According to Evelyn Helmick Hively, Willa Cather’s novels mirror the author’s ‘broad experience with people from all strata of society’ (Hively 171). Consequently, Cather’s characters come from diverse cultural and social backgrounds. It is today regarded as one of the author’s primary literary achievements that her
… novels reveal a different West and [offer] an alternative direction for American literature. They spoke for the Midwestern immigrant and the woman, who had hitherto been silent, and they spoke in the language of an old culture taking root in a new land. (Thomas 64)
In fact, although Willa Cather’s female characters live on the margins of American society, they are strong-willed and in control of their destinies. Cather illustrates that even in the male-dominated, restrictive turn-of-the-century society, women have a large number of choices and can shape their lives in ways that their predecessors could not. Harvey remarks that “gender … proves an asset in their efforts to achieve self-fulfilment, helping them turn inward to explore self in a way that [male characters] never could’ (Harvey 33). Willa Cather’s heroines construct their own identities to varying degrees, taking advantage of the opportunities for personal improvement available in frontier and post-frontier America, often manipulating the established image of womanhood and challenging traditional views.
Even though all of Cather’s heroines are subject to similar social expectations and pressures, their lives differ to a great extent. Cather shows that there is more than one way in which the pioneer woman can seek self-fulfilment. In order to illustrate this, the essay will analyse four heroines, that is, Alexandra Bergson from Cather’s 1913 novel O Pioneers!, Ántonia Shimerda (later Cuzak) and Lena Lingard from My Ántonia and Marian Forrester from A Lost Lady. All of these characters live in rural Nebraska in or, in Marian Forrester’s case, at the end of the pioneer era. Harvey states that at that time, a
woman was supposed to fill a variety of roles, all primarily for the purpose of helping a man achieve his American Dream. She was considered “helpmate, pillar, moral and cultural authority, self-effacing, and self-reliant.”’ (Harvey 22)
How do Cather’s heroines cope with the pressure society tries to impose on them? In other words, do the relationships the characters have with friends, home town or family affect their ability to reach individual goals and self-fulfilment? First of all, Alexandra Bergson’s life will be examined with the focus on the tension between her fight for independence and her secret longing to be ‘lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong’ (O Pioneers! 80). Second, the essay will turn to Ántonia Shimerda, the Bohemian ‘earth mother’ (Hively 69). It will then analyse a second character from My Ántonia, Lena Lingard, who can be seen as the embodiment of the first-generation New Woman. Finally, Marian Forrester, an adulterous woman, and her way towards self-fulfilment will be considered. The final paragraph of the essay will then analyse the extent to which Cather’s characters challenged literary traditions of the early twentieth century and their effect on later writing.
To begin with, when Alexandra Bergson first enters the scene in O Pioneers!, she is presented as ‘ a strong, tall girl’ who ‘walk[s] rapidly and resolutely as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do’ (O Pioneers! 2). Alexandra’s powerful entrance is further underlined by the fact that she wears ‘a man’s long ulster […] not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her’ (O Pioneers! 2). In fact, Cather states that Alexandra carries herself ‘like a young soldier’ (O Pioneers! 2). All of these descriptions are typically associated with masculinity. Nevertheless, Alexandra also possesses some feminine traits. For example, she is caring and loving towards her younger brother Emil, making him put on her scarf so that he does not feel cold. Moreover, Cather describes Alexandra’s hair – long hair being a traditional symbol of femininity - and its effect on men in great detail:
A shabby little travelling man […] stopped and gazed stupidly at the shining mass of hair [Alexandra] bared when she took off her veil; two thick braids, pinned about her head in the German way, with a fringe of reddish-yellow curls blowing out from under her cap. […] “My God, girl, what a head of hair!” he exclaimed […]. (O Pioneers! 3)
However, Alexandra is not pleased by the man’s reaction. At that point, there is no space for coquetry and flirtations in her life. Cather writes of Alexandra’s reaction, ‘She stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip – most unnecessary severity’ (O Pioneers! 3). This description further enhances the reader’s impression of Alexandra as a strong, independent woman.
However, Alexandra adapt her behaviour to suit her company. When she spends time with her family, excepting Emil, for whom she has motherly feelings, Alexandra displays strength and superiority. As an illustration, her father sees her as a help on whom he can depend. He values her ‘resourcefulness and good judgement’, her intelligence and strength of will (O Pioneers! 9). In fact, John Bergson recognizes in her ‘the simple direct way of thinking things out, that had characterized his father in his better days’ (O Pioneers! 9). On his deathbed, Bergson passes the responsibility for the family’s future wellbeing on to Alexandra, and not to his sons, instructing them to accept the guidance of their sister. She lives up to her father’s expectations, displaying true pioneer spirit and great courage. Thomas remarks:
[Cather … ] created an alternative to the male mythology of the West; she showed that pioneers were men and women and that the vast field of wheat and corn which stretched across middle America were foreseen and planted by characters such as Alexandra, a Swedish immigrant and a woman […]. (Thomas 64, my emphasis)
Alexandra is, in fact, an excellent farmer. She acts on Ivar’s advice to keep her pigs in a clean pen, tries new methods of farming, and eventually builds the first silo on the Divide, ignoring the laughter and mocking of her family and neighbours. Alexandra’s relationship with nature is intense and personal. By the time the Part II of O Pioneers! opens, the Bergson family has achieved material success thanks to Alexandra’s foresight and her faith in the land.
On the other hand, when spending time with her younger brother Emil or her close friend Carl, Alexandra lets go of her characteristic roughness and displays softer, more feminine traits. For instance, when she tells Carl about her father’s illness, Alexandra’s lips tremble and she opens up about her fears and anxieties regarding the future of the family. ‘“I don’t know what’s to become of us all, Carl, if father has to die,”’ Alexandra admits, and adds ‘“I wish we could all go with him and let the grass grow back over everything”’ (O Pioneers! 6). It is only with Carl that Alexandra admits her weakness. Later, when he announces that he will move away, Alexandra cries unashamedly and voices her fear of loneliness.
In fact, critics have often remarked on the dual role that Alexandra plays. ‘[She] is at once identified with the feminine earth and appears wielding the masculine plow,’ Hively writes, later adding that although ‘Alexandra accepts her dual role with the same ease with which she wears a man’s long ulster […], the maternal qualities of fruitfulness, imagination and humanity are those that finally matter most, to her and to the world about her’ (Hively 39). That is, Alexandra benefits from both her paternal and maternal influences and therefore becomes stronger than most of the women of her time.
However, even though Alexandra ‘makes a very striking entrance’, she is not a wholly convincing character because she is at once strong and weak, independent yet seeking dependence (Thomas 67). Furthermore, the relationship between Alexandra and Carl is described as ‘contrived; worked into the plot as a sop to the conventions in deference to prevailing literary expectations’ (Thomas 67). However, I would argue that it is the tension between her femininity and her masculine character traits, the contrast between her role as farmer and provider for the family and her feminine identity, which makes Alexandra a convincing, well rounded character. At first, Alexandra acts upon her father’s wish by taking over the family’s farm. She is, as Harvey points out, ‘guided by a strong sense of duty to parent’ and therefore feels responsible for not only her own destiny, but also the lives of her family and friends (Harvey 37). In particular, she is driven by the desire to provide her younger brother Emil with ‘a chance, a whole chance’ (O Pioneers! 45). Her strong sense of loyalty and responsibility is present not only with regards to the family, but also concerning Ivar, for whom she provides after he loses his farm. However, at that point Alexandra neglects her own necessities and puts her family first. What Thomas criticizes as the novels weakness can also be seen as the manifestation of Alexandra’s need for self-fulfilment. Once she has achieved success in her management of the farm, Alexandra realizes that it does not fulfil her. Harvey agrees with his point, stating that
[d]espite the assured sense of self that Alexandra displays throughout Book I, such autonomy grates against a desire for dependence […]. […] This secret longing for dependence embarrasses and angers her. Only in the final pages of the novel is she able to voice her desire openly […]. (Harvey 39)