Saturday, June 25, 2011

O Pioneers! and Wuthering Heights ---

What does Willa Cather’s O Pioneers – a novel about a struggling Swedish homesteading family in Nebraska – have in common with Emily Bronte’s classic story of a haunting and tragic love affair on the moors of Britain -- the windswept Wuthering Heights? Well, both stories deal with unhappy marriages, with impetuous and emotional people, and with the passing of time. Both stories deal with the history of personal tragedies, and both invite the reader to step back and take a good, hard look at his own life.

O Pioneers! tells us the story of the sweet, independent and wise Alexandra Bergson who transforms her family’s farm into a profitable business after her father’s death, despite opposition from her less intelligent brothers, Lou and Oscar. Alexandra has a close relationship with a neighbor boy, Carl Lindstrum, who is introduced to us at the outset of the novel as a slightly hardened but kind fifteen-year-old boy. He becomes estranged from Alexandra when his family moves away, and she doesn’t see him again until he is a grown man of thirty-five. He has always felt inferior to her, and so he is unwilling to marry her. Alexandra’s dream is to create a happy life for her youngest brother Emil, a full fifteen years her junior. She hopes to send him to college and see him make a great man of himself. When he returns from college, he is slightly indolent and does not fully appreciate the sacrifices his sister has made on his behalf. He entangles himself in an affair with a vivacious and unhappily married Bohemian girl, Marie Shabata. Marie’s jealous husband catches them together and shoots both of them to death in a blind rage. Alexandra realizes that she should have seen the tragedy coming and is devastated. In her time of weakness, Carl comes rushing home to see her and finally they are married.

Wuthering Heights tells us of the capricious and jealous Catherine Earnshaw and her relationship with her foster-brother, a gypsy foundling named Heathcliff. Perhaps the most memorable portions of the book are those detailing the childhood shared by Cathy and Heathcliff. A former family servant tells how the two passionate and unruly childen were unrestrained and left to their own devices. Upon the death of their parents, the children fall into to the care of their older brother Hindley, a selfish man who is envious of Heathcliff. He treats the younger boy badly, depriving him of the privileges he had enjoyed under Cathy’s father and reducing him to a position of servanthood. Heathcliff, always of a passionate nature, becomes bitter and this bitterness is increased to a vengefulness when Cathy chooses to marry his rival Edgar Linton. She doesn’t really love Edgar, but says it would “degrade” her to marry Heathcliff. Heathcliff hears a part of her statement and his pride is severely wounded. He runs away and does not return for three years, during which time he acquires a small fortune. The new Heathcliff re-enters the story only for the purpose of vengeance. He swindles and abuses Cathy’s relatives, including her brother Hindley and her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton. As book wears on, we see the horrific results of his tormented passions, and those of Cathy, who grows increasingly selfish and eventually dies unhappy and frustrated.

I think it is likely that the authors of these books want us to look at the lives of their characters as a whole. This is why the stories are told from so far back. Probably Bronte and Cather were hoping that we would step back and look from a distance at their word paintings to see the design. Both of these books seek to show the importance of childhood in the shaping of character. The authors are telling us that children become adults regardless, with adult problems and adult temptations, but that they do not ever really grow up unless there is someone there to grow them up. We see how Cathy, Heathcliff, Marie and Emil’s lethal passions could have been mastered by better training and more time with deliberate adults. Both books also strongly emphasize the power of childhood relationships with the opposite sex. Cather and Bronte try to tell us that when a girl and a boy are best friends as children, they have a homegrown love that goes deeper than a fascination with an attractive stranger. Alexandra and Carl do come together in the end. They wait for a long time. But they are married, and we are happy and gratified when the thing finally comes about. Cathy is more selfish and impatient than Alexandra. She does not want to wait, and she is flattered by Edgar Linton’s attentions. She spurns Heathcliff as a lover, even though she acknowledges that he knows her better than anyone else ever will. Cathy and Heathcliff are forever tormented by her decision and their bitterness causes them not only to ruin their own lives, but the lives of others.

And yet, both Bronte and Cather seem to suggest that a mistake such as Cathy’s should not be considered a fatal one, and that it is crucial for those people involved to choose to get over it. In both novels, we see how the lovers’ unwillingness to move on proved to be destructive, and did not alleviate their regrets. The bleak and unlovely lives that are the results of Cathy and Marie’s refusal to accept their own choices are contrasted starkly with the beautifully normal and simple lives of others around them. Cather adresses the issue of a contented, simple life when Carl returns home to see Alexandra for the first time since he was an adolescent. He has been wandering the country for awhile, trying to make ends meet as an artist, just doing his own thing. He tells her this has not made him happy. “Freedom so often means one isn’t needed anywhere,” he says to her. While Wuthering Heights and O Pioneers! certainly hold their own as mere stories, their chief merits lie in their ability to warn and caution the reader through the mistakes of their characters.

Seize The Day!



Wings over Earth said...

Hmmm, a good grasp of two great classics!

You have a way with words, and 'seeing' human nature.

Cather excels at writing the most beautiful portraits of humanity and nature in a way that takes your breath away. There is great sadness and suffering in O, Pioneers!, but the sense of hopefulness about the future that these pioneers bring with them to America, and the bravery they possess, leaves the impression not of despair, but of the tenacity of the human spirit and our ability to overcome the most debilitating of obstacles, enduring despite it all.

Emily Bronte was paid a pittance for what was to later become one of the finest pieces to be written in the English language in Wuthering Heights . In fact many critics thought that the book had been written by her brother Branwell since no woman from such a secluded and conservative background could be credited with writing a story so full of passion as 'Wuthering Heights'. However she did not get discouraged by all this and decided to continue writing but she contracted Tuberculosis in 1848 and her health declined very rapidly. Within the short period of two months she died, at the young age of thirty. But her literary work of art still remains today and is read and enjoyed by a great multitude even today.

Thanks for sharing.


Alexandra Marie said...

Love your blog! Following <3 alex