Willa Cather draws a stark contrast between the respectable women of Black Hawk and the “hired girls” in books II and III of My Antonia through Jim’s unavoidable attachment to them. The “hired girls” are all immigrants who work in Black Hawk as servants to help support their families in the country. They are hardworking and charming. They are simple and complicated. They are sad and joyful. They work all day and dance all night. For Jim they are the most interesting people who reside in Black Hawk. The respectable women are boring and predictable. They all go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. Their whole lives consist of a series of daily routines.
Most of the men in Black Hawk find the “hired girls” irresistible. They may even flirt with all or one of them for a while, but inevitably when they are ready to settle down, they choose a respectable woman to marry. After having an intellectual awakening at college and reuniting with Lena Lingard, one of the “hired girls,” Jim discovers that “if there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry” (Cather 173). At this point he realizes why he preferred the company of Tiny, Lena, and Antonia to that of even the most well refined girl in Black Hawk. These girls embodied life, wilderness, adventure, and goodness. To Jim, they represent all that is beautiful and romantic about life on the prairie in a way that no well-respected Black Hawk woman can.
The “hired girls” had lived trying lives. They had grown up in the hardest times of their families. Because they worked to support the family, most had not received any ty...
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...ares about Jim so much that she will not allow him to be held down by herself or anybody else, even a dear friend like Lena Lingard.
The hired girls are important characters in My Antonia both as a connection to the country and contrast against the respectable women in Black Hawk; and as comparison figures for the most important hired girl, Antonia. Their success is ironic because of their meek beginnings, and says something about the value of poverty. Through them, the reader is shown the value of overcoming obstacles with hard work. The vivid descriptions of them, as well as Jim’s attraction to them really make them objects of poetry to read about. They ultimately show a lot about Antonia in their similarities and dissimilarities to her.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. 1918. Foreword Kathleen Norris. Boston: Houghton, 1995.
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