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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
BOOK 2 - THE HIRED GIRLS
Antonia is discovered by the young men of the town at the Vannisí dance nights. Before these nights, she had always been considered more of a ward of the Harlings than one of the hired girls. Antonia is the best dancer of all of them. Jim can hear rumors among the town folk that Antonia will soon be causing Mrs. Harling a great deal of trouble. Antonia canít get enough of the life of the tent. She rushes through her duties so she can get off in time to go to the dances. Now, the iceman stays around after delivering the ice so he can talk to her as do the delivery boys.
One Saturday night when Mr. Harling had gone to the cellar for a beer, he heard Antonia outside the back door slapping a boy who had tried to kiss her against her will. When she comes in, he tells her she can no longer work for them if she doesnít stop going to dances. She refuses to stop going to dances. The next day Mrs. Harling tries to talk to her. She says she canít go back on what Mr. Harling says since it is his house. Antonia tells her she will leave and go work for the Cutters. Mrs. Harling is shocked and says she cannot speak to Antonia if she works for the Cutters. Antonia says she will take care of herself. Mrs. Harling wishes she had never become so fond of Antonia.
Here we have another twist in the plot of Antoniaís life. She becomes so enamored with dancing that she neglects her duties and refuses to obey the authority of Mr. Harling so that she must move out. The reader should remember that Wick Cutter, for whom Antonia proposes to work, was the man who ruined Peter and Pavel with usurious interest rates on farm loans, the two Russians who tried to set up a farm.
Wick Cutter makes his living by lending money to farmers and then ruining them. His personal habits are the talk of Black Hawk. He builds up an image of himself as a pious man. He goes around advising boys with moral sayings. Jim remembers Cutter quoting Benjamin Franklinís Poor Richardís Almanac to him. He is extremely fastidious about his hair, clothing, and the appearance of his yard and house. He is promiscuous with women and is constantly fighting with his wife about his extra-marital affairs. He has ruined the reputations of two Swedish maids who worked in his house, one of whom he sent to Omaha and established there as a prostitute. He likes to run his horse, and regularly cheats boys who he promises to pay for acting as timekeepers.
Mrs. Cutter is a "terrifying looking person." She is ugly and people say that babies cry when she looks at them. She paints every piece of porcelain in her house. She and Wick Cutter argue every minute they are together but never seem to think of separating. They have never had children, and blame each other for this fact. Their quarrels are known throughout the town because their hired girls always spread the gossip.
Here Cather sets up the new environment in which Antonia will be living. In her portrait of the Cutters, her main abuse is piled on top of Mrs. Cutter. Cather writes of the couple: "Wick Cutter was different from any other rascal I have ever known, but I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world; sometimes founding new religions, sometimes being forcibly fed--easily recognizable, even when superficially tamed." The reference to force-feeding seems to be to the suffragists, women who wanted the vote. These women were reviled by the general populace as they are clearly reviled by Jim Burden and behind him Willa Cather. One method of protest has always been the hunger strike. When women went on a hunger strike to call attention to their lack of rights in the U.S., the police force-fed them, something that amounted to torture. This history of political resistance and repression is reduced to the level of a nagging and complaining wife. Women like this are animalized as well; they can only be "superficially tamed."
On the narrative level, the reader can find the reason for this trenchant description of a complaining wife in the present-day Jim Burdenís bad marriage. Recall the introduction in which the frame narrator admits to disliking Jim Burdenís wife and reveals that he is very unhappy in his marriage. A narrator who is unhappily married is likely to describe a bad marriage with a great deal of detail, or even venom. On the larger level of Catherís motivation in writing such a link between early embattled feminism and a complaining wife, the reader can only guess that she was strongly anti-suffrage or at least anti-activist feminist.