Monday, March 20, 2017
Melodrama and sexual questioning in Cather's O Pioneers!
Yes, Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! becomes a bit of a melodrama toward the end - some spoilers here - as we have not one not two but three and maybe four deaths all of a sudden at the end of section, but what makes this sudden turn toward the tragic work is Cather's excellent pacing in this novel. As noted previously, when we read section one we're sure that we're embarking on a Little House of the Prairie-type song of praise for the hardworking farmers (and harder working farmers' wives) who scraped out a living on the tough, unforgiving prairie: the sod houses, the blizzards, the crop failures, the whole lot. But as the story moves forward it becomes more of a psychodrama about the tensions within the farm family: the two older brothers jealous and resentful of their highly competent elder sister, Alexandra; her yearning for some love in her life, although her chances for that are almost nil; the younger brother, Emil, and his love for the woman in the adjacent farm who is married to an oaf; the jealousy the locals hold toward those who leave the prairie to get an education or to find fortune in the city - and the failure of those who try to escape: yes, a lot of dynamic forces in conflict in this novel, and it's no wonder that the conflicts build to fatal explosions toward the end of the novel. Alexandra remains the key and central figure; she's by no means a stand-in for the author, who in fact did live most of her life in NY and had no trouble leaving behind - except in her imagination - her prairie upbringing. But Alexandra's confused sexuality may tie her in some way to Cather - whose sexuality was not well understood much less discussed in her day but whom today we'd call questioning or perhaps transgender. Cather was ahead of her time in some ways but not enough so as to create a transgender character - but contemporary readers will probably sense that part of Alexandra's yearning for love is her own recognition that she doesn't fit any of the social roles open to women in her time and place: The love she wants will always be out of reach, and even ineffable for her. The final section, which I have not read yet, is called Alexandra, and I suspect Cather will explore some of these issues more directly before she closes the novel.