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Literature Study GuidesMy ÁntoniaBook 2 Chapters 9 10 Summary

My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Book 2, Chapters 9–10 : The Hired Girls | Summary



Book 2, Chapter 9

Jim thinks very highly of the hired girls, daughters of immigrants who helped break the sod for their farms and go to work to send money home to help buy farm equipment and send their siblings to school. The physical nature of their works makes them healthier and more vibrant than sedentary girls from town whose families, settlers from back East that, no matter how poor, would never send them out to work like immigrant families. However, the town folk see the girls as "a menace to the social order" because they attract all the young men of the town and because "their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background." Sylvester Lovett falls for Lena Lingard in much the way Ole Benson had once, but town boys' "respect for respectability" means they pick acceptable mates. Jim finds the townspeople's view of the hired girls "very stupid" and feels great contempt for men like Lovett who marry wealthy women instead of women like Lena. Two of the three so-called "Bohemian Marys" have had to "retire from the world for a short time" after working for bachelors, creating a scandal, but their skill at housework and cooking ensures their employment nonetheless.

Book 2, Chapter 10

Ántonia, who had before kept mostly to the Harling home, gets noticed by the men in town as she dances at the pavilion every night. Men begin to stop by to see her, and when an engaged young man walks her home and presumes to kiss her against her will, Mr. Harling tells Ántonia she must stop going to the dances. She ignores Mrs. Harling's warnings about the employer she will turn to next, Wick Cutter, who has a reputation for seducing his hired help. Ántonia won't be controlled or stop attending the dances, claiming, "a girl like me has got to take her good times when she can," and, "I can take care of myself!"


In Chapter 9 the author offers two sets of contrasts to illustrate the place the hired girls occupy in society. There is a contrast between the hired girls and the town girls and another contrast between the way Jim perceives the hired girls and the way the town perceives them. The town girls are daughters of settlers from the East, not the daughters of foreign immigrants like the hired girls. These daughters are raised with very little physical activity, which leaves them with relatively weak bodies. The hired girls, on the other hand, have physically demanding jobs and have grown up and grown strong doing physical labor. They carry themselves differently and their fitness translates into their enthusiastic dancing. The hired girls also contribute to their families' incomes in a way the town girls do not.

The second contrast is between the way Jim sees the girls and the way the townspeople perceive them. Jim believes the girls are valuable contributors to the success of their families, and by extensions the settlement of the West. He finds their strong bodies and spirited personalities enjoyable and attractive. They seem to be one of his favorite things about living in town. In contrast, the townspeople believe the hired girls are "a menace to the social order." Girlfriends and mothers worry their young men will be tempted by these foreign girls of the working class who have a reputation for sexual promiscuity. These contrasts make it clear that many townspeople view the hired girls as outsiders who are a threat to the status quo. The problem is that these immigrants get the real jobs done and others cannot.

The phrase "retire from the world for a time" used to describe what happens to two of "the Bohemian Marys" in Chapter 9 is a euphemism for pregnancy outside of marriage. Unwed mothers were saved from public humiliation by being sent away to finish pregnancy and give birth, likely making an adoption plan for the child. The scandal exists despite the woman's absence, as everyone can guess the reason. Readers should note that the blame is placed on the woman, not the bachelor for whom she works. The way the Marys' pregnancies outside of marriage is framed will be useful for readers to keep in mind, as it has bearing on an event later in novel.

The author further develops Ántonia's character in Chapter 10. In her refusal to give up dances or let Mr. Harling control her time outside of work, Ántonia shows herself to be independent and self-confident. When she refuses to listen to Mrs. Harling's warnings, Ántonia reveals her tendency to be headstrong and perhaps naïve. She puts herself into a precarious position as an employee of Wick Cutter, but she believes she can take care of herself.

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