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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 2 - THE HIRED GIRLS
Ambrosch brings Antonia over on Saturday. She rushes into the Burdens’ kitchen and thinks hopefully that she will soon be the kind of girl Jim likes best since she’s now to live in the city. Antonia settles into work easily and her only problem is that she often drops her work to play with the children. Jim finds that he is jealous of Antonia’s care of Charley Harling. She does everything to please him. After Charley, she is very fond of Nina, the six- year-old Harling daughter. Nina is extraordinarily sensitive and often gets her feelings hurt. When Mr. Harling is away, Jim has fun evenings at the Harlings. When he is home, he demands his wife’s full attention and the children usually come over to the Burdens’ to play. Jim notices how Mr. Harling makes Mrs. Harling make him coffee at any hour of the day or night, how Mrs. Harling ignores everyone else when he is home, and how the loss of her is painful since she always forms the appreciative audience for the children’s games.
Jim notices that Mr. Harling is very different from the other fathers in Black Hawk. The other fathers have no apparent personal habits. They pay the bills and take care of their household duties. Jim notices that Mr. Harling reminds him of the nobles in Antonia’s stories of her homeland. When he is gone, the Harling house is never quiet. Someone is almost always at the piano. Jim still fondly remembers finding Mrs. Harling playing the piano when he used to come over to their house.
Chapter three marks the time of Antonia’s first days with the Harlings. It’s thematic content has more to do with the gender politics which Jim notices in Antonia’s manner with Charley Harling and between Mrs. and Mr. Harling. Jim notices that he feels jealous at Antonia’s anxious care to please Charlie Harling. In the same chapter, Cather includes Jim’s ruminations on the relationship between Mrs. and Mr. Harling. When Mr. Harling is away, Mrs. Harling gives her full attention to the children. When he is at home, she gives her full attention to him. It is no surprise that Jim finds him imperious and autocratic, not someone whom a child would like. He seems to be the cause of Mrs. Harling’s virtual abandonment of the children. Jim contrasts Mr. Harling with the other men in the neighborhood. Whereas they are somewhat nonentities, men who go about doing their prescribed roles quietly, Mr. Harling takes over when he comes home and makes everything revolve around him.
Everyone is sitting around singing in the Harling house one evening when Lena Lingard comes to visit Antonia. Antonia is shocked to see Lena looking so much like a town girl, with good clothes and shoes on. She tells Antonia she has come to town to work for Mrs. Thomas, the dressmaker. It is obvious that Mrs. Harling doesn’t approve of Lena. She listens to Lena skeptically and urges her to continue to take care of her mother who is still on the farm. Frances, however, is very interested in talking to Lena. She asks her about the boy who used to court her, Nick Svendson. Lena says Nick’s father threatened to cut him off from his inheritance if he married Lena and now Nick is planning to marry Annie Iverson, though he is very sullen about having lost Lena. Lena says she doesn’t much care since she never wants to marry, having seen enough of married life to know she doesn’t want it. Mrs. Harling warns Lena to keep her head in town and not go to dances all the time. When Lena gets up to leave, Frances urges her to come any time she gets lonely. Lena says she doesn’t expect to get lonely in Black Hawk. On her way out, she whispers to Antonia to come and see her sometimes, but Antonia says she doesn’t think Mrs. Harling will let her go out very much.
Frances asks Antonia why she was so standoffish with Lena. Antonia says Lena was the object of gossip in the country. The Harlings have also heard the gossip about her. She lived in the Norwegian settlement and her job was to herd her father’s cattle. Jim remembers seeing her when he passed that way. She would stand out with the cattle knitting clothes for her younger siblings. She kept very light-colored skin and never got rough like the other country girls. A neighborhood farmer, Ole Benson, became infatuated with Lena and spent his time with her helping her watch the cattle. His wife, called Crazy Mary, became so jealous that she began a campaign to kill Lena. One day after church, he lifted Lena on to her horse and Mary went after her. In the conservative Norwegian community, the scandal was taken with severe shock. Once when Jim was at the Shimerdas, Lena came running into their house and hid herself under the feather bed. Mary Benson followed close on her heels threatening her. When Mary left, Lena came out. Mrs. Shimerda told her not to make eyes at married men and Lena replied that she couldn’t say anything to Mr. Benson since it wasn’t her prairie.
Lena Lingard, the character after whom the third book of the novel is named, is introduced in this chapter. She is introduced largely by the gossip about her. She doesn’t say much on her own account except that she does not want to do farm work any more and that she enjoys the freedom of town life. The gossip about her seems cruel by today’s standards since she doesn’t seem to have done anything to encourage the married man, Ole Benson, to come around her. Cather provides enough social context to show that by the standards of the times, it was up to the woman to make the man stop coming around her if his attentions were not socially sanctioned. No one seems to condemn Ole Benson. Mrs. Benson comes after Lena with a knife rather than going after her husband. Lena seems to be curiously disinterested in the high drama of the farming community’s uproar over Mr. Benson’s behavior with her and Mrs. Benson’s retaliation. In Lena Lingard, Cather seems to be creating a character of a person who is ruled by desire rather than rationality. At this point in the novel, Lena is a fairly inarticulate character who functions largely to show up the social mores of the Midwest.