Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 2 Chapters 1 2 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 2, Chapters 1–2 : The Hired Girls | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, Chapter 1

Jim's grandparents decide to move to town for their own reasons. Otto and Jake help them move into their new home in Black Hawk before they take a train to "the wild west." Jim reflects on how brotherly they have been toward him and how faithfully they worked for the Burdens. Apart from a single letter from Otto, Jim never hears from them again.

In town, the Burden house is a stopping point for many of their friends from the country, and Jim enjoys the social interaction. He becomes acquainted with the ways of town boys, but his mischief is limited by his neighbor Mrs. Harling, who won't let him play with her children if he misbehaves. Mrs. Steavens, who is renting the Burdens' farm, tells them news of Ántonia. Ambrosch hires her out "like a man" to work on other farms. Mrs. Burden arranges for Mrs. Harling to hire Ántonia to spare her this kind of work.

Book 2, Chapter 2

Mrs. Harling is an energetic, straightforward, friendly woman. Her husband is often away for work, so she runs the household and her oldest daughter Frances manages the office in town for her father. Three of the Harling children are near Jim's age: Charley, Julia, and Sally. Mrs. Harling caters to Charley, although Frances takes more interest in the family business and is very good at it. Jim notes that Sally, "a tomboy" and an athletic girl with short hair and tanned skin, is "uncannily clever at all boys' sports."

Mrs. Harling and Frances laugh as they tell Mrs. Burden about their negotiations with Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch over hiring Ántonia. It seems Ambrosch wants "every cent of his sister's wages," but Mrs. Harling insists a portion of her pay be kept for her own use. Mrs. Harling is confident Ántonia will be a good worker and find the Harling home a happy one.

Analysis

Chapter 1 serves as a transition between Book 1 and Book 2. The Burdens leave their farm in the country, taking a new house in town. They say goodbye to Jake and Otto. The reflection that Jim will never know what happens to his two dear friends adds a bittersweet note to the ending of this part of the novel as well as the close to this part of his childhood. Jim is learning about the inevitability of loss. Life goes on as the Burdens say hello to new friends like the Harlings in Black Hawk. Jim becomes a town boy. The final sentence of the chapter introduces readers to the topic of Book 1, which is the role of Ántonia as a hired girl of the Harlings.

Cather explores gender roles here, specifically women and girls who break expected norms, in both chapters. Readers have already seen Ántonia's work in the fields characterized as unseemly and too manly in earlier chapters. In Chapter 1 Mrs. Burden wishes to "save" Ántonia from what she sees as a stigma of a woman doing men's work by finding her a job that she believes is more appropriate for a woman. Another woman who challenges gender expectation in her choice of work is Frances Harling. Her work managing her father's town office, making all manner of business decisions with skill, isn't condemned as inappropriate, although the inclusion of its detailed description suggests it was an unusual role for a girl at the very least. Perhaps this role is not condemned, while that of Ántonia is, because Frances's work is not physical. She also has the approval of her father to take on the role. It is implied that Mr. Shimerda would never have allowed Ántonia to do such work. Sally in her way receives the label of "tomboy" for her athletic skills and rejection of demure, feminine behavior. She wears her hair short and lets her skin be tanned, rather than protecting her fair complexion by wearing a hat as would have been expected of young women. Expectations of distinct gender roles are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the label of "boys' sports" for the events at which Sally excels. Not only does she insert herself into a male arena of a variety of unnamed sports events, she is really good at them. Cather will include additional women who challenge gender expectations and thrive as the novel progresses.

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