O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)

In My Ántonia, Willa Cather explicitly identifies the narrator in the novel’s introduction: it is Jim Burden, an acquaintance of Ántonia, writing his understanding of her through his understanding of himself. By contrast, in Death Comes for the Archbishop (which I previous wrote about here) and O Pioneers!, Cather never indicates directly the perspective from which the story is told. At least in the latter case, however (and I suspect in the former, but I’d need to re-read it to be sure), the novel’s curiously impersonal tone makes the most sense if one supposes that the narrator is not human at all, but is rather the land itself.

Why think this? As mentioned, the tone of the novel is one reason. The novel is noteworthy for avoiding drama and intrigue. Cather never tries to surprise, never makes a major plot event arrive unexpectedly. Events unfold with a serene, implacable necessity: we can see them coming, yet are powerless to stop them. We must adapt to them: they will be what they are regardless. Even the novel’s climactic scene in the fourth act (“The White Mulberry Tree”), terrible as it is, arrives with quiet elegance, like a dream. No matter what is occurring, the narrator speaks with the same tone, an observer tied to yet somehow apart from the drama—and this seems the attitude of the Nebraska landscape.

The judgments made on the characters are also in keeping with the supposition that the story is told from the land’s perspective. For the most part, such judgments are rare, and when present they are muted. They are, however, there. One parallel set of judgments runs through. On the one side, there is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, an indifferent love for the pioneers, for the father John Bergson, for Alexandra, and for the vivacious young Emil. I call it an indifferent love because, while the warmth is clearly there, it is not overstated, and feels like admiration “from the wings.” There is no sense of an impulse to aid them, and there is a stoic acceptance of all their misfortunes. It is love that is tempered by the fatalism described above. On the other side, the inverse of this indifferent love, there is disdain for the conformists, Lou and Oscar, who lack any pioneer spirit, who prefer to fit in and be comfortable. When Alexandra, even as she ages, continues to innovate, Lou and Oscar are concerned only about the risk it poses to their children’s inheritance (earned entirely by Alexandra’s work, over their earlier protests). The reader can sense the narrator’s disgust, but again it is distanced, and without any impulse to intervene.

There is exactly one overtly exultant moment on the part of the narrator, in the book’s final lines, and it confirms all the forgoing:

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!

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