Study Guide

Emil Bergson in O Pioneers!

By Willa Cather

Emil Bergson

Alexandra might not get along too well with her brothers, Lou and Oscar, but when it comes to Emil Bergson, well, things are different. Emil is Alexandra's golden child (er, brother). She sees his success and social advancement in the world as the aim of all her efforts. But things are never so simple; Emil wants more than just social advancement. He wants it all.

And he wants Marie.

Gimme, Gimme

Alexandra's hard work means that Emil has had almost everything given to him. That explains why his brothers, Lou and Oscar, resent "every change in his speech, in his dress, in his point of view" (4.3.11). Emil is caught up in a war of worlds, a struggle between the world of his immigrant family, fighting to make it on the Divide, and the world of educated, middle class America. Check out what Alexandra has to say about that, in the following passage:

"It's curious, too; on the outside Emil is just like an American boy—he graduated from the State University in June, you know—but underneath he is more Swedish than any of us. Sometimes he is so like father that he frightens me; he is so violent in his feelings like that." (2.4.6)

Exactly. When it comes to trying to understand Emil, appearances can be deceiving. He has the same drive to go further and better—inherited from his father and also present in his sister—but maybe also a sense of entitlement that comes with feeling at home in the New World. Some of that feeling of entitlement starts to come across in Emil's interactions with Marie.

Things start to take a nasty turn in this passage, for instance:

"I can't play with you like a little boy any more," he said slowly. "That's what you miss, Marie. You'll have to get some other little boy to play with." He stopped and took a deep breath. Then he went on in a low tone, so intense that it was almost threatening: "Sometimes you seem to understand perfectly, and then sometimes you pretend you don't. You don't help things any by pretending. It's then that I want to pull the corners of the Divide together. If you won't understand, you know, I could make you!" (2.10.35)

There's nothing "almost threatening" about this statement—Emil sounds downright scary, here. He seems to think that having grown-up desires for Marie entitles him to "make" her, to force her, to submit to him. Um, no.

Since his sister granted him all his privileges with no complaint, maybe he's now got the idea that no woman should ever refuse him anything he wants. That's not to lay the blame on Alexandra, though; in the end, Emil is responsible for his actions. But let's face it: it's hard to sympathize with someone who talks like this.

Let's Say It Together: Nar-cis-sism

Well, Emil definitely doesn't need to "make" Marie have an affair with him. Though he later promises to leave the Divide, if she says that she loves him (and she does, indirectly), his desires again get the best of him (see Part 4, Chapter 2). When he finally descends upon Marie in the orchard, she doesn't exactly refuse him. But then again, it also doesn't seem like a willing submission. Let's go back to that scene, for a second:

When he came to the corner, he stopped short and put his hand over his mouth. Marie was lying on her side under the white mulberry tree, her face half hidden in the grass, her eyes closed, her hands lying limply where they had happened to fall. She had lived a day of her new life of perfect love, and it have left her like this. Her breast rose and feel faintly, as if she were asleep. Emil threw himself down beside her and took her in his arms. The blood came back to her cheeks, her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face and the orchard and the sun. "I was dreaming this," she whispered, hiding her face against him, "don't take my dream away!" (4.6.11)

As the narrator tries to show us, Marie has found peace after finally admitting to Emil that she loves him. She believes that he'll leave her now, and that she can hold onto him in her fantasies, without upsetting her life as she knows it. But for Emil, that's not enough. Only reality will satisfy him.

But check out this detail: when Emil gets down beside her and grabs her in his arms, what does he see? "The blood came back to her cheeks, her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face and the orchard and the sun." He sees himself, not her. Here, we could interpret this detail as portraying Emil's lack of respect for Marie, his inability to see her, instead seeking only to see his own desires satisfied, at any cost.

Really? In a Church? Sheesh…

Yes, that's right—at any cost, even when it means committing adultery. But conveniently, Emil has already managed to convince himself that he's absolved of that sin. Let's go back to Emil's "equivocal revelation," as the narrator puts it, the moment when Emil overcomes the final barrier to satisfying his desire. He's in the church, it's his friend's funeral, and the "Ave Maria" (note the name, here) is playing:

He felt as if a clear light broke upon his mind, and with it a conviction that good was, after all, stronger than evil, and that good was possible to men. He seemed to discover that there was a kind of rapture in which he could love forever without faltering and without sin […] And it did not occur to Emil that any one had ever reasoned thus before, that music had ever before given a man this equivocal revelation. (4.6.6-7)

Emil enters into "rapture," feeling himself elevated above the plane of common sin. The narrator's wry comment at the end of this passage, implying that Emil has merely found a way to trick himself into believing he is absolved, seems to express some doubts. In any case, does Emil ever take Marie's own intentions and desires into account? Not once. Here, too, it's hard to find grounds for sympathy. In the end, O Pioneers! just doesn't give us that.