Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
O Pioneers! presents one woman’s experiences as she struggles to keep her family together in harsh conditions on the Nebraska prairie, called “the divide” in the book, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book is divided into five parts. Part 1, called “The Wild Land,” introduces the teenaged Alexandra Bergson, her young brother Emil, her friend Carl Linstrum (who is slightly younger than herself), and an already captivating girl, Marie Tovesky, who is visiting her uncle. Even in this first section, it is clear that Alexandra is in charge of her family’s farm now, since her father is bedridden. It is she whom he trusts with the care of the farm, especially since he knows that he will die soon. John Bergson recognizes in Alexandra strength of will and a direct way of thinking things out, but he would rather have seen these traits in one of his sons, believing that it is a man’s place to lead. John Bergson’s prejudice against his most able child because of her gender prepares readers for the other biases that Alexandra will encounter.
Part 2, “Neighboring Fields,” takes place sixteen years after John Bergson’s death. The prairie has given up its struggle against the farmers and now yields abundant crops. Amid all the abundance is Emil, scything the grass in the old Norwegian cemetery, and Marie, who has come to give him a ride home. This scene foreshadows many others to come. Two future events are of...
(The entire section is 823 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Hanover. Fictional southern Nebraska town on a windblown plain closely modeled on Cather’s Nebraska hometown of Red Cloud, that provides a focal point for this novel. Cather spent her formative years on Nebraska’s plains. Although she moved away from Nebraska in 1896 to pursue careers in journalism and writing, she never lost her love of the plains, on which she set six of her novels. She wrote lyrically about the beauty of its plains and the challenges of the simple people who struggled to survive in an inhospitable climate.
Bergson farm. Nebraska home of the Bergson family near Hanover. As this novel begins, a Swedish immigrant couple named Bergson have recently arrived in Nebraska, where the eldest child and only daughter, Alexandra, becomes the head of the family after the father dies. Despite financial problems, she refuses to sell the small family farm because of her devotion to the land. A shrewd businesswoman, she purchases land at depressed prices from farmers who move into town, and through great physical labor she not only saves the family farm but earns enough money to buy her brother Oscar a farm for his own family.
Roman Catholic church
Roman Catholic church. Local church with which Alexandra becomes affiliated. Norwegians, the Bergsons are Lutherans, and at first Alexandra attends a local Lutheran church. However, after her fellow Lutherans shun...
(The entire section is 347 words.)
Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Three motifs have traditionally been examined in O Pioneers!: the Old World versus the New World, the struggling American pioneer, and the maternal as seen in both Alexandra and nature. Much has been made of Cather’s attempts to capture the essence and the effects of immigrants and their cultures on the settlement of the plains. Similarly, the novel has been heralded for its obvious homage to those pioneering farmers who struggled to homestead the land because of the book’s elaborate descriptions of the place and people. Cather’s traditional use of nature as the feminine to be controlled into a source of nurturance accentuated many critics’ view of Alexandra as the patient and wise mother of generations. What had been ignored, until more recently, was the fact that Alexandra is not a mother, but an independent, intelligent woman who—no matter how hard she tries to be her own person—still succumbs to the traditional patriarchal point of view sermonized in so many stories written about pioneers.
Feminist critics have begun to examine Alexandra more closely, as they compare her with two of Cather’s other strong female protagonists: Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark (1915) and Antonia Shimerda in My Ántonia (1918). All three women are immigrants or children of immigrants and seem to draw their strengths from being different from other American women—stronger, more headstrong, and more independent.
(The entire section is 298 words.)
Cather's most important critical statement, useful as a guide to her fictional techniques, was the essay "The Novel Demeuble" (1922), where she asserted her admiration for the "unfurnished" novel by which she meant a work in which the author has eliminated everything that is not strictly necessary and has left the narrative as bare as the stage of a Greek theater. Specifically, she criticized fiction which exhaustively describes physical and social realities or provides extensive details about the individual psychology of the characters. To a significant degree, O Pioneers! is a novel demeuble for it is made up of carefully selected incidents and details, is written in a clear yet allusive style, and centers on archetypal characters and story lines. In this novel, she also expertly constructs a series of scenes of varying tone which seem to unfold almost casually when, in fact, they are carefully balanced in terms of theme and imagery. Particularly impressive are her images of the land which is compared to the ocean in its vastness and is seen as dichotomous: wild and tender, resistant and yielding, desolate and hospitable. Likewise enriching her seemingly simple style is her subtle and effective use of myth and literary allusion. This is exemplified by her characterization of Alexandra who, with her gold and white coloring, her association with crops and harvest, and her dream of union with a nature god, resembles Demeter, the Goddess of Corn and a...
(The entire section is 255 words.)
The title of Cather's novel quotes Walt Whitman's poem "O Pioneers!" which speaks with confidence and praise of the conquerors of the American wilderness and all those who have led the human race in its evolutionary journey. In associating herself with Whitman, Cather declares that her book is not an isolated text but part of a shared endeavor by American writers to understand American history and culture. She also draws attention to more specific affinities between her book and Whitman's poetry. For example, on a thematic level, both suggest the oneness of all nature, where man, woman, and earth share the same spirit and a constant cycle of birth, death, and renewal. In terms of form, both are loosely structured and use a cyclic pattern.
O Pioneers! is dedicated to a female forerunner, Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged Cather to come to terms with her Nebraska material and to invent a mode of writing that would tell the story of the prairie with truth and artfulness. Jewett's masterpiece of American regionalism. The Country of the Point Firs (1896), also offered the example of a successful experiment with a narrative form suitable for writing about rural and small-town life and discovering universal significance in local experience.
(The entire section is 204 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bagley, M. C. Cather’s Myths. New York: American Heritage, 1994. Discusses O Pioneers! in the context of the American myth of the settlement of the land and of the counter-myth of the rejection of the land. Places emphasis on Alexandra’s relationship to the land and how this symbolizes the settlement of America.
Bennett, Mildred R. “O Pioneers!” In The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. Discusses Cather’s early life in Nebraska as the setting and inspiration for O Pioneers!
Motley, Warren. “The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman’s Success.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12, no. 2 (1986): 149-165. Discusses the conflicts between many women’s desire for independence in the early twentieth century and their repression by society, especially in discussing Alexandra’s isolation.
Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. This collection of essays deals with various themes and ideas, such as sexuality and childhood, encountered in Cather’s novels.
Murphy, John J. Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1990. This collection of critical essays...
(The entire section is 512 words.)