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.
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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. […]