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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

The second of Willa Cather’s novels, O Pioneers! began as two separate stories, one about Alexandra and one about the lovers Emil and Marie, called “The White Mulberry Tree.” Combining the two came naturally for Cather, who said that writing the book was like revisiting familiar places.

Cather intertwines folklore and Christian values to create a vibrant view of life on the plains at the beginning of the twentieth century. The most religious people in O Pioneers!, the hermit Crazy Ivar and Marie, are also the two who have effectively combined the mythic elements of folklore and Christianity to create a religion of their own—a religion replete with concerns for the nature around them. Crazy Ivar does not allow guns on his property and only wants to heal animals, choosing to live with them instead of humans. Marie loves her orchard, where, as she tells Emil, she would worship if she did not have the Catholic church.

As in much literature dealing with wayward lovers, Cather uses the garden of Eden symbolism in the orchard scenes between Emil and Marie to heighten readers’ sensibilities to the tension between the two lovers. Marie teases Emil, while he uses a scythe to cut the grass, to watch out for snakes. Other fateful imagery includes a duck hunting scene. Keen on hunting together, Marie is remorseful when she actually sees the pair of dead ducks that Emil dumps in her apron. She laments having ended the ducks’ happiness and makes Emil promise not to hunt anymore. Both the reader and Carl, who witnessed the affection between the two, clearly get a sense of a similar doom for the two young people.

The problems that women faced on the prairie are especially brought to the foreground as Alexandra struggles with her brothers over ownership of the land; as she tries to persuade Carl to marry her for love and companionship, to forget his male pride for their mutual happiness; as she emblazons Emil with the status of the favored son; and as she herself condemns Marie—who, the reader knows, is less guilty than Emil because she tries her best to discourage his advances—for Emil’s death and Frank’s imprisonment. Marie also expresses envy for Emil’s ability to wander about the world anywhere and anytime that he pleases.

While one learns that divorce was becoming more common at this time, a fact that infuriates possessive Frank when he reads the newspaper, women are still expected to lead traditional wifely roles. It is only because she remained single that Alexandra was able to influence her brothers and run her own farm as she did.

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