O Pioneers Summary and Analysis
by Willa Cather
Part III, chapter i - Part IV, chapter iv
Winter covers the Divide. It is a hard country still in the winter, and it is difficult to imagine the spring. Alexandra receives weekly letters from Emil, and she still has not seen Oscar or Lou. She avoids the Norwegian Church, and though she spends as much time as possible with Marie, she has not spoken with her about Carl.
Despite her conflict with Lou, Alexandra invites Mrs. Lee, Lou's mother-in-law, for a long visit. Alexandra lets her do all the old-time things that she loves, and she enjoys the visit. A week into her visit, Marie invites the two women for coffee when Frank is in town. They update each other on the state of the traveling men in their lives. Alexandra notes that she hasn't heard from Carl since he left Washington for Alaska. She also allows Marie to read Emil's letters. Marie gives Alexandra a purple necktie to put in Emil's Christmas package, joking that he can wear it while seducing girls. Marie also talks, as she looks through old things, about her fondness for her early love with Frank and hints at her current unhappiness. She keeps Emil's letters, understanding that they are more for her than Alexandra.
Over the course of the winter, winter weighs heavily on Marie begins to grow less happy and Alexandra becomes less happy with their visits. Marie spends more time with her neighbor, Mrs. Hiller, and she goes to Church frequently. She attempts to be friendly and pleasant to her husband, but without much avail.
Emil returns from Mexico and Alexandra insists that he accompany her to a supper and auction at the French Church. As it is a costume party, she tells him to wear Mexican garb and bring his guitar to play. Signa and Nelse Jenson, who are to be married in a week, keep an eye on the house while Emil meets with old friends, including Amedee, who is newly a father. Alexandra is content that Emil seems to have developed an identity apart from the land and the plow.
Alexandra meets Marie-who is dressed in an old Bohemian costume-at the church and tells her of Emil's presence. Marie is impatient to meet with Emil and questions him about Mexico, meanwhile dragging Frank to sit with the Bergsons at dinner. After supper and charades there is an auction, during which Emil spontaneously auctions off one of his turquoise shirt studs, which Marie (in vain) begs Frank to buy for her. Marie then tells fortunes in a booth, entertaining the crowd. This irritates Frank: he's jealous of Marie though without a clear reason.
Amedee organizes a prank to cut the electricity at eleven p.m. so the boys can kiss their sweethearts in the dark. He recommends that Emil, who has no girl, blow out the candle in Marie's fortune tent, and Emil does so after she tells his fortune; he blows out the candle and kisses Marie. When the lights go back on, Frank stares at Marie, who is white-faced. Emil retreats and plays the guitar while she hastily packs up her tent, avoiding all contact.
Signa and Nelse are married and both Alexandra and Marie object to their immediate practicality following the wedding-e.g. Nelse has Signa wear work clothes and insists on taking Alexandra's wedding gift, two cows, immediately instead of waiting for delivery. Marie opines that Signa should have married, Smirka, a previous worker, and is irritated when Alexandra says that marrying Nelse was a pragmatic decision.
Marie walks home alone, only to be overtaken by Emil, who tries to convince her to leave Frank and go away with him. Marie, distraught, tells him that she could never do such a thing. She explains that she once loved Frank and cannot leave him. They part under these distressing circumstances.
After Marie refuses to hear him, Emil packs his books to leave a week later, preparing to take a law degree in Ann Arbor after working for a Swedish lawyer in Omaha. Alexandra plans to visit him next Christmas and Emil feels as though he is finally breaking with his childhood. He lies on his childhood bed and he thinks about Alexandra, considering that he never thought of her as attractive, just as his sister. They talk together about John Bergson and their Swedish heritage and Emil grows gloomy. Alexandra doesn't worry about him despite his moodiness; she feels certain of his success. Emil suddenly recalls the wild duck they once saw on a walk, and they agree that they often think of it.
The next morning Emil makes his goodbyes. At Amedee's home, he finds Angelique, Mrs. Chevalier and Amedee's son in the kitchen and teases them amiably. He learns that Amedee is out in the field supervising the harvest, despite an illness, for he has a new, very expensive machine that only he knows how to drive. Emil meets Amedee in the fields and, noticing that his friend is in pain, suggests that he see a doctor. Amedee dismisses his concern. Emil departs only to see, on his way home, two workmen carrying Amedee from the fields. Emil rushes to help them.
Throughout O Pioneers! Alexandra experiences periods of companionship followed by periods of loneliness. In this section of the novel, Alexandra's loneliness is at its height, for Carl has left for Alaska, Emil has left for Mexico, and she has not made peace with her brothers. Cather's examination of Alexandra's loneliness is interesting, because life on the Divide seems inherently lonely. Even at the beginning of the novel, when miles separated each homestead from the other, and Alexandra went days without seeing anyone besides her family, Alexandra was not lonely. Her isolation only made her appreciate Carl's friendship more. Thus Cather contrasts the Divide's relative isolation with the rich community life of the people there. One moment Alexandra's life seems full of family and friends; the next she seems unbelievably alone. With this contrast, Cather suggests that though all humans need companionship, part of the pioneer's struggle is captured in this inevitable loneliness.
Alexandra's separation from those around her may be related to her inability to fully relate to others. She lacks sympathy and she has little ability to guess at the emotional states of others. Her success comes from her ability to get things done, and she is barely conscious of her own feelings, much less those around her. Hence her friendship with Marie is limited because she cannot understand the depth of Marie's troubles. When Marie attempts to confide her marital problems to Alexandra, Alexandra changes the subject, thinking it unwise for Marie to dwell on such things.
Thus, in Alexandra's interactions with Marie and Mrs. Lee, Cather suggests that Alexandra has difficulty entering fully into the feminine sphere. For a great deal of the book, Alexandra is depicted as being primarily a member of the male, farmer community. But, in this section especially, Cather highlights that she also belongs to a community of women, from which she seems to receive a great deal of pleasure. Mrs. Lee and Marie fill part of the space in Alexandra's life left by Emil and Carl. Despite these connections, however, Alexandra never fully engages with the emotional concerns of either group. In many ways, Alexandra is caught masculinity and femininity: she manages to participate in the business and farming community as an equal member without losing her identity as a woman, but she is unable to provide-or seek for herself-emotional sympathy with Marie.
The major exception to Marie's ambiguous gender status comes in the bedtime fantasy we read about in this section, in which a man sweeps her up and carries her lightly over the fields. Alexandra's dream is problematic for many theorists, especially feminist critics. It is hard to deny that the dream implies Alexandra's ultimate desire to be transformed into a romance heroine, swept up by a man who will take her responsibilities off her shoulders. On the other hand, Alexandra's actions complicate this position. She may dream of giving up her burden to men, but she clearly does not, despite the fact that many men, her brothers included, are eager to take over her farm. The man she does harbor affection for-Carl-is hardly a romantic hero. He is malleable and uncertain of himself, more a candidate for being burdensome than alleviating her burdens. Thus Alexandra's fantasy rather complicates her character than defines it.
In general, Cather chooses not to portray romantic love as a positive force: instead it is complex and messy. She concentrates on the practical price of love. Emil and Marie try not to be foolish young lovers who value their own happiness over everything else. Emil longs to be loved, but he understands the practical ramification of his situation. Marie is very unhappy but makes no plans to escape her responsibilities. When Marie expresses her dissatisfaction with Signa's marriage to Nelse Jenson, Alexandra points out that despite the lack of passion, she thinks that Signa made a wise choice. Marie, who loved Frank not prudently but passionately, seems to want Signa to repeat her error. Cather does portray one pure, youthful passion leading to happiness in the marriage of Amedee and Angelique. But this couple, as we shall see, meets its own unhappiness.
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