My Antonia Book II, Chapters 1-8 Summary and Analysis

Willa Cather

Book II, Chapters 1-8 Summary and Analysis

Book II, Chapter I Summary

When Jim is thirteen, his grandfather decides to rent the farm and move into town. Otto and Jake won't be able to come with them, so after the move the two men leave for the "wild West," where Jake hopes to find a silver mine in Colorado. The Burdens fear for Jake's safety in particular, but can't convince him to stay in their Christian community. Jim never sees them again.

In town, Jim's grandfather becomes a deacon at the Baptist church, and his grandmother becomes involved with missionary societies. Jim goes to school in town, where he meets boys his own age and learns how to fight, tease, and play keeps, which he'd never done before, having lived on the farm for three years.

Paradoxically, the Burdens see more of their country neighbors in town than they ever did in the country. Jim keeps hoping that Antonia will come visit, but she doesn't. Eventually, Grandmother gets Antonia a job working in town so she doesn't have to work on the farm that winter.

Book II, Chapter I Analysis

Allusions

Yankee Girl Mine. A real galena and silver mine discovered in 1882. Otto and Jake go to work in it after leaving the Burdens. Their fate remains uncertain.

Themes

Age. In this chapter, Jim's grandparents grow too old for farm work just as Jim grows old enough to go to school in town, instead of in the sod schoolhouse in the country. Coming of age means change for Jim, who believes that he has become "quite another boy" because of it. Though he remains a sensitive young man, he learns how to fight and play games, and this changes him forever.

Friendship. Moving to town means new friends for Jim, who has never had friends his own age. On the farm, he spent much of his time with Otto and Jake, who had to soften their adult language around him, and with Antonia, who always treated him like a child. Now he has male friends to play with and picks up mannerisms that have an obvious effect on his character.

Book II, Chapter II Summary

The Burdens love their new neighbors, the Harlings. Mr. Harling runs a successful business. Mrs. Harling employs Antonia as a cook. Jim befriends the Harling children, Frances, Charley, Sally, and Julia. Frances helps her father run the family grain business, and Charley intends to go to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Antonia works in the house.

When Jim's grandmother first suggests that the Harlings hire Antonia, Mrs. Harling goes to visit the Shimerdas. She wants to know where Antonia came from and how she was raised before she hires the girl. Though Jim isn't privy to the details of the visit, he knows that it went well because Mrs. Harling is laughing when she comes back. She found Mrs. Shimerda charming and amusing and agrees to pay Antonia three dollars a week to be a cook.

Book II, Chapter II Analysis

Themes

Gender. This chapter introduces a curious twist to Cather's development of the theme of gender. Frances Harling, the eldest daughter, helps her father run the business and displays an extraordinary level of business acumen. She's praised for this, despite the fact that it subverts traditional gender roles in Black Hawk. Meanwhile, Mrs. Harling explicitly says that she wants to soften Antonia's rough edges and teach her to be more feminine, after all her years of farmwork.

Book II, Chapter III Summary

Antonia proves to be a good fit for the Harlings. She loves the children, and Mrs. Harling doesn't mind that much when Antonia gets distracted from her work and goes to play. Jim, the Harlings, and Antonia have a lot of fun together when Mr. Harling is away. When he's home, however, he demands that they all be quiet. Somehow, Mrs. Harling finds time to practice piano every day.

Book II, Chapter III Analysis

Motifs

Music. Once again, music lightens the atmosphere in what might otherwise by a tense or sad situation. Mr. Harling demands silence when he's at home, which makes the joyful noise that Mrs. Harling and the children make when he's gone all the more satisfying.

Symbols

Mr. Harling's Clothes. Mr. Harling dresses himself in a way that seems both fastidious and self-important. He's proud of his success in business and likes to think that it gives him power over the other citizens of Black Hawk. His clothes (and, in particular, the diamond ring he wears on his little finger) are symbols of his wealth and arrogance.

Mrs. Harling's Piano. This piano is a clear symbol of joy and freedom. When the children play on it, they're celebrating Mr. Harling's absence. When Mrs. Harling plays, she partakes in what may her greatest pleasure in life.

Book II, Chapter IV Summary

One day, while Antonia is mixing batter for a cake, Lena Lingard knocks on the door. She works for Mrs. Thomas, the town's dressmaker, and consequently wears very nice clothes that make her look like a different person. She was dating a young man named Nick, but now she just wants to enjoy herself. She never wants to marry. She asks Antonia to come see her sometime so they can go out on the town, but Antonia demures. She knows Lena has a reputation.

Lena grew up in the Norwegian settlement nearby. She hated farm work and took to knitting and keeping house. She was well-mannered and gentle, but didn't shy away from the attention of men and was even accused of having an inappropriate relationship with Ole Benson, whose wife once escaped from an asylum. Lena was still young then, but everyone talked about the relationship as if it was a real love affair. Ole's wife Mary threatened Lena with a knife on several occasions, but that didn't stop Ole from coming to see Lena.

Book II, Chapter IV Analysis

Simile

Cather uses a simile when she says Mary's feet were "as hard as hoofs."

Symbols

Lena's Clothes. In this chapter, Cather uses different styles of clothing as symbols of Lena's perceived innocence or impropriety. When she's wearing rags, she's a poor, sweet girl who would never in her life lead a man astray. When she's dressed up in fine clothes, she's a potential temptress with the power to drive even married men crazy. Like Mr. Harding's diamond ring, Lena's clothes are in some way a symbol of her social status.

Themes

Innocence. In a flashback, Jim describes Lena as a gentle girl with good manners and a fondness for knitting socks. Her violet eyes and sleepy gaze make her seem perfectly innocent, but her indifference to the gossip about her suggests that she's anything but.

Book II, Chapter V Summary

Jim often meets up with Lena in town. Lena spends much of her time with Tiny Soderball, a wild woman with whom she rides trains and go to shows in the city. One afternoon, Jim sees Lena and her little brother Chris standing in front of a town store. Chris buys monogrammed handkerchiefs for his mother for Christmas. After he leaves, Lena tells Jim that she sometimes feels homesick.

Book II, Chapter V Analysis

Motifs

Music. With the disappearance of Otto, Cather must rely on other characters to weave the motif of music through the novel. Mrs. Harling and her children picked up this motif beautifully when they were introduced, and now a young man named Anson Kirkpatrick builds on it by playing piano in the hotel where Tiny and Lena like to socialize. His "sentimental songs" no doubt set the mood for a number of romantic encounters.

Symbols

Gifts. There are several different gifts in this chapter: the gifts that men bestow on Tiny, the excess gifts that Tiny bestows on Lena, and the monogrammed handkerchiefs Chris buys for his mother, Mrs. Lingard. With the exception of Chris's handkerchiefs, the gifts are all symbols of the "loose" kind of behavior that gives Lena and Tiny bad reputations. The handkerchiefs symbolize Chris's love for his mother.

Book II, Chapter VI Summary

Winter hits Black Hawk hard. Jim hates that the world has gone gray and cold and describes the harsh winter light as the light of "truth," which mocks him for believing that the world was ever anything other than a desolate place. He hangs around town after school and enjoys standing in front of the church's stained glass, soaking in the colors. In the evenings, he goes to the Harlings' house to listen to music.

One night, Antonia tells Jim and the Harlings the story of a tramp who approached her while she was working in the fields. This tramp was obviously crazy, but Ole Iverson let him cut bands for the thresher. Without warning, the tramp threw himself into the thresher and was beaten to death inside the machine. They never found out who he was. This story upsets Nina Harling, but Mrs. Harling doesn't mind it. She and Antonia are alike in many ways.

Book II, Chapter VI Analysis

Allusions

Martha by Friedrich von Flotow. A romantic comic opera adapted from a ballet. First performed in 1847 and revived several times in the Twentieth Century, Martha enjoyed widespread popularity when it premiered and remains von Flotow's best known work.

Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. One of Bellini's most famous operas, the title role of Norma has been performed by such operatic luminaries as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Mrs. Harling relates the story of Norma and her children while playing well-known pieces from the opera for her own family.

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi. In Rigoletto, the Duke of Mantua and his hunchbacked servant, Rigoletto, fall under the curse of one of the Duke's former conquests. This tragicomedy is widely regarded as one of Verdi's finest operas and is frequently performed today.

Motifs

Colors. Once again, Jim associates color with warmth, vitality, and summer. He writes that "a hunger for colour" came over him, and that he would often stand in front of the church just to be near the stained glass. This bright splash of color offsets the bleak whites and grays of winter.

Simile

Jim compares the harsh light of winter to "the light of truth itself."

Themes

Suicide. Though the story of the tramp's suicide amounts to little more than an anecdote, it is nevertheless a thematically significant element of this chapter, because it echoes Mr. Shimerda's suicide. This tramp was obviously tired of being poor and hungry, just like Mr. Shimerda, and was looking for an opportunity to end his suffering. Unlike Mr. Shimerda's death, however, the tramp's suicide is completely undignified, and Antonia shows little sympathy for him.

Book II, Chapter VII Summary

Jim and the Harling children often go skating at night and build big bonfires on the island in the frozen river. They're briefly distracted from the dreariness of it all when Blind d'Arnaut, a famed African American pianist, comes to Black Hawk to give a concert. Blind d'Arnaut grew up on a plantation, where he was named Samson by his mother, Martha. He learned piano as a boy after listening to his mistress, Miss Nellie, taking a piano lesson. Miss Nellie encouraged his playing, and Blind d'Arnaut quickly became a prodigy.

During one of d'Arnaut's concerts, Tiny, Antonia, and the other girls start waltzing together in the next room. Anson Kirkpatrick asks them why they won't dance with the men. Tony tells him that Mrs. Gardener, their boss and the proprietor of the establishment, wouldn't like it. She happens to be out of town that day, however, so the girls decide to break the rules this once. They dance into the night, until d'Arnaut leaves and they have to go home.

Book II, Chapter VII Analysis

Allusions

Edwin Booth and Lawrence Barrett. Two stage actors from the 1800s. Mrs. Gardener goes to Omaha to see them perform.

"My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" by Stephen Foster. An anti-slavery ballad composed around 1852. This is an appropriate song for Blind d'Arnaut to sing, given that he himself grew up a slave.

Samson. One of the judges of the ancient Israelites. According to the Bible, Samson had two weaknesses: untrustworthy women and his hair, which gave him his strength. He's perhaps best known for his relationship with Delilah, who nagged him into revealing the truth about his hair. She then shore off his hair and handed him over to the Philistines, who blinded him. This is why Blind d'Arnaut was named Samson at birth.

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare's tragedies, The Winter's Tale dramatizes the story of King Leontes, who has turned against his best friend, King Polixenes. Leontes orders that his wife Helena be imprisoned and that his infant daughter be left to die in the wilderness. According to Mrs. Gardener, there's a production of The Winter's Tale in London.

Symbols

The Piano. For Blind d'Arnaut, the piano symbolizes freedom, both physical and spiritual, from slavery. He learned to play the piano on a plantation, but his talent as a pianist allowed him to escape slavery and pursue a career in music.

Book II, Chapter VIII Summary

Summer comes, and with it a relief from the boredom of winter. Three Italians arrive in town and hop around, working on any farm that'll take them. A dancing pavilion opens up, and Jim and his friends spend every Saturday and some afternoons dancing together, despite the heat. The Vannis run the dancing pavilion and are strict enough that the dancing never becomes rowdy or obscene. Everyone has a good time.

Book II, Chapter VIII Analysis

Allusions

"Home, Sweet Home." A popular song written in the 1800s by Sir Henry Bishop.

Motifs

Music. In this chapter, music (and the dancing that goes along with it) acts as a great equalizer, bringing together, bringing together people from different social groups, age groups, and professions. The dances are joyous without being raucous, happy without being overly indulgent, and fun without being degrading.