Parts IV – VII
Lena Lingard suddenly enters the story, and she appears to be familiar to Jim and Ántonia. She has a reputation among the farmers for things that are not her fault, and the narrator shares some of that reputation. Her father made her herd the cattle, and standing out among the cows with a ragged dress on was enough to arouse the attention of a nearby married farmer, Ole Benson, whose wife (“Crazy Mary”) had been put in an asylum and escaped. Ole Benson would walk away from his farming chores and find Lena, helping her with the cows. Mary was enraged by this and the way that the townspeople gossiped about it, so the minister’s wife gave Lena some old dresses to wear. She remade them to her liking, and came to church dressed in her new clothes, and people seemed to realize that she was a beautiful young woman. Ole Benson helped her on her horse, and Crazy Mary ran after her and chased her down the road. Lena shocked some of her Norwegian neighbors by laughing about this, but Crazy Mary eventually became more frightening, chasing Lena around the Shimerdas’ property and making threats with a large knife. Though Lena was accused of “making eyes” at Ole Benson, she tells the Shimerdas that she didn’t, and that she couldn’t order him away because she couldn’t claim the land that she was herding cows on.
Lena appears in Black Hawk and finds Ántonia, telling her that she has a position in town working for the local dressmaker. She has her own apartment, too, and invites Ántonia to come and visit. Lena also tells Ántonia that another friend, Tiny Soderball, has also come to town to work in the local hotel. Ántonia is a little uncertain about how Mrs. Harling will view Lena and Ántonia’s friendship with her, and Mrs. Harling seems to disapprove of Lena’s open distaste for farming and her interest in clothes and remaining unmarried. Frances engages her in conversation as well, asking about Lena’s engagement with Nick Svendsen. Lena says that Nick’s family threatened to cut off his inheritance if he married Lena, so Nick married another girl.
After this visit, Jim begins running into Lena in town. Through her, he hears about Tiny and her job. Both Lena and Tiny are much impressed by the parade of traveling salesmen who come through the hotel. Jim also participates in helping Lena’s younger brother, Chris, come to town to spend some of his money on gifts for his mother. Lena seems a little homesick after she watches her brother leave, but she remains resolute in her decision to live in Black Hawk.
That winter, Jim becomes an even more devoted visitor to the Harlings’ house. He turns away when Mr. Harling is home, because he knows that much of the fun will be out of bounds in his presence. On the nights when Mr. Harling is not at home, Jim starts to learn to dance from Frances, and he and the children also hear old operas from Mrs. Harling. Ántonia is a joyful participant in much of this, contributing with her cooking. When she is cooking, she takes to telling stories, and her stories become an important part of the entertainment.
On one of these evenings, Ántonia tells the story of threshing wheat on a farm last summer, when a vagrant comes by and asks for beer. They don’t have any to offer, so he asks if he can help them. He asks if he can stand on top of the thresher and “cut bands,” and after a few minutes of work, he jumps head-first into the machine and kills himself. They eventually manage to get his body out of the machine, and find that he carries only some strange odds and ends and a copy of the poem, “The Old Oaken Bucket.”
This story upsets Nina, and Mrs. Harling quiets her by threatening to make her go upstairs for all of Ántonia’s stories in the future. The narrator points out, after this story, that Mrs. Harling and Ántonia had a lot in common, and that he (Jim) couldn’t imagine Ántonia living anywhere else.
As the winter wears on, Jim starts to get frustrated with the cold and its hassles. In the middle of this, Blind d’Arnault, an African-American piano player, comes to town, and Mrs. Harling tells Ántonia that she should go and see him play at the hotel where Tiny Soderball works. Jim decides to attend as well, and he enters the parlor that night to find that Mrs. Gardener, the real manager of the hotel, has left town to see two famous actors in a production in Omaha. The room is full of expectant listeners, mostly hotel guests, when Johnnie Gardener leads the blind pianist out to the piano. He makes a few jokes and begins playing, while the audience sings along to his well-known, traditional music (“negro melodies”).
The narrator tells the pianist’s story, too. As a very young slave on a plantation, he found his way into the plantation house from the sound of the piano, and was caught trying to play it. He was given lessons by an indulgent master as a “Negro prodigy,” and learned to play in his own fashion. He seemed to lack accuracy, but he had an enormous sense of rhythm that seemed to overpower him, and might have even caused his physical shaking when he wasn’t playing.
In the middle of a song, d’Arnault suddenly drops his volume and whispers that he hears dancing in the next room. Anson Kirkpatrick, a salesman for Marshall Field, throws open the doors and finds Tiny, Ántonia, Lena, and Mary Dusak waltzing. They try to run, but he catches them. He invites them to dance with some of the men, but Tiny says that Mrs. Gardener would not like them to be dancing together. The men start clearing space for dancing, but Johnnie Gardener runs in among them and tells them to stop. He is worried that the cook will hear, and that the cook will tell his wife. Anson and the others convince him to allow it. They dance, with d’Arnault prodding them to continue, until the piano player’s manager comes and closes the piano. Jim and Ántonia walk home together, staying out in the cold to talk for a while after all of the excitement of the dance.
Analysis, Parts IV – VII
Lena is an interesting contrast with Ántonia, who seems much more concerned with appearances than Lena. She seems to be surprisingly un-self-conscious, and she openly dislikes the farm life as much as Ántonia was willing to behave like a man and embrace it. She also has a clear plan for herself, unlike Ántonia.
The hotel scene also introduces the idea of dancing, and it suggests that the men might be willing to cross the social barriers between the townspeople and the “hired girls,” if they are given access to them. These are ideal circumstances for their introduction, and it seems like a scandal is brewing. With an established reputation for attracting men – through no fault of her own – Lena seems to be the likely candidate.