Month: février, 2011

Neighbouring Fields in O Pioneers!

In her novel, O Pioneers!, Willa Cather retells the story of a strong and determined pioneer, Alexandra, who overcomes all difficulties of the Wilderness in order to settle her clan. She works hard on the land and is depicted as rather calm and unpassionate. Although the novel seems to be on the side of the actions Alexandra undertakes, it also introduces Marie Shabata, a romantic and indomitable woman who does not share the interest of the pioneers for civilizing the land, but reveres instead the beauty of a natural world remained untouched.

In this extract, the chapter V of Neighboring Fields, Cather opposes two conceptions of Nature, the Pastoral mode and the Wilderness, in order to underline the imposssibility of being of the latter and the need to invest in human ability to find a sustainable environment. First, we will center on how the Wilderness gives a sense of a Lost Paradise in the following passage ; then how Fall and Death only are to follow this ephemeral state of Paradise; and finally, how the Pastoral is valued as the chance of a new beginning for humans.

I – The Wilderness as a (Lost) Paradise?

The passage takes place in the neighboring fields next to the farm of Alexandra. The domain of the Linstrum has been purchased and is now inhabited by Frank and Marie Shabata. Contrary to the ordered and cultivating Alexandra, Marie has left her space as undomesticated, matching her conception of Nature. Indeed, according to the young Bohemian, Nature should not be altered by humans. As she quotes Ivar, the figure embodying the belief in the supremacy of Nature over Man in the novel, she underlines the fact that humans have no right to print their mark on natural elements and, consequently, gets very distressed when she witnesses their hunting act, which she sees as a destruction of life.

But this Wilderness is first given a sense of primitivism with a handful of analogies with a state of (lost) Paradise. This is indicated with the choice of the setting, a garden let to a savage state. It is inhabited by a man and a woman who appear very close in looks and in actions. They « move softly, keeping close together » and with this Transcendentalist idea of togetherness, of one entity standing for two bodies, is reflected the fact that Nature seems to correspond with them. Marie identifies herself with the bird when she sympathizes with it: « they were having such a good time », « they were scared but they didn’t really think anything could hurt them ». They are intrinsically linked to Nature.

Their actions themselves send them back to a primitive picture of life: they are hunting, though not completely gathering as in the biblical myth of the Genesis. However, the adaptation of the myth with the introduction of a bird brings a sense of ethereal life, with the « sky » space and the feeling of protection conveyed by the sense of unreachability. As Paradise, the place seems to be a safe and a peaceful one. This is enhanced by the image of the flight and the wings recalling those of the angels. But as the red apple has been turned into a red bird, it literally comes up with a fall before even being eaten: this seeming heavenly vision is to be deceived.

II – The Wilderness as a place for Fall and Death

Notwithstanding its features echoing an image of a Lost Paradise, the Wilderness here is a place standing for Fall and Death. It is a place of Fall with the ominous one of the shot bird. Indeed, a few chapters later on, Emil and Marie – consuming their love – will be shot to death by Frank Shabata in their garden. The fall of the bird prefigures the tragedy to come, along with other ominous elements: the sympathy of Marie for the bird has a tragic connotation, intensified by the sense of time and of the color red, omnipresent throughout the passage. The warm color becomes the color of blood, of what is still warm (the shot bird, on the ground) but will soon join the cold of the dead. From unity, a still figure, they turn into two separated bodies. Once Emil has picked up the dying bird, the two young people cannot reconciliate. And Marie herself suffers from a double split, since she agreed at first to come on her own and cannot cope with the idea and the view of it anymore. She is overwhelmed by her dual feelings and moves one further step away from her young companion.

This movement of transition from a state to another is also expressed throughout the changing mood of Emil: when they first burst into laugh, it is joy and lightness that they both share. But the coming of a second laugh (« Emil gave a rather sore laugh ») suggests the transition to a more serious state; gravity has printed its mark on the Wilderness and its inhabitants. From the seemingly flapping of eternity in the air, the bird falls down to the ground to embrace a mortal existence: and with the sense of mortality comes along the sense of finitude, within the perspective of death.

III – Pastoral as a new beginning for humans (the only one?)

In the garden, Emil and Marie seem sheltered from the rest of the world. They are blind, « cannot think » any longer, but more importantly, they do not notice the fact that they are observed. The observer, Carl, stands as a compromise between two representations of Nature, the Pastoral and the Wilderness. Being a double for Alexandra, the pastoral is suggested as a possibility of a new beginning for humans. Indeed, once they have fallen, the land is theirs, they should consequently accomodate to it. It is represented through the laudatory images of fertility and rebirth.

Carl decides to get up before dawn to see the sun rising: he leaves the house of the Bergson with the intention of witnessing the birth of the day, a cyclic birth since it occurs every day (therefore an ultimate image of fertility for it cannot be exhausted). This is evoked through the diction of the day (« afternoon », « evening », « night », « dawn », « sun rise », « sun come up », « sun »), the repetition of « early » and « morning » (six times).

This image of birth is supported by the image of fertility of the pastoral with the vision of the cows milked. Cather uses repetitions to stress on the good to be drawn from the pastoral: « pasture », « grass » and « farm » are repeated over and over, among other « cornplowing », « field », « garden », and « prairie » (etc). The recurrence of the image of « milking » (four times) turns the nature that has been domesticated into a positive birth giver. Here the darkness of the night gives birth to the golden of the day and humans can help nature to be productive, as opposed to the young couple seen as life takers. They can even cohabit in peace with it, as it is given additional weight by the silent greeting with Ivar. This is highlighted by the Transcendentalist representation of Carl given in the extract.

Indeed, the path of Carl is characterized by movement and its counterpart, stillness. As he « steals downstairs », « hurries up », « walks rapidly », « comes over », « races in » etc, he triggers off a motion that must bring him very quickly to the state of stillness he is looking for. It is the stillness of meditation, of contemplation on top of the hill that he seeks for, a place in the pasture where serenity lies, where he can get closer to nature and its very origins. In this closeness, he can witness the awakening of Nature and the motioning of life: from silence, he gets to find out the first sounds of the morning « creatures » that « chirp », « twitter », « snap », « whistle », do « shrill noises ». There are euphonic sounds, musical noises that have nothing to see with the gunshot. It is a life he is in harmony with. This sense of harmony is emphasized by the vision of the past fathered by the present pastoral. The civilizing Alexandra is at peace with her environment and her beasts, she is associated with an abundance of light, and is herself pictured as an icon, basking in the glow of the golden light (and her non-sexual fertility, « milking » cows, somehow links her to the Virgin Mary).

In conclusion, if the Wilderness presents analogies with a mythical Paradise on Earth, it is only to emphasize that it is doomed to fall, showed with Marie’s displaying of romantic, extreme feelings that cut off from the rest of the environment. Whereas the civilized nature represented by Alexandra’s doing in the fields has more to share with a compromising vision of a Lost Paradise that can be re-born, a place where humans can work on the land and put their efforts together to work towards respect of their environment, and communication between the different elements, this thanks to the Transcendentalist oriented thinking. In the end, meditation and farmworking are both valued as fruitful and necessary activities.