O Pioneers!


Willa Cather

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O Pioneers!: Allusions 2 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Part 1, Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Kate Greenaway:

In Part 1, Chapter 1, Alexandra and Emil are running an errand in town when they run into Marie with her father. The narrator introduces Marie (still a young child in this scene) with an allusion:

The country children thereabouts wore their dresses to their shoe-tops, but this city child was dressed in what was then called the “Kate Green-away” manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor.

Kate Greenaway was a popular 19th-century children's illustrator whose work often depicted an idealized version of rural life. Her drawings and watercolors were especially popular because she had a keen eye for fashion and an understanding of fashion history. She could replicate the clothing styles of whatever decade a story or poem called for. Despite her versatility as an illustrator of clothing, many of the young girls in her illustrations wore a particular style of long, loose-fitting dress, gathered at a "yoke" (a structured band of fabric) high above the waist. The "Kate Greenaway manner" of dress for young girls was not something Cather made up, but rather something with which her readers would have been familiar. People liked to put children in this kind of dress in part because it allowed them to move more freely than some other styles. It was also an aesthetic choice for many who were captivated by Greenaway's idyllic illustrations.

The narrator notes that the children who have, like Emil, grown up in the country do not wear this style of clothing. The difference between a dress that goes to a child's shoe tops and one that goes to the floor does not sound all that significant, but the length and the yoke both make Marie's dress distinctive from the other children's outfits. She is a "city child" who is dressed in a style that makes her look like the happiest of country children. Able to move freely in her loose skirt, she is the image of the childhood all the homesteaders may have wanted for their own children. Alexandra, Emil, and Carl all stand in stark contrast to this image. Marie's life will make her slowly realize that this "Kate Greenaway" image is not real.

Part 1, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—King Lear:

In Part 1, Chapter 2, John Bergson tells his children that he is leaving the land to Alexandra to manage until all of them are married and need their own land. His speech seems to be an allusion to Shakespeare's King Lear:

When you marry, and want a house of your own, the land will be divided fairly, according to the courts. But for the next few years you will have it hard, and you must all keep together. Alexandra will manage the best she can.

In King Lear, an aging king tells his daughters that he will give the largest part of his land to the daughter who loves him the most, and her husband. But before his second two daughters have a chance to demonstrate their love, he is so moved by his eldest daughter's display that he gives the land to her. This act launches a feud between the two older daughters, each allied with her husband. The youngest daughter, meanwhile, believes that her love cannot be packaged into a twee demonstration. She refuses to say anything to her father about her love for him, and he disinherits her entirely.

Cather knew her Shakespeare very well and was always aware of her work's artistic roots. Here, she portrays John Bergson as a new, Americanized version of King Lear. Both Bergson and Lear face the difficulty of deciding what will happen to their land when multiple children stand to inherit it. Whereas Lear comes up with a solution to the problem that appeals to his ego and stands to drive a wedge between his children, Bergson does everything he can to keep his land and his family as intact as possible. He is bound to let the courts divide up his land eventually, when his children are married. He favors Alexandra in his will, but only because he believes that she will do the best job of tending the land that will one day benefit all of his children. He even begs them to work together, so that they will all profit from their collective self-sacrifice. For Bergson, the greatest dignity lies not in having reverent children, but rather in having a family that comes together to make the most of the resources they have at their disposal.

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