After Jim moves to town with his grandparents, he begins school with other children of his age, yet is never interested in their antics or infatuations. His relationship with the Harling children next door, demonstrates the conventional mode of childhood affection and friendship, but as Jim grows older, his only admiration rests upon the immigrant girls and their “wild” ways. In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, descriptions and details are heaped upon the girls from afar rather than the young girls who were expected to fit into Jim’s social set.
Cather demonstrates Jim’s fascination with women such as Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard and Antonia Shimerda, through rampant description whereas Jim’s interest in other women of his age and class, is stymied. Though Jim never consummates a relationship with anyone in the novel, the closest he gets to an overt love interest is with the stunning and self-made Lena Lingard. Jim notices the attraction of the girls from the farmlands as he compares them with their younger sisters or the women from town.
He finds some attraction in the fact that these girls had to struggle to survive and had to undergo the transition from one country to another. “I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigor which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women” (153). This vigor, according to Jim, presented a gorgeous alternative to the town-bred girls who were taught to stay inside and cater to their gentle femininity.
The strong, unrefined women of the immigrant families presented a challenge to Jim and the other men of Black Hawk; they were lovely figures to contend and they continued to work unceasingly to aid their families on the farm. The “hired girls,” though somewhat looked down upon by townspeople, nonetheless caused love interests to abound even though “Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used” (155).
And though this scene was the norm and the goal of Black Hawk boys, they couldn’t help but notice the “menace to the social order”(155)the country girls. Cather writes that “their beauty shone out too boldly against a conventional background” (155). These girls, when observed at work over the ironing boards, stoves and counters, were constant symbols of strength and infatuation. Though the Harling women, such as Frances, were granted description by Cather, she is much more involved in the influence of the country girls.
Jim sees the Danish laundry girls at the firemen’s dances, but the “girls never looked so pretty at the dances as they did standing by the ironing-board, or over the tubs, washing the fine pieces, their white arms and throats bare, their cheeks bright as the brightest wild roses, their gold hair, moist with the steam or the heat and curling in little damp spirals about their ears” (170). Infatuated with their ability to work and play with such strength and good cheer, Jim never associates himself with the town-bred girls, but rather fascinates himself with observations of the three Marys, Tiny, Lena and, of course, Antonia.
Cather continuously describes the deep color of Antonia’s cheekscolor that would never grace the complexion of a town girl. And due to her strength and purpose, Antonia, like the other immigrants, is always granted a special place in Jim’s memory. The simplicity and steadfastness of the hired girls are what jogs Jim’s memory of the Nebraska prairie. Even the men that are close to his heart, such as Jake and Otto, are those of the working classmen, who through their labor and good cheer, influenced Jim’s young life.
Even as Jim went forth into the world of academia, he falls in love with Lena Lingard and her self-made womanhood as she works away at her business in Lincoln. Lena’s first visit to his comforting armchair, brings a rush of memories. “When I closed my eyes I could hear them all laughingthe Danish laundry girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Lena had brought them all back to me. It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil.
If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry” (203). Jim’s feelings for the goodness of these immigrant women are so strong that he associates them with one of the greatest poets in the world. Promptly, he becomes infatuated with Lena in a manner that had never effected him while associating with town girls in Black Hawk. Though Jim moves on to bigger and better thingsHarvard and Harvard Law School no lesshis memories always remain intertwined with the power and influence of girls like Lena, Tiny and Antonia.
When he returns to visit the latter on her own farm, he still revels in her strength and persistence in the same manner that used to fascinate him as a young man. Similarly, he remains impressed with the ambitions of Tiny and Lena as they move further west to San Francisco to demonstrate their nerve in an entirely new microcosm. Throughout the novel, descriptions of women are never so apt as when they are associated with the great strength of the working-class girls from Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia and the like.