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New West in America: On The Divide by Willa Cather

As Marilee Lindemann states, Nebraska’s first lady of letters, Willa Cather, was born in Virginia on December 7, 1873. Cather was the oldest of seven children and was the daughter of Charles Cather and Mary Cather. Although her family lived in Virginia for generations, her father decided to move to Red Cloud, Nebraska frontier, when Willa was nine years old. Her interest in Nebraska plains and the immigrants who lived there impacts her while writing stories. She develops an attitude towards the life in which she observes. Her curiosity for the lives of European and Scandinavian immigrants made an impact on her, both from the material and detailed aspects.

Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett

The short story "On the Divide" takes place in Nebraska’s plains, also known as Great Plain. The importance of the Great Plains had been increased in the early 1900s. These areas were seen as an extensive migration westward of families who came from the eastern states and wanted to settle down to build their own houses. As mentioned in "The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia,” until the 19th century, the central Great Plains were called "the Great American Desert." The first westward-bound pioneers bypassed the Great Plains." Particularly in the mid-19th century, immigrants from the eastern United States started to take the place of the Indians. The wide agricultural varieties in the West and the distance between the soil "encouraged" many families and single men to leave the West, which then led to a new lifestyle. The Plains were windy and mostly treeless. What was also characteristic of this were the coldest winters and the hottest summers.

The course of the story begins with the environmental descriptions of the Shanty, which is the place where the story’s protagonist, Canute, lived. Canute Canuteson is a mountain man who has been living in Great Plains for more than ten years. Due to the conditions of his residence, he doesn’t have any social life or friends. The only friend for Canute is alcohol which he consumes only at night. He has skillful abilities that he used to build his house and decorate it. The cruelness of the plains and a feeling of loneliness caused that suicide or unnatural behaviors are so common in the Great Plains. As Cather mentions in the story: ‘’It causes no great sensation there when a Dane is found swinging to his windmill tower, and most of the Poles after they have become too careless and discouraged to shave keep their razors to cut their throats with.’’ In addition, Canute tries to hold on to his life and tries to keep his mentality, however, Plain’s inhabitants still had a lot of prejudice about him due to his size and actions.

One day, Ole Yensen and his family moved near Canute cottage and his ultimate loneliness and wretched stories disintegrate with the presence of Yensen’s family. Rather than other residents in Plain, Yensen’s don’t act in a bad way, and they accepted to spend time with Canute without any trepidation. As Cather states in the story, ‘’This is because Ole Yensen was too drunk to be afraid of anyone, and his wife Mary was too garrulous to be afraid of anyone who listened to her talk. Lena, their pretty daughter, was also not afraid of a man nor a devil.’’ With this intimacy, the girls who lived in Plain started to talk about Lena and Canute. They said that one day Canute and Lena will be married and that Lena will have to deal with a giant, daunting mountain man. Even if sometimes Lena and Canute go to the church together, they generally don’t speak. Also, Lena insistently makes bad jokes and scoffs against Canute.

Moving Further Westward' by James Henry Beard

Finally, Lena finds a job in the town and is mesmerized by its beauty. She strolls around with her head held high due to the other men's interest and starts to scorn Canute more. This condemnation and Lena's actions make Canute more discontented about himself. Although Lena’s mother warns her about the way she acts, Lena claims that she would not marry Canute until she gets old and has an unworthy appearance. Canute witnesses this conversation and an instinct whip him immediately. As Cather mentions: "His life had been one long lethargy of solitude and alcohol, but now he was awakening, and it was as when the dumb stagnant heat of summer breaks out into thunder."

Suddenly, Canute tells Ole that he will marry Lena by tonight and wants his permission. Even if Ole opposes this decision, Canute is not listening and takes Lena by force. Canute hid her in a shawl and carried her out of the house. He brought her to his shanty. Canute takes Preacher by force too. Even though the climate conditions are so harsh to take a ride in Canute's shanty and although the Preacher doesn't want to marry Lena to Canute, he is obliged to do his job because of the Canute's oppression towards him. Even though Lena flutters against the power of Canute, she accepts the situation, and she gradually stops resisting. When she is afraid of a voiceless house, she calls Canute, who offers Lena to bring her mother or father. Lena rejects this offer and whispers to Canute: "I’d rather have you." As soon as Lena tells her lucid wish, she couldn’t hear any response from Canute. When she opens the outside door she found him, "stretched in the snow at her feet, his face in his hands, sobbing on the doorstep."

Additionally, Canute is a man who prefers solitude in an area where enclosed with "few stunted cottonwoods and elms." He isolated himself from society on purpose because he is not sure how to make a connection with people or how to express himself. For that reason, he consumes alcohol to escape loneliness. For him, alcohol is like a weapon against his reality. Spending a lot of time by himself, made him more distant from the people. Even if his body is enormous and he has a power that most people don’t have, in an emotional way he is so sensitive. Most of the inhabitants loathe him because his behavior is too intense and inexplicable. However, his appearance impacts people's thoughts about him as well.

Nebraska Plains

Nevertheless, the barrenness of areas turns Canute into madness and a rude personality. He never experiences the things that give people happiness or pleasure and the only thing he enjoys is consuming alcohol. Canute prefers to ignore the existence of people and rather than become a friend, chooses to alienate himself. Due to his mysteriousness, people make up stories about him which only adds up to alienation. The reason behind Lena's acceptance is that she always keeps a belief about her idle singleness, which will result in the marriage of Canute. She knows the only person who resists her ultimate requires or wishes will be Canute. Even if she never accepts her interest in Canute, she admits that she will be married to him someday. She takes him for granted and derogates his attitude towards her. She considers Canute an unworthy person, which is why she is torn with imagination about marrying a wealthy man from a town. In the new residential area like West Plains, the reason for insanity and suicide can be the infinite plains and the absence of civilization. There are no places for socialization and where people can forget loneliness. The only thing the inhabitants can do is husbandry and woodcutting, farming, etc. During the nineteenth century, Great Plains became more eligible to dwell.

To sum up, Great Plains could become very intense for the people who are not used to this type of climate, atmosphere, or environment. These people were forced to adapt to the new West where everything was changing constantly. Cather wants to give an image to the readers about America’s prairie lands and stories of the American pioneers who bear to live in parched lands of the West and who experience alienation while trying to enter life.

The Nebraska plains gave Willa Cather the stuff of epics


Lindemann, Marilee, ''Willa Cather Queering America'', Columbia University Press, 1999

''Willa Cather Biography'', Notablebiographiescom, 20 October 2021,

Robinson, Elwyn B, ''Great Plains'', Britannica,20 October 2021,

Cather Willa, ''On the Divide'', Americanliteraturecom, 18 October 2021,

Image Resources

''Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett'' [Portrait], Wikimedia,

''Nebraska Plains'' [Photography], Coloradoedu,

''Willa Cather'' [Photography], Newyorker, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries,


Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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