O Pioneers Summary and Analysis
by Willa Cather
Part II, chapters v-xii
Alexandra spends the next couple of days with Carl, taking walks, viewing the operations of the farm in the morning and talking well into the night. One morning, Carl walks at sunrise, reminded of his own youth in Nebraska, when he sees Emil and Marie hunting together. Emil kills five ducks and deposits them in Marie's apron. When she sees the blood oozing from their wounds she grows sad and declares, following one of Ivar's beliefs, that wild things are too happy to kill. Emil laughs at her, but says that he won't hunt any more. Seeing these two young people makes Carl melancholy as he goes in for breakfast.
That afternoon Alexandra suggests to Carl that they visit the Shabatas. Wearing a white dress and sun-hat, she takes Carl along the old path they walked as youths. The two of them hint indirectly at their affection for one another, filled with the nostalgia of the walk. They arrive at the Shabatas' and greet Marie, who appears vivacious. Carl remarks to himself that he can understand Marie's husband's jealousy of her, as she's both attractive and very friendly.
The three reminisce about the past and eat apricots from the trees on the property until Marie's husband, Frank, comes home. He is clearly in a bad mood, complaining about how old woman Hiller's hogs had gotten into his wheat, and he had to leave his team to drive them out again. Alexandra suggests gently that he should fix her fences, for she only has a lame son to help her, but Frank doesn't like the idea. Alexandra and Carl depart, leaving Marie to try and cheer up her husband. She attempts to sympathize, but he only grows more frustrated. He spends the rest of his evening frustrated over progressive political news-he, like Lou Bergson, is quite conservative.
We learn the story of Frank and Marie's relationship. Marie had grown up in Omaha with her successful and doting father, Albert Tovesky. When she was sixteen, Frank Shabata moved to Omaha, and all of the young girls fell in love with him. Marie and Frank were engaged suddenly, as soon as Marie was out of high school, and Mr. Tovesky refused to accept Frank as a son-in-law and sent Marie to a convent. When she turned eighteen, Frank convinced her to elope with him. Marie's father at last accepted their marriage and bought them Carl Linstrum's old farm. Though Frank was a little unsteady, he worked hard and did better than some might have expected.
The next morning, while Frank spends the day at a saloon, Marie comes across Emil cutting her grass, as promised. They work for a while, Emil mowing and Marie picking fruit, and talk about old pagan religions when their work carries them near one another. Marie believes she could worship the trees like the old Bohemians. They also discuss Carl and Alexandra's possible love for each other, and also Emil's future. He is thinking about moving to New York, a move that Marie opposes, and he openly resents her interest in his future, telling her to stop treating him like a child.
A month later, Carl still has not departed. He and Emil attend a Catholic fair together and meet Amedee and Angelique, Emil's newly married friends. Emil jokes and flirts with the newlyweds, taking on Amedee in a high-jump contest and pretending to run away with his bride. The happy pair makes for a marked contrast with Carl, who seems to know nothing but despair.
Meanwhile, Alexandra's brothers arrive at Alexandra's house for the first time since Carl Linstrum's arrival and inform her that she is making a fool of herself with Carl Linstrum. They insist that Carl is trying to take her for her money. Alexandra holds them off with reasonable arguments, noting that they got their fair share of the land when they were married and, under their continued duress, she lists the many important decisions she made that lead to their success. They insist that her decisions were not nearly as important as their labor. Then to add insult to injury, Oscar reminds Alexandra that she's forty years old and that everyone thinks she's being swindled. Finally Alexandra has had enough. She tells them to leave and never come back. As the boys depart they reflect that maybe they shouldn't have mentioned her age. They seem puzzled by Alexandra's anger.
Emil arrives home and tells Alexandra that he and Carl met Lou and Oscar, who asked to talk with Carl. Alexandra tells him about her quarrel with her brothers, and though he doesn't fully understand her feelings on the subject he vows to support her. Meanwhile he tells her a new plan to go to Mexico City and pursue work. Emil goes to bed with thoughts of Marie, wondering why she and Frank eloped together and imagining a life with her.
Carl returns and admits to Alexandra that he has seen Lou and Oscar and that he is leaving tomorrow. Alexandra half-heartedly tries to change his mind, as if she knows there's no point. He tells her he will go straight to Alaska and start getting the feel of the place, and he asks her to give him a year. She agrees sadly, commenting that she hopes that her father cannot see what has come of her family's success.
In this section of the novel, Cather works a parallel between Marie and Emil and Alexandra and Carl. Both couples have strong, unexpressed affection for each other. When Carl takes a walk one morning, he remembers meeting Alexandra each morning to do the daily milking, and how she looked "as if she had walked straight out of the morning itself." Though Cather reveals little of Carl's interiority, these brief visions suggest Carl's passion for Alexandra is as vibrant-though hidden-as Carl's is for Marie. Moreover, neither Marie nor Alexandra seems particularly touched by passion. In both couples, the men are more romantic, the women more practical. This is perhaps in part due to the respective ages of the lovers: Alexandra is older than Carl, just as Marie is older than Emil.
Also, both possible couples face major obstacles to their unions. Marie's marriage to Frank, which doesn't seem especially passionate, results from a youthful decision. Carl's need to leave with his family as a youth is also a great obstacle in terms of his present affection for Alexandra, and other obstacles - the disapproval of her brothers and Carl's oversensitivity - also impede their coming together. Both possible couples thus seem to have missed their respective moments. They both seem star-crossed. However, Marie and Emil's barriers seem inescapable, whereas Alexandra and Carl's are less rigid. Just as obstacles make Emil's passion grow, the reader is invited to believe that separation will perhaps help Alexandra and Carl to rediscover the passion they once shared.
However, this romantic passion is, to put it lightly, understated. The calm continuation of Carl and Alexandra's relationship is one of the elements of O Pioneers! that may make the novel difficult for readers. There are few emotional climaxes, few catharses; instead, the novel proceeds at an even keel, emphasizing that no matter what events befall these individual characters, life on the land will continue as it is. Again, the land is the main organizing force of the novel. Though we have moved beyond the taming of the prairie into farmland, its slow, cyclical pace still informs the emotionality of the characters that live off of it. The land is, to a great extent, the protagonist.
This section also provides us with several examples of Cather's style-at once plain and poetic. A few subtly interwoven symbols complicate the narrative. One such symbol is wild birds, which first appear in Part I when the Bergson's and Carl visit Ivar. In that scene, the most sympathetic characters aligned themselves with Ivar in wanting to protect and admire the beautiful creatures, while Oscar and Lou simply grumbled about not being able to shoot them. In a similar moment in this section, Emil shoots a group of birds and Marie begs him not to do so anymore. Marie seems to recognize, just as Ivar has always known, that there is something special about these birds, so wild and free, that ought to be respected. Killing them for fun is a meaningless, disrespectful waste. Cultivating the prairie, Cather suggests, must be balanced with respecting nature's freedom-a balance that also ties the birds to Alexandra, the great compromiser of love for the land and use of the land.
This section of the novel also explicates a conflict that has been simmering under the surface from the first page. When Lou and Oscar quarrel with Alexandra, they tell her that she does not really own her land, because she is a woman, and that the land belongs to the men who work it. Their words are not surprising, for the Divide and the West are inherently difficult places for women, and John Bergson's decision to leave Alexandra in charge was complicated from the first by the presumed inferiority of women to men. At the same time, however, Cather suggests that Alexandra benefits from the conditions on the Divide: they have made her talents apparent and necessary.
While Alexandra's brothers take no real action to try and prevent her from doing as she wishes, and while it seems impossible that Alexandra would ever lose her land, Cather demonstrates that Alexandra has, through her very success, undermined her position as a shrewd and forceful woman. Even though her brothers acknowledge specific contributions Alexandra has made, they refuse to equate her mental tasks (or even the money she made from her eggs and milk) with their labor. They have forgotten-perhaps purposively-her centrality in their own success. By taming the land and granting her brothers success, then, Alexandra has undermined her own power. As long as they needed her, the brothers respected and followed her; now that they don't need her, they seem less likely to respect her.
The disparate elements of this section come together in the idea that the Divide represents both a place of great freedom and of inescapable constraints. The expanse of the land and the farmer's lifestyle creates conditions where there is little monitoring of individual relationships. Thus, Emil and Marie can spend more time together than is likely appropriate. At the same time, in a region where civilization is so new and essentially unstable, the community has a large stake in keeping order, so when Alexandra and Carl spend so much time together, everyone in the community is aware of it. The conflict between these two conditions relates directly to the land itself, a land that provides boundless opportunity for success and happiness, but still teems with instability.
O Pioneers Essays and Related Content
- O Pioneers: Major Themes
- O Pioneers: Essays
- O Pioneers: E-Text
- O Pioneers: Questions
- O Pioneers: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Willa Cather: Biography
- O Pioneers Summary
- About O Pioneers
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, chapters i - iii
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, chapters iv - v
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, chapters i - iv
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, chapters v-xii
- Summary and Analysis of Part III, chapter i - Part IV, chapter iv
- Summary and Analysis of Part IV, chapters v - viii
- Summary and Analysis of Part V, chapters i - iii
- Settling the American Frontier: The Homestead Act
- Related Links on O Pioneers
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources