Parts VIII – XII
Spring comes, and the Harling children, with Ántonia and Jim among them, enjoy breaking the ground for their small garden. Then rumor spreads that someone will be opening a dancing pavilion in Black Hawk. Jim encounters them setting up, and he finds that they travel from town to town, leaving when business for lessons slackens. Suddenly, dance lessons become popular among the children, and parents are seen bringing their children and lingering to observe. Some vendors appear, such as the popcorn seller, and the dance floor suddenly becomes a social destination. On Saturdays, the dance floor is open late, and people from all over the area begin to come. The “hired girls,” young women like Ántonia, Lena, and Tiny, though not limited to these young women, become the attraction on Saturday nights.
The narrator explains some of the social complications in Black Hawk, saying that many of the young women who were sent to town in this period to help make money for struggling parents – the so-called “hired girls” – ended up better off than the people they were supposed to be sacrificing for. The physical exertion of the farm labor, coupled with the struggle of entering a new country and having to adjust, made these women both physically more vigorous and mentally more acute than many of the younger siblings and later generations who were without these influences. Partly as a result of these advantages, and partly because of the willingness of all family members to work and support the family, the poor immigrant families who struggled at this time would eventually become more successful than the people who were wealthy before. The rich farms become the social centers, while the town struggles for the attentions of the same people that it considered lowly before.
Because of this youthful vigor and energy, and because they often seemed more forward and less concerned about respectability than the townspeople, the hired women were often seen as a menace to the social order. But the narrator says that this fear was misplaced – the young men valued respectability much more than they valued the young women.
The dances became a place where the respectable young men could frolic with the playful, interesting, but off-limits young immigrant women on neutral ground. As long as relationships didn’t extend beyond the dance floor, there was no harm in this mingling.
On the dance floor, Ántonia begins to make a name for herself. The people who run the dance floor whisper that she is the best among the girls, and she begins to look forward to the dances, even to the point of becoming irresponsible about her job. Also as a result of her dancing, the men start to notice her more, and jokes are made about her among the men. The iceman lingers too long to talk to her. Young farmers come to the house before the dance to ask her in advance for a chance to be her partner, and young men dropping her off late at night are sometimes loud and wake Mr. Harling.
One evening, a young town-boy asks to walk her home, and then tries to kiss her. He is ready to be married in a few days, so Ántonia protests. He forces her to kiss him, and she manages to struggle away and slap him. Mr. Harling hears the scuffle and demands that Ántonia stop going to the dances or find another position. Ántonia is upset by what she considers an unreasonable demand, and the dances mean enough to her to give up her place at the Harlings. She hears about an opening at Wick Cutter’s, but Mrs. Harling advises against it, warning her that Wick Cutter is not a respectable employer. Ántonia’s response is that she needs to have fun while she can, because she doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to do so. Mrs. Harling tells her to leave and not come back.
Wick Cutter is the money-lender who ruined Russian Peter, and he has an established reputation for greed. He also has an established reputation for loose morals, including gambling, quite a bit of vanity, and taking advantage of women. He chased away two Swedish girls, establishing one as a prostitute in another town that he apparently continues to visit. Despite all of this, Cutter is married, and he lives in a state of conflict with her. They seem to quarrel violently and often, and though they often threaten each other with leaving, they remain together for some unknown reason.
When she goes to work at the Cutters’, Ántonia becomes obsessed with her social life. When she isn’t out dancing or at parties, she is sewing. She establishes a reputation for herself of creating effective copies of well-dressed women’s dresses, and she becomes quite frustrating to several women in town for this. Jim exploits his social relationship with Ántonia, Tiny, and Lena to establish a reputation as someone who talks to older women, though they often make jokes at his expense.
As winter approaches, Jim enters his senior year of high school, and Charley Harling has gone to the Naval Academy. Mrs. Harling doesn’t seem to like Jim anymore because he continues to defend Ántonia, and he has little else to do besides school, which he is becoming impatient with because it isn’t challenging anymore. He starts to hang out in Anton Jelinek’s saloon, but Anton tells him not to come there anymore because he doesn’t want to anger Mr. Burden. Jim quickly gets tired of the available entertainment, and starts to sneak out at night to go to the Fireman’s dances on Saturday nights. He knows that his grandfather would not approve of these things, but he is desperate and willing to take the risk.
Many of the hired girls now go to these dances, including Lena and Ántonia. The two women are favorites at these dances, and Jim likes to dance with both, though he seems to prefer Ántonia. She starts appearing regularly with Larry Donovan, a conductor on a passenger train, who has a reputation as a ladies’ man. On one evening when Donovan is out of town, Jim takes Ántonia home, and tries to kiss her in a romantic way. She scolds him and threatens to tell his grandmother. He says that Lena allows it, and she scolds him for trying to kiss Lena and not knowing any better. She threatens Lena if she is up to any trickery with Jim, and he continues to press his case with Ántonia. She tells him that he needs to go off to college and make something of himself, and that he shouldn’t be trying to attach himself to women like her or Lena. She manages to send him away happy after avoiding his advances, and she warns him to be careful not to get too attached to Lena, threatening again to tell his grandparents. At about this time, he starts having a recurring dream about Lena wanting to kiss him, but he admits that he never had this dream about Ántonia, as much as he wanted to.
Analysis, Parts VIII – XII
These are some of Ántonia’s happiest times, and she seems to be thinking pessimistically about her future. Her remark about enjoying the small amount of fun that she has been given is quite cynical. Jim also seems interested in the social structures of his small town, and he becomes a kind of social transgressor, living among the upper classes with his grandparents and the Harlings, and dancing with and conversing with the immigrant women.
The narrator’s interruption in this section also changes the nature of the story. By stepping into the action and telling the reader that the “hired girls” will become masters of wealthy farms and reverse the social hierarchy, Cather makes them almost heroic. At the same time, she also makes people like Mr. Harling look petty.