November 19, 2009
Is Alexandra still considered a feminist, although Cather
positioned her in a male role throughout the novel O Pioneers?
Although Alexandra was depicted as a “tall, strong girl,” (p.10) which is typically viewed as characteristics of a male, she was indeed a feminist in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! In the introduction of the novel, an argument arises due to the differences of O Pioneers! in contrast to some of Cather’s other pieces as well as several other novels of that time period. Marilee Lindemann references that “law and custom in most (if not all) Western countries severely limited what are girl might ‘do’, in life as well as in literature (…) thus, in comparison to their male counterparts, female characters in Anglo-European novels are confined to smaller spheres of action or are punished for daring to seek larger ones.”(p.vii) However, this is not the case for Alexandra or for this novel. Despite Cather’s ability to place Alexandra in a male role throughout her life on the Divide, Alexandra still portrayed those aspects of a feminist, which she revealed towards the end of the novel. Similar to the depiction of women in the Anglo-European culture, Alexandra was also depicted as those Anglo- European women as she was looked down upon by her brothers, Oscar and Lou, as well as other residents on the Divide. Alexandra was shunned because she tried to expose her femininity in many instances within the novel. Not only was she ridiculed by her brothers, but she was also forced to defend her male role because they claimed that her managerial work was easy and unreal as follows, “Oh, now, Alexandra, you always took it pretty easy! But, of course, the real work always fell on us.” (p.91) Here we see a glimpse of the issues presented by gender and power roles as depicted in the novel.
As noted above, Cather began to reveal Alexandra’s femininity through various channels within the book. Cather began by demonstrating Alexandra’s feminism during the first few chapters within the novel. The plot revealed to the readers Alexandra’s ill father lying on his death bed moments before he passed. He expressed his concern for his sons’ wisdom and explained to Alexandra that she was to take care of the land. Alexandra’s mom was more occupied with her previous lifestyle in such a way that it seemed as though she was never actually around. Thus Alexandra assumed the role of a mother over her younger brother, Emil, as well as her two older siblings, Lou and Oscar.
Other feminist roles were depicted throughout the quarrel between Alexandra and her older brothers, Lou and Oscar. Once they realized Alexandra’s love for her childhood friend, Carl Linstrum, they quickly became opposed to the idea that would soon forfeit their rights to the rest of Alexandra’s property. Lou and Oscar stated that she looked ridiculous to entertain Carl’s intentions considering that she was of middle age. However, Alexandra was quick to remind her immature brothers of how her smarts and whit paved the way to their wealth and that they were to keep out of her personal business which didn’t concern them. Alexandra explained to her brothers, “You all laughed at me when I said our land here was about ready for wheat, and I had to raise three big wheat crops before the neighbors quit putting all their land in corn.” She continued to defend herself noting that, “all that doesn’t concern anybody but Carl and me. Go to town and ask your lawyers what you can do to restrain me from disposing of my own property (...) for the authority you can exert by law is the only influence you will ever have over me again.” (p.92) Here, Alexandra not only asserted her independence but she also explained her right to her property demonstrating her role as a woman and that she is an advocate and supporter of the women’s rights movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She didn’t indulge in nor did she become...