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O Pioneers! | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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O Pioneers! | Symbols


Wild Ducks

Cather uses all types of wild birds throughout the novel to support the themes of love, friendship, and impermanence. Ivar is against the killing of animals, particularly wild birds. In the first scene with Ivar, he sits in his house reading a passage from his Bible that includes the line "Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house." Shortly afterward, he runs out to meet Alexandra Bergson's party shouting, "No guns!" Ivar sees the wild birds as something sacred, something to be protected, and because he does so, he has a strong connection with nature. It is telling that Lou Bergson and Oscar Bergson, and even Emil Bergson, do not share this view, and they make fun of Ivar for it.

Later, in the scene where Carl Linstrum sees Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata walking early in the morning, wild ducks fly up from the pond, and Emil shoots them. Marie becomes distraught and bursts into tears, saying, "You can tell just how they felt when they flew up. They were scared, but they didn't really think anything could hurt them." This idea is symbolic of the arc of Marie Shabata and Emil Bergson's relationship, their youth, their wildness, their love, and their eventual deaths. Their love is like the wild birds that take flight, and they are shot down by Frank Shabata in the midst of believing nothing can really harm them.

The other major instance of the symbolic wild duck happens between Emil Bergson and Alexandra Bergson. Alexandra has a memory of watching a wild duck with Emil when they were younger, and she thinks, "No living thing had ever seemed ... as beautiful as that wild duck." This is one of Alexandra's most precious memories and is deeply connected to her love for her brother. Later it turns out that Emil, too, remembers this moment and keeps it dear. For both siblings, this unchanging wild duck represents the love between them, which they both treasure.

The White Mulberry Tree

The white mulberry tree has two primary significances in the story. First, it is likely a reference to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a Greek myth first told in writing by Ovid (Roman poet 43 BCE–17 CE)—and possibly the basis for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet—that tells the story of two doomed lovers. The lovers arrange to meet under a mulberry tree, but Thisbe is frightened off by a lioness. When Pyramus arrives, he assumes the lioness has killed Thisbe and so commits suicide. Thisbe comes back and, upon finding her lover dead, kills herself as well. In this story, the fruit of the mulberry tree is white and becomes red from the blood of the dead lovers. The development of Emil Bergson and Marie Shabata's story in relation to the mulberry tree is similar. Their love is realized underneath the white mulberry tree, and it is where they are both killed by Frank, staining some of the white berries with their blood. Thus, the mulberry tree is both an allusion to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and a symbol of their innocence and their forbidden love.

Also, the white mulberry is not indigenous to the Nebraska plains but was brought there by settlers. The native American mulberry is actually a red mulberry. Since most of the settlers of the Nebraska plains were immigrants to America from various parts of Europe, the mulberry tree also becomes a symbol of transplanting from someone's native place to a new land. Just like the mulberry tree, the immigrants thrive and put down roots in their new soil.


Weight, in the sense of both heaviness and lightness, is an important symbol in O Pioneers! Alexandra Bergson often feels heavy and weighed down by her responsibilities or the events happening in her life. When this happens, she sometimes has a vision of being picked up and carried over the fields, meaning someone otherworldy takes up her burdens, and she becomes light.

Emil Bergson feels weighed down by his love for Marie Shabata, which cannot be realized. However, after the confirmation ceremony and Amedee Chevalier's funeral, Emil feels suddenly as though his "soul seems to soar like an eagle." His soul becomes like that of the wild birds, he is unaware of his mortality, and he is suddenly lightweight and unburdened. This act of becoming lighter seems to be connected with both love and death.

In one way, the lightness is caused by a feeling of loving and being loved, as though being carried by a lover. In another way, the lightness comes from a laying down of earthly burdens that are part of passing to the next world. Alexandra often has her burdens taken up by a strong, godlike figure as though she is having a vision of being carried to the next world. However, it is Carl Linstrum who actually helps take some of the weight off her heavy loneliness. For Emil, when he becomes light in the realization of love, he is actually soaring toward death.

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