Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 2 Chapters 13 14 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 2, Chapters 13–14 : The Hired Girls | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, Chapter 13

Jim finds his grandmother crying one day, and he guesses correctly she knows of his secret behavior. He promises to stop, although he claims there is nothing wrong with going to the dances or with the people who attend. Without the dances, he is bored and lonely despite devoting time to studying to get ahead for college in the fall. Frances says Mrs. Harling doesn't understand why Jim prefers the country girls to town girls, and Frances believes Jim romanticizes the hired girls by putting "a kind of glamour over them." Jim surprises everyone by giving a powerful speech at his commencement. Ántonia says it is better than any lawyer in the town could give and wishes her father could have heard it, and Jim tells her he thought of Mr. Shimerda as he wrote it. Jim in his account of his life says the success of his speech "pulled at [his] heart strings" more than another accomplishment.

Book 2, Chapter 14

Jim now is driven to move to the upstairs room of his house and focus on his studies in preparation for college. He took only one real break and that was a trip to the river with Ántonia, Tiny, Lena, and Anna Hansen. Jim swims in the river he realizes he will miss when he goes away, and the girls arrive with a wagon. They plan to collect elder flowers to make wine. The scent of the flower makes Ántonia think of Bohemia, where they had elderflowers in their yard. She asks Jim if her father's spirit "can go back to those old places," and Jim tells her of the feeling he had after Mr. Shimerda's death that his spirit was indeed "on his way back to his own country." Jim promises he will one day go back to Ántonia's home village. The girls reflect on how the life of immigrants is difficult and how they try to help their families. Lena vows to get her mother out of the sod house because "the men will never do it." She plans to start her own business in a new town. They all play games, and Jim tells the story of the Spanish explorers to the area. The sun begins to set, silhouetting a single plow against its redness. As the sun disappears, so too does the "forgotten plough ... to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie."

Analysis

In Chapter 13 the author shows Jim maturing. He rejects his grandparents' opinions about his choice of associating with immigrants at the Firemen's Hall, but he respects their feelings, denying his own desire to go. He doesn't feel obliged to follow their plans for his future career either, but instead works hard make his own path, writing a speech than ends up impressing everyone. His commencement speech, praised by Ántonia as better than any lawyer in Black Hawk could have done, is the first evidence readers see of the career path he chooses for himself. From the Introduction, readers recall that Jim becomes a successful lawyer for the railway. He buckles down to study and sets himself the goal of being ahead of the game when he gets to college. These are wise decisions that require self-discipline and self-control. They are not the choices of a mischievous boy or a reckless teenager. Jim is growing up.

The trip to the river with the hired girls is a glorious afternoon that exudes nostalgia. Everything about the day is tinged with fond memories, from the idyllic country setting that Jim knows he will miss, to the very topics of conversation. They talk about how life was when they first arrived, new to the country. They talk about their families. The smell of the flowers reminds Ántonia of her homeland and her father. The girls listen as Jim talks about the Spanish explorer who once came to the area. The past suffuses the day as Cather paints a bittersweet picture of the end of Jim's adolescence. It is his last summer before the major change of leaving for college.

The author creates another iconic image, perhaps the most well-known and most memorable image in the novel, in Chapter 14. The black silhouette of the lonely plough against the fiery setting sun in the expanse of the vast, empty prairie, is an image that represents the melancholy the author feels for the vanished world of her childhood. The prairie as it was in Nebraska in the late 19th century had all but disappeared by the time of the publication of the novel, just as the plough disappears as the sun goes down. The vanishing plough also signals an ending of sorts for Jim and his developing life, as the author signals yet another shift in the novel.

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