Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 2 Chapters 5 6 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 2, Chapters 5–6 : The Hired Girls | Summary



Book 2, Chapter 5

Jim sometimes encounters Lena running errands for her employer, and she tells him about dresses she is making or her Saturday evenings with Tiny Soderball at the Boys' Home, the hotel frequented by traveling salesmen who come into town on the train. The salesmen often leave Tiny small gifts, and she gives extras to Lena. The two young women like to sit outside the parlor doors in the hotel on Saturday nights to hear the songs and conversations of the guests. The life of a traveling salesman seems glamorous to Lena.

Lena's younger brother Chris comes to town to shop for Christmas, and she helps him pick out handkerchiefs for their mother. She is sad to see him leave to go back to the farm. She misses her family.

Book 2, Chapter 6

In the bleak winter Jim enjoys the warmth and light of pleasant evenings spent at the Harlings. The children put on plays, and Ántonia makes sweet treats. One night Ántonia tells them the story of a tramp who came by when she was threshing wheat at the Iverson farm. He asked to work on top of the threshing machine, waved to Ántonia, and suddenly committed suicide by throwing himself headfirst into it. She can't imagine why anyone would kill himself when everything is pleasant as it is in summer. Jim notes how much alike Ántonia and Mrs. Harling are.


The author further develops the character of Lena in Chapter 5. In town Lena enjoys not only her own relative independence but also the glimpses she gets through the parlor door of the lives of people, like traveling salesmen, who have even more freedom. The rootless existence of visiting city after city on the train is very appealing to her. However, although she is much happier living in town than she had been on the farm, Lena does miss her family and feels great affection for her younger siblings.

Ántonia's story about the suicide of the tramp in Chapter 6 serves as foil for the suicide of her father. Readers are forced to remember Mr. Shimerda's suicide because Ántonia cannot imagine what would make anyone feel so desperate in the middle of a beautiful summer. Mr. Shimerda's desperation and loneliness along with the harsh conditions of his life are perhaps more understandable to readers than the tramp's, about whom they know less; but as with all suicides, the characters as well as readers are left wondering why. By including not one but two suicides in the novel, and by placing the story in the tranquil, warm setting of the Harling kitchen while Ántonia makes treats for children, Cather contrasts ease and desperation, good and evil, peaceful and traumatizing—a technique she uses through the novel.

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