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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and poet. See also Willa Cather Short Story Criticism.

Published in 1913, O Pioneers! is a novel that portrays the lives of Old World immigrants struggling to make a life on the Nebraskan frontier. Cather called the novel a “two-part pastoral,” and consisted of two of her earlier short stories, “Alexandra” and “The White Mulberry Tree.” Although it was her second novel, she regarded O Pioneers! her first true novel. It is still viewed as one of her best works, and signaled her arrival as a prominent American novelist.

Plot and Major Characters

O Pioneers! opens in 1883 and chronicles the story of Alexandra Bergson, the oldest child of a Swedish immigrant, John Bergson. In the first section of the novel, John Bergson falls ill after struggling to make a living off of his farmland for eleven years. He dies, leaving Alexandra and her three brothers to take care of the family farm. A few years later, the area is hit by a devastating drought and widespread crop failure, which forces several families to sell their land and move. She loses her best friend, Carl Linstrum, when his family goes bankrupt and leaves for the city. Two of Alexandra's brothers, Oscar and Lou, want to sell the farm, but Alexandra refuses. Moreover, she begins to buy more land, a risky financial move that incurs the disapproval of her brothers. In the second part, which takes place sixteen years later, Alexandra's instincts have proved successful; in spite of several obstacles, she has expanded her landholdings and implemented innovative farming methods that have made her a rich woman. Her youngest brother, Emil, falls in love with a childhood friend, Marie, who is married to a brooding neighbor. Alexandra considers marrying her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, an artist who has fled rural Nebraska for the city. Yet at the end of the second section, he leaves and travels to Alaska to prospect for gold. The third segment of O Pioneers! is a description of the harsh and unrelenting Nebraska winter. In the fourth section, Emil and Marie are killed by her jealous husband after he catches them together. In the fifth and final segment of the novel, Carl returns when he hears of Emil's death. At this point he is ready to commit to Alexandra and the land. The novel ends with hope and optimism, as Alexandra and Carl look forward to the future.

Major Themes

Commentators view O Pioneers! as a story about the relationship of man to the land; Alexandra succeeds where others have failed because she employs a creative approach to farming and exhibits a strong devotion to the land itself. Some critics regard the novel as a study of the immigrant experience in America: John Bergson, the sensitive Swedish immigrant, is eventually destroyed by the unrelenting demands of the prairie, which deftly illustrates Old World values crushed by the harshness of the New World. In addition, O Pioneers! is perceived as an example of the American frontier myth. Commentators note that in her descriptions Cather strives to create an atmosphere of separation and alienation, which is juxtaposed against the passion and intensity of the youthful characters in the story. In addition, critics have explored the implications of passion and romantic love between the characters. Feminist perspectives have been applied to the novel, as the portrayal of female sexuality and Alexandra's role as Earth mother have been discussed. The symbolism of O Pioneers! is another recurring thematic concern; for example, the romantic interlude between Emil and Marie in the orchard is deemed as a metaphor for the Garden of Eden.

Critical Reception

Initially, O Pioneers! was well received by reviewers and established Cather as one of the premier American authors in the early twentieth-century. Yet critics found fault with the structure of the novel, contending that O Pioneers! was essentially still two separate stories, not a coherent, consistent work. This...

(The entire section is 111,760 words.)