O Pioneers! Study Guide

O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! is a novel which tells the story of a family of Swedish immigrants, the Bergsons, who in rural Nebraska during the early 20th-century. The narrative focuses primarily on Alexandra Bergson, who is left in charge of the farm and her younger brothers after the death of her father, and on her younger brother Emil. The story follows Alexandra and Emil's romantic relationships and Alexandra's struggles to run the farm while exploring themes of isolation, temptation, and marriage.

  • Alexandra Bergson : the main character of the book. A strong-willed and intelligent woman. She was given the farm by her father John Bergson and over the next 16 years makes it very prosperous. She doesn't notice Emil's growing attraction toward the unhappily married Marie Shabata. She also seems to forgive easily, as she claims to have no ill will against Frank, despite the fact he savagely murdered her brother. She is about 40 years old in the second part of the book.
  • Emil Bergson : the youngest child of John Bergson and Alexandra's brother. An intelligent, handsome, and athletic person. A university graduate. Tragically, he is in love with the unhappily married Marie Shabata. He leaves for Mexico to try to escape his temptation for Marie, but after a year he cannot resist and returns. After reuniting at a church party they kiss for the first time. Before leaving for law school he goes to bid farewell to Marie and finds her in the orchard. Their longing for each other escalates and Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, drunkenly catches them in the act and shoots them both. He is mentally tormented by the crime and is jailed after turning himself in.
  • Ivar : In the first part of the novel, he lives in a remote plot of land in Nebraska that is difficult to get to. Most of his neighbors think he is crazy. He doesn't attend church, but reads the Swedish Bible and has a mystic quality about him. He also has a great affinity for animals, especially birds. After he fails to "prove up" on his homestead, Alexandra takes him in as a servant to save him from being sent to a lunatic asylum.
  • Carl : Alexandra's close childhood friend. As an adult, her suitor and husband.
  • Signa : the youngest of Alexandra's Swedish born servants, her favorite.
  • Barney Flinn : Alexandra's foreman.
  • Mrs. Hiller : a neighbor.
  • Nelse Jensen : Signa's suitor, then husband.
  • Annie Lee : Lou's wife's maiden name.
  • Mrs. Lee : Lou's mother-in-law. She clings to old ways, although her daughter Annie and son-in-law Lou try to force her to become modern and refined. One of Alexandra's friends.
  • Milly : Annie's 15-year-old daughter. She plays the organ and the piano (which Alexandra bought for her).
  • Stella : Annie's younger daughter.
  • Marie Tovesky Shabata : Emil's love interest, although she is married. A charming female neighbor who has known the Bergsons since childhood. She is warm towards everyone without prejudice or favor, which infuriates her husband Frank, as well as Emil, who harbors romantic feelings for her despite her marriage to Frank.
  • Frank Shabata : Marie's husband. He has a short temper and doesn't get along with most of his neighbors. He kills his wife Marie and her lover Emil in a drunken rage, and is sent to prison in Lincoln, Nebraska. He regrets the murder and looks destroyed when Alexandra goes to visit him.
  • Albert Tovesky : Marie's father; an adviser in Omaha. He does not approve of her husband Frank and discouraged her choice to marry him.
  • Amédée Chevalier : a Frenchman, friends with Emil. He dies from a ruptured appendix.
  • Angélique Chevalier : Amédée's wife.
  • Father Duchesne : the French priest.
  • Raoul Marcel : a good friend to Emil
  • Moses Marcel : Raoul's father.
  • Mr. Schwartz : the warden at the prison where Frank is being kept.

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