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O Pioneers Summary and Analysis

by Willa Cather

Part II, chapters i - iv

Summary

Sixteen years after John Bergson's death, the Divide has flourished and its population has boomed. No longer barren prairie, now the land is lush and a joy to farm.

Emil stands outside of the Norwegian graveyard where his mother and father are both now buried, sharpening his scythe in preparation to mow the grass around their plots. He is tall and handsome, back from a successful career at the University, where he played the cornet in the band and distinguished himself on the track team. After about an hour he sees Marie approach in a carriage. Smiling and pretty, she teases him for taking so long at his work. She's already been to town and offers give him a lift home. They chat as he finishes mowing some plots and Marie comments that the Bohemians buried in the Norwegian graveyard were "free-thinkers"; Emil teases her about the Bohemians' "spunky" nature. Marie secures a promise from Emil to mow her orchard grass after the next rain. They also talk about the coming wedding between Amedee and Angelique. Marie tells Emil not to dance with her too much at the party afterwards because the other girls are starting to think that he's stuck up after having been away to school. Emil reluctantly agrees.

They drive westward towards Alexandra Bergson's big white house. There are so many buildings on her property that it looks "almost like a tiny village." When Emil arrives, he goes inside to find Alexandra already seated to dinner with her men, and he sits in his place at her right. Alexandra appears much the same as when we left her, though her face has grown tanner in the sun. The inside of the house is strange, unevenly furnished and not entirely comfortable. It's clear that the outdoors is Alexandra's true home. Three young Swedish girls who work for Alexandra in the house serve meat, potatoes and pie. Alexandra watches Signa, her favorite of the girls, who tends to get flustered around the men. Alexandra knows that one of her workers, Nelse Jensen, is courting Signa, but she doesn't know how seriously. Ivar sits to Alexandra's left. He lost his lands twelve years before, and Alexandra took him in to work for her. She made him a room in the barn, where he sleeps year-round because he dislikes "regular" human habitation, preferring to remain "further from temptations," whatever those temptations may be.

Alexandra's workers complain about her new grain silo, suggesting that its grain "gives the stock the bloat." Alexandra listens to their opinions thoughtfully, saying that they should give the silo a try before giving up on it, to which the men agree. As they depart, Alexandra invites Ivar-who was markedly silent during the meal-to speak to her in the sitting room. Ivar vents a fear that the men will commit him to an asylum as Alexandra patiently listens. He explains that in the old country men like him, who have visions and suffer from "spells," are simply left alone, whereas in America people do not tolerance such differences. Alexandra reassures him and he feels much better; as he is leaving she asks him to ready a cart so that she can meet with a purchaser of her alfalfa hay.

That Sunday, while Emil is at the wedding, Alexandra has all of her brothers to dinner. They eat in the dining room, which is decorated in the popular style, for Alexandra feels that she needs to put her company at ease. Oscar's four little boys, Lou's wife Annie Lee, and their three daughters make up the rest of the party. Oscar is more prosperous than Lou, for Lou spends more time running for government positions than he does working on his farm and his neighbor's don't trust him. Lou and Oscar try to persuade Alexandra to commit Ivar to the asylum, but she refuses. The company also discusses Annie's new bathtub and Alexandra remarks that she will buy a piano for Lou's daughter, Milly, who has learned to play the songs that John Bergson used to sing. Oscar listens irritably, jealous of the way Alexandra spoils Lou's children.

After dinner, while Lou and Oscar pick cherries, Alexandra walks in the garden with her nieces. They notice a strange visitor, whom upon closer inspection Alexandra realizes is Carl Linstrum. The girls fetch Lou and Oscar as Alexandra embraces Carl. Carl has become an engraver and an amateur painter and announces that he is going to Alaska by way of Seattle and so can only stay a short while. Lou and Oscar arrive only to respond standoffishly to Carl's presence, whereas Annie teasingly provokes him. Carl explains that he is going west in search of gold-he has a friend, a successful prospector, with whom he plans to pan the following season. After talking politics with Carl a bit belligerently, Lou and Oscar take their leave. Alexandra and Carl stand together alone.

Alexandra is surprised to see that Carl has changed so little, still self-conscious and troubled. Alexandra tells him about her success, saying that they hung on and the land took care of itself. The discuss the different characters of people Carl knew-especially Emil, who reminds Alexandra of her father, and Marie, who eloped with Frank. She suggests that they visit Frank and Marie the next day. Carl, meanwhile, confesses that he feels as though he's wasted his life. Alexandra insists that his freedom is worth more than her land, but he says that this freedom is lonely and dispiriting. To back up her argument about the importance of freedom, she tells him about Carrie Jensen, one of her men's sisters, who attempted suicide and lived a depressed life until she visited Iowa, after which she declared that as long as she knew there was so much going on in the world, she could be happy.

Analysis

Once again the narrative takes a dramatic jump forward in time, skipping over the "rags to riches" story that might make up a traditional American narrative. In jumping from Carl's departure almost immediately to his return, Cather emphasizes instead the emotional narrative of Alexandra's life. Carl's relationship with Alexandra is central in large part because she has so few relationships. The sixteen years of Alexandra's life that we've seen contain very few emotionally resonant events, which is perhaps a consequence of living a remote, difficult life on the Divide.

Along these lines, this section of the novel suggests the important role that isolated hardship plays in bringing families close. Before, the Bergsons were close-knit and communicative; now that they've found success, they aren't as capable of banding together. This is true of both Alexandra and the brothers. Alexandra seems reluctant to continue her role as family matriarch. She prefers certain members of her family to others and does not want to hide these preferences beneath a show of equal treatment. As for Lou and Oscar, their prosperity has made them proud of themselves and jealous of Alexandra. There are suspicious of old friends such as Carl, assuming that he must be after something. Cather thus suggests that, with the rise of the conveniences of success, traditional ties lose much of their import.

This loss of meaning has much to do with characters' impulse to forget their histories. The lessons of the past are swallowed and forgotten in the vanities of the present. Emil, like Alexandra, works to stand against this tendency as he clears the overgrown grass from the town graveyard. People no longer keep up the graves of their parents and it's left to folks like Emil to tend them. Ivar, too, represents a tie to the past-to the mysticism of the old world-that people find threatening. They wish to commit Ivar and forget about him, though Alexandra won't allow it. Similarly, Lou torments his mother-in-law because she prefers old-fashioned methods to modern improvements, as seen in the new bathtub that she refuses to use. Lou's character is free of both past and future-he lives entirely in the present age. He insists upon updating his bathtub and dining in the present fashion, while meanwhile rejecting innovations such as the grain silo. Cather clearly condemns this present-age thinking, preferring Alexandra's mix of reverence for history and clear forward vision.

In general, the emotional terrain of the novel comes forth as the struggle for survival recedes. Relationships have become increasingly-perhaps even confusingly-complex. For instance, when Marie and Emil first speak, the reader may well assume that this is a conversation between two sweethearts. Marie's words are light and flirtatious, and Emil reacts as would befit an infatuated youth. However, we soon learn that Marie is in fact married. With similar ambiguity, petty disagreements among the Bergsons seem ready to erupt into violent quarrels-there relationship is hardly simple, but has become, rather, emotionally fraught. And Alexandra too seems ready to address her desires and needs, after a struggle-filled life of independence. A major part of Alexandra's newfound emotionality emerges with the return of Carl.

Carl's lackluster return to the prairie introduces a new dimension of the pioneering spirit. During the novel's first third, Alexandra Bergson seems almost too perfect: ideally fitted with the pioneer's clarity and drive. Carl, in contrast, exhibits an inability to follow through, though he possesses many good qualities. However, Alexandra herself complicates our acceptance of this moral hierarchy-Alexandra over Carl-that the book seems to have endorsed. When Alexandra tells Carl the story of the neighbor girl whose visit to the big city gave her the will to live, she suggests that Carl doesn't need to find purpose in being settled. He can find his purpose anywhere, if only he is willing to accept that his identity inheres in its unsettledness. This privileging of freedom over settlement captures the American spirit differently, but perhaps equally well.

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