Friday, January 18, 2013

A Gun-Free Zone

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 3 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“You love God as much as the one you love the least.”
                    Father John Hugo
                    Weapons of the Spirit

Jessica Lange as Alexandra Bergson forgives her brother's murderer
in the 1992 Hallmark production of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

With my wife and daughter out for the night at a revival of Les Mis, I’m home alone thinking about forgiveness and redemption on the plains of Nebraska.

Just as the plot of Les Miserables pivots on an act of mercy, the final section of O Pioneers! hinges on an intentional act of deeply-felt forgiveness.  In Part V, Chapter II, our heroine Alexandra travels to the prison to see Frank Shabata, the man who murdered her brother Emil:

“Alexandra held out her hand. ‘Frank,’ she said, her eyes filling suddenly, ‘I hope you’ll let me be friendly with you.  I understand how you did it.  I don’t feel hard toward you…’ ”

Alexandra not only forgives Frank for the double murder of Emil and Maria (Frank’s wife) but pledges her continued efforts to get him pardoned.  “I’ll never give the Governor any peace,” she tells him.  “I know I can get you out of this place.”

As Frank is undeniably guilty of two murders and therefore serving a just sentence, this act of Alexandra’s is one of complete and unearned mercy.  It is a freely given gift.  In return, Alexandra’s own life is transformed.  While there’s no direct causal relation, the narrative clearly makes the link.  Since the murders, Alexandra has lost all sense of purpose, falling into a deep depression.  She forgives Frank, returns to her hotel, and receives a telegram that Carl Linstrum is returning to her.  She bursts into tears as her life recovers meaning.

Her act of mercy may save Frank’s life.  And it appears to save her own life, as well.

Leigh Lawson as Frank Shabata in O Pioneers! (1992).
Alexandra accepts Frank’s tortured description of the murder (a description which mirrors the more objective murder passage in Part III).  Frank blames the gun.  He says, “An’ I ain’t never hurt her (Maria).  I never would-a done dat, if I ain’t had dat gun along.  I don’ know what in hell make me take dat gun.  She always say I ain’t no man to carry gun…”

O Pioneers! is a deeply anti-gun book.  The book’s most sympathetic characters—Alexandra, Carl Linstrum, and Ivar—want nothing to do with guns.  In contrast, Alexandra’s unsympathetic brothers celebrate their guns, Alexandra’s brother Emil deeply offends Maria by shooting a bird for her, and Frank’s experience with a gun proves disastrous.  I think it’s pretty clear that Willa Cather stands with the mystical Ivar.  “No guns, no guns!” Ivar shouts in his first appearance in the book, threatening to send a wagon of visitors back if any of them are armed.  Ivar’s land is a gun-free zone.

Now I don’t believe in making real-life arguments from fiction.  I’m not going there.  I’m just simply pointing out that a hundred years ago, Willa Cather—a pure product of Virginia and Nebraska—eloquently expressed her belief that guns were at the root of much violence in this world.  She loved the pioneers and their wild prairie world, but not their guns.

An image of mercy:  Jessica Lange as Alexandra Bergson
in O Pioneers! (1992).

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather by Philip Gerber
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

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