What are the multiple symbolic meanings of the man who appears in Alexandra's dream in Part V of "O Pioneers!"?

Quick answer:

Alexandra's dream may be a means of escape from her pain, and an indication that she is unhappy without any male figure in her life. The man represents strength, as well as physical affection, which we see Alexandra's longing for.

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The text of the dream is as follows:

As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her a long while this time,...

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and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain. When he laid her down on her bed again, she opened her eyes, and, for the first time in her life, she saw him, saw him clearly, though the room was dark, and his face was covered. He was standing in the doorway of her room. His white cloak was thrown over his face, and his head was bent a little forward. His shoulders seemed as strong as the foundations of the world. His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming, like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the arm of the mightiest of all lovers. She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her. That, she told herself, was very well. Then she went to sleep.

Dreams are often used in literature as a means of foreshadowing or symbolizing important character concerns that would be too difficult or farfetched to occur in the real world, or which the author wishes to remain deliberately vague.

In this case, we can focus on some of the certainties that can be extracted from the dream;

  • Alexandra feels free from pain with this man, clearly a good thing.
  • The man's identity is mysterious and deliberately hidden by his cloak.
  • The man's physical stature and behavior implies great strength, yet a gentle touch.
  • Alexandra is pleased with what all of this seems to represent.

Rather than focusing on the identity of the man, I would focus on Alexandra's reaction to him. She seems calm, passive, and happy in this arrangement. Since this dream comes shortly after Emil's death, perhaps the most traumatic event she has experienced, the dream may be interpreted as Alexandra's desire to escape from her troubles; she is free from pain and guarded by a strong and caring person, which has been relatively absent in her real life. Thus, the exact identity of the man may not be as important as what he represents; a guardian that takes away Alexandra's pain, tinged with a hint of physical affection. This also carries implications for a feminist interpretation; despite Alexandra's independence, she still takes comfort in, and has admiration for, male strength.

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