Commentary On O Pioneers Essay, Research Paper
In its first sentence, the novel establishes the kind of symbolism it will use: “The little town of Hanover was trying not to be blown away,” the narration opens, personifying the impersonal by positioning the town to stand for its inhabitants. As the incarnated spirit of the settlers, Hanover struggles to stay anchored in the prairie wind. Much of the novel’s opening section, titled “The Wild Land,” dedicates itself to a description, and more importantly, to a characterization, of the land, setting personified forces and entities into conflict with each other.
The force of nature is so powerful that it can overwhelm the efforts of settlers. In this newly-settled country, “the record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.” The mark of man upon the land becomes indistinguishable from the marks of nature’s own processes. The dying John Bergson remarks that this is a land hostile to cultivation: “Its Genius was unfriendly to man.” Similarly, Carl Linstrum believes that “the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”
Carl’s musing seems as much a description of himself as of the Nebraska prairie. The land has its own character, but it also reflects the emotions and personalities of the people who interact with it: the dying John Bergson calls the land “unfriendly to man”; and the melancholy Carl believes that the land “wanted to be left alone.” Similarly, when Alexandra becomes upset that Carl is leaving the Divide, she looks out over the prairie and sees a country “empty and mournful.” In the light of her epiphany, however, Alexandra sees the land as “beautiful and rich and strong and glorious.” By the force of her will, she is able to tame the same spirit of the land that her father considered malevolent, making it “ben[d] lower than it ever bent to a human will before.” In conquering the land, she reshapes her perception of it.
Alexandra’s revelation at the end of the opening section brings her into a new relation to the land. It is possible to consider this abrupt and dramatic conviction regarding the land’s beauty and potential as a somewhat clumsy mechanism to advance the plot. That this revelation lacks explanation, like Marie’s final reverie and Emil’s musical epiphany later in the novel, points to the fact that O Pioneers! does not delve much into its characters’ psyches. Rather, the novel’s structure consists of various forces placed in opposition to one another, and its core constitutes an exploration of the struggles between these forces, most notably in the measuring of Alexandra’s individual agency against the impersonal historical forces that shaped the West. By focusing on the interplay between spirit and circumstance, O Pioneers! proves itself, to some extent, a romantic novel: characters do not develop according to an interior plan, but rather respond to, and are driven by, forces beyond their control. Only after she is shaped by the inexplicable, ecstatic visions of the prairie does Alexandra resolve to transform the land.