O Pioneers! is the novel that sparked my love affair with Cather. I’ve read it a half dozen times, first in graduate school in my 20s and then for pleasure in my 30s. With each reading I was struck by different characters and scenes. One of the pleasures of re-reading a book is seeing how it can speak to us differently as we change over the years. Reading O Pioneers! now in my mid-40s made it seem like a brand new novel.
In the past I considered the novel a bit disjointed between the stories of Alexander/Carl and Marie/Emil, but with this reading the two stories seemed to smoothly mesh together. From the very first chapter Marie is presented as an object of desire and competition for the men around her. Alexandra is a tall and strong girl who exhibits “Amazonian fierceness,” whereas Carl is presented as a lonely & sensitive young man. Emil sits crying hopeless over the kitty that he can’t reach and Marie already wants to share her candy with him. It’s all right there and then weaves throughout the rest of the novel.
Alexandra and Crazy Ivar remain my favorite characters. It still really pisses me off when Alexandra’s thick-headed brothers try to bully her into not marrying Carl, saying that “she liked to run things, and we humored her.” They forget that they were ready to walk away from the land and that they don’t have an innovative or forward-thinking bone between them. This time around, however, the character who most captured my imagination is Frank Shabata.
In prior readings I had always despised Frank’s egocentric anger, jealousy, and abusive behavior. He seemed like a big, miserable baby, another angry man who made life hell for those closest to him. This time I had much more understanding and compassion for him. Not that I condone his behavior, but he’s a capital V, Victim. He’s victim to his temperament and circumstances. Frank doesn’t do anything to help himself, but keeps himself whipped up in a frenzy, stoking his frustration with stories from the newspaper and imaging Marie having feelings for his hired hands.
I felt more compassion for him now because I can see/admit that I’ve acted like a victim at points in my life and I’ve watched loved ones struggle as well. The tragedy of Frank’s life is that there’s no one in his life to tell him to knock it off already, to pull up his big boy pants and get on with life. Nor does he have the emotional intelligence to try to understand himself and make some changes in his life: “It had never more than dimly occurred to Frank that he made his own unhappiness.”
“Frank’s case was all the more painful because he had no one in particular to fix his jealousy upon. . . . At the bottom of his heart Frank knew well enough that if he could once give up his grudge, his wife would come back to him. But he could never in the world do that. The grudge was fundamental. Perhaps he could not have given it up if he had tried” (italics added).
The issue of place has much to do with temperament. As Marie says of her husband, “Frank would be alright in the right place.” If Carl and Alexandra lived in a city, Carl would be alright, too. Cather seems to be saying that we need to find the right place and the right people for our temperaments, yet not to take this to the extreme because, “It’s bad if all the member of a family think alike. They never get anywhere.”
|Willa Cather Memorial Prairie|
Much is said about marriage in this novel. Scholars are fond of pointing out Cather’s view, as espoused in this novel, that marriage is most satisfying when it’s between friends as opposed to having its origins in the violent feelings of youthful passion. Alexandra says that most of her Swedish girls have “married men they were afraid of,” which, in the context of the novel seems to be a cultural and economic issue as well. Frank and Marie were certainly not a good match. Marie knows that he was a poor choice of a husband, and provides the main reason why marrying young can be a problem: “Frank is just the same now as he was then, only then I would see him as I wanted him to be. I would have my own way. And now I pay for it.” When we’re younger most of us see what we want to see, but when we’re older (and, if lucky, wiser) we see people for who they are, not for what we want them to be. When we can see people more clearly and if we understand ourselves, then we can make a more compatible match.
Would Emil and Marie make a good match? Their adulterous passion seems to be one of the most “natural” passions in the novel. Most readers want them to get together, forgetting at times that they’re cheering for people to commit adultery. What’s good, what’s bad, who says? This is why I love Cather’s novels–they seem so simple on the surface, but make a small scratch and soon you’re digging into the depths of a complex world of ideas and images.
Questions to Ponder
- Is Carl worthy of Alexandra’s love? Does he show strength or weakness of character by not accepting her proposal and going off to make “the usual effort”?
- Are Marie and Emil more responsible for their own deaths than is Frank?
- Does the novel read smoothly to you or do the two main storylines not mesh well in your opinion?
- Do you think that O Pioneers! is all that radically different than Alexander’s Bridge? What are some similarities and differences between the two novels?
- Do you think Alexandra and Carl will live happily ever after?
Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your twentieth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on O Pioneers!
Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.
Categories: Willa Cather