Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! is one story of the settlement of the American frontier. The title comes from lines written by nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman, who viewed the land as inspirational and a way to commune with God. Likewise, for Cather, the frontier was legendary, almost mythological, in American culture. Cather contributes to the legend of the American frontier in O Pioneers!
The frontier is portrayed in the novel as a noble but rugged place where dreams can come true if the characters work hard and believe in the land. O Pioneers! reflects the legend of American immigration. It shows the pains, hardships, beauty, and joy of life in the heartland of the United States. One of the novel’s great strengths is its careful interplay of the legendary and the realistic.
In O Pioneers! the land plays a major role in motivation and plot development. Alexandra, for example, feels she is a part of the land. Through her endurance and ability to farm the land (while others, such as Carl Lindstrum, leave it), she achieves success and riches. In the novel, an American legend, in which the European immigrant comes to the New World to seek his or her fortune through land ownership, figures heavily. The immigrant turns the wilderness along the frontier into a farm or ranch and profits thereby. Alexandra Bergson, the protagonist of O Pioneers!, lives this American legend.
Other elements of the legendary can be seen in the work as well; it is difficult to think of unspoiled land being cultivated by isolated female and male figures without recalling the book of Genesis, and themes of innocence and its loss. To Cather’s credit, these powerful themes do not overshadow the book’s realism. Alexandra remains a particular woman living in a particular time and place, in spite of the weighty symbolic value that may be placed on her.
O Pioneers! combines two stories, “Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree.” Alexandra is what links the two stories, which are separated by sixteen years. The first story tells of a young immigrant woman who must care for a farm; it is about her courage and endurance. Alexandra is a woman who must survive in a man’s world. Cather seems to have modeled her protagonist after herself; there are various parallels in the lives of the author and her character.
Alexandra’s great courage and endurance also have a legendary quality. Alexandra is a female version, or revision, of the hardworking tamer of the land, a figure with origins in the Bible and in the legend of the American immigrant. In the second story, “The White Mulberry Tree,” Alexandra is about forty years old, about the age of Cather at the time she published O Pioneers! As Alexandra matures, her relationship with the other characters changes. She initially is the proverbial damsel in distress whom Carl helps by rescuing the kitten. Later, she is the strong one who is wealthy and who eventually owns the Lindstrum farm.
In “The White Mulberry Tree,” characters who were in the background emerge into the foreground. Emil Bergson and Marie Tovesky, who receive brief mention at the beginning of the book, develop into important parts of the subplot. The two ill-fated lovers are murdered under the mulberry tree by Marie’s jealous husband, an act whose biblical echoes are apparent. This violent subplot counterbalances the primary story about the development of the farm and the fulfillment of the American legend of the successful immigrant.
The subplot of the failed romance and murder gives Carl a reason to return to the independent Alexandra. She appears...
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weakened by the loss of her brother, Emil, and close friend Marie. “The White Mulberry Tree” subplot can be interpreted symbolically; murder, deceit, and adultery are the snake in the grass in Cather’s pastoral ideal. Additionally, the novel may be read as the story of one woman’s psychological development.
O Pioneers! contrasts the peaceful, pastoral world of Alexandra with violence and murder, though the story ends peacefully as Alexandra tries to rebuild her world. There is much evidence in the novel to support the argument that the story is a rejection of the American legend of the immigrant’s creating an Edenic, even profitable, world. Alexandra’s world has been shattered by the death of her beloved Emil and Marie. The novel, however, also ends on a note of hope; Alexandra and Carl may find happiness together.