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O Pioneers!

Can you imagine inheriting your family’s frontier farm as a teenager, then having to decide whether to sell it when many of your neighbors give up farming? In O Pioneers! (1913) by Willa Cather, this is the beginning of Alexandra Bergson’s story. Alexandra chooses to keep the farm—in fact, she expands it. That resilience remains a crucial trait throughout the novel.

O Pioneers!: Author Willa Cather

Willa Cather experienced the life of American pioneers first-hand as a child. At the age of nine, she moved with her family to the prairies of Nebraska. At first, she found the landscape intimidating but soon came to love it for its beauty and strength. She experienced small-town life and had neighbors who had immigrated from around the world to try their hand at farming on the frontier.

These experiences stayed with Cather throughout her life and inspired her writing. Willa Cather left the prairie to attend university and pursue a career leading her to New York. By 1912, Cather was able to focus her efforts on her own personal writing, and she decided to capture her memories of Nebraska in what would become the novel O Pioneers!

Willa Cather based the setting of O Pioneers!, Hanover, Nebraska, on the town called Red Cloud that she lived in as a child. She was also inspired by the immigrants from all over the world that she met there.

O Pioneers!: Summary

Alexandra Bergson lives with her parents and three brothers, Emil, Lou, and Oscar, in late 19th-century Nebraska. The Bergsons are immigrants from Sweden who, like many other families, have come to the western United States and bought land to start their farmstead. Alexandra is the eldest child and is close to her youngest brother Emil, and a neighbor boy named Carl Linstrum. Emil's best friends are Amédée Chevalier, a young French boy, and Marie Tovesky, a Bohemian girl who lives near the Bergsons.

O Pioneers!, Farm Field, StudySmarterFig. 1 - John Bergson entrusts the family farm to Alexandra.

Tragically, Alexandra's father, John Berson, dies. He leaves his land to Alexandra, who has a closer connection to the land than her brothers Emil, Lou, and Oscar do. She trusts in the prosperity that the land can bring and is unafraid to face struggles like drought, hard soil, and economic depression. Alexandra convinces her brothers that they should purchase more land and expand their farm—even though they will need to remortgage their house to do so. Many of their neighbors are giving up on farming due to the difficult conditions of the land in Nebraska; even Carl Linstrum and his family leave. Despite this, Alexandra is determined to hold on to the farm and believes doing so will pay off.

Sixteen years pass, and now Alexandra, Lou, and Oscar each have a portion of the family land. Lou and Oscar are both married now. Alexandra's farm is the most prosperous, and she was able to send Emil to university, though he has returned now and is helping to farm her land. Emil's childhood friend, Marie Tovesky, has married a man named Frank Shabata, but Emil struggles with romantic feelings for her. At the same time, Alexandra's feelings for Carl Linstrum reignite when he shows up at Alexandra's farm, wanting to catch up and visit his old prairie hometown.

Carl ends up staying for a month but eventually leaves for Alaska to prospect for gold because Lou and Oscar disapprove of his presence. The brothers are suspicious of Carl's intentions and do not want Alexandra to marry Carl because they want their children to inherit Alexandra's prosperous farm. Meanwhile, Emil works up the courage to confront Marie about their feelings for one another. Though she clearly loves him back, she refuses to admit it. Emil decides to leave for Mexico City to avoid causing a scandal.

After nearly a year in Mexico, Emil returns to Nebraska. His love for Marie has only grown, and they share a kiss in a church when the lights go out, and no one can see. However, when they later discuss the matter, Marie decides to honor her marriage and end things with Emil even though she loves him back. Emil decides that he will leave town and go to law school.

Before Emil can leave, though, his childhood friend Amédée dies suddenly of appendicitis. Emil becomes emotional and goes to say farewell to Marie one last time before he leaves town. In her orchard, Emil lays down with her, and they embrace. Frank Shabata, Marie's jealous and violent husband, discovers them. In a drunken rage, he shoots three times and kills them both.

O Pioneers!, a large mulberry tree on a farm, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Emil and Marie are murdered beneath a white mulberry tree.

Alexandra learns of the tragic murders the next day. Frank confesses to his crime and is sentenced to ten years in jail. Alexandra, however, visits Frank in jail and tells him that she wants to help him get a pardon. When Alexandra returns home, she finds that Carl has heard the news and returned to her. No longer worried about what Lou and Oscar think, they decide to get married.

O Pioneers!: Characters

  • Alexandra Bergson: The eldest of the Bergson siblings. Alexandra inherits the family farm when their father dies. She has a close connection to the land and her resilience allows her to survive and thrive as a pioneer.
  • Emil Bergson: Alexandra's youngest brother. He attends university and plans to go to law school, but cannot shake his love for Marie Shabata even though she is married. He is shot by Marie's husband, Frank.
  • Carl Linstrum: Alexandra's childhood friend. He and his family move away when many pioneers give up on farming the harsh land. Carl visits as an adult, and he and Alexandra fall in love. Their love is steady and practical, and though Lou and Oscar disapprove, they eventually marry.
  • Marie Shabata (neé Tovesky): One of Emil's childhood friends. They fall in love, though Marie marries Frank Shabata. She and Emil share such a reckless passion that they are drawn together again and again, until it ends in Frank's jealous rage.
  • Frank Shabata: Marie's jealous and drunken husband. He becomes violent when he discovers Marie with Emil in the orchard and shoots them both.
  • Lou Bergson: One of Alexandra's older brothers. He doesn't want Alexandra to marry Carl Linstrum because he wants his children to inherit her farm.
  • Oscar Bergson: One of Alexandra's older brothers. He doesn't want Alexandra to marry Carl Linstrum because he wants his children to inherit her farm.
  • John Bergson: The Bergson siblings' father. He dies young and leaves the care of the family farm to his eldest child, Alexandra.
  • Amédée Chevalier: Emil's close childhood friend. He has a happy marriage but dies suddenly of appendicitis. His death spurs Emil and Marie to meet in the orchard before Emil leaves town.

O Pioneers!: Genre

Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! is a work of historical fiction set in the late 19th-century American prairie.

Historical fiction: fictional stories set in a real historical background; historical fiction books often feature actual historical events in their plots.

While Cather’s story is made up, it is set in a real period of American history and features true events. Between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, in particular, there was a push to move West in the United States. During this time, numerous people moved to the western frontier to try their hand at making a living on the prairie—both people who already lived in the US and an influx of immigrants seeking opportunity. In O Pioneers!, Willa Cather explores the experiences of hardship, isolation, and perseverance that were common to these people making the prairie their home.

O Pioneers!, Prairie Fields Clouds, StudySmarterFIg. 3 - The prairie landscape can be harsh and isolating.

Other important works of historical fiction include Shōgun (1975) by James Clavell, Alias Grace (1996) by Margaret Atwood, The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant, Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel, All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doe, Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee, and The Water Dancer (2019) by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

O Pioneers!: Analysis

Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! does not shy away from showing the hardships and difficult realities of life on the American frontier. This focus on reality is common in works of realism.

Realism: a literary movement popular in the US between 1865 and 1900 that strives to depict real life as it is, and often focuses on the lives of the poor.

Additionally, Willa Cather’s writing is typically considered modernist. Aspects of modernism that can be seen in O Pioneers! include the examination of Alexandra’s internal life and how it is affected by her environment and the societal changes that affected prairie farmers.

Modernism: a literary movement between 1900 and the 1940s that strove to portray the societal changes and the popular mind following World War One.

Tone

The overall tone of O Pioneers! is resilient, and reverent—deeply respectful—toward nature. Throughout the story, Alexandra and other characters must face hardship and keep moving forward. When the land seems too harsh to farm, Alexandra stays and makes it through. When she feels sad and alone, she holds on until winter ends, and she can gather friends and family around her again. Even in the novel’s conclusion, when Alexandra must deal with the murder of her favorite brother, she manages to keep moving forward and forgives Frank Shabata.

Throughout all the hardships she faces, Alexandra’s respect for the land remains strong. At the novel's end, Alexandra explains her thoughts that nature will keep going even though all the human stories playing out in it will end. This reverence for the land allows her to remain resilient through the difficulties in her story.

Narrator

Willa Cather chose a third-person limited omniscient perspective for O Pioneers! This allows the narrator to occasionally withdraw from the human stories unfolding and refocus on the land. This reminds the reader of the land’s staying power and that it is an underlying influence on everything else happening.

Willa Cather selected the title O Pioneers! As a reference to a Walt Whitman poem she was familiar with—"Pioneers! O Pioneers!" from Leaves of Grass (1855). The poem pays homage to the hardy people who carved out their living on the American frontier.

O Pioneers!: Themes

The main idea of Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!—to explore the relationship between people and land on the American frontier in the late 1880s—can be seen in the major themes she explores throughout the book. Three important themes are pioneering and immigration, love and family, and the land.

Pioneering and immigration

A major theme of O Pioneers! is the struggle and isolation faced by the people making their living on the prairie. The pioneering people of the novel come from around the world—bringing different languages and cultures with them. Despite this, they all rely on the rugged land they inhabit for survival. The spirit of pioneering is highlighted in the following quote from Alexandra:

“The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.” (part 5, ch 3)

While pioneering people will come and go, only the land itself seems to have true staying power. The land does not belong to anyone—rather, the people belong to the land that cares for them. For Alexandra, this is not a cause for despair. Instead, as many successful pioneers do, she loves the land.

She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.” (part 1, ch 5)

Alexandra’s hope for the future lies in the promise of the land.

O Pioneers!, Plover Bird, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Alexandra feels connected to the land and the animals that live on it, like the plover.

Love and Family

Love and family relationships also play a big role in O Pioneers! It is a powerful force that can influence lives positively or negatively. Emil’s love for Marie comes up repeatedly throughout the book; the two are drawn together recklessly despite their obligations. Eventually, they cannot ignore their passion for one another—and it ends in their deaths.

By comparison, the love that Alexandra and Carl have for one another is more practical. They both live their lives successfully until the time is right for them to be together, despite Lou and Oscar's disapproval. Their love is steady and calm compared to Emil and Marie's, and where reckless love ended in disaster, sturdy love lasted.

The Land

Many events throughout O Pioneers! illustrate how fragile and fleeting human lives are. In comparison, the novel portrays the land as unending and strong. The people of the prairie depend upon the land for their livelihoods. The land's strength can be seen in the resilience and prosperity that Alexandra derives from it. Even when most others gave up farming because it seemed too difficult, Alexandra believed that the land would provide for her—and with time, it did. Alexandra reveres the land and credits it for her accomplishments.

We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it--for a little while.(part 5, ch 3)

By the end of the novel, Alexandra has survived many hardships—even forgiving her brother's murderer—and derives her comfort from the land.

You belong to the land,” Carl murmured, “as you have always said. Now more than ever.” (part 5, ch 3)

As Carl says, she belongs to the land, and that is what lets her continue on.

O Pioneers! - Key takeaways

  • Willa Cather published the novel O Pioneers! in 1913.
  • O Pioneers! explores the experience of pioneers living on the American frontier near the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Willa Cather was inspired to write O Pioneers! by her childhood experience living in the prairies of Nebraska.
  • O Pioneers! has characteristics of both Realism and Modernism.
  • Three major themes of O Pioneers! are pioneering and immigration, love and family, and the land.

Frequently Asked Questions about O Pioneers!

The main idea of O Pioneers! is to explore the relationship between people and land on the American frontier in the late 1880s. 

Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! is about Alexandra Bergson, a young pioneer girl who inherits her family's farm and must endure hardships to survive and find success on the prairie.

O Pioneers! is a fictional story, but it is inspired by Willa Cather's childhood experience living on the frontier in Nebraska.

O Pioneers! was written by Willa Cather.

The tone of O Pioneers! is resilient and reverent toward nature.

Final O Pioneers! Quiz

Question

Who wrote the novel O Pioneers! (1913)?

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Answer

Willa Cather

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In what year was O Pioneers! published?

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Answer

1913

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Question

What inspired the setting of O Pioneers! (1913)?

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Answer

Author Willa Cather's childhood living in a small frontier town in Nebraska. 

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Why does Alexandra inherit the family farm?

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Answer

She is the oldest child, and her father knows that she has a stronger connection to the land than her brothers. 

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Why do many of the other farmers in the area leave the frontier?

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Answer

The farming conditions are harsh and there is drought and economic depression. 

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How is Alexandra successful at farming?

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Answer

She trusts in the strength of the land and that it will provide.

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Why do Lou and Oscar not want Alexandra to marry Carl Linstrum?

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Answer

They want their children to inherit her farmland. 

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Why does Emil embrace Marie in the orchard?

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Answer

They have suffered a shock at Amédée's sudden death and it makes them want to see one another again.

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What happens when Frank Shabata discovers Emil and Marie in the orchard?

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He goes into a rage and shoots them both. 

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What genre does O Pioneers! belong to?

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Answer

Historical fiction

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True or false: O Pioneers! exhibits characteristics of both modernism and realism. 

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Answer

True

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Which of the following are major themes in O Pioneers!?

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Answer

Pioneering and immigration

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