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O Pioneers! | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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O Pioneers! | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1

Alexandra Bergson is a young Swedish girl living with her family on the plains of Nebraska. Her little brother Emil Bergson sits outside a shop in the little town of Hanover crying because his kitten has climbed up a pole and is stuck. When Alexandra comes out of the shop, she fetches her friend Carl Linstrum to help bring the kitten down, and they go inside the shop. Emil plays with a little girl his age named Marie Tovesky (Marie Shabata).

Alexandra's father, John Bergson, is a farmer, and he is dying. John Bergson tells the family that he is leaving the farm in Alexandra's hands, knowing she is the most competent of his children and the one who loves the land the most. After John passes away, Alexandra goes with Emil, Carl, and her two other brothers, Lou Bergson and Oscar Bergson, to visit a man named Ivar. Lou and Oscar laugh, saying Ivar is crazy because he is an odd hermit who has peculiar ways. Alexandra, who respects Ivar, seeks advice about her animals from him.

Times are hard on the plains, and many of the Bergstrom's neighbors are leaving. Carl Linstrum's family decides to leave as well, and Lou and Oscar pressure Alexandra to do the same as their neighbors and sell their land. Instead, Alexandra decides to mortgage the farm and buy more land as an investment.

Part 2

Sixteen years have passed, and Alexandra Bergson's family has become quite wealthy. Her land-buying scheme has worked, and she has divided up the property between herself and her two married brothers, Lou and Oscar. Emil Bergson returns from studying at university. Marie Tovesky, now Marie Shabata, has married Frank Shabata, and they've bought the Linstrums' old farm from Alexandra. Carl Linstrum stops by from New York City on his way to make his fortune in Alaska and stays for a few weeks with Alexandra. He sees Emil with Marie and suspects there are feelings between them but doesn't say anything. Alexandra falls out with Lou and Oscar because they tell her not to marry Carl whom they say is a freeloader trying to take what belongs to the family. Carl leaves for Alaska despite Alexandra's request for him to stay, and Emil heads to Mexico to try to get Marie Shabata out of his head.

Part 3

Since her fallout with her brothers, and with Emil and Carl Linstrum's departures, Alexandra is alone—and lonely—the following winter. A brief visit with Marie and a longer visit from Lou's mother-in-law, Mrs. Lee, are the only times Alexandra experiences companionship all winter. She feels tired and keeps having a recurring sensation of being carried by a strong figure over the plains.

Part 4

Emil returns from Mexico. His friend Amedee Chevalier has married a French girl named Angelique, and they have a newborn son. New romantic tensions arise between Emil and Marie, and they share a first kiss after a church supper. However, Marie refuses to run off with Emil. They decide that Emil must leave Nebraska for them both to be at peace. Emil decides to go study law in Omaha before he begins law school in Michigan. Amedee dies suddenly of a ruptured appendix, and the day after his death, Emil reaches a sort of heightened state of consciousness. He goes looking for Marie and finds her in a similar state lying under the white mulberry tree in her orchard. Frank Shabata, Marie's husband, comes home and gets his gun when he sees Emil's horse in the stable. In a blind rage, he shoots and kills both Emil and Marie.

Part 5

Alexandra Bergson is heartbroken and detached ever since her brother Emil and friend Marie have died. Early one morning, Alexandra walks three miles alone to sit at Emil's grave and gets caught in a heavy rainstorm. Meanwhile, Signa, who has been caring for Alexandra, alerts Ivar that Alexandra is missing. Ivar saddles Emil's mare and goes to the graveyard where he suspects she will be. He finds her there feeling heavy and tired. She climbs into the cart, and Ivar guides the horse back to Alexandra's farmhouse.

The next morning, Alexandra wakes up with a cold and spends the next several days in bed. She has her recurring dream about being tired but lifted up and carried over the fields by a strong male figure. She decides to take the train from Hanover to visit Frank Shabata in prison in Lincoln, Nebraska, to see if she can do anything to help him in his misery. After speaking with him at the prison, Alexandra feels even more confused and despondent. Back at her hotel, she receives a telegram from Carl Linstrum, asking her to come home immediately because he is there waiting for her. She returns to her farm and walks with Carl in the fields. They talk about what has happened, and Carl sheds a more sympathetic light on the situation between the two lovers. Alexandra and Carl decide to get married, and they go into the house.

O Pioneers! Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Alexandra Bergson's father dies, leaving her in charge.

Rising Action

2 The neighbors begin to leave the drought-stricken plains.

3 Alexandra decides to invest in more land.

4 Sixteen years later the family is wealthy.

5 Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata admit they love each other.

6 Emil's friend Amedee Chevalier dies from appendicitis.


7 Frank Shabata shoots Emil and Marie.

Falling Action

8 Alexandra goes to visit Frank in prison.


9 Carl Linstrum returns home and comforts Alexandra.

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