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O Pioneers Summary and Analysis

by Willa Cather

Part V, chapters i - iii

Summary

Shortly after Emil's death, Signa worries to Ivar that Alexandra has gone out in the rain. Ivar knows he will find her at the graveyard and hitches up a horse. Signa asks him why he doesn't wear shoes and he explains that the Bible governs all the body but the feet, so he lets them do as they wish. Signa responds to this enigmatic reply by saying that he is a good friend to his mistress. At the graveyard Ivar sees Alexandra rise from her father's grave. She tells Ivar that she feels better about Emil after the rain: she feels as though being dead must be just like before you were born. Ivar reproaches her for doubting that the dead are in heaven, but than stops, for he does not believe these dead are in heaven.

At home, Signa comforts Alexandra and puts her to bed as if she were a child. As Alexandra drifts to sleep, she has her old dream. She feels that she opens her eyes and sees her rescuer in a white cloak with his face covered. "His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming, like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the arm of the mightiest of all lovers."

The next morning Alexandra wakes with a bad cold, which keeps her in bed for several days. She decides to go see Frank Shabata, who is serving ten years in Lincoln. His trial had been quick, for he had given himself up to the police and confessed. Alexandra feels that Frank is "less in the wrong than any of them, and...was paying the heaviest penalty," and feels him to be her last link to the people she cared for most. She has written Carl Linstrum without receiving an answer-probably due to his remote location-and her heart slowly closes to him. Alexandra blames herself for encouraging Emil and Marie's friendship, recalling that she had thought of Marie as a married woman beyond the possibility of a love affair. At the same time, Alexandra knows that the two couldn't have helped loving each other.

In Lincoln, Alexandra stays at the hotel she used when Emil graduated from college. After a day of searching foolishly for students who might have known Emil, Alexandra goes to see Frank the next morning. She tries to tell the warden, Mr. Schwartz, about Frank's situation, but he finds nothing unusual in it. Alexandra waits in the miserable prison while Mr. Schwartz fetches Frank.

When he appears, Frank's appearance-shaved head and prison clothes-horrifies Alexandra. He look like a criminal and stares with glassy eyes. Alexandra expresses her sympathy for him as Frank rambles oddly, declaring that he doesn't blame Marie. Alexandra both blames and exculpates Marie, believing that her sin is unforgivable yet unable to think of Marie as wrong. As she rises to leave, Alexandra tells Frank that she is going to pursue a governor's pardon. Frank catches her hand and asks her whether she thinks he drove Marie to it, but Alexandra cuts him off.

Back at her hotel, Alexandra receives a telegram from Carl Linstrum, who returned after reading about the murder in a newspaper. Early the next morning she meets Carl in Hanover and they return to her home. Carl explains to Alexandra that he is doing well as a prospector and wishes Alexandra to come with him to Alaska. She tells him she doesn't want to wait any longer, and they decide that they need each other, despite her brother's insults and oppositions.

Alexandra asks Carl if he understands how Marie and Emil's love happened, because she still cannot. Carl says that he's sure Emil and Marie tried terribly hard to resist temptation, and that that's why Emil left for Mexico and was leaving again. He insists that she isn't to blame for cultivating their connection; she merely "spread ruin around them through no fault of [her own]" and consoles her in her grief and confusion.

Alexandra tells Carl that she will follow him to Alaska in the spring, but that she wants to come back to the Divide, saying that despite her misfortunes the land still makes her feel "free." She thinks aloud that Lou and Oscar don't feel the way that she does about the land, but she might as well leave it to their children, for the land truly belongs only to those who "love it and understand it." She looks out into the sun and when Carl asks what she's thinking, she tells him she's thinking of a dream she had before, one that can't come true now, which she will tell him about after their marriage. She says that she knows they will be happy, for their marriage is based on friendship, not the feelings of "those young ones." Carl reaches out and kisses her lips and eyes. She leans on him and tells him she's tired and she's been very lonely. They walk into her house together, out of the Divide.

Analysis

When Amedee died Cather depicted a broad community determined to move forward. After Emil and Marie's deaths, Cather focuses on the difficulty, when a death is very near to one's heart, of getting on with life. Perhaps the most surprising upshot of Alexandra's debilitating grief is that, despite her life of carrying the burden, she has many people-especially Ivar and Signa-to support her when she needs support. These helpmates are, in their way, the practical embodiment of Alexandra's dream for a rescuer: community and friends, not romance and passion, ultimately provide Alexandra with support. That said, when Alexandra dreams in this section of the "mightiest of lovers," Cather invites one to wonder whether this lover might be death, just as she finds Emil's death consoling and believes he must be in a place of peace and repose.

Alexandra's suffering is complicated by her anger. Though she visits her brother's grave and mourns him, she cannot fully forgive or mourn for her friend Marie. One might certainly ask why she puts so much blame on Marie, when her own brother was equally at fault, and when Frank, with whom she sympathizes, pulled the trigger. Possibly, Alexandra believes people must live with their choices. Alexandra has embraced this life on the farm, despite the things that it has denied her. She refuses to live with her own regrets, just as she has little sympathy when Marie tries to discuss her own dissatisfaction with her life. All her life Alexandra has been taking care of a family of men, and she seems used to the idea that men need women to lead them. For this reason, she might consider Marie more to blame then Emil.

The ending of O Pioneers! is unusual to say the least, and one of its strangest parts is Alexandra's visit to Frank Shabata in prison. Though one can see how Alexandra is able to forgive Frank, one might also wonder whether trying to have his sentence commuted is going a little too far. Alexandra's desire to wipe out the consequences of the crime suggests that she has not totally come to terms with her own feelings about what has happened. Part of Alexandra's desire to free Frank comes from observing him in the prison. Cather presents an extremely negative view of the effect of jail on prisoners, suggesting that prison is the result of civilization-that the unsettled prairie, at least, did not dehumanize people the way that such institutions do. Just as it is suggested that Lou and Oscar would have been happier if they had remained poor and "uncivilized," so too it is suggested that life might be better without interference from "civilized" systems of justice. These systems cannot understand what made Frank Shabata do what he did. The courts don't comprehend life on the Divide.

Carl's return helps Alexandra overcome her anger in several ways. He helps her to acknowledge her own weakness and to understand that Marie and Emil did their best to resist temptation. Alexandra receives a great deal of relief simply from telling Carl that she needs him, and from talking through her confusion about the murdered lovers' guilt or innocence. Above all, Carl provides Alexandra with an escape from the elements of her life that have become untenable. Alexandra's passion for the land has never receded, but as the Divide has been tamed, and civilization has crept up, Alexandra increasingly suffered. Her character, so perfectly fitted to taming the land, is not so perfectly fitted to the compromises of settled human life. Though she could never leave this land completely, Alaska offers a new adventure for the pioneer within her.

Despite Alexandra's happiness at Carl's return, and the promise of their Alaskan adventure their reunion is decidedly anticlimactic. One might wonder why Cather could not revive the passion these two clearly once felt for each other, even if it was always quieter than Emil's for Marie. There are a few explanations for this choice, though none may be satisfactory. Throughout O Pioneers, love is represented as a dangerous and ultimately unsatisfying condition. Even Amedee and Angelique, who seemed to combine love and pragmatism in equal amounts, cannot thereby escape tragedy. Cather truly seems to prefer the idea of a union based on friendship and history, even if the happiness such a union brings is hardly impassioned.

Furthermore, Cather takes great care to represent both Carl and Alexandra as people changed by experience. Both have seen a great deal of life, and both have suffered loneliness and despair. It is simply not in their characters to feel great passion: they are too distrustful of the world to build expectations so high. The land, ultimately, has taken them from each other and wounded them. Recall that Carl first left Alexandra because his family could not work the land, that her brothers chased him away because they feared that he was after the land. O Pioneers, thus, is not a love story-it is a story of the prairie's effect on human relationships. Hardened by life on the Divide, Carl and Alexandra proceed wisely and warily into a new frontier.

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