Characters versus Community
April 11, 2001
Characters versus Community
In the novel O Pioneers! the author Willa Cather’s vision of Alexandra Bergson is consistent in character treatment with other authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (Scarlet Letter), and Stephan Crane (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets). In each novel, all authors possess a central character that has an obvious tension between themselves and their community. Unlike the previous authors, Cather’s sympathies lie toward Alexandra. She makes Alexandra seem artificial because she has given a woman (also being her main character) strength and courage, along with power to overcome those who wish to pull her down.
In the novel O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson is the novel’s central protagonist. Alexandra’s character is a model of emotional strength, courage, and tenacity. As the eldest child of the Swedish immigrant John Bergson, she inherits his farm and makes it profitable. Because Alexandra is best suited to perform the labor of prairie life (mentally and physically), she is a prototype of the strong American pioneer and an embodiment of the untamed American West.
Cather portrays the tension between Alexandra and the community in the first four chapters of the section, entitled “Neighboring Fields.” Alexandra, an iconoclast, who challenges the close-minded and petty world of small-town America, in which Lou and Oscar, her older brothers, are in one accord with. To an extent, Alexandra’s brothers are bound to tradition, obsessed with popular opinion, and frightened by unconventional thought. Just as Lou and Oscar initially resist Alexandra’s vision of the land’s future and later her innovative farming techniques, they also ridicule her impulse to treat Crazy Ivar with kindness, because Ivar is different. In a land that celebrates individualism and the pioneering spirit, the pull of conventional opinion is often irresistibly strong. By defying public attitudes, Alexandra proves herself a true individualist.
Cather begins her support of Alexandra’s character when the father, John Bergson, surpasses his two older sons to give the land to Alexandra. Although he wants to follow in tradition, he knows that Alexandra is devoted to keeping the family land that he has strived so hard to build and keep within the family. Three years after John’s death Alexandra’s tensions with her family begin. The Divide suffers a drought that drives several families from their land. Lou and Oscar fail to remember their father’s dreams and instigate for Alexandra to sell the land and move on, but she doesn’t.
Her character is torn because not only is her family against her, her beloved friend Carl is moving also. She begins her thought process about staying on the Divide. She thinks of her father and her conversation with Ivar, and although she seems hesitant at first, she decides to remain on the Divide and cultivate a new system for the land.
Cather’s portrayal of Alexandra’s family is similar to how Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne’s central character, Hester Prynne, has committed the sin of adultery. In a Puritan society during that year she would likely have been stoned to death, but Hawthorne continues his character, only to let her endure emotional pain inflicted upon her by her community. Hawthorne does provide a sanctuary in the form of the mysterious forest.
However, Hawthorne uses the forest to provide a kind of “shelter” for members of society in need of a refuge from daily Puritan life. In the deep, dark portions of the forest, many of the crucial characters bring forth hidden thoughts and emotions. The forest track leads away from the settlement out into the wilderness where all signs of civilization vanish. This is precisely the escape route from strict mandates of law and religion, to a refuge where men, as well as women, can open up and be themselves. The forest itself is the very embodiment of freedom. Nobody watches in the woods to report misbehavior, thus it is here that Hester feels secure. Her beauty comes back when she re-enters the forest, but when she is among the community it disappears.
If the Puritan society was too be so strict, constantly conforming to the Bible, after Hester served her sentence, why then was she treated so wrong? The bible itself says to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Hawthorne could have had the community treat Hester better as time passed on, but he only showed that his sympathy lied with the community instead of Hester. Although she was strong and persistent with her punishment of wearing the A on her chest, Hester eventually broke down. She turned “ugly” and gloomy; showing the reader that the community’s guilt finally overcame her.
Stephan Crane is another notable novelist with a central character that is out of place by definition of her community/environment. In the novel “Maggie: A girl of the Streets” Maggie Johnson grows up amid abuse and poverty in the Bowery neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side. Crane gives Maggie no direction, leaving her out on her on. She then “falls in love” with Pete only too soon discover that he is no different from her drunken mother and abusive father. If her relationship with Pete was to be the first kind of love she ever experienced, can you really blame her for becoming a prostitute in hopes that someone else would show her the “real thing?”
If Crane had given her more love and support, along with confidence, she could have survived the community. No one in Maggie’s household really cared about anyone. When Tommie dies, no kind of emotion is shown from any one in the family. When Maggie begins prostitution, no one is really surprised because of the environment that is present during her time on earth. The one person that most children can count on is their mother. Maggie’s mother Mary was not the role model most daughters have. Instead Mary was the cold one, abusing and having addictions in front of her children. The Johnson family didn’t communicate and were not passionate, so when Maggie tried to defy the system, she only ended up hurting herself.
Crane’s sympathy was given toward almost everyone, mainly Maggie because he allowed her to fall. One of the remarkable things about Maggie is that although the novel refuses to blame Maggie, the community still doesn’t forgive her for her mistakes. When she tries to return home her mistakes are exposed more then the environmental factors that lead to her downfall and death. Maggie’s romantic nature doesn’t give her the ability to see the world clearly, and becomes much to blame for her downfall, as are the forces of reality. This is a novel that shows sympathy to the humanity of every one of its characters, with the arguable exception of Mary.
The novel recognizes that, to a great extent, these are people brutalized and hardened and victimized by social forces beyond their control. But it is also a novel that humiliate through showings of cheap pity. Even as it extends sympathy to all its characters, it critiques the injustices they work, their hypocrisy, sentimentalism, ridiculous ideas and attitudes. Maggie is a novel that forgives and seeks to understand even those things that it cruelly exposes. Who is to blame for these tragedies that continue to repeat themselves, tragedies that recycle?
Crane’s handling of Maggie is one that is very American. It leaves the reader without closure of the character. After Maggie’s death her mother wants too forgive her, but it is all too late. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s treatment of Hester Prynne was too be expected because of the society she lived in and of course because her “mistake” (Pearl) would be with her always reminding the community of what she did. Willa Cather is the only author of these three to give her main character, who just happens to be a woman, a positive role within her community despite the tension between the two.