‘Performativity’ and ‘Agency’ in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and My Antonia: A Butlerian Study

Document Type : Original Article


English Language and Literature, Human Sciences, Islamic Azad University, Qom Branch, Qom, Iran.



Being a regional author, Cather creates her fiction replete with immigrant female characters who struggle to resist the patriarchal power and dominant discourse of their society. The present study attempts to explore Judith Butler’s concepts of performativity and Agency in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918). The article firstly tries to analyze and explore the performative trait of the protagonists in the novels, and then scrutinize the procedure of agency construction of the characters based on Butler’s theory of performativity. In this regard, the article discusses how Alexandra, the protagonist of O Pioneers!, undoes the patriarchal system of property ownership through standing against her brothers, and Mr. Shimerda’s daughter in My Antonia challenges the stereotypical pattern of women doing all household chores and child-rearing. Both novels present their female protagonists as characters who are mentally and physically strong and non-subservient to men after the loss of their fathers. They ignore the norms and subvert the discourse by building a gender of their own. Judith Butler argues that the concept of agency is indeed an extension of performativity, for, before anything, an act must be performed by an agent, and then that act is performative as long as it is done repeatedly. In addition, Butler contends that agency is what a subject makes out of him/herself and makes every effort to stand against the discourse, power, conventions, and norms of society. For Butler, someone becomes an agent when he/she acts differently, and in an unusual way.