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O Pioneers!

Willa Cather

Part V

Part IV

Analytical Overview

Summary

On a stormy October evening three months after the murders of Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata, Signa sends Ivar in search of Alexandra, who has vanished into the storm. Ivar finds her alone, in the rain, at Emil's grave. Her exposure to the storm induces exhaustion, and Alexandra must spend the next few days in bed, recovering; as a result, Alexandra undergoes a sort of catharsis. Again the vision that has perplexed and comforted her throughout her life recurs, that of a powerful, golden man, lifting her up and easing her weariness. Alexandra is tired of life, physically and emotionally. She has time now to reflect, with a certain distance, on the tragedy that has befallen her family. She remains uncertain as to whether Emil and Marie are to blame for their own deaths, but she has great sympathy for Frank Shabata, their murderer, whom she believes to have been the victim of circumstance and blind emotion.

Inspired to help Frank, Alexandra travels to the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where Frank is serving ten years for his crime. She finds him a shadow of his former self, dehumanized by his few months in prison. Alexandra is struck with sympathy, and resolves to do what ever it takes to get Frank pardoned. Returning to her hotel after meeting with Frank, she finds a telegram waiting for her: Carl Linstrum, whom she had telegrammed months earlier following the tragedy, has returned to Hanover.

Linstrum says that he never received Alexandra's telegram. Deep in the wilds of Alaska, it was only by chance that he learned of Emil's death, and he came as quickly as he could. His arrival is a tremendous comfort to Alexandra, and the two of them, overwhelmed by loneliness, decide to marry.

Commentary

Willa Cather's tombstone bears part of an epigram taken from her most famous novel, My Antonia: "At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great." In other words, Cather believes that ultimate happiness lies not in personal satisfaction or achievement, but rather in the subsuming of the self into something universal. This idea seems, to a certain extent, to conflict with the customary American stress on the individual. Various critics of American literature, including Sacvan Bercovitch in his The Puritan Origins of the American Self, have noted that American authors have traditionally placed a heavy emphasis on the exemplary role of the heroic American individual as a pillar of society.

In O Pioneers!, the protagonist Alexandra Bergson is not merely an exemplar of the spirit of an entire pioneer generation, but also an embodiment of the power of the American land itself. The novel's final section, titled simply "Alexandra," details its eponymous protagonist's dissolution, the process by which she will return, both physically and spiritually, to the earth. She is tired of corporeal existence, "long[ing] to be free of her own body, which ached and was so heavy." Though she has finally united with Carl, Alexandra yearns to become one with the land. "Fortunate country," the novel rhapsodizes, "that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!" Death is a triumph for Alexandra, as it is only by her abandonment of earthly life that her spirit can be where it has desired to be throughout the novel and truly belongs. The forces of nature, moreover, will render her body to the land, and to the people who are inseparable from that land, the "youthful sinewy races" of the Whitman poem from which Cather derives the novel's title.

That Alexandra will finally fulfill her spirit's promise only in death comments on her impending marriage to Carl. The novel looks forward not to Alexandra's joining with her future husband, but rather to her union with the land. The rejection of a conventional marriage ending underscores Alexandra's individuality. After her dramatic and cathartic expedition through the storm to visit Emil's grave, Alexandra thinks not of Carl, but rather of the mysterious figure that has filled her fantasies since her girlhood. She envisions him as an incarnation of the land coming to ease her weariness: "She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her." Her relationship to Carl stands in the way of this sought-after union, but he understands, and is willing to accept, that she truly belongs not to him but to the land. In this acceptance, Carl not only displays the same stoic resolve that has served Alexandra so well, but also breaks free from the male pattern of jealously coveting what one cannot have. Finally, given the failure of other romances in the novel, the fact that Alexandra's fulfillment is not that of the conventional woman's marriage to a man marks her as pioneer, in spirit as well as in society.

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