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Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" as a response to Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"

Cynthia A Schneider, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In The Pittsburgh Leader column "Books and Magazines" July 8, 1899, young Willa Cather posted her negative critique of Chopin's The Awakening. Cather accuses Chopin's Edna of belonging to a "forever clamoring" class of women "that demands more romance out of life than God put into it," and asserts the hope that "next time...Miss Chopin will devote that flexible iridescent style of hers to a better cause" (170). Cather published O Pioneers! in 1913, a novel containing so many similarities to The Awakening that surely Cather meant it as a response. Cather's Marie pushes accepted female social boundaries just as Chopin's Edna. Likewise, Cather's character Emil mirrors Chopin's Robert; both pursue married women, travel to Mexico to escape the impending affair, and return to women who subsequently die violently. Edna drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico; Marie suffers fatal gunshot wounds. ^ Chopin produces a nuanced portrait of how, as articulated by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, men link women's sexuality, inseparably, to their economic function, and so create the major cause of women's oppression. Mirroring Chopin, Cather illustrates with her women characters' experiences; in Alexandra we see a woman who subverts the male-dominated system, making a living as a man would. She considers in her novel, as does Chopin in hers, how the male power structure bars independent women from finding a well-rounded life. While Cather indeed writes situations in which such women like Marie fail to survive, she also shows that even though Alexandra survives and thrives economically, she does so at great emotional expense; given of the deaths of people she loves. Neither Chopin nor Cather creates a viable situation for an independent woman. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Comparative|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Schneider, Cynthia A, "Willa Cather's "O Pioneers!" as a response to Kate Chopin's "The Awakening"" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3201780.