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Free Study Guide-My Antonia by Willa Cather-Free Online Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

BOOK 2 - THE HIRED GIRLS

CHAPTER 12

Summary

After Antonia moves into the Cutters’ house, she spends all her time in preparation for dances or at them. Lena helps her make dresses that are exact imitations of those worn by the women of means in the town, but with cheaper materials. She spends all her time with Tiny, Lena and Norwegian Anna. Jim remembers that the high school boys would gather by the fence to watch this group of hired women passing by. Now that he is a senior in high school, he can leave school early. He likes to go downtown and find the hired women and buy ice cream for them. One day Tiny Soderball made him angry by teasing him about growing up to be come a Baptist preacher. Antonia says she wants him to be a doctor since he is so nice that he would be good with sick people. He tells them he might just turn out to be "a regular devil of a fellow." Jim knows people are beginning to gossip about him since he shows no interest in girls his own age, but is very lively when he is with these women.

People in Black Hawk continue to be interested in dancing even when the Vannis leave town. They set up dances at the Owl Club and give dances in the Masonic Hall. Jim is restless and doesn’t want to be around people he sees every day. Charley Harling has gone off to Annapolis and Jim feels he has been left behind to be bored. He has nothing to do now in the evenings since Mrs. Harling is cool towards him since he continues to be Antonia’s friend. He walks around the town in the evenings looking for something to do. For a while he goes to Anton Jelinek’s newly opened saloon, but one day Anton asks him not to come any more since it puts him in a bad light with Jim’s conservative grandfather.


There are many people in town whom Jim can talk to. There are the old men in the drugstore who sit around talking politics and telling sexual stories. There is an Old German who raises canaries and likes to talk taxidermy. There is the telegrapher at the depot who is always working on getting transferred to a larger town and who collects pictures of actresses and actors. There’s also the station agent who also wants to get out of Black Hawk. Sometimes he would walk downtown in the poor neighborhoods. He thinks of how the houses look frail, but they contain explosive human emotions--jealousy, envy, and unhappiness. For Jim, "The life that went on in town seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny." Under these conditions, people guard everything they say and even the looks on their faces. He thinks of them as living like mice in their homes, trying not to be heard or seen.

Jim refuses to join the Owls’ Club and decides to go to the Saturday night dances at the Fireman’s Hall. He doesn’t tell his grandparents who he knows want him to socialize only with people of his own class and ethnicity. Since his bedroom is on the ground floor, he sets up on Saturday nights as if he is going to study and then slips out the window when his grandparents have gone to sleep. He looks forward to these dances all week long. All the hired women go there. These include the four Danish girls who work in the Danish laundry. The laundry man is a sweet man who seems perfectly contented with life. He treats the hired women as if they were daughters. His own daughter died when she was just growing up. Jim thinks these women look prettiest when they are working in the laundry.

At the dances, Tony and Lena were the most popular girls to dance with. Lena was indolent in her dancing, seeming to be moving in a waking dream. Tony was energetic and skillful, teaching Jim all the best ways to dance to the music. She often went to these dances with Larry Donovan, a railway conductor, who has a reputation as a womanizer. One night, he is out of town and Jim gets to take her home. When they get to her yard, he tells her she has to kiss him good night. She agrees then is shocked that he is serious. He tells her Lena Lingard lets him kiss her like that and that he is more fond of Antonia. Antonia tells him he must not sit around town all his life, but must go off to college and make something of himself. He tells her he isn’t interested in the Swedes, but is interested in her. She, though, will always treat him like a kid. She laughs and says it’s true. She says Lena is all right, but is soft in the area of letting men fondle her.

Jim feels proud as he walks home since Antonia is so proud of him. He thinks of her as his Antonia, with the true heart. He thinks of all the young men of his set scornfully and thinks he alone seems to know "where the real women" are. He hates to go back into the still house knowing he’ll be awake for hours. It usually takes him time to get to a state of relaxed sleep. Then he has pleasurable dreams. One of them recurs. He is in a harvest field and lying against a haystack. Lena Lingard comes up to him barefoot and sits down beside him saying "Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like." He always wishes it were Antonia rather than Lena he dreams of.

Notes

This is a special chapter in the novel. In it, Jim is more meditative as a narrator than he usually is. It is a description of the restlessness of his age. He is a senior in high school and feels as if he is still a boy, but with the desires of someone more mature. The chapter even ends with a description of a recurring sexual dream Jim has about Lena Lingard, whom he wishes his imagination would replace with Antonia.

Here we get the map of Jim Burden’s moral world, and where he locates himself in it. It is very much tied up, at least at this point in his youth, with women and the class divisions between the hired girls and the middle-class girls. It seems that his decision to side with the hired girls is a larger decision than the fact that they are in his opinion prettier, livelier, and more interesting. It is also that he is choosing not to conform to the social world of the newly forming Midwest bourgeoisie. For example, when he wants to go to dances, his grandfather says that if he must go, he should go to the Masonic Hall "among ‘the people we knew.’"

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