Asexy Pioneer: Asexuality Versus Eroticism in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

Nathan Erro


At the end of Willa Cather’s 1913 frontier novel O Pioneers!, the heroine Alexandra Bergson forgives Frank Shabata for the double murder of her younger brother, Emil, and Frank’s wife, Marie. Further, Alexandra expresses sympathy for Frank when she states: “I haven’t come here to blame you, Frank … I think they were more to blame than you” (190). Yet, Alexandra’s reaction to Frank’s crime seems to oppose the established relationships within the text. Cather offers clear textual proof that indicates Alexandra’s strong dislike for Frank, her love for Emil and her esteem for Marie.[1] Alexandra’s forgiveness of Frank is counterintuitive to the reader’s understanding of her attitude toward Frank, Emil and Marie. Since her forgiveness does not stem from sentiments resulting from the dynamic between the four of them, her forgiveness is thus problematic and in need of explanation. However, as this paper describes, the embrace of Alexandra’s character by feminist theorists is equally problematic. As such, I will deconstruct a number of feminist approaches to Cather’s novel in an effort to identify what type of feminist heroine Alexandra exemplifies. I will discuss how a number of character interactions illuminate Alexandra’s status as an asexual woman and elucidate her ability to divert blame away from Frank (who is without doubt guilty of murder). Characters necessary to this purpose include Alexandra’s brothers, Lou, Oscar and Emil, her friend and future husband, Carl, and their mutual friends, Frank and his wife Marie. I will argue that Alexandra’s forgiveness can be explained by her asexual nature in conjunction with the idea developed in the novel that sexual desire is equated with death.

Despite being the central question of Cather’s text, the problem of forgiveness has received little, if any, consideration from critics. In the latter half of the twentieth century, feminist critics pointed to Cather’s strong, central women and caused a resurgence in Cather’s work. In “Creative Fertility and the National Romance in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia,” Mary Paniccia Carden states that the reason why feminists champion these works is that Cather

confronts and challenges gender-specific narratives of the nation along with complexities she faced as an unconventional woman at a time when tangible anxiety about the male supremacy that had served to explain the nation to itself was attended by slippage in traditional male/female power relations. (278)

Characters such as Alexandra represent this slippage in tradition and are indicative of a shift in cultural consciousness in the early twentieth century, one that will soon give way to women's suffrage. In the novel, Alexandra is left as the head of her family after her father’s death, a role that requires her to oversee not only the farm but her three brothers, Emil, Lou and Oscar, as well. In the harshness of the Divide, her farm thrives due to her savvy pioneering intellect while the male-owned farms around hers fail. In this way, Alexandra’s character serves to challenge male supremacy in the economic and public sphere, an attribute which Second-Wave feminist critics can easily endorse. In her article, “Third-Wave Feminism and the Need to Reweave the Nature/Culture Duality,” Colleen Mack-Canty explains that Second-Wave Feminism “challenge[s] women’s exclusion from the public world of politics and economics,” which inadvertently establishes an essentialist us-versus-them binary that reduces womanhood to the singular identity of contesting the conventions of the male public sphere (154). Throughout the novel, Alexandra remains a strong, independent woman – defiant of gender roles – and succeeds in the conventionally male role of pioneer. Maire Mullins argues that this creation of a female pioneer is Cather’s singular focus in the text. According to Mullins, Cather’s “emphasis was on the story of a female pioneer and her enduring relationship not to a man, not to her children or family, but to the land” (124). For feminist critics, Alexandra provides a means by which to insert a strong female character into a conventionally male role in the literary canon.

Warren Motley’s critique of Alexandra in “The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman’s Success” makes a more direct assertion that Alexandra “presents herself and thinks of herself as sexually ineligible” because “patriarchal society repays Alexandra’s trespass by isolating her and thus injuring her ability to express her emotions and her sexuality” (157, 149). Motley argues that readers turn to Cather’s early heroines, such as Alexandra, when searching for strong, independent women in literature, especially those that embody the conventionally masculine, “mythic founding of frontier communities” (149). However, in upholding Alexandra as a hero, Motley believes that readers ignore the psychic toll she pays for her success in the masculine public sphere, which leaves her “psychologically deadened” (149). Motley’s argument rests on the notion that in order to be successful as a man in a man’s realm some part of Alexandra’s femininity must suffer. In other words, leaving the private sphere of women and entering the public (political and economic) sphere of men acts as a transgression against the gender boundaries established by a patriarchal society. Thus, for her to succeed, Alexandra must suffer in some way: “her success depends on intelligence and power – power wrested from its male dominion only by Alexandra’s suppression of her sexuality” (150). As a woman, she simply cannot be successful in a realm dominated by men. 

Critics have difficulty reconciling Alexandra’s feminine sexuality with the male role she has adopted. While praising her “rapturous, loving attentiveness especially to the land,” Mullins defines Alexandra’s love as both “spiritual” and curiously “erotic,” thereby identifying a sexual desire that lacks a human target (126). Carden echoes this notion that Alexandra’s love of the land problematizes her sexuality: “Having invested traditionally valued feminine energies of empathy, sensitivity, and loving service in the soil, Alexandra misrecognizes heterosexual desire and its consequences” (284). In “‘The Thing Not Named’: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer,” Sharon O’Brien argues that Cather “possesse[s] a lesbian ‘sense of self’” that motivates her “to explore a woman’s passion for another woman” in a number of her fictional works by using select male characters as a “mask” (579, 593). However, when it comes to O Pioneers!, “the relationship between heterosexual cover story/lesbian subtext becomes more complicated .... The heterosexual cover story is not then invariably the false one, the lesbian subtext the real; rather, authorial intention and meaning may oscillate between the two and thus be indeterminate” (O’Brien 597). Clearly, because of Alexandra’s problematic and complex sexuality, her role as a feminist symbol is more complex than the essentialist view of a female in opposition to normative sexual conventions.

To ensure success as a pioneer, Alexandra denies her own sexuality by sublimating her sexual desires onto her work on the farm. This lack of any explicit sexuality within Alexandra gives credence to Motley’s argument of sexual repression which states that this denial works as a sort of blindness on her part: “Blindness serves Alexandra’s purpose; it keeps at bay the turbulent emotions surrounding the repression of her own sexuality” (156). Motley’s reading rests heavily on the conventional notion of what it means to be not just a woman but a person with inherent sexual desires; as a sexual creature, a woman must express her sexuality in one way or another. If this sexuality is not expressed, its absence must be explained either by repression, sublimation or in some other way. Alexandra’s sexual lack reveals that she turns a blind eye to her weakening psyche and sexual self. The blindness that Motley speaks of manifests in Alexandra’s sublimation of her emotional and sexual energy into her work, an act that ensures her success as a pioneer. Yet, the argument that Alexandra’s sexual desires are sublimated, an argument shared by Mullins and Carden, proves problematic. Alexandra’s lack of any real sexual desire challenges the collective cultural conception of the self. This challenge, according to Hermione Lee in Willa Cather: Double Lives, is troubling for critics because Alexandra “creates a narrative difficulty which will always be acute: how to attach a heterosexual emotional life to a character whose strength comes from her transcendence of usual sexual roles?” (111). The key here is that this narrative difficulty only exists if critics assume sexual desire is innate in Alexandra. Using this assumption, conceptions of Alexandra’s sexuality can only be created in a reverse logarithmic fashion by first assuming that her innate human sexual desire is present and then seeking out evidence within the text that will invariably support this claim. An argument created in this way may be based on false assumptions. The possibility that Alexandra possesses no sexual desire, now termed asexual, solves not only the assumptive narrative difficulty, but also the central question of the text: How can Alexandra forgive Frank Shabata for the double murder of Emil and Marie?

Asexuality is ­­­­­­­­­an essential concept to the analysis of Alexandra. Nicole Prause and Cynthia A. Graham of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction clarify that “low sexual desire is the primary feature predicting asexual identity” (341). Feminist criticism at times uses the term asexuality in the sense of a neutered, androgynous, sexless self. This use of the term poses an ambiguous position across the male/female gender binary: a flux state of being. Asexuality in this paper follows the usage of Prause and Graham and exists on a spectrum, ranging between no sexual desire (Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, found in the Diagnosis and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-IV]), and excessive, destructive sexual desire (Excessive Sexual Desire, found in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems [ICD-10]). The medical and psychiatric communities traditionally associate these two ends of the spectrum as potentially disruptive and cause for medical and/or psychiatric intervention. However, the research of Prause and Graham acknowledges that “asexuality raises questions concerning the role of ‘personal distress’ in defining sexual desire problems ... Currently, evidence does not suggest that cognitions and behaviors associated with asexuality necessarily signal a problem”(341-42). Thus, the discussion of asexuality mirrors that of the initial discourse on homosexuality as a prevalent type of sexuality that struggles to remove itself from medical and psychiatric coding in order to become recognized as natural sexual behaviour. Ironically, like homosexuality before it, classifying asexuality within the DSM-IV serves to regulate it to the realm of mental and/or medical disorder and, more importantly, to authenticate its existence.

A sampling of responses from self-identified asexuals interviewed by Prause and Graham elucidates the identity: “I just really have no desire to go and have sex with someone. It’s just the furthest thing from my mind. It seems to me to be boring”;“I would say I’ve never in my life had a dream or a fantasy, a sexual fantasy, for example, about being with another woman ... But I’ve never had a dream or a sexual fantasy about having sex with a man, either. That I can ever, ever remember”; “I can’t attach pleasure together with it somehow. Was it physically pleasurable?  I don’t know. I just can’t find the words” (345). These statements echo the characterization of Alexandra in O Pioneers!. The opening description of Alexandra states that “she wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young solider)” (Cather5). In her article, “Sexy from the Start: Anticipatory Elements of Second Wave Feminism,” Jennifer Scanlon refers to early “feminists in the 1960s and 1970s [who] wore flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots” (129). While not all feminists wore such male-specific clothing, this reference to Second-Wave feminist attire is reminiscent of Alexandra’s manly coat. This sense of cross-dressing and gender-bending not only foreshadows Alexandra’s willingness to step into shoes conventionally considered as belonging to men, but also hints at what is queer or abnormal about her – her potential to be asexual. By presenting herself in defiance of conventional female attire, attire maintained by the construct of the gender binary, Alexandra establishes her opposition to being a sexual object for men. When Alxandra removes her bonnet and a stunned man nearby exclaims “‘My God, girl, what a head of hair!’[,] ... She stabbed him with a glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip – most unnecessary severity” (Cather6). This rebuke quickly establishes her unavailability to be gawked at and sexually objectified. That her reproachful response to flirtation and any sort of sexual advance exists prior to the death of her father, prior to being thrust into the male public sphere, points not to a sexually psychic cost – stemming from of her success in that male realm – but to an innate quality she already possesses.

After her father’s death, further examples of her asexuality only serve to flesh out this character trait. Several characters marry, including her brothers, Oscar and Lou, and her character foil, Marie. Marriage bustles and thrives about Alexandra; she even finds it difficult to retain the Swedish girls she hires to work on the farm, for as she tells Marie, “I am going to send for an old woman next. As soon as I get the girls broken in, I marry them off” (Cather146). Despite these developments, “Alexandra herself has changed very little ... she still wears her hair in two braids wound round her head. It is so curly that fiery ends escape from the braids and make her head look like one of the big double sunflowers that fringe her vegetable garden” (Cather56-57). Her mind, described as a metaphorical book, is one of “clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things” (Cather130). The land draws her in, and though the work wearies her, she finds sublime comfort in the growth that springs forth from her toil. Alexandra is the sole character who remains unmarried with no hint that she will marry anytime soon. This contrast to the marriages about her underscores her deviance from cultural norms, including her lack of sexual desire. Alexandra derives pleasure in different ways and is completely content with being different. She feels “her mind was a white book ... Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as workfellows” (Cather130). This lack of romance and outright sexuality would lead to an uninteresting read for many but not for her. She is not frustrated that she has never been in love nor that she only considers men as fellow workers. She understands that she is different in this way, and thus only a select few –  the happy few  – can derive any sort of pleasure from who she truly is.

The notion by critics, such as Carden, Mullins, and Motley, that Alexandra’s sexual desires must exist and is, therefore, identifiable points to the structuralist versus post-structuralist divide between Second-Wave and Third-Wave Feminism. Proponents of the Second-Wave Feminist Theory critique contemporary women’s clothing, which they “considered [to be] an element of women’s punishment rather than their pleasure, their oppression rather than liberation,” as sexually objectifying and, in doing so, denied such clothing from their ideal female feminist identity, creating a restrictive feminist identity (Scanlon 130). Conversely, proponents of the Third-Wave seek to break down the notion of a singular, coherent female identity by allowing for seemingly inconceivable feminine attributes, such as sexuality, to be characteristic of feminists. This post-structuralist shift embraces diversity, fractured identities and varied conceptions of the self. Although the separate movements of the Third-Wave differ greatly in many respects, Mack-Canty states that, on the whole, Third-Wave Feminism “works to begin from the situated and embodied perspectives of different(ing) women” by rejecting an essentialist view of what it means to be a woman (155).[2] Conversely, the Second-Wave fears, as Rebecca Walker says in To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism, that if a woman diverges from conventional ideals of feminism, i.e., if she “wants to be treated ‘like a lady,’ prioritizes racial oppression over gender oppression, … still speaks to the father that abused her, gets married, wants to raise three kids on a farm in Montana, etc., [then] she can’t be a feminist” (xxxii). This exclusion is based on the notion of an essential woman as defined by the feminists champions of the Second-Wave faction and considered to be embodied by Alexandra in O Pioneers!. The inclusive nature and wide embrace of Third-Wave feminists separates them from the school of thought upheld by Second-Wave feminists who, according to Mack-Canty, “assume a universalization of their experiences as ‘women’s’ experience … [wherein] the notion of a unified subject is implicit” (157-158). Mack-Canty notes that this universalization, this notion of a unified female subject, derives from “the tenets of modernism with its notion of a unified subject” (158). Second-Wave feminists positioned this unified female subject against the male public sphere; thus, a character such as Alexandra, whose business savvy makes her more successful than the majority of the men around her, becomes very useful as a representative of the Second-Wave.

In “Feminism’s Queer Theory,” Annamarie Jagose identifies this moment when the essentialist woman of the Second-Wave fractures to form a new identity within the branch of Third-Wave feminism, saying, “in its 1980s iterations, this feminist work was organized as a critique of essentialism, of the notion that there was an isolable specificity to the business of being a woman” (160). Just as postmodern criticism challenges and deconstructs notions of unity and essentialism, so too does, as Jagose states,

contemporary feminist theory continu[e] to negotiate the grounds of its own representational project, with one scholar [M.G. Dietz] suggesting that ‘the essential problem and idée fixe of feminist theory remains, to date, the problem of epistemic identification – locating or dislocating the subject, fixing or deconstructing the category “women”, discerning or dismantling the meaning of the feminist “we”, and theorizing or displacing “identities”’ (Dietz, 2003: 414). (160)

The Third-Wave thus branches into multiple discourses currently undergoing theoretical development, such as generational/youth feminism, postcolonial feminism and ecofeminism.  This process, Mack-Canty argues, allows “feminism to deal more adequately with the complex and myriad issues we face today” (156). As an example of these complex issues, Alexandra’s existence as an asexual acts as yet another cultural deconstruction, that of the conception of what it means to be a woman. The existence of asexuality challenges the notion that sexual desires are fundamental to human existence and sheds new light on once considered flawed characters, such as Alexandra. No longer does her lack of sexuality and sexual desire hinder her character; she’s simply asexual.

A close reading analysis exposes not only the male imposition of control upon Alexandra’s sexual identity, but also the misconceptions that can arise from the assumption that Alexandra’s sexuality is inherently present. The return of Carl Linstrum, Alexandra’s childhood friend and confidant, prompts concern from Alexandra’s brothers. The following exchange is demonstrative that Lou and Oscar do not hold the returned Carl with much esteem: “Lou shrugged his shoulders. ‘He doesn't seem to have done much for himself.  Wandering around this way!’ ... Oscar spoke solemnly, as from the depths of a cavern, ‘He never was much of account’” (Cather 72). Motley notes that “only when Alexandra shows herself a woman sexually, are [Lou and Oscar] emboldened to interfere. They take their promptings from a society in which a woman’s sexuality, however modestly displayed, betokens her subservience to men” (154). Motley argues as well that “dependent upon his sister’s maternal care, Emil too has an interest in controlling her sexuality” (155). In these assertions, Motley fails to separate companionship from sexual relations/desires. The existence of asexuality offers a tool to disentangle the connotations of sexuality; in other words, sexual desire does not equate with desire for companionship, as one can lack sexual desire yet still want a companion or romance. Essentialist Second-Wave feminist criticism reads into the thoughts of the brothers to assert that, because Alexandra brings a man – a friend –  into her house, there must be some sexual implication: evidence of her repressed or sublimated sexual desires. Third-Wave feminism embraces the reality that a woman, or man, can bring in a companion of the opposite sex, or same sex, without suspicion wrapped in sexual implications. The existence of asexuality challenges convention since an asexual can lack sexual desire yet still desire companionship.

O Pioneers!equates youth with sensuality and eroticism and old with companionship and asexuality by clearly establishing Emil and Marie as young lovers with Alexandra and Carl as old friends. When Carl comes upon Emil and Marie shooting ducks – a foreshadowing of their own deaths – “it made him, somehow, unreasonably mournful to find two young things abroad in the pasture in the early morning” (Cather 81). He finds their wild youth unsettling. Just after this scene, Alexandra decides to take Carl back to visit his old place and calls him “my old friend” (Cather 82). Alexandra and Carl are continually presented as friends, whereas Emil and Marie are never referred to as such. Emil and Marie’s relationship bristles with eroticismand sensuality, and jealousy frequently comes up. When Emil playfully takes his friend Amedee’s new bride in his arms and boasts that he can have her and that Amedee will do nothing about it, it is “not until he saw Marie Shabata’s tiger eyes flashing from the gloom of the basement doorway did he hand the disheveled bride over to her husband” (Cather 101). Likewise, thoughts of jealousy often overcome him when he reflects on Marie’s marriage to Frank:

Why had she ever run away with Frank Shabata ... ? Why did she like so many people, and why had she seemed pleased when all the French and Bohemian boys, and the priest himself, crowded around her candy stand? Why did she care about any one (sic) but him? ... whether he was on the floor or brooding in a corner, he was always thinking about Marie Shabata. For two years the storm  had been gathering in him. (Cather 112)

While the relationship of Emil and Marie is sexually charged and combustible, Alexandra and Carl often find comfort in each other during moments of silence and reflection. Alexandra and Carl qualify their relationship as friendly: they do not consider themselves lovers and are not overcome by bouts of jealousy or erotic thoughts. In an early scene, Emil plays with Marie’s hair, which  establishes a fondness between Emil and Marie based on touch and sensuality. Contrast this with the first moments Alexandra and Carl share in the novel where “Carl did not say anything, but she felt his sympathy” in regards to her dying father (Cather 7). The need for companionship between the two of them begins with the acknowledgement that “He, too, was lonely” (Cather 7). They remain calm and often silent in each other’s presence, whereas Emil and Marie are emotional and vibrant, requiring touch to convey their love to each other.

Alexandra and Carl’s relationship is asexual; Emil and Marie’s is erotic. O Pioneers! juxtaposes these two relationships in dramatic ways. From the very beginning, Marie serves as a foil to Alexandra. Alexandra rebukes the stare of a nearby man; whereas, the opening depicts Marie as basking in the attention of “her lusty admirers” (Cather 9). From a young age, Marie makes “no fussy objections” to being the object of male attention, whereas Alexandra is greatly opposed to any sexual objectification (Cather 8). Thus, the relationships of Marie and Emil are functionally different from that of Alexandra and Carl – one young and sexual, the other old and asexual – to the extent that Alexandra cannot even discuss her relationship with Marie for “an instinct told her that about such things she and Marie would not understand one another” (Cather 120). Conversely, when Marie dwells on  Alexandra and Carl’s relationship, she asks Emil, “’Does she really care about him? When she used to tell me about him, I always wondered whether she wasn’t a little in love with him,’” to which Emil responds, “‘Who, Alexandra?’  Emil laughed and thrust his hands in his trousers pockets.  ‘Alexandra’s never been in love, you crazy!’ He laughed again. ‘She wouldn’t know how to go about it. The idea!’” (Cather 96). Marie has difficulty making sense of Alexandra’s sentiments toward Carl, while Emil does not even consider there to be any deep connection between them at all. Emil defines love by what he feels for Marie – the jealousy, the never-ending thoughts, the erotic feelings – and he does not see that same vibrancy and bristling sexuality between Alexandra and Carl. On the basis of this absence, Emil determines that there is no love between Alexandra and Carl, let alone any other kind of relationship other than friendship. Emil cannot conceive of love existing in any form that differs from his own experience.

In her article, “What Does Sexual Orientation Orient?  A Biobehavioral Model Distinguishing Romantic Love and Sexual Desire,” Lisa M. Diamond states that “the evolved processes underlying sexual desire and affectional bonding are functionally independent. As a result, one can ‘fall in love’ without experiencing sexual desire” (173). Diamond explains that although sexual desire and affectional bonding can and often do occur together, the processes that underlie them developed via different evolutionary means: sexual

desire is governed by the sexual mating system, the goal of which is sexual union for the purpose of reproduction. Romantic love, however, is governed by the attachment or pair-bonding system ... the goal of which is the maintenance of an enduring association between two individuals. (174)

Specifically, pair-bonding arose because “highly dependent offspring [such as humans and other primates] were far more likely to survive if they had the care of both parents in the early years of life” (Diamond 174). Research by Diamond points to a split between sexual desire and companionship, and thus, the companionship Alexandra creates with Carl can exist separate from any implied or perceived notions of sexual desire. Alexandra’s own words evidence this focus on companionship on the very last page of the book. After Carl and Alexandra decide to wed, she says, “I think we shall be very happy. I haven’t any fears. I think when friends marry, they are safe. We don’t suffer like—those young ones” (Cather 199, italics mine). The young ones she speaks of are of course Emil and Marie, two lovers whose affair results in their deaths at the hands of Marie’s enraged husband, Frank. Alexandra’s final speech thus contrasts and separates clearly the asexual companionship she experiences with Carl from the sexually charged relationship of Emil and Marie.

The vitality and youthfulness of Emil and Marie highlights the bristling sexuality between them. When Alexandra reintroduces Carl to Marie, he reflects on her eyes, thinking that “they seemed like the sparks from a forge. She seemed so easily excited, to kindle with a fierce little flame if one but breathed upon her” (Cather 85). Throughout this scene, Marie prances and dances about, moving in a startlingly contrasting manner to Alexandra and Carl. Alexandra characterizes her as being “like a brown little rabbit,” and Carl says, “What a charming creature ... I don’t wonder that her husband is jealous. But can’t she walk? Does she always run?” (Cather 84, 86). As a foil, Alexandra comes off as calm and controlled. In Part III, “Winter Memories,” Alexandra remarks upon pinching Marie’s cheek: “You don’t look as if the weather ever froze you up. Never have colds, do you? That’s a good girl. She had dark red cheeks like this when she was a little girl” (Cather 122). In her youthfulness, Marie possesses a kinetic fire that even the winter cannot quench; it contrasts Alexandra who “has settled back into her old routine” as the cold sets in (Cather 119). As a young, vibrant and sensual creature, Marie is unsettled by Alexandra’s odd content, for “there was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain” (Cather 144, italics mine). Thus, the novel simultaneously conflates youth with eroticism and eroticism with pain; by the novel’s end, this pain turns to death.

The sexual tension between Emil and Marie hits a high point after the auction of the Saint-Agnes fair: “To-night, when she met his steady, powerful eyes, it was impossible not to feel the sweetness of the dream he was dreaming; it reached her before she could shut it out, and hid itself in her heart” (Cather 142). No other scene so clearly separates the relationships of Alexandra and Carl from that of Emil and Marie. This scene oozes sensuality and culminates with tangible eroticism in the first kiss between Emil and Marie: 

Marie started up, – directly into Emil’s arms. In the same instant she felt his lips. The veil that had hung uncertainly between them for so long was dissolved. Before she knew what she was doing, she had committed herself to that kiss ... Not until it was over did she realize what it meant. And Emil, who had so often imagined the shock of this first kiss, was surprised at its gentleness and naturalness. It was like a sigh which they had breathed together. (143)

The physical closeness that began when Emil was just a young boy twirling Marie’s hair about his finger reaches this point of no return. Their combustible sexual selves finally comes in contact; that vibrancy and emotion that always existed between them has now lit the match of the erotic. As previously established, O Pioneers! conflates sexuality with pain; thus, to push sexuality to its erotic climax is to push pain to its literal climax as well – death. Emil’s reaction at the news of Amedee’s death elucidates this conflation while foreshadowing Emil’s own death shortly after. He feels on the verge of a precipice, a “height of excitement from which everything is foreshortened, from which life seems short and simple, death very near, and the soul seems to soar like an eagle” (Cather 165). It is this height of excitement that he wishes to share with Marie. Rather than bringing grief, Amedee’s death brings a sort of ecstasy. Death becomes the ultimate climax, the pinnacle of youth and eroticism in the novel. As Emil passes Amedee’s grave, he is not afraid since “ecstasy has no fear of death” (Cather 166). Instead, he finds it beautiful and realizes “the heart, when it is too much alive, aches for that brown earth” (Cather 166). Filled with life, passion and desire, he seeks to push that eroticism to its limit despite the repercussions. He does not fear death as long as it comes about through ecstasy. 

Sexual climax as the little death, a common literary trope which likens orgasm to figurative death, becomes the literal death of Emil and Marie in O Pioneers!. When Emil finds Marie, he watches as “her breast rose and fell faintly, as if she were asleep” (Cather 167). A true climax to their sexual desires is to come true, for as Emil sets himself down next to her and takes hold of her, “the blood came back to her cheeks, her amber eyes opened slowly, and in them Emil saw his own face and the orchard and the sun. ‘I was dreaming this,’ she whispered, hiding her face against him, ‘don’t take my dream away!’” (Cather 167). Emil wakes her from her dream only to manifest her fantasy in reality. She pleads for him to satisfy her sexual desire, which he does because he does not fear the death that will result from their erotic climax. Frank finds the lovers embracing in the orchard and shoots them, sealing their fate. Once shot, Marie drags “herself back to Emil’s body. Once there, she seem[s] not to [struggle] any more. She had lift[s] her head to her lover’s breast, take[s] his hand in both her own, and [bleeds] quietly to death” (Cather 174). Marie’s death is described as dream-like – “her eyes were lightly closed, as if in a day-dream or light slumber” – a description that serves to unite her previous erotic experience with her death (Cather 174). The narration immediately shifts focus from the dead Marie and Emil to “two white butterflies ... fluttering in and out among the interlacing shadows” (Cather 174). The shadows of the butterflies are a metaphor for the darkness of the eternal sleep of death; the butterflies flutter lively on the edge of death, symbolizing the actions of Emil and Marie. Further, “in the long grass by the fence the last wild roses of the year opened their pink hearts to die”; this image links the youthful sexuality of rose petals blooming to the inevitability of death (Cather 174).

With this association between sex and death, culpability can easily be transferred from the murderer onto the two lovers. The deaths are described as apocalyptic by the auxiliary characters: “‘it has fallen! Sin and death for the young ones! God have mercy upon us!’” (Cather 175). The love of Emil and Marie is too young, too destructive – full of erotic passion but lacking wisdom and reason. Theirs is a love not only counterintuitive to Alexandra, but also counterproductive to the life she wishes to bring to the Divide. The erotic relationship of Emil and Marie never disentangles from death just as Alexandra’s asexuality never disentangles from life, the life of the flourishing fields she brings to the once arid dirt of the Divide. The characters and the narration do not separate the sin of adulterous sex from the sin of murder, making only ambiguous references to “the terrible thing that had happened in Frank Shabata’s orchard” (Cather 179, italics mine). When Alexandra tries to explain the murder to Carl, she finds that “she [is] not a woman who [can] write much about such a thing,” yet the thing – sex or murder – is never clarified (Cather 185). Hence, sex and death are equated by all characters, and thus, the guilt of this death is not solely imposed on Frank since this guilt is dispersed across all those who participated in both crimes – death and sex. In this way, Alexandra can divert most of the blame away from Frank since he is only one of three guilty parties as evidenced by her statement that “They [Emil and Marie] were more to blame than you [Frank]” (Cather 189). Since eroticism means death in O Pioneers!, Emil and Marie caused their own deaths by having a sexual relationship.

In contrast to Emil and Marie, the relationship of Alexandra and Carl ends much differently. Since the novel indicates that the climax of eroticism, such as Emil and Marie’s, is synonymous with death, a non-erotic, asexual relationship thus implies continued life. Alexandra reflects that she is, “in a manner, immune from evil tidings” like those that befell Emil and Marie because the love between her and Carl stems from friendship not eroticism (Cather 193). By contrasting the endings of the two different relationships, O Pioneers! highlights that, while Emil and Marie’s relationship ultimately might be more interesting, the asexual relationship of Alexandra and Carl survives in the end. O Pioneers! is Alexandra’s story; it is a story of seeing nothing and at once seeing the life that can be, that will be with a steady hand and time; it is a story of slow growth. It is not a story of life burning too bright, too violently, too quick. Asexuality forces us to rewrite our conception/definition of what it means to be human. Third-Wave Feminism, with its focus on the multiplicity of female identities, thus must embrace asexual feminism – female identities lacking sexual desire. Research supports the existence of asexuality, the implications of which are great. The existence of asexuality challenges the conventions of sexuality by disentangling companionship and romantic love from sexual desire and erotic passion. An asexual reading allows her to retain those qualities that the Second-Wave feminists embraced, her ability to succeed in the public sphere where even men have failed, without the notion that she is psychically or emotionally deadened because of a lack of sexual desire. That lack of sexual desire – what I have argued to be her asexuality – allows her to survive at the end; whereas, the opposite (eroticism) results in the deaths of her brother and friend. Thus, there exists no better literary pioneer for the Third-Wave feminists as well as proponents of asexuality than Alexandra.


Works Cited


Carden, Mary Paniccia. “Creative Fertility and the National Romance in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia.” Modern Fiction Studies. 45.2 (1999): 275-302. Print.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. New York: Bantom Books, 1989. Print.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000. Print.

Diamond, Lisa M. “ What Does Sexual Orientation Orient? A Biobehavioral Model Distinguishing Romantic Love and Sexual Desire.” Psychological Review. 110.1  (2003): 173-193. Print.

Dietz, M.G. “Current Controversies in Feminist Theory.” Annual Review of Political Studies. 6 (2003): 399-431. Print.

Jagose, Annamarie. “Feminism’s Queer Theory.” Feminism and Psychology. 19.2 (2009): 157-174. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Vintage Books USA, 1991. Print.

Mack-Canty, Colleen. “Third-Wave Feminism and the Need to Reweave the Nature/Culture Duality.” NWSA Journal. 16.3 (2004): 154-179. Print.

Motley, Warren. “The Unfinished Self: Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and the Psychic Cost of a Woman’s Success.” Women’s Studies. 12.2 (1986): 149-166. Print.

Mullins, Maire. “‘I Bequeath Myself to the Dirt to Grow from the Grass I Love’: The Whitman-Cather Connection in O Pioneers!” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. 20.1 (2001): 123-136. Print.

O’Brien, Sharon. “‘The Thing Not Named’: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer.” Signs. 9.4 (1984): 576-599. Print.

Prause, Nicole, and Cynthia A. Graham. “Asexuality: Classification and Characterization.” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 36 (2007): 341-356. Print.

Scanlon, Jennifer. “Sexy from the Start: Anticipatory Elements of Second Wave Feminism.” Women’s Studies 38 (2009): 127-150. Print.

Walker, Rebecca. To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print.

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Nathan Erro is a graduate student in English Literature at California State University-Stanislaus. His interests include asexuality, existential literature, Shakespeare and deconstruction.



[1] Frank is described as “jealous,” “sulking,” “he could eat everybody alive” (Cather 76); Alexandra sacrifices for Emil: “He is to have a chance, a whole chance, that’s what I’ve worked for” (Cather 74); Marie is characterized as a “charming creature,” “one I can talk to quite frankly” (Cather 86, 82).

[2] Scanlon notes that different movements within the Third-Wave seek to reclaim provocative and sexy clothing, claiming it as empowering rather than exploitative, while they continue to champion gender equality.


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