The Social Commentary of O Pioneers
Willa Cather’s 1913 novel O Pioneers! is very much a work of its time, providing social commentary regarding a number of significant issues of the nineteenth into early twentieth century. This commentary presents a variety of frameworks for critical analysis: from the perspective of reform movements, immigrant culture, Populism, and especially women’s rights.
One possible analysis of O Pioneers! deals with the movements of education and prison reform. Alexandra clearly values education: “[Alexandra] spent a whole day with one young farmer who had been away at school, and who was experimenting with a new kind of clover hay”, and wants “Emil to go to school”. Through Alexandra, Cather asks her reader to recognize the power of education as a tool to improve one’s situation, thus supporting the education reform movement. The novel then goes on to question the treatment of the insane and calls for prison reform. Through Ivar, Cather communicates her distaste for insane asylums: “they have built the asylum for people who are different,” Ivar says to Alexandra. And through Frank Shabata, Cather demonstrates a need for prison reform. After her visit with Frank, Alexandra feels disgusted with the prison: “She had refused with horror the warden’s cordial invitation to ‘go through the institution’”. Thus, Cather uses her characters’ thoughts and actions to support the prison and insane asylum reform movements.
O Pioneers! can also be analyzed through its message on immigrant culture. Virtually all of the characters are immigrants, and thus experience conflict between their original culture and Nebraskan norms. For example, the Bergsons’ mother “has always missed the old country” and attempts to retain some of her previous life, and Mrs. Lee looks forward to her visits with Alexandra to return to the “old times”. The novel illustrates the difficulty immigrants face in preserving a treasured original culture after moving to a different continent.
A third possible analysis criticizes the novel through the lens of Populism. In a rapidly transforming America, the Populist movement sought to rebut the image of the simple, stupid farmer and place power in the hands of the general people. O Pioneers! at its core is a novel about people who are nowhere near the highest ranks of society; clearly, Cather found their stories worth telling. In her depiction of the trials of the pioneering farm life, Cather demonstrates the sophistication, power, and worldliness of the general people, thus supporting the Populist movement.
Finally, O Pioneers! can be analyzed for its messages about the women’s rights movement. This work is unique in telling a pioneer story through the eyes of a woman, especially because that woman powerfully defies the gender stereotypes of the time. This was no random choice: Cather’s decision to center her novel on a strong female character makes sense in the bigger picture because of the similarity between the women’s reform and pioneering movements. Like the pioneers, members of the women’s reform movement sought to stretch boundaries and explore the outskirts of established society. Though the pioneers did this in a literal sense on the Great Plains while the women’s reform movement fought societal limitations rather than physical ones, the inherent similarity is striking. By choosing a female lead, Cather creates a beautiful pair of themes within her novel: it not only tells the story of the characters’ experience on the frontier, but also of one woman’s experience struggling against the establishment. Cather uses the experience of the main character, Alexandra Bergson, to explore ideas about women’s independence as a whole.
Alexandra Bergson certainly demonstrates strong independence. Throughout the novel, she refuses to submit to the will of men, choosing to forge her own path both economically and socially. Her independence is clear from the very beginning. In the first chapter, a teenaged Alexandra stabs a traveling man with “a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip – most unnecessary severity” when he attempts to flirt with her. This scene clearly demonstrates her dislike for any implied need for male approval. In the same scene, Cather illustrates Alexandra’s innate masculinity, describing Alexandra as “a tall, strong, girl… She wore a man’s long ulster…carried… like a young soldier…”. Both her personality and her physical appearance show her rejection of traditional gender roles. As she ages, the rejection continues. She eventually runs and controls her own land – she is “running her own house, and other people have nothing to do with…[her]”. Through her own intelligence and hard work, Alexandra establishes her own independent household and homestead, thus ensuring her economic independence. She is even able to refuse her brothers Lou and Oscar when they attempt to dissuade her from marrying Carl Linstrum. As she tells them, “ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me from disposing of my own property. And I advise you to do what they tell you; for the authority you can exert by law is the only influence you will ever have over me again”. As this heated passage demonstrates, Alexandra not only successfully rejects men from a societal standpoint but is even able to exist outside the control of men in the eyes of the establishment — the ultimate success in her lifelong struggle against the restrictions imposed upon her by her gender.
At the end of the novel, Alexandra’s marriage to Carl illustrates her capacity to retain more feminine as well as masculine characteristics. She truly loves and needs Carl’s companionship: “As the weeks went by and she heard nothing from him… she began to wonder whether she would not do better to finish her life alone. What was left of life seemed unimportant”. While Alexandra takes on somewhat androgynous characteristics earlier in the novel (perhaps a reflection of the period where Cather herself cropped her hair short and referred to herself as “William”), her love for Carl serves to remind the reader that she is a woman. In a women’s rights analysis, this is incredibly significant: the novel is not about a biological female seeking to essentially be a man, but rather a woman who is able to accept her womanliness while fulfilling typically masculine roles. Of course, Alexandra and Carl’s marriage is based on companionship and not traditional wife-to-husband submissiveness: “I think we shall be very happy. I haven’t any fears. I think when friends marry, they are safe,” Alexandra says. In describing their marriage as “safe”, she contrasts their relationship to the more traditional relationship between Marie Tovesky and Frank Shabata/Emil, which involved Marie’s submitting to Frank/Emil’s wills. As Alexandra says, “[she and Carl] don’t suffer like – those young ones”, a clear reference to Marie’s two tragic whirlwind relationships. Though Alexandra ties herself eternally to a man, it is a bond marked by equality and friendship, allowing her to maintain her independence. Her strength and refusal to submit to men from her childhood, through her clashes with her brothers, and eventually to her marriage make O Pioneers! a truly feminist novel.
With its multiplicity of social contexts, O Pioneers! is a story about immigrants, farming, and regular people, and it can be analyzed from a wide variety of perspectives. Given the similarity between pioneering and the women’s rights reform movement, analysis from a women’s rights perspective is particularly compelling. Ultimately, the unique inclusion of a strong female lead allows Cather to scrutinize gender roles in pioneer society and advocate for women’s rights across American culture.
Breaking New Ground: Passion and Love in Willa Cather’s O’ Pioneers!
Pioneering, or the act of breaking new ground, is what has established the United States as the enormous international presence it is today. From ideals represented by manifest destiny, the Declaration of Independence, institutions such as Wellesley College, and the Second Amendment, the United States has created a home for pioneers such as Frederick Douglass, Amy Tan, and Ellen De Generes, to flourish and create life in areas of society that were previously dormant. Willa Cather gained fame writing about a group of pioneers who gave life to the Midwest in her prairie novels, including her novel, “O Pioneers!”; therefore it is no surprise she is revered as a pioneer herself. “When O Pioneers! was first published in 1913, reviewers praised Willa Cather for having created ‘a totally new kind of fiction’. Cather had mined ‘a new vein of material’, and ‘broken new ground’”, (Gelfant 1). Cather was a pioneer with her prairie novels in several ways. For example, she was the first to give immigrants heroic stature in serious American literature (Rosowski 45). And more surprisingly, the heroine of her novel is a woman. In “O Pioneers!”, the heroine, Alexandra Bergson is seen as the most capable child in her family and inherits the family estate at the death of her father. When the novel was published in 1913 it was uncommon for pastorals to be written centralizing on women having influence and sometimes control over men as is the case in “O Pioneers!”.Alexandra triumphs over the intractable prairie amassing a fortune and stabilizing the future for her three brothers. She proves herself a capable woman and most of the novel, including “The Wild Land, “Neighboring Fields”, and “Alexandra” is dedicated to her story. However, “O Pioneers!” includes two other portions, titled “Winter Memories” and “The White Mulberry Tree”, that do not focus on Alexandra at all, but rather on the relationship between two other characters, Marie and Emil. Alexandra, the undeniable heroine of the story is pushed into the background for two-fifths of the narrative. The fact a considerable quantity, of “O Pioneers!” is dedicated to Marie and Emil should be taken into careful consideration because it is obvious Cather wished her audience to interpret these two characters with importance. What was Cather’s purpose in giving significance to the relationship of Marie and Emil? Why are they an important aspect in the whole denotation of “O Pioneers!”?The recorded account of Marie and Emil contributes to the novel in several ways. First of all, the love story of Marie and Emil provides an alternative to the conventional love story depicted in the prairie novels of Cather’s time. Additionally, they work as examples of two helpless characters who are victims of their own situations and places in society. And importantly, Marie and Emil provide a valuable contrast to Alexandra’s own situation and character. Cather employs the emphasis on Marie and Emil to support her protagonist and in effect creates another reason to be designated as a pioneer with a new dark twist on romance in the prairie.The love story between Marie and Emil is untypical of romance contained in prairie novels in the early 1900’s. Often characterized as a pastoral, Cather’s “O Pioneers!” has frequently been compared to by critics with other works of its genre such as: Virgil’s “Eclogues”, Spenser’s “Shepherd’s Calendar”, and Sannazaro’s “Arcadia”, characterized as “the most elaborate pastoral romance” (Rosowski 46). “O Pioneers!” remains unique from these works because it differs from the typical pastoral which critic Leo Marx asserts is largely about “love sick swains.” The typical pastoral includes “a primary impulse to find happiness in love” and traditionally “brings together farmers and their lovers.” However, in the case of Marie and Emil, happiness is definitely not found through their love. In fact, their story is the complete opposite of a perfect romance and ends in tragedy.Cather foreshadows the love story between Emil and Marie right from the first chapter (8-9), when Marie and Emil are first introduced as toddlers and Marie is seen offering Emil some candy. Cather heats up their romance in the second part as they are the opening characters of “Neighboring Fields”, affectionately conversing with each other as grown adults (53-57), and closes the section of the narrative with a confrontation between the two lovers when Emil asserts in a frustrated tone “I can’t play with you like a little boy anymore – sometimes you seem to understand perfectly, and then sometimes you pretend you don’t” (104). The tragedy of their affections for each other become apparent when Emil acknowledges there are “so, many, many” things he cannot have (104), referring to his love for Marie. He realizes he will never own Marie because she is a married woman. Trying to repress his passion, Emil forces himself to leave for Mexico in order to forget about Marie. Efforts are made by both characters to overcome the passion for the other. “Although deeply infatuated with Emil, Marie tries to make him understand that their feeling for each other ‘won’t last. It will go away and things will be as they used to” (157), (Murphy 123). However, it is evident Marie and Emil cannot control their emotions. They show unreasonable jealousy towards each other. Emil resents Marie’s light mood at the Sainte Agnes fair when he himself is agonizing over the pain caused by their love. He accuses Marie of being flippant and flirting with other men (230). Marie in turn, is also jealous, even though she is married to another man and has no justification to feel possessive towards Emil. “She gets angry when Emil teases Angelique and stops with the French boys instead of rushing to her at the church supper. She admits to being spoiled, of getting everything she ever wanted, from the Turkish lady toy to Frank Shabata, and becomes petulant when Emil allows one of his turquoise shirt studs to be auctioned off instead of giving it to her (Murphy 123).”The strong, powerful, and uncontrollable passion that Emil and Marie feel for each other becomes dangerous. “The passion of Marie and Emil become so strong it resembles witch craft”(Rosowski 48). The deeply exaggerated and heated romance between Marie and Emil is embellished by Cather, who dramatizes their encounters. The setting involved with the meeting of the two lovers are often very romantic: among flaming roses, beneath the white mulberry tree, in costume (as a gypsy and a Mexican), at dances, or in the wheat fields with fireflies twinkling in the background. The description of their first kiss, which happens violently as the lights go out at the Sainte Agnes Church fair, is over-dramatized, “it was like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of wakening something in the other” (149). In the midst of the drama and uncontainable desire, the love story between Marie and Emil is extremely ironic. “Marie tells Emil if he ‘had any eyes’ he would see Alexandra’s fondness for Carl – true enough, but Marie fails to see the more immediate truth of Emil’s love for her (154)”, (Rosowki 57). After both characters have undergone emotional suffering brought on by their passion and undergone pains to control their emotions, their desire explodes in a tumultuous scene in the Shabata orchard, where they were first seen playing with a childlike innocence. Their innocence is destroyed with adulterous excitement as, “Emil threw himself besides (Marie) and took her into his arms. The blood came back into her cheeks, her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face and the orchard and the sun. ‘I was dreaming this,’ she whispered, hiding her face against him, ‘don’t take my dream way!’” (259). The two lovers are previously depicted in this setting shooting ducks that look “too happy to kill”, foreshadowing the death of the lovers. The tragedy climaxes as there are shot to death as soon as they allow their hearts to fully love each other. “Emil and Marie die beneath a mulberry tree, their blood staining the white berries red” (Rosowski 54), stressing the ironic and tragic orientation of their love story.Undoubtedly, the love story between Marie and Emil is an ironic tragedy. They are found in situations where they cannot freely love each other. As soon as they surrender to their emotions, they are murdered. Uncharacteristic of the typical pastoral romance where “happiness is found in love”, Emil and Marie find suffering and ultimately death through their love. Literary critic Shanon O’ Brien condemns the love story of Emil and Marie as “an unlawful and adulterous relationship”, for which they are punished (O’Brien 443). To view their story scornfully, would be misinterpreting the denotation of the novel and is clearly not what Cather intended. In “O Pioneers!” the deaths of Marie and Emil are not treated as their deserved punishment, but rather a horrible tragedy. The immediate response of Frank Shabata to his murder of the two lovers is sympathy for Marie. He cries, “not to suffer! She was a good girl – not to suffer!” (178). Alexandra blames neither of the characters, but herself for not realizing their hidden feelings (193). Cather relates the lovers’ story with empathy and compassion.Marie and Emil, in their story of uncontrollable desire and death, are portrayed as victims of social structures and conventions. Emil is a victim of his social situation because he is in love with a married woman, unacceptable in society. He is also a helpless victim of himself, he cannot repress his desire for Marie, which is the cause of his death. Marie fails to repress her feelings like Emil, and is further trapped by social convention because although she loves him, she cannot leave her husband. She is a Catholic (105), and divorce is shunned by the Catholic church. Furthermore, society during the early 1900’s was intolerant of adultery. Rather than rebel against the social structure in which the characters are trapped, they choose to conform and consequently suffer emotionally. In effect, they are murdered because they lack self-control, and courage to attempt to escape from social convention. In “O Pioneers!”, it is obvious Cather expresses disapproval with adultery. Ivar refers to it as a “sin” (183). However, through Alexandra’s grief, the audience is forced to feel sympathy and regret for these two characters. Perhaps if they had an option of freely announcing their love, if Marie had a realistic option of leaving her husband, the tragedy could have been prevented. Because these options were not relevant in realistic prairie life, the love story is tragic. However, Cather indicates tight social conventions, without room for change can be detrimental to peoples’ happiness. Through the depiction of Marie and Emil, Cather indirectly implies the need for social change.However, this is not the only intention Cather has in mind when concentrating on Marie and Emil. “Although she tells the lovers’ story with empathy and compassion, Cather wants to subordinate the narrative to the other narrative she was writing: not only that of Alexandra’s personal triumph but also her unconventional relationship with Carl, the friend she will someday marry” (O’ Brien 443). By contrasting the relationship between Marie and Emil to Alexandra’s own situation, Cather is supporting her main character and persuading audiences to agree with Alexandra’s actions. Although, Alexandra is condemned by her brothers about her relationship with Carl (111-113), and is informed that “people have begun to talk” (111), she defends her actions. Although it is not considered appropriate for a woman of “almost forty” to marry someone “five years younger”, Alexander shuns social convention and is more concerned with her own happiness. By contrast, Marie is more afraid of what other people will think and forgoes her own happiness to exist in a socially accepted role. In effect, Alexandra outlives Marie, indicating Alexandra has made the wiser choice.There are many contradictions which can be made between Marie and Alexandra in the novel. While “Cather admires Marie’s spontaneity, vitality, and warmth, she is critical of the ways in with her imagination is structured by the social and narrative conventions. Like the self-limited Edna Pontellier, Marie is unable to envision a life-story for a woman outside of the romantic plot” (O’ Brien 443). It is true that Marie’s role, both in life and in the narrative, is defined by the men she has romantic encounters with. From the beginning of “O’ Pioneers!” Marie is seen admired by men. The men in the general store are commanding her to “choose one of them for a sweetheart”. She finally turns to her uncle and says, “here is my sweetheart” (11-12). The only choice it seems bestowed to Marie is her ability to choose her “sweetheart”: first Frank, and then Emil.However, Alexandra has many choices in her life. In “The Wild Land”, she refuses to sell the family farm and persuades her brothers to take on a mortgage. By exercising her influence over men, she breaks gender codes. She is also characterized as appearing rebellious to social convention (5):His sister was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (Not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap, tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance, without seeming to see anything, as if she were in trouble.But in the same portion of the book Marie is portrayed as a follower of social convention, very different to Alexandra. Marie has “brown curly hair like a brunette doll’s”, and dresses in the “Kate Greenway” fashion, already eager to fit in to society (10). While Alexandra’s dreams and hopes are involved with the cultivation of her land and caring of her family, Marie’s dreams are centered on the typical romantic narrative. “Cather demonstrates Marie’s continuing imaginative preoccupation with romantic narrative in the fortune telling scene. Dressed in a Bohemian costume at the church fair, Marie entertains the crowd by telling them the stories they want to hear, all tales of love and marriage – much like the popular women writers Cather had once wanted to disown” (O’Brien 443).Marie is also dissimilar to Alexandra, because she has no individual accomplishments defining herself. She runs away from a convent after a city education with Frank Shabata. Although she has been to school in the city she decides to marry against her father’s wishes at a young age because she has no control over her emotions, in effect wasting her education. The most important thing in her life is romance. The farm she lives on with Frank was not earned with her hard work, it was a present from her father. And after five years of marriage, Marie does not even have a child. Alexandra in contrast follows her father’s wishes and works on the farm to support her family. In “Neighboring Fields”, Alexandra has proven her success and her strength by bringing fortune to the family and acquiring land enough for her three brothers. She has made individual accomplishments and a staff under her employ. In effect, Alexandra has more power than Marie. Alexandra also has more control over her private life and authority to stand up for herself as apparent in the confrontation between her and her two older brothers, “All that doesn’t concern anybody but me and Carl. Go to town and ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me; for the authority you can exert me by the law is the only influence you will have over me again” (115).Unlike the spontaneous Marie who marries at a young age only to be trapped in a disappointing marriage and murdered when committing adultery, Alexandra only commits herself to romance after she has stacked up individual accomplishments. And even after Carl and Alexandra bond with each other, neither conforms to the expected gender role. Their relationship is based on their shared history and fond memories of each other, rather than burning desire. “In contrast to the blazing love shared by Marie and Emil, Alexandra and Carl share a quiet companionship” (Murphy 123). Unlike Marie, Alexandra marries in midlife after her and Carl experiences life on their separate turfs. Alexandra marries for different reasons than Marie. “When friend marry they are safe,” Alexandra tells Carl at the end of the novel. She says, “I think we shall be very happy” (308). Unlike Marie and Emil, Carl and Alexandra do not lose themselves in their romance. Carl recalls how he and Alexandra “ used to do their milking together, he on his side of the fence and she on theirs” (126). This setting is distinguished by the fence separating the couple, symbolic of their union, how they love each other but still treasure their individuality.The tone surrounding the exit of the two feminine characters are also very dissimilar. The scene of the discovery of Marie’s exit to the narrative is tainted by death and infortune. When Ivar discovers the murdered lovers in the orchard, the narrator asserts, “The story of what happened was written plainly in the orchard grass, on the white mulberries that had fallen in the night and were covered with stain” (268). Whereas, Alexandra makes a permanent mark on the land with her crops and the creation of her property, Marie’s mark is a stain of blood that can be washed away. The scene where Alexandra leaves the narrative at it’s closing has a contrasting effect which emphasizes timelessness. “The narrator drawing back, joins age and youth, life and death, the present and the universal: ‘They went into the house together, leaving the Divide behind them, under the evening star. Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into it’s bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, and the shining eyes of youth!’ (308)” (Rosowski 60). This passage indicates that the work and dedication Alexandra has invested in the prairie land has made her immortal.By elaborating the love story between Emil and Marie, the only other relationship focused on in “O Pioneers!” besides the one between Alexandra and Carl, Cather builds a compare and contrast relationship relating the two couples. Marie and Emil’s story represents one spurred by uncontrollable desire and romance that leads to tragic death. Carl and Alexandra represent a union that is more of a partnership spurred by friendship and compacted only after thoughtful consideration. In contrast to Marie and Emil, Carl and Alexandra are happy and satisfied in the end. By comparison of their dissimilar choices in romance and their characteristics, Marie more reliant on social convention, and Alexandra focusing on her individualism, Cather pits a typical woman stereotype against a new unstereotypical heroine.Through the story of Marie and Emil as well as the remaining portions of “O Pioneers!”, Cather indicates a need for change. She displays reality through the character of Marie and the tragic deaths of the lovers. Women being defined by their relationships with men and people being trapped in unhappy situations due to social circumstance was clearly a realistic portrayal of life in the early 1900’s. However, due to Cather’s glorification of Alexandra, and her account of a contemporary lifestyle proven by her protagonist, “O Pioneers!” provides an alternative to the traditional social conformities of American life. Because of these qualities, “O Pioneers!” breaks new ground in its own right. The story of Emil and Marie is untypical of traditional love stories because of its adulterous nature and tragic ending involving people of separate racial and cultural backgrounds. The love story of Carl and Alexandra is also a pioneering work because of its advocation of marriage in midlife for partnership and friendship. The contrast offered between the two relationships demonstrates, how a woman can find happiness without passion and romance through her own achievements and carefully thought out decisions. With these assertions, the narrative implies a mood for social change and acceptance of strong female figures similar to Alexandra.Pioneers are not only people who explore new physical territory like the settlers of the Midwest Cather writes about. Pioneers can also be figures who try to influence people to think in different directions, and consider new options. Authors, painters, rappers, teachers, and children can act as pioneers if they can create social acceptance or awareness of controversial issues. Presently, hundreds of pioneers are present in society active in causes such as AIDS prevention, same-sex relationships, and feminism. Because of pioneers women can apply for the same jobs as men. It is owed to pioneers Koreans, Americans, Spaniards, and Africans can attend the same university and sleep in the same dormitories. Pioneers are frequently present in literature. Because of the affect certain novels such as “O Pioneers!” can take, it is important to pay close attention to the work presented in literature. Literature is a tool that can affect the most powerful aspect of our lifestyles; our state of minds.
The Fascination of Flight: Symbols of Liberation in ‘O Pioneers!’
Life is full of restrictions and rules that can often impede one’s personal pursuit of happiness. In O Pioneers!, Willa Cather, explores the idea of limitations. The characters in Cather’s novel are restricted to the Nebraska prairie, but seek a more fulfilling life. Although Alexandra and Emil do not get a chance to achieve complete liberation, other creatures on the Homestead do. The recurring imagery of flying creatures, such as butterflies and birds, represent the missed opportunities of both Alexandra and Emil. Cather uses the motif of these creatures at key points to illustrate Alexandra’s desire for independence and Emil’s longing for freedom.
Using birds and ducks as a metaphor for Alexandra’s life highlights her yearning for independence. During a conversation with Ivar, he recalls the story of a seagull that came to him, and explains that, “she was in trouble of some sort, but I could not understand her. She was going over to the other ocean, maybe, and did not know how far it was. She was afraid of never getting there” (16). Both the seagull and Alexandra long to experience a new environment. Though there is nothing physically holding the seagull back from reaching the ocean, the lack of knowledge of the distance to the ocean results in fear and apprehension. As the seagull aspires to journey to the ocean, Alexandra seeks to assert her independence from her brothers and do as she pleases with Carl. Achieving independence is more attainable for the seagull because as it has the ability to roam and settle where it desires. Alexandra, on the other hand, feels confined to the prairie, obligated to carry out her father’s wishes, and cannot abruptly uproot her life and venture out into the world. The fear of the unknown is apparent in Alexandra as well, as her future is just as abstract as the seagull’s distance to the ocean. Regardless of her fear, like the seagull, Alexandra needs to find the courage to become an independent woman.
In the same manner, Cather chooses a lone duck as an illustration of Alexandra’s desire for independence. Reminiscing on an afternoon spent with Emil, Alexandra remembers how they saw “a single duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They [watched] the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck” (80). Alexandra admires how comfortable the duck is with its independence. It exudes confidence in its solitude, seemingly without care for the surrounding environment. In contrast to the duck, Alexandra is both uncomfortable alone and craves the company and comfort that Emil and Carl provide to her. She is envious of the duck’s ability to be independent, but has difficulty achieving the confidence necessary to be so herself. Without such self-confidence, Alexandra is unable to take a leap into the realm of a truly emotionally self-sufficient life. Alexandra eventually must learn to embrace an independent life without her loved ones around her, just as the duck does.
As the seagull and duck represent Alexandra’s life, similarly, Cather places birds and butterflies at key moments in Emil’s life, intensifying his craving for freedom. After Emil shoots and kills some birds, Marie explains to him that “Ivar’s right about wild things. They’re too happy to kill. You can tell just how they felt when they flew up. They were scared, but they didn’t really think anything could hurt them” (50). The birds have a sense of invincibility. They are free to soar and do as they wish without a care in the world that anything, or anyone, could potentially hurt them. Emil, however, does not have this same luxury. He believes that he can interact and be friendly with a married woman without any consequences. Like the birds, Marie and Emil do not feel they are in any danger, but they unfortunately do not possess the same freedom as the birds. The birds epitomize what Emil lacks in his life, which is the freedom and ability to live carefree and happy with Marie.
Cather continues to use creatures that fly to symbolize Emil’s internal longing for freedom by strategically placing two butterflies over his lifeless body. After the fatal shooting, “above Marie and Emil, two white butterflies from Frank’s alfalfa-field were fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows; diving and soaring, now close together” (106). The butterflies are an exemplification of Marie and Emil in the afterlife. The two lovers now have the freedom, like butterflies do, to dive and soar through their existence with ease and beauty. Marie and Emil now at last have the freedom to love. Using white as the color of the butterflies, Cather also illustrates the pureness of the love the two can now share, as they are free from society’s judgment and restrictions. For Emil, the white butterflies are an embodiment of the freedom he wishes to encounter in the afterlife. As Alexandra longs for independence and Emil freedom, Cather places winged creatures at certain stages in each character’s existence in order to emphasize their desires.
Butterflies and various birds maintain a continuous presence throughout O Pioneers! as reminders of what Alexandra and Emil long for. The ideas of independence and freedom are easy to see in creatures such as these, as wings allow a being the ability to venture and assert themselves where they wish. These winged creatures do not encounter the same restrictions as Alexandra and Emil. Unfortunately, Alexandra and Emil are bound to the land and the standards that society has set for them. For anyone, it is nearly impossible to discover a path with no restrictions or limitations. Obstacles are common in life, unless one possess the wings needed to rise above and disregard them all.