If, as Cather famouly claimed, the land is the hero of O Pioneers!, then the novel is fundamentally a story of the wilds becoming a civilization. Each of the characters in the story attempt to make the land livable for his or herself, and each character can be judged based on his or her ability to work with the land rather than against it. Alexandra plays the primary role in the novel, even if Cather disputes her status as heroine, because she understands how to work with the land to bring out its riches. Once Alexandra has succeeded and has built up her farm, it is described thus:
There was something individual about the great farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail. . .. You feel that, properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best.
In contrast to Alexandra, the other Bergsons have less reciporical relationships with the land. Lou and Oscar impose their will on the land, laboring long and hard without understanding that this land is different from other land they have seen. They attack the land; they don't respect it. As another example, Mrs. Bergson never stops comparing this land and life in Nebraska to the one she left behind in Norway. She lacks an openness to the environment she finds herself in, preferring instead to yearn for the land of her birth. Thus, she will never be able to find happiness in Nebraska.
Frank Shabata's and Emil's flaws can also be seen through their attitude towards the land. Frank Shabata makes an effort to farm in order to achieve success, but he cannot tolerate the work without the reward of occasional drinking binges. Emil sometimes feels he loves the land, but he finds labor to be unsatisfying. Frank and Emil act out of wildness. They cannot tame the land, because they have not tamed themselves.
One of the aspects of the pioneer spirit that Cather represents in her novel is the ability to sacrifice oneself for the future. Of course, Alexandra provides the ideal example of self-sacrifice. She gives up most of her youth and many chances for happiness because she has a vision of the future that requires hard work and sustained dedication. Moreover, Alexandra's vision consists of hopes and dreams for others rather than hopes and dreams for herself. She tells Oscar that she wants him and Lou not to have to work so hard and for Emil to go to college. Another character who demonstrates the ideal of self-sacrifice is Carl Linstrum. Though he could accept Alexandra's offer of marriage and rely on her wealth, he refuses to do so. He is willing to sacrifice undeserved, certain happiness for the possibility of fully deserved happiness.
At the same time, Cather does not glorify such attitudes. Amedee is unwilling to admit that he is hurt, and his self-sacrifice kills him and leaves his wife alone with an infant. And when Alexandra has achieved success and helped the other members of her family, she no longer feels the need to sacrifice. She wants Carl and she does not feel that any one has the right to tell her she cannot have him.
Emil and Marie suffer because of their inability to sacrifice their own desires for the greater good. Their actions are not only immoral, they also destroy Frank Shabata's life, and cause many others great pain. At the same time, their struggle is admirable, because both of them make a serious attempt at sacrifice. Ultimately, Cather suggests that pioneers must possess great virtues in order to survive the harsh reality of their physical and social environments.
Work and Morality
One of the most important themes of the novel is the the idea that morality is connected to work. This idea is introduced almost immediately when Alexandra takes off her scarf and the traveling worker compliments her. Cather emphasizes his lack of roots and his disconnect from his occupation. The narrator suggests that he is degraded by his rootlessness. In contrast, Alexandra earns and maintains moral superiority through her heartfelt dedication to work. Furthermore, she loves her work and is ennobled by it. She inherits this characteristic from her father, who took comfort on his deathbed by counting the things that he left to his family. He prizes the tangible results of his labor.
Oscar and Lou work only because they don't see any other way: "a steady job, a few holidays, nothing to think about, and they would have been very happy." They have neither happiness nor peace because they cannot find them through their work. Frank Shabata is a similar case, for though he throws himself into farming, he continues to believe that his happiness can come only from the recognition and admiration of his neighbors and acquaintances. When he receives neither, he finds no satisfaction.
Carl Linstrum represents a person who understands that one must work for happiness, but who has difficulty fulfilling their earlier promise. Carl understands that his work as an engraver is degrading him, so he seeks a job that he believes will help him prove himself as a man. The somewhat odd, unresolved ending of O Pioneers! in part results from Carl and Alexandra's need for love and friendship, and their beliefs about the necessity of hard work. They cannot simply pursue friendship and happiness but must also pursue difficulty.
Passionate Love vs. Reasonable Love
Cather represents and compares two kinds of love in O Pioneers!: passionate, youthful love and mature, steady love. Cather implies that passionate love is dangerous and unstable and is unlikely to lead to lifelong happiness, whereas mature union based on friendship is more likely to weather the tribulations of life on the frontier.
Marie and Frank Shabata's union is the result of youthful passion; they eloped despite the disaproval of Marie's father. It is clear that Marie's father's dissaproval was reasonable - he could see, by virtue of his dispassionate assessment of the match, that Marie and Frank could not work together in the long term. Only a few years later this disapproval is justified when Marie speaks frankly to Alexandra about the fact that her husband should never have married a woman like her; after the fact, she understands that she is not the kind of woman he should have married. Her judgment was clouded by passion. Soon after, she makes a second error from passion: Marie's passionate nature coupled with Emil's youthful desires leads them to tragedy. With their story Cather suggests that reason and morality must have precedence over passionate love in a stable society. At the same time, Carl and Alexandra acknowledge that it is in human nature to give in to temptation, thus the idea of an entirely stable society is impossible.
Emil and Marie are contrasted with Alexandra and Carl. Alexandra explicitly tells Carl, "I think we shall be very happy. I haven't any fears. I think when friends marry, they are safe. We don't suffer like -- those young ones." Alexandra and Carl love each other, but they are not passionate in their love. Both are resigned to waiting until the time is right; in fact, they have waited over sixteen years. Their union is pragmatic and reasonable - they are helpmates and friends for one another, fulfilling a basic need for companionship rather than an unquenchable need for each other.
At the same time, the reader is more naturally drawn, perhaps, to Emil and Marie's passionate connection than to Alexandra and Carl's sedate relationship. Though Cather may be attempting to herald the latter couple, the former makes for better drama, better romance, better entertainment. Cather is aware of this and thus complicates a simple reading of love in the story. Even Alexandra allows herself fantasies about passion and love. Cather seems merely to suggest that as human beings we can either love passionately and burn out fast or love reasonably with a lasting flame. Though the latter option seems the wiser, she doesn't deny that the thrill of passion, when it finds people, is irresistible.
The idea of imagination comes up throughout the novel in several different ways. First, Cather suggests that pioneers must have imagination. They must be able to look at the landscape and imagine it as entirely different in order to survive and prosper. Cather highlights this kind of vision in Alexandra's moment of communion with the land. As she drives with Emil back from the river country, she looks out at the land and sees the possibility lying dormant within it. Most of Alexandra's neighbors lack this imagination, and so they are ready to sell and flee, positive that a land that looks barren and dead must always be barren and dead.
At the same time, Alexandra lacks another kind of imagination, one that is not as important to success, but important to happiness. Alexandra cannot read the eyes and faces of those around her and imagine what is going on in their heads. She plays a role in Emil and Marie's mutual destruction, because she cannot imagine them as lovers. Their passion, so apparent from their first meeting, remains hidden in Alexandra's mind simply because she thinks along staunchly conventional lines. Alexandra's anger after their deaths comes from this lack of imagination. Only when Carl returns and explains it to her in a different way is she able to understand and begin to forgive.
The idea of imagination also plays a more symbolic role in structuring the novel. Cather comes into her own as a writer with this novel, because she combines her memories of the past with her ability to imagine. In this way, O Pioneers! is itself a kind of frontier--a kind of prairie--which she transforms into an organized entity. Cather's imaginative act of writing, then, is to some degree analogous to Alexandra's talent with the land. Both are able, through steady, dilligent work and imaginative vision, to transform mere potential into a cultivated reality.
Throughout the novel Cather emphasizes how much Alexandra values friendship, and how much her life has been affected by the few friends she has had. Alexandra distinguishes between family and friends in a way that might be considered unusual in such isolated circumstances. Though she clearly believes in family loyalty, she seems to love and admire her friends far more than members of her family. Her relationship with Emil is unusual because in some ways he is both a family member and her friend. For this reason, she is especially disappointed when he does not understand her reasons for wanting to marry Carl. She understands that her family's loyalties might be divided, for it is in their best interest that she leave her money and property to their children, but she hopes that as her friend Emil will recognize how much happier she would be if she were married to Carl.
Alexandra's strong feelings about friendship also influence her reaction to Emil and Marie's death. She is the most angry at Marie, for she feels that her friend has betrayed her. She has almost no anger for Frank, because she thinks he was simply acting as was his nature to do. In some ways Alexandra seems to expect more loyalty from her friends than from her family. When Oscar and Lou insult her and she asks them to leave and not to come back, she is not nearly as upset as when Carl insists on leaving for a year in order to attempt to make his fortune in Alaska.
Thematically, O Pioneers! represents a surprisingly modern view of friendship. Alexandra seems to believe that friendship is in some ways more important than family, because friendship is formed on agreement in tastes and natural proclivity rather than the mere chance of being born into the same family. For this reason, she takes more comfort from her friends, and she is acutely aware of how few she has had and how bereft she is without them. Alexandra's near-breakdown after Emil and Marie's death becomes even more understandable when one considers that the tragedy leaves Alexandra without any friends at all.
Many kinds of temptation are represented in O Pioneers!, but they all share one basic trait: temptations lure a person away from important and meaningful work, thus inevitably degrading those who give in. Early in the book many characters fall prey to the temptation to give up their task of conquering the wilderness for some easier form of existence. John Bergson's brother, many of the Bergson's neighbors, even the Linstrum's, sell their homesteads and leave because they believe they will find a happier life elsewhere. Though the reader may argue that not everyone is suited to this work, especially not as suited as Alexandra Bergson, the narrative suggests that those who leave either find no happiness or live relatively pointless, small lives. For example, the narrator suggests that Oscar and Lou would have been happier working simple jobs with a few holidays a year and no real potential. Emil even asks his sister if she thinks Oscar and Lou would have been happier if they were poor. Whatever their emotional state, it seems clear that Alexandra has saved her brothers from the temptation to choose an easy path in live. They thus lead more significant lives than they would have on their own, and are able to give their children richer opportunities. Carl Linstrum, whose family gives into the tempation to flee the prairie, does not flee himself. Thus he does not give in to this temptation. Moreover, Carl pursues difficult work after he leaves Nebraska, eventually striking out for a new frontier in Alaska.
Of course, the most dramatic instance of temptation in the novel involves Marie and Emil. They give into the temptation to consummate their passion. The tragic consequences of this sin suggest that O Pioneers! is to some degree a morality tale. In the Alexandra's harsh moral scheme, Emil and Marie are given little credit for trying to resist. Though Alexandra eventually recognizes them, these unsuccessful efforts make little difference after the fact. Once again, this returns us to the land's centrality in the novel. The Divide is a harsh place, and it forms harsh characters. There is little room here for forgiveness or mercy, but there is a great beauty in simply holding on.
O Pioneers Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for O Pioneers is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.