Study Guide

Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!

By Willa Cather

Alexandra Bergson

Well folks, there's no doubt about it: Alexandra Bergson is the hero—or heroine, rather—of O Pioneers! In fact, it's difficult to analyze any of the characters in this novel without somehow referring to Alexandra. This story really is her story, and it's our job to untangle all the different plotlines in order to show how they come together in her character development.

She's One Tough Cookie

We can start with some of the most basic descriptions of Alexandra, including those of her physical appearance. But don't get us wrong: just because these descriptions seem superficial, there's often a lot of symbolism hiding under the surface. And, well, that's also the essence of Alexandra's character: there's always a whole lot more going on, emotionally, mentally, etc., than first meets the eyes.

Our first encounter with Alexandra goes out of its way to tell us we're dealing with someone exceptional. Alexandra is portrayed as a sturdy, "handsome," with a look of "Amazonian fierceness" (4.3.4; 1.1.7). Now, just to clarify: according to Ancient Greek accounts, the Amazons were a legendary race of female warriors. So, when the narrator describes Alexandra's look as "Amazonian," we know we're dealing with someone more than just average.

In fact, if we follow the way the narrator portrays Alexandra throughout this section, we notice something more: Alexandra is quite the gender-bender. Check out this description of her outfit, for instance:

She wore a man's long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap, tied down with a thick veil. (1.1.3)

The narrator makes sure to point out how comfortably Alexandra wears a man's coat, looking "like a young soldier." What's more, we definitely don't get the sense that this is someone interested in attracting sexual attention. And it's not just because of her outfit; her actions tells us so, as well. Take a look at Alexandra's response, when a tipsy salesman compliments her hair, braided and just visible beneath her cap and veil:

She stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip—most unnecessary severity. It gave the little clothing drummer such a start that he actually let his cigar fall to the sidewalk and went off weakly in the teeth of the wind to the saloon. His hand was still unsteady when he took his glass from the bartender. His feeble flirtatious instincts had been crushed before; but never so mercilessly. He felt cheap and ill-used, as if some one had taken advantage of him. (1.1.7)

Alexandra really turns the tables of gender, so to speak, "stabbing" this guy with her Amazonian glance. In this situation, it's the man who "felt cheap and ill-used, as if some one had taken advantage of him." We see here how Alexandra is able to take a situation that is usually defined by gender norms—man makes pass on woman, woman feels helpless and violated—and flip it around.

Fighting for Her Right to Farm

Now, as the novel goes on, we don't see many more instances of Alexandra's "Amazonian fierceness." She's not exactly the warrior type. But make no mistake: just because Alexandra isn't outwardly aggressive, doesn't mean she can't stand up for her rights when she's threatened.

And that brings us to Alexandra's feud with her brothers, Lou and Oscar. Taking place mid-novel, the feud reveals Lou and Oscar's resentment of Alexandra's success, and their fear that they'll lose "their" property, if she marries Carl. Take a look at the sovereign manner in which Alexandra deals with their wild suppositions. That's our girl.

Lou and Oscar exchanged outraged looks. "Alexandra! Can't you see he's just a tramp and he's after your money? He wants to be taken care of, he does!"

"Well, suppose I want to take care of him? Whose business is it but my own?"

"Don't you know he'd get hold of your property?"

"He'd get hold of what I wished to give him, certainly." (2.10.16-18)

As the conversation continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Lou and Oscar are offended by Alexandra's relationship with Carl. They just can't wrap their minds around the idea of a 40-year-old woman "taking care of" a man. And what's more, they don't even think she has a right to her own property. Oscar, at one point, says, "The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work" (2.10.30). And Alexandra's very appropriate response follows: "And what about my work?" (2.10.31).

The point is clear. Alexandra does not see herself as bound to the norms of a woman's role on the prairie. Unfortunately, though, not everyone is as freethinking as she is. And when push comes to shove, as in this scene with her brothers, she refuses to compromise.

Becoming One with the Divide

That's Alexandra: she's tough, she's strong, and she doesn't back down. In that way, she's a whole lot like her adopted country. O Pioneers! repeatedly gives us the impression that its protagonist is not so much a character in a certain environment, but that she herself is part of this environment. That the truest depths of her character are, in fact, to be found in the land itself.

Ultimately, that's how we can interpret the novel's final line:

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth! (5.3.31)

One day, when Alexandra's story is finally over, her "heart" will simply go back where it always belonged: the Divide. Not only does this echo Alexandra's own, final intention to return with Carl to the Divide, it also concludes a long theme that is ongoing throughout the novel.

Check out this part, for instance, from the very early parts of the novel:

Even her talk with the boys had not taken away the feeling that had overwhelmed her when she drove back to the Divide that afternoon. 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. (2.5.22)

Already at a young age—here, Alexandra has just informed her brothers of her desire to stay put on the Divide—she feels deeply connected to the land itself. And this sense that her heart is "hiding down there" never leaves her; if anything, it only gets stronger. Carl aside, the land is the true love of her life.

Not Exactly An Open Book

Many of the descriptions we read of Alexandra give us the sense that we're only grasping the surface of her character. As we read in the previous section, her true being, her "heart," often seems to be "hiding" in the land to which she is so connected. Her "mind," on the other hand, is fully exposed to us readers, but doesn't exactly reveal a whole lot that interests us.

Oh, and in case you disagree, it happens to be something the narrator comes right out and admits:

[Alexandra's] mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times. (3.2.3)

And check out this passage, too:

When you go out of the house into the flower garden, there you feel again the order and fine arrangement manifest all over the great farm […] You feel that, properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best. (2.1.22)

In both of these passages, the narrator uses metaphors of writing and self-expression to talk about Alexandra's character and her action in the world. (P.S. Take a peek at our section on "Symbols" for more on this.) Alexandra is portrayed as a writer of sorts, one who expresses herself not in words, but in working the land. It's not entertaining work she produces; her mind, as the narrator mentions early on, is "slow, truthful, steadfast," without "the least spark of cleverness" (1.4.36). So, why are we still stuck here reading it?

Well, clearly it's not just Alexandra's mind that interests us. Just as writing a good novel is not an exclusively brainy process, but requires emotions, imagination, desires, etc., Alexandra's story involves more than just her conscious thoughts. It involves her dreams and desires, the emotional growth she undergoes as she comes to understand her love for her country and for the human beings in her life.

And that, ultimately, is what the narrator calls "the Genius of the Divide":

For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman. (1.5.3)

Alexandra's story, like all human stories, might be simple, even boring. But here, we're told that it's that "great, free spirit," the "Genius of the Divide," that brings her story—and history—to life and makes it feel vibrant. In bringing us Alexandra's "book," O Pioneers! is trying to put our fingertips on the pulse of the prairieland.

The River Underground

We're not just reading Alexandra's mind in O Pioneers!—we're learning to sense what she's feeling, just as we would with a real, live person. And we do that, in large part, with the narrator's (hopefully) trustworthy guidance.

Maybe the most important piece of advice the narrator gives us, is that Alexandra is a character who's mostly out of touch with her "personal life." As we saw in another passage (above), Alexandra's "heart" is not just in the land, but "hiding" in it, buried from our view. This topic gets the full treatment in Part III of the novel. Take a look:

[Alexandra's] personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors. (3.2.1)

The metaphor of the "underground river" perfectly captures the interaction between Alexandra's conscious, everyday mind, and her buried feelings and desires. Compare her to people like Marie, or Emil, whose desires burn right on the surface. We could never imagine Alexandra doing something so rash as having an affair. Her carefully maintained composure, like the success of her farm, is "impervious":

There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain. (4.1.30)

In comparison to the "very young people," a clear reference to Emil and Marie, Alexandra's desires, dreams and fantasies are vague or veiled, at best. Let's recall those "reveries" of hers, for instance. They're not exactly what we'd call explicit, in any sense of the word. Take a look:

Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but with her eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over and lift her, and then she could feel herself being carried swiftly off across the fields. (3.2.4)

And now, just in case the reader doesn't get the message that this is, in fact, a sexual fantasy of sorts, the narrator continues:

After such a reverie she would rise hastily, angry with herself, and go down to the bath-house that was partitioned off the kitchen shed. There she would stand in a tin tub and prosecute her bath with vigor, finishing it by pouring buckets of cold well-water over her gleaming white body which no man on the Divide could have carried very far. (3.2.4)

Alexandra's "underground river" definitely surfaces in these "reveries." Even the cold well-water, which she dumps on herself in order to, er, cool down, seems to recall the river metaphor the narrator uses at the beginning of this chapter.

In any case, though, this fantasy hardly gives us much access to Alexandra's "personal life"—the true content seems masked even to her, just as she is unable to see who this "man" is. But then again, we can still make a few observations that she might not be able to notice herself.

For one, is this "man" even human? Look at the description: "she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him." If we're not mistaken, it kind of sounds like she's talking about the Divide itself. Yep, Alexandra seems to be fantasizing about a personification of the Divide.

Well, that's nothing new. Let's go back to that earlier passage, cited above, when the narrator talks about the Divide's "Genius:" "the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before" (1.5.3). Here, the Divide also comes to life, "bending" to her will in the same way that the "man" in her fantasy "bends" to lift her up and carry her across the fields.

So, what do we make of all this? Well, maybe Alexandra's "heart" is "hiding" down in the Divide in more ways than one. We might conclude that her tireless struggle to make the farm work, to bring her family prosperity, requires that Alexandra pour all of her desires, including her desires for sex and love, into the Divide.

But is that enough to please her? Stay tuned for more on that below.

She Wants To Break Free

Shortly after Emil's murder, Alexandra's servant girl rushes up to Ivar, frantic that she can't find Alexandra anywhere. Ivar first talks a little about his feet (see Ivar's "Character Analysis" for more), then hitches a horse to a wagon, and the two of them go out looking for Alexandra. Just as they pull up to the graveyard, they catch sight of her:

When Ivar stopped at the gate and swung out his lantern, a white figure rose from beside John Bergson's white stone. (5.1.17)

In this brief image, we glimpse a new Alexandra, one who seems both to resurrect her father, John Bergson, and to rise up finally from beneath the weight of his influence. If we think back to the novel's beginning, we'll remember that it's her father who makes his children promise to stay on the Divide, through thick and thin, and bestows all his authority upon Alexandra:

"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 long as there is on house there must be on head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes. She will do the best she can. […]." (1.2.18)

From what we can tell, Alexandra doggedly fulfills her father's wishes. She keeps the land together. And even if her relationship with her brothers suffers, she makes the farm more successful than her father ever dreamed. But perhaps most importantly, she is able to give her youngest brother, Emil, the chance at a life away from the Divide. And it's that which makes her most proud:

Out of her father's children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life. (4.1.4)

But we also happen to know, based on Alexandra's conversation with Carl in Part 2, that she's less than totally satisfied with the life she's had to lead. Carl might not have enjoyed feeling anonymous in the big city (see Carl's "Character Analysis" for more), but Alexandra seems to envy his freedom to see the big world beyond the Divide. She doesn't mince words: "I'd rather have had your freedom than my land" (2.4.22).

A little later, Alexandra elaborates on just what it is that makes her unhappy, living on the Divide:

"We grow hard and heavy here. We don't move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn't feel that it was much worth while to work." (2.4.24)

This gives us another really important look into Alexandra's subterranean personal life. Though the Divide is still where her "heart" is—well, at least where it's "hiding"—she longs for the freedom to travel, to loosen up her "stiff" mind, to escape her bondage to the land. Maybe, in a way, she resents the role her father gave her, all those years ago—but that's just speculation.

Here's where Emil comes in. In Emil, she sees the opportunity for someone she loves dearly to "have a chance, a whole chance" (2.4.8). If she can't have it, at least he will. Throughout the novel, up until a certain fateful event, that is, Alexandra seems to justify her loss of personal freedom, her unsatisfied desires and curiosity, by telling herself that Emil's success will make it all worthwhile. She lives for him, and she lives through him.

Well, destiny has something else waiting for Alexandra. Like his foolish grandfather, Emil squanders his freedom. He blindly pursues a woman and ends up dead because of it. But finally, by means of Emil's tragic end, Alexandra finds herself free to do as she pleases. She has the opportunity to rise up from the yoke placed upon her by father, and finally take her place as a free agent in the world.

The Land Did It! The Land Did It!

As we've been discussing, Alexandra puts aside her own dreams and desires, in order to give Emil the opportunities she never had. But those desires, for love, for sex, don't disappear—they're just hiding in the Divide, which at the same time becomes personified in Alexandra's significantly-less-than-racy sexual fantasies.

This convoluted arrangement serves to rob Alexandra of a sense of herself as a free agent in the world. She is proud of her accomplishments, but at the end of the day, she feels trapped on the Divide. Her life feels unlived. Emil has to die so that she can finally acknowledge her freedom to live her life as she sees fit.

To get a sense of just how much Alexandra tries to erase herself, let's check out this passage, from her conversation with Carl in Part 2:

"We hadn't any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still." (2.4.4)

Well, clearly she and her family weren't just "sitting still." The Divide didn't "do it." But for someone who fantasizes about the Divide as an all-powerful, superhuman, maybe even divine force, this statement makes a whole lot of sense. Alexandra wants to imagine that she's not acting of her own accord, but simply allowing the Divide, well, to have its way with her.

In the final part of the novel, however, Alexandra's Divide fantasy takes on a new shape. Literally. For the first time, she is able to see the male figure, as well as acknowledge to herself the sexual nature of her dream. Check it out:

As she lay with her eyes closed, she had again, more vividly than for many years, the old illusion of her girlhood, of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain. When he laid her down on her bed again, she opened her eyes, and, for the first time in her life, she saw him, saw him clearly, though the room was dark, and his face was covered. He was standing in the doorway of her room. His white cloak was thrown over his face, and his head was bent a little forward. His shoulders seemed as strong as the foundations of the world. His right arm, bared from the elbow, was dark and gleaming, like bronze, and she knew at once that it was the arm of the mightiest of all lovers. She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her. That, she told herself, was very well, then she went to sleep. (5.1.28)

Here, we really get the sense that this "man" is some sort of divine or superhuman visitor—with his "white cloak," his arm "dark and gleaming, like bronze," he sounds almost like the statue of ancient god. But it's not pleasure that he's bringing her. They don't actually have sex, or at least we don't see that part. What he brings her is the knowledge that he is a sexual fantasy, that he represents "the mightiest of all lovers."

And Alexandra seems to know exactly what that means: "She knew at last for whom it was she had waited, and where he would carry her." Okay, and that is… ?

Face it: she's not going to come out and tell us outright who this guy represents. But we can make an educated guess. After all, who's she waiting for in this chapter, other than Carl Linstrum? And who will "carry her" away, if not him?

We know the rest of it: Carl returns at the last second, they decide to get married, Alexandra plans to follow him up to Alaska. Carl might not be all that "mighty," but we can assume that he'll be Alexandra's "lover." So, she's just been fantasizing about Carl all along?

Not exactly. The narrator purposefully leaves the identity of Alexandra's "lover" ambiguous—we'll never know who he really is, because after all, he's just a fantasy. This "lover" can be both a representation of Carl, and a personification of the Divide. Just like Alexandra can have her proverbial cake and eat it too, by marrying Carl, traveling to Alaska, all without cutting her ties to the Divide. Alexandra can both belong to the Divide and still be free to leave.

Now, to back that statement up, let's check out an excerpt from Alexandra's final conversation with Carl:

"[…] There is great peace here, Carl, and freedom…I thought when I came out of that prison, where poor Frank is, that I should never feel free again. But I do, here." Alexandra took a deep breath and looked off into the red west.

"You belong to the land," Carl murmured, "as you have always said. Now more than ever."

"Yes, now more than ever. You remember what you once said about the graveyard, and the old story writing itself over? Only it is we who write it, with the best we have." (5.3.21-23)

That's what we're talking about. In the conclusion of O Pioneers!, Alexandra comes to the realization that she never gave up her freedom in the first place. She was always free. In loving the Divide, she didn't sacrifice her own desires and dreams; she invested them in the land, and now she can reap the benefits.

Alexandra's "book"—the one we're reading—is not just a repetition of age-old human dramas, the way Carl thinks it is (see his "Character Analysis"). Alexandra can finally acknowledge that she is the author of her own story: "It is we who write it, with the best we have."

Analogies, Analogies

Well, sorry Shmoop-ineers, but we just can't leave it at that. All that talk of Alexandra "writing" her own "book," becoming "the author of her own story," assuming her freedom, etc., makes us wonder about the relationship between Alexandra—herself a personification, of sorts—and the author of O Pioneers!, Willa Cather. Here at Shmoop, we try to shy away from using an author's biography to interpret his or her novel; after all, there's usually so much to explore in the stories themselves. But in this case, we think it's worth trying on for size.

Let's start with the obvious. Like Alexandra, Willa Cather moved with her family to Nebraska at a young age. While her family were not immigrants from Sweden (they moved from rural Virginia), Cather still experienced a similar displacement. For the moment, though, the similarities seem to stop there: Cather did not remain on the prairie long, but went on to attend the University of Nebraska, and after becoming a famous novelist, spent most of her life in New York City.

In her lifetime, Cather was super-duper private. And though a collection of her private letters has been recently published (see "Best of the Web"), they don't reveal much that we couldn't already surmise: for instance, that she was very enamored with the prairieland of her youth, or that she took an active role in marketing her own books.

To this day, scholars go back and forth about Cather's private life, especially when her sexuality is concerned. In 1987, literary scholar Sharon O'Brien wrote an influential biography of Cather, in which she emphasized Cather's homosexuality and the way her fiction was often "coded" to portray queer love and desire. Take a look at this website for more.

It's also known that Cather used to dress as a man and go by the name "William," while a student in college, and that she was in a relationship with a woman, Edith White, for 40 years. Still, people are reluctant to call Cather a "queer author." That title generally carries a political connotation, and Cather is not necessarily known as an advocate for gay rights. Like most of her contemporaries, she remained in the closet.

But in a novel like O Pioneers!, we do find quite a bit that could be termed "queer." There is, for instance, the gender-bending we see in both Alexandra and Carl. And then there's Alexandra's sexual fantasies, which, though they feature a male figure, also symbolize her relationship to the (genderless) Divide. And finally, the stereotypically "straight" set-up between Emil and Marie—man aggressively pursues woman, woman submits—isn't exactly portrayed in the most favorable light.

So, what do we make of this? Well, for one, we could argue that Alexandra is an alter-ego for the author. In other words, Alexandra is some made-up version of "Willa Cather," who rather than becoming a famous author, is forced to stay on the prairie. Though she finds love with a man, her heart really belongs to the land itself. On top of that, maybe Alexandra's realization that she can be free and belong to the Divide liberates her to experience a "queer" desire to be one with the land.

But of course, Alexandra is liberated only within the confines of what, for all intents and purposes, is traditional, heterosexual marriage. How would things be different if, say, she and Carl decided not to get married? Or if Carl were a woman? Or if Carl never came back at all?

We sense a potential problem here. On some level, Alexandra's so-called "freedom" allows her desires to remain hidden. Like Cather herself, there is a curtain of secrecy around Alexandra's inner life that hardly ever lifts. Though there is definitely a form of liberty in privacy—we all have things we only do when no one's looking—we're left wondering how things would be different if Alexandra had the freedom to speak her fantasies out loud, and to tell us what she really desires.