Although Alexandra was depicted as a “tall, strong girl,” (p. 10) which is typically viewed as characteristics of a male, she was indeed a feminist in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! In the introduction of the novel, an argument arises due to the differences of O Pioneers! in contrast to some of Cather’s other pieces as well as several other novels of that time period.
Marilee Lindemann references that “law and custom in most (if not all) Western countries severely limited what are girl might ‘do’, in life as well as in literature (…) thus, in comparison to their male counterparts, female characters in Anglo-European novels are confined to smaller spheres of action or are punished for daring to seek larger ones. ”(p. vii) However, this is not the case for Alexandra or for this novel. Despite Cather’s ability to place Alexandra in a male role throughout her life on the Divide, Alexandra still portrayed those aspects of a feminist, which she revealed towards the end of the novel.
Similar to the depiction of women in the Anglo-European culture, Alexandra was also depicted as those Anglo- European women as she was looked down upon by her brothers, Oscar and Lou, as well as other residents on the Divide. Alexandra was shunned because she tried to expose her femininity in many instances within the novel. Not only was she ridiculed by her brothers, but she was also forced to defend her male role because they claimed that her managerial work was easy and unreal as follows, “Oh, now, Alexandra, you always took it pretty easy!
But, of course, the real work always fell on us. ” (p. 91) Here we see a glimpse of the issues presented by gender and power roles as depicted in the novel. As noted above, Cather began to reveal Alexandra’s femininity through various channels within the book. Cather began by demonstrating Alexandra’s feminism during the first few chapters within the novel. The plot revealed to the readers Alexandra’s ill father lying on his death bed moments before he passed. He expressed his concern for his sons’ wisdom and explained to Alexandra that she was to take care of the land.
Alexandra’s mom was more occupied with her previous lifestyle in such a way that it seemed as though she was never actually around. Thus Alexandra assumed the role of a mother over her younger brother, Emil, as well as her two older siblings, Lou and Oscar. Other feminist roles were depicted throughout the quarrel between Alexandra and her older brothers, Lou and Oscar. Once they realized Alexandra’s love for her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, they quickly became opposed to the idea that would soon forfeit their rights to the rest of Alexandra’s property.
Lou and Oscar stated that she looked ridiculous to entertain Carl’s intentions considering that she was of middle age. However, Alexandra was quick to remind her immature brothers of how her smarts and whit paved the way to their wealth and that they were to keep out of her personal business which didn’t concern them. Alexandra explained to her brothers, “You all laughed at me when I said our land here was about ready for wheat, and I had to raise three big wheat crops before the neighbors quit putting all their land in corn.
She continued to defend herself noting that, “all that doesn’t concern anybody but Carl and me. Go to town and ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me from disposing of my own property (... ) for the authority you can exert by law is the only influence you will ever have over me again. ” (p. 92) Here, Alexandra not only asserted her independence but she also explained her right to her property demonstrating her role as a woman and that she is an advocate and supporter of the women’s rights movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
She didn’t indulge in nor did she become passive about what her brothers had to say about her, nor did she care. She also became passionate about the subject of Carl during the argument which further expressed her love for him and her feminist feelings. At this point, Alexandra had spent numerous days and nights alone, those days when she only had her little brother, Emil, to accompany her; however, he eventually went off to school and to pursue his own career. As a result, Alexandra was left to confide in her neighbor Marie who didn’t quite understand her, herself, and her dreams.
Throughout Alexandra’s childhood, she often dreamed of pleasures from “a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew…” (p. 112) and these fancies continued as she grew older. She often slept in on Sunday mornings and during her lengthy sleep hours she “accidentally” fancied about a man whom she knew nothing about. These dreams appeared during times when she found herself the most fatigued from the unbearable work on the divide; “we grow hard and heavy here” (p. 69).
Surprisingly, Alexandra became disappointed with herself after the epiphany elapsed. She would rise hastily, angry with herself, and go down to the bath-house... ” (p. 112) to cleanse her body. As incorporated in the novel, these feelings expressed more characteristics of Alexandra’s feminism as she daydreamed about a man in her life. However, little did she know that her dreams would soon become a reality. During times when the Divide experienced famine, most of its residents sold their property and migrated to other, more profitable lands. Among those who left the barren land was Carl Linstrum, Alexandra’s childhood friend.
However, he returned years later to the Divide. Alexandra states in wonder of Carl’s appearance at her front gate, “But you yourself, Carl – with that beard – how could I have know you. ” (p. 60) Carl and Alexandra spent a lot of time together, reminiscing on old times. As a result, the fondness they shared for one another as teenagers continued to grow throughout their adulthood; the love that many of her neighbors as well as her brothers were opposed to. Despite what anyone else thought, Alexandra acted upon what she felt was good ethics.
She handled her property this way and she intended to handle her personal life the same way, which was explained during the quarrel between her brothers mentioned earlier. Thus, towards the end of the novel, Carl and Alexandra began to think about marriage. “I had a dream before I went to Lincoln – But I will tell you about that afterward, after we are married (…) how many times we have walked this path together, Carl. How many times we will walk it again! ” (p. 170) Here we see Alexandra mention the very word marriage to Carl as she referenced to the long years ahead of them as follows, “I think we shall be very happy.
I haven’t any fears. ” (p. 170) Throughout the novel, Willa Cather continued to “hit home” with depicting Alexandra’s character and role while displaying her feminity. When Emil and Marie were essentially murdered by Frank, Marie’s husband, Alexandra didn’t quite react in the expected manor. She instead was sympathetic and deemed it her responsibility to aid Frank during his ten year sentence. She felt “he had been less in the wrong than any of them, and he was paying the heaviest penalty…Alexandra had felt awe of them, even in the first shock of her grief…even in the court room her heart had grieved for him. (p. 157) Frank had no friends or family and all in an instant his life was ruined. She decided to go visit him in Lincoln to reconcile with him, to reassure him that she did not hate him for what he did. In fact she had so much sympathy for him that she made it her purpose to work to get him pardoned. Thus, Alexandra explains to him her intentions, “Frank Shabata, I am never going to stop trying until I get you pardoned.
I’ll never give the Governor any peace. I know I can get you out of this place,” she vowed to him, exposing more of her feminism as a woman. p. 163) Alexandra faced many challenges positioned in a male role, being a woman especially during the late 1800s when the novel was written. As demonstrated in O Pioneers! one can witness the oppression of women as they were confined to or stereotyped to traditional gender roles; helpless, passive, in need of a male authority and child rearing. Willa Cather went against society’s constraints and instituted Alexandra in a more superior role; thus, she had to fight with those around her (justify herself) because she was still a woman, just not your average women.
Cather broadened the scope of Alexandra’s role not just as a male figure, but also as a wealthy figure who occupied the divide as described in this simple sentence, “…and Annie went down to gossip with Alexandra’s kitchen girls while they washed the dishes,” thus, further implying that Alexandra had maids to accompany her with all of her household activities. Alexandra was indeed an exquisite character in this novel because she depicted so many different aspects of the west.