The difficult relationship between the individual and society is one of the most enduring themes of American culture, and, as such, figures prominently in American literature. America's first Puritan forebears were dissenters, forced to reconcile their impulse toward revolution against the society that confined them with their faith in the sanctity of the idea of community. Since then, America has been marked by the uneasy balance between the forces of the personal and the public, between those of individual dreams and the great American Dream. Willa Cather's first great novel, O Pioneers!, addresses itself in large part to that uneasy balance. In the story of Alexandra Bergson, the novel measures the potency of the remarkable individual against universal human desires and the forces of national history.
The uneasiness that marks the characters' relationship with society and history in O Pioneers! is also present in their relationship with the land. The land is their home and their livelihood, and it constitutes the promise that they sought in moving to the West. Cather gives the land a force and presence of its own, utterly independent, even disdainful, of human settlement: "the great fact" of prairie life, she writes in the first chapter, "was the land itself." She imbues the prairie with a vast inescapability and an undeniable power over those who attempt to exert their will upon it; the land itself is what matters, not the people who inhabit it. Thus the land of O Pioneers!, in particular, and the West, in general, become timeless and impersonal in their massive scale. Cather writes that the land wants and feels; it gives and it takes, leaving the pioneers to submit to its whim. In its vastness, the land seems beyond transformation, always holding individual pioneers in its grasp. Yet over time, though no individual pioneer can conquer the land, the cumulative spirit of generations of pioneers is a force unto itself. Through the collective successes and failures of these individuals, the land is indeed transformed.
Alexandra Bergson's relationship with the land epitomizes this grand struggle between human agency and the larger forces that manipulate individuals. Alexandra exerts her will upon the land even as it bends and shapes her. Yet her relationship with the land goes deeper than mere control or influence. She is, to some extent, an incarnation of the land. At the same time, she seems curiously empty of human emotion and personality: "As a woman," writes the critic Blanche Gelfant, "Alexandra lacks a personal inner life." Her relationship with Carl Linstrum seems strangely devoid of romance; her attachment to him is largely unemotional. Her recurring fantasies of a man who resembles a mythical corn god demonstrate her connection to the land and dissociation from conventional society. Her story can be seen, Gelfant suggests, as a kind of creation myth, a universalized story about the cultivation and settlement of the American West. Alexandra's story may be, as Carl suggests, merely one of "two or three human stories which repeat themselves."
As it depicts individuals within a massive, unforgiving landscape, the novel puts very little faith in the ability of individuals to control their lives. Nor does it have much faith in the human capacity to form meaningful and lasting relationships: tragic and abortive relationships, especially unhappy marriages, abound in O Pioneers!. In the end, then, Cather's novel celebrates the ambitious idea and hard reality of pioneer America, but remains skeptical about the individual pioneer's capacity for happiness within the confines of traditional social relationships, and about the individual pioneer's ability to affect history through positive action. Yet, while Alexandra occupies a very familiar cultural space--that of the individual struggling against larger forces--the novel neither resolves the question of human historical agency nor, because of her great will and deep respect for the pioneer spirit, depersonalizes Alexandra by consigning her to a stereotype. By novel's end, through a sort of passive, stoic will that seems to mirror the will of the land, Alexandra is able to avoid loneliness in her union with Carl and gain some measure of individuality.
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