Think about the roles played by some of the important men in this novel: Emil Bergson and Frank Shabata, but also minor characters like Crazy Ivar and John Bergson. What can you say about their relationships with women? What about their approach to, and capacity for, romance? Their relationship to the land itself? How do these men's relationships differ from those of women, particularly Alexandra and Marie Shabata?
What do you make of Alexandra's resolution, late in the novel, to forgive Frank Shabata, and to petition for his official pardon? How does this decision reflect on Alexandra's, and the novel's, attitude towards sin and responsibility?
Compare Alexandra to some of the other pioneering heroines in American literature. How does she respond, for instance, to the tradition of the American woman as individual, and as social and moral pioneer that Hawthorne makes The Scarlet Letter 's Hester Prynne to be? What do you think that Cather is saying in this novel about the social and intellectual spaces assigned and made available to women in American culture? How does Cather's attitude relate to Hawthorne's vision of women in American society?
Obviously, the physical terrain of the Nebraska prairies plays a tremendously important role in this novel. Think specifically about the relationship of the land to its settlers, and the fact that different characters read the same landscape in very different ways. How do they see the land, and how are their thoughts constructed? What is the relationship between the eternal land and the human (and hence mortal) settlers? Can humans efforts influence the land, or is it forever unchanging?
American settlers, and their ideologues in the east, had a term for what they felt was the American right to western land: Manifest Destiny. Ours is a culture that, even after more modern ideas led to a reconsideration of the idea of Manifest Destiny, continues, to a certain extent, to venerate our pioneer ancestors. How does this novel feel about the notion of the moral rights of the pioneer toward the land? How does the novel feel about the pioneers themselves, from the point of view of morality? Perhaps most importantly, how does the novel feel about destiny, the notion that individuals or groups are impelled towards certain ends and actions?
The 1890s, the decade in which much of the novel is set, was a politically tumultuous time for America's western states. Hurt badly by the drought of 1893, these states felt themselves ignored by the eastern elites. In response, the Populist Party was born, roaring onto the American electoral scene for the first time in 1896. Despite failure in the Presidential campaign, the Populist Party asserted itself briefly as an imposing force. How does this novel feel about politics? What does this attitude reveal about the way the novel approaches history and American culture? How, in a larger sense, are the larger movements in American history and culture reflected in the microcosm of Hanover, Nebraska? What can that tell us about O Pioneers! as a social and cultural novel?
What space exists between the novel's perspective and that of Alexandra? Does this novel ever disapprove of Alexandra? If so, how? What is the nature and significance of the novel's attitude towards Alexandra?
What is the novel's attitude toward religion and God? Think both of the novel's portrayals of organized religion, such as the bishop's coming to confirm local Catholic youths, and any instances of non-organized or informal religion or faith?. What, for example, is the role of Crazy Ivar's religious beliefs? Consider, in your response, both the social and the moral functions of religion and faith.
"Isn't it queer," ponders Carl Linstrum, "there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves." At the end of the novel, Alexandra finally responds to this idea: "You remember what you once said about the graveyard, and the old story writing itself over? Only it is we who write it, with the best we have." What opinions about human agency and historical forces are being expressed here? How do they relate to each other? How do they relate to Alexandra's life story as depicted in the novel, and to the story of the settling of the West?
Cather's title, O Pioneers!, was taken from the Walt Whitman poem, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" What can you say about the relationship between the novel and Whitman's attitude toward the American land and American society as expressed in his poems? What about the novel's idea of the individual's relationship to society, as compared to Whitman's?
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