Instructors’ Teaching Experience

This novel would teach well as an example of literature about the midwest, the frontier, or immigrant experiences. It has an obvious intertext in Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name. It also reads as a somewhat feminist novel in that it follows a strong, independent heroine who refuses to bow to familial pressure. I find in O Pioneers! a hybrid of realist and modernist writing strategies, as well. [Liz Lundberg]

Discussion Questions

  • Alexandra has many striking dreams centering on the important events of the novel. Are we to read them as premonitions? Can we apply Freud’s contemporaneous The Interpretation of Dreams (English translation in 1913) to make sense of them?
  • Alexandra’s relationship to the earth is different from and more reverential than other that of other farmers in the novel, and it is implied that this relationship is what makes the farm successful under her management. If we read Alexandra as a type of mythic earth mother figure, more connected to the land than the men of the book, how does that interpretation complicate the novel’s feminism?
  • The whole story takes place at a mythic or epic scale—Carl at one point says there are only a few human stories and we live and write them over and over again. This vastness of scale seems fitting for the plains setting, but also perhaps reduces the characters to types or symbols. (For example, Marie symbolizes romance and the wildness of the prairie, while Alexandra is the level-headed intelligence and fortitude that it takes to actually survive there.) Is the world of this novel governed by fate? Does the bigness of the setting make the characters “small”?
  • Given Cather’s personal life, it’s always tempting to perform a queer reading of Alexandra. How far does the text support that reading, and how much is it the wishful thinking of contemporary readers? [Questions submitted by Liz Lundberg]

Additional Resources

I used several websites about 19th century Nebraska/Iowa that contextualizes the novel for students. Here are a few of them: