Term Paper: Willa Cather's O Pioneers and the Frontier Female Hero in the Frontier Literature

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Cather

A quote from a September issue of the 1900 San Francisco Chronicle shows that even at the turn of the century, attitudes and perceptions of women's roles in the United States in general were being shaped indelibly by the experiences of female pioneers: "And so it comes that the pioneer woman of California -- the dear foremothers -- have never been properly honored," (the Chronicle, San Francisco). Women in the "wild west" served more complex roles than they would have in the urban east or the plantation south. This was due in part to economic expediency. Many women traveled westward independently of men, as men in their families might have preceded them. Others thrived in what Jameson calls the "liberating and innovative environment" that the West afforded both men and women (1). There was also the fact of "flexibility" in gender roles exhibited by farm women in the West, who were "performing productive and non-productive labour. It is argued that this flexibility was critical to the survival of family farms, and thus to the success of the wheat economy," (Rollings-Magnusson 223). Within this complex framework of gender roles and social norms within the westward expansion model, Willa Cather writes her novel O Pioneer!

O Pioneers! both challenges and supports the stereotypes surrounding women's roles in pioneer culture. There are several trains of thought related to women's roles in westward population migration. One is what Brown calls "the stereotype of the woman in the sunbonnet," which the author claims is substantiated by evidence (11). Indeed, Brown does cite numerous primary sources to show that the image of the hard-working sunburnt woman was prevalent during the pioneer days. Another train of thought offers a more rounded role for women within the broader society. There was increasing need for the participation of women in local community affairs, including economic and political decision-making. Given this need, it should come as no surprise that women suffrage first occurred in western provinces, states, and settlements both in the United States and in Canada. As Jameson points out, American women were enfranchised first in the West; by 1914, the Territory of Alaska and eleven states had empowered women politically and all but one of those states, Illinois, were west of the Mississippi. It was the same in Canada -- women suffrage started in the west.

It was not as if the west did not exhibit the typical trappings of patriarchy; but it is safe to say that the social position of women during the pioneer days differed from that of their eastern counterparts. When Brown wrote Gentle Tamers in 1953, the author suggested that women served a passive role in spite of their perceived empowerment in the West. The view that "white women…gently tamed the social conditions (including, of course, white men)" needs to be revisited in light of research showing that women's lives were not as constrained as that image would suggest (Jensen and Miller 173). As Jensen and Miller points out, there are "new possibilities" for analyzing the role of women in the West (173). These new possibilities can be built on a careful reading of Willa Cather's classic O Pioneer!

Brown claims that "women were to shape national morality from the privacy of their family hearthsides, leaving public action to men," (Jameson 1). There was also a clear dichotomy between morally "good" and "bad" women in the West, between dutiful wives and mothers on the one hand, and prostitutes on the other (Jameson). This dichotomy reflects the fact that the pioneer culture was a direct extension of Victorian values. Women's roles were changing, but they did not change all that dramatically. Women were still not the "reluctant pioneers" that Brown implied that they were in Gentle Tamers.

In O Pioneer!, Alexandra is the heir to her father's estate, a fact established in the opening section of the novel. Moreover, John Bergon bequeaths his estate to his daughter in spite of having several sons. Thus, Cather presents her heroine immediately as a person endowed with social, economic, and potentially political power. Alexandra becomes a landowner at a time when she could not vote. Owning land, and the profits thereof, ensure some degree of personal and political freedom for Alexandra. Her father's trust pays off, as Alexandra becomes an astute visionary and businesswoman, whose land management policy ensures the success of the farm in spite of many others in the region going bankrupt. As predicted, Alexandra's parcel of land fares better than that of her brothers. The events that occur parallel perfectly the description that Cather offers of Alexandra when she was a little girl. Alexandra is described as "a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next." This physical description matches the woman's resoluteness and determination.

A feminist psychoanalysis of Willa Cather places young Alexandra's development squarely within the relationship between her and her father. Because her father empowered her, Alexandra is free from the psychic residue of patriarchy. Interestingly, her father's dying wishes include references to Oscar and Lou getting married but not to Alexandra. Alexandra is assuming the role of the patriarch, which her father gives to her. Thus, he states to Oscar and Lou, "When you marry, and want a house of your own, the land will be divided fairly, according to the courts. But for the next few years you will have it hard, and you must all keep together. Alexandra will manage the best she can." Oscar and Lou are feminized, viewed as being in need of the patriarchal institution of marriage; whereas Alexandra is the potent heir to the estate and not in need of external financial support.

Alexandra also finds that she does not need to ascribe to the Victorian ideal of domestic servitude and motherhood. Her caring nature is channeled into altruistic love for other people, rather than into conventional heterosexual marriage. Alexandra cares even for the outcasts and downtrodden, like Ivar. When Alexandra and Carl begin to deepen the intimacy of their friendship, the romance that blossoms is genuine. It is untainted by the expectations of Victorian chivalry. Alexandra is not looking for a father figure, in the psychoanalytic sense, because she has internalized her father. She has become the patriarch and therefore does not need to marry a man in order to feel empowered. When she realizes her feelings for Carl, the relationship becomes mutual, interdependent, and conscious.

Although Alexandra's relationship with Carl is revolutionary in its perfect equality, Alexandra does not repress her emotions. For example, early in the novel when she receives a letter from Carl, she "bursts into tears." The act reveals her emotional honesty. Carl knows Alexandra better than anyone since her father died. At the end of the novel, Carl tells her, "You belong to the land," in a way that shows that he understands her role as a gender-neutral patriarch/matriarch of the Divide. The two are to be married, but their marriage does not force Alexandra to give up her seat of power, which comes directly from the estate.

"There are always dreamers on the frontier." Dreams feature prominently in Alexandra's life. Besides the lofty dreams of the future, such as her father's dream " about making a great fortune and going back to Sweden to pay back to the poor sailors the money grandfather had lost." Alexandra's nightly dreams can be analyzed using psychoanalysis. However, Alexandra's dreams are rational compared with Marie's. Marie is a counterpoint for Alexandra, because Marie comes across as being watery and not in touch with reality. Alexandra's dreams are solely her own: her desire to be in touch with the land, to cultivate it and create prosperity. She does not think in terms of providing for children, because she has none. Alexandra has liberated herself from the social, political, and economic institutions that constrained women's lives in the Victorian era, during which the story takes place.

At one point in the book, Alexandra is shown to have a classically Freudian death wish. "As she lay alone in the dark, it occurred to her for the first time that perhaps she was actually tired of life….She longed to be free from her own body, which ached and was so heavy." Her death wish is linked to her contemplation of the relationship between Marie and Emil, and their violent deaths. The trauma is internalized, as Alexandra deals with her grief. Her own death wish is externalized and manifest in Emil and Marie's death, as when Ivar cries out, "Sin and death for the young ones!" Alexandra remains a direct contrast to Marie during most of O Pioneer! because Marie is both married and therefor subjugated in patriarchal relationships, and also having an affair. She has given away her power twice, and has no form of self-empowerment. From a feminist perspective, Marie is the product of patriarchy whereas Alexandra is the symbol of woman triumphing over patriarchy.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Willa Cather's O Pioneers and the Frontier Female Hero in the Frontier Literature.  (2013, May 5).  Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/willa-cather-o-pioneers-frontier-female/8752015

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"Willa Cather's O Pioneers and the Frontier Female Hero in the Frontier Literature."  Essaytown.com.  May 5, 2013.  Accessed March 19, 2019.
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