
circle man's experience is." Now, looking back on it all, Jim believes, "Whatever we had
missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."
NOTE: "THE INCOMMUNICABLE PAST"
Is the past incapable of being described
or explained, as this quote implies? Jim's manuscript seems to contradict its own last sentence. Full of
nostalgia, it richly evokes the places, people, and emotions of his past- which is to a large extent Cather's
Jim's memories of Antonia are strong, and his visit with her strengthens his feelings even more. She
is his oldest friend. That alone would make her precious, but in addition she has become a symbol of
endurance, love, and the values of the pioneer way of life. She has also created "enough Cuzaks to
play with for a long while yet," and through them Jim has already begun to rediscover the happiness
of his lost boyhood.
A STEP BEYOND
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