Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 special importance. After the death of his best friend, Amedee, Emil decides that he cannot waste his life because death can come at any moment; at Amedee’s grave he decides that he will have Marie, his beloved, who is already married to Frank Shabata. The cemetery also foretells a scene that the reader is not shown but which must happen after Emil and Marie are found making love in the Shabata orchard.

The neighboring fields are Marie and Frank’s, but they are not the only neighbors with whom Alexandra must deal. Her own brothers, Lou and...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


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

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 her because of her proposed marriage plans, she begins attending the local Catholic church, whose parishioners are mostly French immigrants. Although she does not convert to Catholicism, she is much happier in the Catholic parish because its services and social activities seem full of joy. For the first time in her life, Alexandra understands that religion and joy can coexist. She is amazed that the Catholics accept her with open arms although they know that she does not desire to convert to their faith. They do not judge or shun her.


*Lincoln. Nebraska town that is home to the University of Nebraska and the state prison to which the murderer of Alexandra’s brother Emil is sent.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

As Cather had been influenced by Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett, she seems to have had an encouraging effect on regional writers, lending respect to regional fiction by such authors as Wallace Stegner and William Kittredge. The ambiance of Cather’s descriptions of a particular place and nature in general also comes across in several works by Gretel Ehrlich and in Kathleen Norris’ Dakota (1993).

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Cather's most important critical statement, useful as a guide to her fictional techniques, was the essay "The Novel Demeuble" (1922), where...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The title of Cather's novel quotes Walt Whitman's poem "O Pioneers!" which speaks with confidence and praise of the conquerors of the...

(The entire section is 204 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)