The Pioneering Feminism of Alexandra Bergson Research Paper

  • Length: 8 pages
  • Sources: 8
  • Subject: Literature (general)
  • Type: Research Paper
  • Paper: #13302611
  • Related Topics: Love, Women, Masculinity, God

Excerpt from Research Paper :

Willa Cather’s 1913 novel O Pioneers! was the first of her Great Plains trilogy. It was also one of the first American novels to depict the pioneering feminism of a main character. The heroine in Cather’s novel is Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of a Swedish immigrant. She is left the family farm in Nebraska when her father dies—and as others are giving up the prairie life she is determined to make it work. She dedicates her efforts in part to the dream of seeing her brother Emil, whom she loves, succeed and get to go to college. She convinces her brothers to mortgage the farm so as to buy more land when others are bailing with the idea being that soon the land will make them prosperous. The gambit pays off and the Bergson’s become wealthy—only they fail to find happiness that is supposed to come with prosperity. In other words, the American Dream eludes them, even as she loses her family and Maria Shabata. Nonetheless, Alexandra Bergson remains committed to the land and her singular ambition of tending to it steadfastly. In this sense, she expresses a type of pioneering feminism. She also breaks a number of traditional gender norms, as Douglas Werden points out: she not only maintains her land herself but she also proposes to her husband instead of waiting submissively for him to propose to her. She is a take-charge type—a feminist pioneer. This paper will examine the feminism portrayed by Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! and show how it connects with the loss of her family and Maria Shabata.

Werden argues that Cather’s novel is really “about two women who are pioneers in crossing socially constructed gender barriers” (199). The two women are, of course, Alexandra Bergson and Maria Shabata. Alexandra crosses constructed gender barriers by assuming sole responsibility for the farm and taking unorthodox actions to maintain its integrity (such as keeping the hogs out of mud following advice given her from Crazy Ivar). She also crosses it by pursuing a marriage of her own liking and arranging it for herself rather than wait for Carl (her future husband) to do it. She is by all respects a practical, pragmatic, hard-nosed woman who has no time or inclination on the Great Plains to rely upon someone else to do what needs getting done. Her father tasked her with seeing to the farm upon his deathbed (Cather), and that task is her sole focus, even when her brothers show more interest in leaving the farm to pursue other alternatives in life.

Maria Shabata crosses the constructed gender barrier by entering into a love affair with Emil, Alexandra’s younger brother. Such affairs may be common place in today’s world, but in the Prairie Days they were highly unorthodox. Thus, finding the two is all the more shocking for Maria’s husband, who, in a drunken rage, responds. The illicit affair ends in the murder of both when Maria’s husband finds the two of them entwined below the mulberry tree.

Alexandra suffers substantial loss throughout the novel, though she gains prosperity from her work on the farm. Her work-related prosperity reflects her commitment. Had she committed herself to a man earlier in the novel, she would likely have had prosperity in a domestic sense, with a family, children and meals to tend to. However, as a farmer she succeeds with just as much energy as might have been shown towards the traditional gender role of homemaker. On the prairie, her aim is not domestic but work-related. She is not looking for a domestic arrangement but rather to achieve the goal of making the farm a success. As David Laird notes, “she perceives the land in intimate, even passionate terms, drawing strength from it and, in return, giving of her spirit and imagination” (244). The land for much of the novel is her lover—and that may explain her continuous dream of a male godlike character carrying her over the fields. Perhaps the male in the dreams is the personification of the land repaying her in kindness with the same amount of love and affection she has shown to the land.

Or, it could be that underneath it all Alexandra is actually pining for a man. Cather gives some clues that this too could be the case. She has a fondness for Carl that is put off by the ill will of her brothers towards him when he returns after being away from the prairie for a decade and a half. The brothers are jealous of the fact that they have labored to work the land and become prosperous while he disappeared only to worm his way back into the picture and take a stab at gaining Alexandra’s heart and hand in matrimony. Thus, they voice their opinions in so many words and Carl, getting the hint, leaves town again—this time for Alaska. Alexandra is left feeling lonely especially as her brothers leave too. Her dream could indicate that the land has not been enough, that she has not been fulfilled, and that what she wants more than anything is to have a husband.

The bottom line is that Cather’s Alexandra is a complex character and does possess some traditional, feminine characteristics. For instance she dreams of a man—a strong, powerful man who is like a demi-god and who carries her over the fields (Cather). She has this dream ever since girlhood and it suggests that she is still a woman in the traditional sense underneath it all: she still yearns for a male to support her and to love her. Gustafson suggests that Alexandra is not so much a proto-feminist as simply a woman who is tied to the land that her father left in her hands: she is determined in spirit in everything she does—whether that be to tend to the land or to secure herself a husband by proposing to Carl.

Worden, on the other hand, describes it as a kind of “female masculinity” that Alexandra exudes (81). Alexandra does what other men (namely the brother, the deceased father, and Carl) do not do: she fills the gap by setting aside her own femininity and donning the duds of the masculine farmer. Her determination gives her an aspect of breaking down gender barriers; however, it also reveals a common feminine characteristic, which is the sheer force of will. Alexandra’s will is not used in something like childbirth but rather in land-birth. She does not bring forth fruit from her womb in a wholly feminine act but rather from the land, which a man could do. However, in bringing fruit from the land…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!

Dyck, Reginald. \\"Willa Cather\\'s Reluctant New Woman Pioneer.\\" Great Plains Quarterly 23.3 (2003): 161-173.

Greenwald, Anthony G., Brian A. Nosek, and Mahzarin R. Banaji. \\"Understanding and using the implicit association test: I. An improved scoring algorithm.\\" Journal of personality and social psychology 85.2 (2003): 197.

Gustafson, Neil. \\"Getting Back to Cather\\'s Text: The Shared Dream in O Pioneers!.\\" 

Western American Literature 30.2 (1995): 151-162.

Laird, D. (1992). Willa Cather\\'s Women: Gender, Place, and Narrativity in\\" O Pioneers!\\" and\\" My Ántonia\\". Great Plains Quarterly, 242-253.

Quawas, Rula. \\"Carving an identity and forging the frontier: The self-reliant female hero in Willa Cather’s\\" O Pioneers!\\".\\" (2005).

Werden, Douglas W. \\"She Had Never Humbled Herself\\": Alexandra Bergson And Marie Shabata As The\\" Real\\" Pioneers Of\\" O Pioneers!.\\" Great Plains Quarterly 22.3 (2002): 199-215.

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