Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 2 Chapters 7 8 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 2, Chapters 7–8 : The Hired Girls | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, Chapter 7

Ántonia, Jim, and friends gather at the Boys' Home one evening to hear a traveling "mulatto" musician called Blind d'Arnault, who is from "the Far South ... where the spirit if not the fact of slavery persisted." An illness in infancy took his eyesight, but from a young age he proved to have amazing skills on the piano, sneaking through a window when he was a "simple" young "pickaninny," to play the instrument in "the big house" of the plantation owner, Mr. d'Arnault. Musical teachers found his talent remarkable, judging him "a negro prodigy who played barbarously and wonderfully." His disability and head shape make his appearance "repulsive," but Jim thinks the man is happy enough; and indeed when he begins to play the piano Jim thinks he is "enjoying himself as only a negro can." D'Arnault plays "old plantation songs" to the crowd of male hotel guests who sing along. The pianist tells the men he hears the sounds of feet dancing, and the men open the doors to the parlor to find Ántonia, Tiny, and other hired girls dancing. They convince the reluctant girls to dance with them since Mrs. Gardener, the hotel owner and employer of several of the girls, is out of town. D'Arnualt ends the evening "docile and happy" after showing off some trinkets he has received from appreciative audience members. Jim and Ántonia walk home full of the excitement of the evening.

Book 2, Chapter 8

When spring arrives in Black Hawk so, too, does a group of traveling Italians who set up a dance pavilion. That summer, Jim recalls, was to "change everything," as children "have to grow up." Mrs. Vanni offers dancing lessons in the afternoon, and the tent hosts public dances every evening into the summer. "Ambitious mothers" send their children to learn. The whole town is caught up in the craze. While the Progressive Euchre Club have exclusive use of the pavilion two nights a week, every other night is open to anyone with the entry fee. Farmhands come into town to dance, and Ántonia, Tiny, and the rest of the girls enjoy the evening dances. Jim finds them "gayer than the others" as dance partners. Middle class boys "risk a tiff with their sweethearts and general condemnation for a waltz with 'the hired girls.'"

Analysis

Readers may be shocked at the portrayal of d'Arnault in Chapter 7. The author uses racist language to describe the book's first character of color. Words such as mulatto and pickaninny are today offensive. These terms were commonly used at the time of the writing of the novel, but they are charged, ugly words to many readers a century later. The attitude toward the pianist is also extremely racist, offering white approval of his so-called "docile" and "subservient" nature. Cather herself seems to be aware, to some extent, of the lingering effects of slavery on the lives of people of color when she writes that on the plantation where d'Arnault was raised "the spirit [of slavery] if not the fact" lived on. What she may not have realized is how her own words perpetuate that spirit. The description of d'Arnault as someone with a disability is also offensive and unfeeling. Terms such as simple to describe mental disability, although routine in Cather's time, are unacceptable today.

Both chapters feature dancing, foreshadowing the end of the main characters' youth, and acting as a symbol for sexual awakening. In Chapter 8 the author points to the summer of the arrival of the dancing pavilion as a time when everything changed because children "have to grow up." There is an implied connection between dance and the maturation of Jim and the other young people. Dance in this case was a physical interaction between the sexes, and Jim's appreciation of the dancing of the country girls signals the beginning of his sexual awakening. The other boys from town also appreciate dancing with the hired girls who, as Jim observed, "were gayer than the others."

The author introduces the class structure of Black Hawk in these two chapters. The hired girls, most of whom are daughters of immigrant farmers like Ántonia, are part of the working class of the town. All men of the town seem to enjoy dancing with them, but the author indicates in Chapter 8 that they are considered a threat to the middle- and upper-class women of the town, whose boyfriends "risk a tiff" by going to the dance pavilion to cavort with the hired girls. Members of this same class, called "ambitious women," make sure their children learn to dance properly by sending them to Mrs. Vanni each afternoon for lessons. The issue of class and the social expectations and limitations of the hired girls will be explored more in the chapters that follow.

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