Thursday, February 5, 2015

O Pioneers

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers
Walt Whitman

 O Pioneers is about the life  of immigrants who settled down on the plains of Nebraska in the late 1800’s. Willa Cather deals with many fascinating themes that make this novel a timeless story:  love, friendship, social prejudices and the relationship of the immigrants with their new environment. (I fell in love with My Antonia three years ago and I didn't know I would love O Pioneers just as much).
 The heroine of this novel is Alexandra Bergson, a woman ahead of her times.  Before her father passed away, when she was still a teenager, he entreated Alexandra to be responsible for the land. Therefore, the financial future of her family fell upon her shoulders.
 Eking out a living in Nebraska meant making the land productive and sustainable.  Unlike her mother, who was unable to adjust to the demands of the new place, Alexandra found ways to make the land prosperous, enabling her siblings to make a living on their farms.  
 Alexandra had three younger brothers, and she was able to surpass her siblings in terms of financial accomplishments. However, she was not free of the gender inequalities that shaped the prejudices and behaviors.
   Willa Cather is skillful at showing how women were judged differently from men, and some of these judgments continue to resonate.  I will analyze these aspects of the story because I think they tend to be overlooked by the critics.
 Alexandra was confident and practical, but she did not have time or energy to devote to love. Her brothers were  ashamed of the fact that she was still single at age forty. On the other hand, her friend Marie was married. She fell in love with Frank and married him hastily, but she later found herself in an unhealthy relationship.
 Marie was outspoken, spontaneous and affectionate whereas her husband was possessive and short-tempered. He drank too much alcohol and often bullied her. This marital mismatch led Marie to withdraw from him and to fall in love with another man: Emil (Alexandra’s youngest brother).  
 Alexandra was too pragmatic to sense that Emil and Marie were in love with each other.  She was interested in her male friend Carl Linstrum, but her brothers Lou and Oscar opposed a potential love relationship with him because they were convinced that Carl was only attracted to her money. Besides, they hinted at the idea that a man would not care for a single woman once she is in her forties. Through this conflict Willa Cather shows how the male characters feel they have a right to her money and to opine about her personal affairs. They also imply that as  women age, society does not expect them to get married. 
Did the same idea apply to men? No; it is made clear in the novel that Carl was expected to marry somebody younger. Hence, this idea carries the innuendo that a woman is a kind of love object that only serves the purpose of marriage when she is young.
 I will share some extracts of their conversations to support my statements.
Lou turned to his brother. ‘This is what comes of letting a woman meddle in business,’ he said bitterly. ‘We ought to have taken things in our own hands years ago. But she liked to run things, and we humored her. We thought you had good sense, Alexandra. We never thought you’d do anything foolish.
“Alexandra rapped impatiently on her desk with her knuckles. ‘Listen, Lou. Don’t talk wild. You say you ought to have taken things into your own hands years ago. I suppose you mean before you left home. But how could you take hold of what wasn’t there? I’ve got most of what I have now since we divided the property; I’ve built it up myself, and it has nothing to do with you.
“Oscar spoke up solemnly. ‘The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title.”
“Everybody’s laughing to see you get took in; at your age, too. Everybody knows he’s nearly five years younger than you, and is after your money. Why, Alexandra, you are forty years old!”
 ‘I only meant’, said Oscar, ‘that she is old enough to know better, and she is. If she was going to marry, she ought to done it long ago, and not making a fool of herself now.’
Another reason why I believe Alexandra was ahead of her times was her understanding of Ivar.  Ivar was a sensitive compassionate man who probably had a mental condition that made him vulnerable. People did not understand him, so they criticized him and shunned him. Alexandra, on the other hand, knew that Ivar was in need of empathy:
As Ivar talked, his gloom lifted. Alexandra had found that she could often break his fasts and long penances by talking to him and letting him pour out the thoughts that troubled him.”
  Alexandra stood up for him whenever people tried to have him sent to an asylum. She continued to let him work for her despite the rumors against him. She disregarded what other people said and endeavored to support him instead of getting rid of him.
 After something bad happened, Alexandra found out that Marie and Emil had been in love with each other, and she was very disappointed with Marie. Interestingly, she blames Marie for the love triangle, another sign of how the social dynamics played against women by making them guilty of situations that do not only involve the female sex. (After all, her brother Emil had never been blind to the fact that Marie was indeed a married woman).
 “She blamed Marie bitterly. And why, with her happy, affectionate nature, should she have brought destruction and sorrow to all who loved her?  That was the strangest thing of all. Was there then, something wrong in being warmhearted and impulsive like that? Alexandra hated to think so.”
 Later in the story Carl would make her see that it had not been Marie’s fault. Yet there's still a tinge of blame in his statement:
 "It happens like that in the world sometimes, Alexandra. I've seen it before. There are women who spread ruin around them through no fault of theirs...they are too full of love, too full of life."
 Even though Alexandra and Marie were so different, they had something in common: their love for the land. This feeling for the land was a source of comfort and hope. Willa Cather describes this deep connection in her poetic prose:
“The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

  The metaphor of love seemed to be inscribed in the landscapes around them:
“There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if one were the breath of the other. You feel in the atmosphere the same tonic, puissant quality that is in the tilth, the same strength and resoluteness.”
Have you read this literary classic? Share your thoughts.


  1. I read both of these books in Chinese translation when I was teenager, and love both of them equally. I remember almost nothing of story line but only their fighting spirit, strength or resoluteness. You review made me want to read in English again. Great literature classics!

    1. How interesting. I didn't know these books had been translated to Chinese...
      I love how literature helps us to understand the biases, prejudices and judgments of our "modern" societies. There is still bias against women when they have to be selected for jobs, for example. There is research on this. They also make less money than men. Again, there are studies. If you google this you will find information on this.
      Last but not least, it is more common for women to be judged for the choices they make. For example if women choose to work part-time to focus on the family they are accused of not being "greedy" or of not caring about their careers. If they work full-time somebody will point out that they don't take care of their family. If they stay at home, they are not ambitious. Men are have much more freedom and they are less likely to be judged.

    2. Here's an interesting article:

    3. And here's research that showed the gender bias in the selection of candidates for positions.

  2. Wonderful review, Julia, and I can tell that Willa Cather has written a very intricate story with a powerful message. Reading the excerpts, I was rather perturbed at those brothers but they were so typical of their time. Sometimes I think people today forget how long women really had no rights, and back then age discrimination against women was even more prevalent. Liked that scene between Alexandra and Ivar, and that she stood up for him, understood him and had compassion. Willa Cather’s poetic prose was lovely. Thank you for the excerpts. I enjoy novels about women ahead of their time and novels set in historical scenes; I believe I’d love this book!

    1. Yes, Madilyn. Unfortunately, discrimination against women still exists. Have you ever wondered, for example, why a woman has never become president of the United States of America?

    2. One more thing: if a man fails as a president of a country nobody will blame his gender... something to think about.

  3. I've read it several times and want to read it again after reading your post. Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers. The story and characters in O Pioneers! was well known to my grandmother Julia Walstad and the people in the Red Cloud area when the book came out, although the names were changed.

    1. Hi dear Karen.
      You recommended this book to me, so thank you. I'm flattered to know that you enjoyed reading my post.
      I didn't know that this one was a true story. I knew that My Antonia was a true story. I reread the end of it again last weekend and my eyes got teary... (what a lovely story!)
      Thank you for commenting!

    2. And now I want to read The Song of the Lark!

  4. interesting review written in a beautiful way :))


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