The Character of Lena Lingard in My Antonia
Lena Lingard is the best example of a non-domestic central character which appears amidst the domesticity of My Ántonia. Often the sections which feature Lena instead of Ántonia are seen as confusing divergences from the plot line of a novel that purports to be about the woman named in the title. However, since Lena appears in the novel almost as often as Ántonia, and more often than any other character except Jim, she is a central character. Lena is a working woman who refuses to accept the constraints society places upon her. Even when society predicts that by becoming a dressmaker instead of marrying she will fail and become a "loose" woman, she disrupts their expectations and succeeds.
The first image of Lena in the novel is as newly arrived, pseudo-sophisticated country girl who has come to town to learn the trade of dressmaking. However, from the beginning of our knowledge of Lena she is anti-domestic. Lena recognizes that marriage is difficult-- she is never caught up in the "idea" of romance which leads Ántonia to a disastrous relationship and unwed motherhood. Ántonia takes the dances and socializing much more seriously and ends up in trouble, whereas Lena enjoys dancing and kissing but is merely having fun. When asked about her mother, Lena responds, "Oh, mother's never very well; she has too much to do. She'd get away from the farm, too, if she could" (Cather, 104). When Frances Harling teases Lena about a suitor who the town thinks Lena will marry, she responds, "I don't want to marry Nick, or any other man, . . . I've seen a good deal of married life, and I don't care for it" (105). It seems impossible for the town to believe that a beautiful girl will not become a wife or mistress, that she can succeed without the help or hindrance of men. No one really expects Lena to continue working, her period of "paid employment [is] expected to be a temporary activity engaged in only before marriage" (Weiner 24). After Lena leaves the Harling place, we hear the town's opinion of Lena, based on the rumors which surround Ole Benson's infatuation with Lena. The story is very pastoral, Lena is described as a barely dressed and beautiful "something wild, that always lived on the prairie . . . yellow hair burned to a ruddy thatch on her head . . . [with skin that] kept a miraculous whiteness which somehow made her seen more undressed than other girls" (Cather 106). The town accuses her of "making Ole Benson lose the little sense he had" (107). In other words, the married adult man who is really the one who should know better than to run around chasing a young girl is tempted by the "dangerously seductive" Lena.
Lena can be interpreted from the beginning of our acquaintance with her as a softly erotic beauty who enchants. Even Jim seems convinced of her dangerous seductiveness and in the dream sequence Jim has featuring Lena, she is "a surreal image of Aurora and...