Willa Cather's O Pioneers! - Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

This lesson reviews Willa Cather's great American novel, O Pioneers, which details the life of a Swedish American pioneer family, their trials, and eventual paths. Get a summary and analysis of the novel, then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Rolling Plains, As Far As She Can See

It's the late 19th century on the plains of Nebraska, and John Bergson is dying. This is our introduction to Willa Cather's classic American frontier novel O Pioneers!, published in 1913. The novel details the life of the Bergson family, particularly the oldest child and only girl, Alexandra. Alexandra's life is devoted to her calling as the leader of the farm, and she works to grow her holding and take care of her brothers. Alexandra deals with her struggles in the same manner that she deals with all other events that occur: with strength that speaks to her pioneering spirit and resolve.

Portrait of Willa Cather
Willa Cather Portrait

On the Prairie: A Summary of O Pioneers

We are introduced to John Bergson family when his daughter Alexandra goes into town to speak with a doctor about her father's condition. She brings along her neighbor and friend, Carl Linstrom, and her little brother Emil. After several misadventures on the part of Emil and Carl, the group heads home to their farms on the prairie.

When Alexandra arrives back at the farm, her father wants to talk with her. John is a hardworking man who built his farm up from nothing, and knows that he must give it to Alexandra in order for it to survive. His trust in her ability to care for her brothers and the farm is something that gives him peace on his deathbed. Before passing, he gives advice to all of his children on how to care for what he has left them. The children also receive advice from Crazy Ivar, a local horse expert. The only one to heed the advice is Alexandra.

After a drought hits the Divide, their area of the Prairie, many families leave their farms and move elsewhere, including Carl's family. Alexandra's other brothers, Lou and Oscar, are both lazy, and suggest that they should move too. Alexandra disagrees and figures out another way of farming that will be successful. She eventually talks her brothers into staying and taking out an additional mortgage to buy more land.

Thirteen years after this decision, Alexandra has become the most successful farmer in the Divide. Her brother Emil returns from college and begins to develop feelings for Maria Shabata, an exotic Bohemian girl who lives on the next farm. Maria is married to the surly Frank, who is unhappy with being a farmer and takes it out on his wife.

Meanwhile, various farmers meet to discuss Crazy Ivar and the possibility of putting him in an asylum. Alexandra instead brings Ivar to her farm, despite her brothers' concerns. Later that day, Carl returns for a visit. Alexandra is excited by Carl's stay, but her brothers Lou and Oscar are suspicious.

Emil and Marie get closer, and push the boundary of propriety with their behavior. Emil loves Marie, even though she is married. After talking with his friend Amedee at the fair, he decides to move to Mexico to get away from his feelings. Emil returns home to the farm to tell Alexandra about his decision, and finds her fighting with Lou and Oscar over Carl. Alexandra is furious at Lou and Oscar for their interference, especially after they convince Carl to move to Alaska. Lou, Oscar, and their wives are jealous of Alexandra's success, and covet her farm for their children to inherit. They see Carl as a possible impediment to that goal. After Emil tells Alexandra his decision, she is devastated that both Carl and Emil will be leaving her.

After Carl and Emil leave, the winter comes, and Alexandra's sister-in-law's mother, Mrs. Lee, comes to stay with her. Alexandra is melancholy during this time, as is Marie, who looks back on her life with Frank and is dissatisfied. Alexandra begins to have daydreams of a man made of corn, who will take care of her.

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