As he lays dying, John Bergson calls the three older children to him and sets out these thoughts and instructions:
Alexandra, you will have to do the best you can for your brothers. Everything will come on you ... Don't let them get discouraged and go off like Uncle Otto. I want them to keep the land ....There was the sound of heavy feet in the kitchen. Alexandra went to the door and beckoned to her brothers, two strapping boys of seventeen and nineteen ... "Boys," said the father wearily, "I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister. I have talked to her since I have been sick and she knows all my wishes. I want no quarrels among my children, and so as long as there is one house there must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest and she knows my wishes.
There are some other instructions including the caution to not begrudge their mother the time to plow her garden and plant her fruit trees because, "She has been a good mother to you, and she has always missed the old country."
Perhaps in our time it is difficult to imagine that people would actually just do what they were told by a dying father but that was the world of late Victorian America and I believe that in setting the story as she did, the case can be made that Cather did criticize patriarchy. She made it very plain. If the father had not commanded, the brothers would have been in charge and Alexandra's fine capabilities would have been relegated to the kitchen. As the story progresses it isn't hard to see what would have happened to the family farm if the brothers had been running things. They are not only easily discouraged, but time and again it is shown that they just plain don't have Alexandra's ability to look at a situation and see a creative, positive way to deal with it She not only keeps the original homestead, but as others in the areas do give up under drought and other challenges, she mortgages the home farm to buy these places as well. No matter what others around her think, she follows her own star and makes the family wealthy and secure, and if Father hadn't commanded it, it wouldn't have happened for all of them. What more indictment of any system could anybody want?
Finally, to return to my opening comments about how beautifully Cather used setting and tone in her work. The novel opens on a scene of such cold discomfort. How sad to be a little town, "anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, trying not to be blown away." The description of this rough, sad-looking place moves on to a scene that shows the human sadness. The little boy crying bitterly on the windy, cold sidewalk, crying for his kitten who has run up a pole and is in danger of freezing. We first meet Alexandra as she comes to find her brother and takes the situation of the kitten in hand. All this sets the scene for the fact that the father of this family is terminal with some disorder. Everything around this part of the novel stays in cold shades of gray and white and the dark for going home in. It doesn't get any brighter as the father makes his dying requests of his family. From there, we move into the next section which is six-month's after john Bergson's death and now it is sunny. Perhaps it is sunny because it is July and perhaps it is sunny because Alexandra is in charge and beginning to take care of things. The tone of the story maintains for quite a while as the Bergson family struggles against drought and crop failure. The surroundings don't get any brighter while Alexandra deals with her brothers who, without her determination would have done just what her father feared -- gone to Chicago "like Uncle Otto." It is interesting to note a passage I found curious. There is further discussion about leaving and Alexandra asks her brother Lou, where he wants to go. The other brother says, "Anyplace where things will grow." In the insuing discussion, we learn that another neighbor has traded his half-section of land for one down on the river.
"Who did he trade it with 'Charley Fuller, in town."
"Fuller the real estate man? You see Lou, that Fuller has a head on him. He's buying and trading for every bit of land he can get up here. It'll make him a rich man some day." (59)
Wile the brothers are discussing how everyone is leaving, Alexandra is saying she wished that Fuller would take her on for a partner. "If only poor people could learn a little from rich people!"
Part II is sixteen years later. What a difference! The wild prairie is indeed being farmed, the sod houses are replaced by gaily painted frame farmhouses. There are gilded weather vanes and "telephone wires hum along the white roads which always run at right angles." (75) There is a description of the Borgson's place now. A large white house has replaced the log cabin. There are miles of cultivated fields and "so many sheds and outbuildings grouped about it that the place looked not unlike a tiny village."
The world is bright all around, but it doesn't get any brighter because all of the ingredients for the coming sadness and tragedy are now in place -- all the actors are on the stage and it is only for the scenes to play themselves out. From this point on, there is a series of incidents that begin to shadow the brightness and it seems that it starts with a scene between Emil and Marie Shabata who is his childhood playmate and the love he has not declared because she is married. At the conclusion of the scene, Emil is "studying the glittering blade of his scythe." (84) From this point forward, I found myself hoping things were not going to go as that bit of symbolism indicated but of course where there is a scythe, one must expect that the death of something will follow whether it be grass or people. We are introduced to Frank Shabata, a surly man, who comes home all in a lather one day and blames his wife for a neighbor's pigs getting into his wheat. It is made clear that expecting rational behavior from this whining, other blaming person, is useless. We get to see how Alexandra's brothers have matured, and I doubt their father would have been particularly pleased as they aren't that much better than Frank. Although they don't blame everyone for their problems, there seems a singular lack of "attitude of gratitude" for what they have in life. Their attitudes are made particularly clear when they interfere in the renewed friendship between Alexandra and her long time friend Carl Linstrum. The brothers have extensive, prosperous, lands of their own, thanks to Alexandra's wisdom and foresight, but they do not want to risk her marrying Carl for fear they will lose her lands. Oscar explains their feelings by saying, "The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it's the men that are held responsible."
Besides further setting the tone and scenes for all that follows, it seems that the attitudes expressed here by the brothers also provide a clear denunciation of patriarchy.
It truly puzzles as to what more social commentary people could want, or maybe we just weren't reading the same book.
Ambrose, Jamie. Willa Cather: Writing at the Frontier. New York: Berg, 1990
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1957
Kinnison, Dana K. Cather's O PIONEERS!. HighBeam Research. Retrieved 10/11/04
The Explicator 1/1/2000.
Lindemann, Marilee. Willa's Case (Part 1 of 2). HighBeam Research. Contemporary Women's Issues Database; 12/1/1996; Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review,
Monarch Notes. 1/1/1963. Works of Willa Cather: Introduction. HighBeam Research.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University
Sargent, Elizabeth. Willa Cather: A Memoir. New York J.B. Lippincott, 1953
Schroeter, James. Willa Cather and her Critics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1968
Seaton, James. The Prosaic Willa Cather. (writer ) American Scholar 1/1/1998
HighBeam Research Retrieved:10/8/2004
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