O Pioneers!


Willa Cather

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O Pioneers!: Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Part 1, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—No Payoff:

In Part 1, Chapter 2, the narrator remarks on the situational irony in John Bergson's death:

Now, when he had at last struggled out of debt, he was going to die himself. He was only forty-six, and had, of course, counted upon more time.

Alexandra's father first acquired the homestead in Nebraska 11 years ago. As an immigrant trying to build a life as a farmer in the United States, he would have applied to the federal government to buy the land at a discounted price under the Homestead Acts. While these legislative acts aimed to make it possible for people to support themselves through their own farming, some plots of land were more fertile than others. Even immigrants who already had farming expertise had to learn techniques that were appropriate to the local land. All of these factors meant that it was not always easy for homesteaders to make back even the small amount of money they had paid for their land.

The narrator describes some of the many hardships John Bergson has faced on his own homestead that have prolonged the process of paying off his debt. He lost his cattle due to weather one winter. He once had to shoot a plow horse that had broken its leg in a prairie dog hole. Cholera and rattlesnakes have also taken a toll on his livestock. Entire crops have failed, and he has even lost two children. Finally, though, at age 46, he owns the land outright.

Ironically, though, he is now dying. The promise of the homestead had been that with enough hard work, he would eventually be able to live on land he could call his own. The work turned out to be more than he bargained for. The harsh years have taken a toll not only on his assets but also on his body. Like Amédée later on in the novel, John Bergson is dying because he worked too hard for a living. Tragically, he must make peace with the idea that maybe his children will benefit from land ownership where he never got the chance.

Part 4, Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Apart From the Soil:

In Part 4, Chapter 1, Emil returns home from Mexico, and Alexandra reflects on the young adult he has become. There is situational irony in the pride and satisfaction she feels:

Out of her father’s children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life.

Given Alexandra's affinity for the land, her deep respect for her father's work there, and her lifelong faith that the Divide will yield abundance, it is ironic that she feels her life's mission was to prepare Emil to leave the Divide. It would make more sense, on the surface, if she were to wish she could share her life's work with her favorite brother.

Alexandra's intense desire for Emil to leave the Divide (or at least to be "fit to cope with the world") makes far more sense within the historical context of Nebraska at the start of the 20th century. The Bergsons, along with many other immigrants, have ended up in Nebraska because that is where the United States government has sold them homesteads for a bargain. In the decades following the Civil War, the federal Homestead Acts made it possible for loyal citizens and immigrants who had applied for citizenship to obtain a relatively affordable mortgage for their own property. The idea was that by working the land, homesteaders could make enough money to pay off the mortgage, and then the land would belong to them outright. From there, they could build wealth.

Homesteading itself was not necessarily the American dream or the immigrant dream at this time. Rather, homesteading was a way many people hoped to achieve the financial success that would open doors for their families. John Bergson hoped to do just this. Many of his neighbors abandon this means to wealth when they find that they are simply sinking further into debt; some of them resort to increasingly risky options, such as traveling to the Yukon in search of gold. Alexandra's faith in the land is ultimately faith in the government's vision of the American dream, the dream her father bought into when he moved them over from Sweden. She believes with her whole heart that if she sacrifices her life to the hard work of homesteading, Emil and future generations of Bergsons will be able to enjoy the fruits of her labor.

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Explanation and Analysis—No Sweetheart:

In Part 4, Chapter 1, at a celebration at the French church, Amédée asks Emil for help with a prank the men are going to play on the women. Amédée does not realize the dramatic irony of his request:

The only difficulty was the candle in Marie’s [fortune telling] tent; perhaps, as Emil had no sweetheart, he would oblige the boys by blowing out the candle. Emil said he would undertake to do that.

The prank involves putting out all the lights at once; the men plan to take their dates by surprise, kissing them in the dark. There are some problems with consent involved in this prank, but the novel presents it as a bit of lighthearted mischief characteristic of Amédée. The reason Amédée gives for asking Emil to blow out the candle in Marie's tent is that Emil alone (having just returned from Mexico) does not have a "sweetheart," at least not one present at the church. He can take care of this loose end while the rest of the men pay attention to their dates.

Emil and the reader both know that it is not exactly true that he doesn't have a "sweetheart." Emil first left for Mexico to run away from his feelings for Marie. Now that he is back, Marie has been staying close by and showing a bit too much interest in him. His plan to kill their attraction to one another through his absence seems to have failed. Of course, Emil and Marie have been letting everyone else believe that they are simply lifelong friends rather than would-be lovers. Amédée's request puts Emil in a difficult position. For one thing, Emil is fond of Amédée and his mischief, and he wants to say yes to his friend. For another, telling Amédée that it is not a good idea to go into Marie's tent like this would involve admitting to their ongoing flirtation. This admission would be embarrassing and would also increase the social pressure on Emil to avoid Marie (something he knows he should do but that he would rather not). Finally, doing this favor for Amédée will give Emil the chance to sneak into Marie's tent under mostly innocent pretenses and to be right next to her when all the lights go out. This chance is too tempting for Emil to pass up.

Dramatic irony makes this moment both comical and tragic. It is funny that Amédée thinks this is an innocent plan. On the other hand, if he knew what he was asking Emil to do, he might have found another way that would not lead Emil and Marie into such a perfect trap for infidelity.

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