O Pioneers!

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Ducks and Wild Birds Symbol Analysis

Ducks and Wild Birds Symbol Icon
The symbol of wild birds appears subtly in the novel, but it recurs at key points. The characters first discuss the shooting of wild birds when the Bergsons and Carl Linstrum go to buy a hammock from Ivar. Lou and Oscar want to hunt the ducks, but Ivar, who understands that there is something fundamentally free and joyful about their wildness, is against it. Later, when Marie and Emil are by the pond, Emil shoots several ducks, and Marie becomes upset, also realizing that the ducks are too free to be killed for recreation, though it’s their very wildness that endangers them, makes them feel that they will not truly be hurt. This same sort of wildness exists in Emil and Marie. They are young, reckless, and until Frank shoots them through the hedges, they don’t believe that they can truly be harmed. On another level, it is when their love takes flight—as the birds do—that they are shot down and killed. Emil and Alexandra’s awe of the wild duck in the river also represents the respect a good pioneer must have for the land. Even as they try to shape and cultivate the land, they must maintain respect and love.

Ducks and Wild Birds Quotes in O Pioneers!

The O Pioneers! quotes below all refer to the symbol of Ducks and Wild Birds. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Power of the Land Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of O Pioneers! published in 1994.
Part 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson
Related Symbols: Land, Ducks and Wild Birds
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexandra has decided to mortgage the homestead in order to buy more land in the area, and has explained her plan to Lou and Oscar, who are resistant to it. Eventually, however, Oscar confesses that he knows she is right, and this passage describes the quiet sense of triumph Alexandra feels afterward. In this moment, the country takes on a new meaning for Alexandra; she has devised her own plan for how to benefit from the land in a way that maintains her harmonious, respectful relationship to nature.

Indeed, the idea that Alexandra is "at one" with nature is confirmed by the description that "she felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover." Unlike other pioneers, who envision conquering, taming, and industrializing the land as their eventual goal, Alexandra perceives the future as "stirring" within the natural landscape. 

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Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

“Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

Related Characters: Carl Linstrum (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ducks and Wild Birds
Page Number: 80-81
Explanation and Analysis:

Having arrived unexpectedly at Alexandra's house after many years away, Carl has asked after Emil, Oscar, and Lou. Alexandra has admitted that she rarely sees Oscar and Lou now that they have their own farms, and Carl confesses that he liked the brothers better in the old days, adding that he even nostalgically misses the old country. Alexandra agrees, and Carl observes that "there are only two or three human stories," comparing these stories to the cyclical repetition of the birds and the natural landscape. This passage highlights the similarity between Carl and Alexandra. Both work hard for the future, yet are inescapably bound to the past and to nature. 

This passage can also be interpreted as a self-conscious statement about the novel itself. Based on Carl's observation, O Pioneers! is less a story about a specific, unique set of characters, but rather a narrative shared by many people across different times and places. Indeed, this idea is reflected in the themes of the novel, which speak less to a particular historical reality than to the fundamental nature of the human condition. This emphasis on universalism arguably serves to highlight the similarities between immigrants to the U.S., who––despite coming from different cultural, religious, and class backgrounds––experience similar challenges in the New World. 

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Ducks and Wild Birds Symbol Timeline in O Pioneers!

The timeline below shows where the symbol Ducks and Wild Birds appears in O Pioneers!. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 3
Power of the Land Theme Icon
...and Oscar express regret that they did not bring their guns to hunt the wild birds. (full context)
Power of the Land Theme Icon
...like to show the big pond to Emil. Ivar grins and describes some of the birds that have stopped by his pond, including one sea gull that strayed far from the... (full context)
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Pioneering and Immigration Theme Icon
Emil, having lost his fear, asks Ivar about birds, while Alexandra selects a hammock. After she finishes choosing the hammock and speaking about other... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 4
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
...homesickness, and they’ve both liked the same things together, like hunting for Christmas trees and ducks. Carl promises to write to her for as long as he lives. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 4
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
...three human stories that go on repeating themselves like the same five notes of a lark, over thousands of years. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 5
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
...alone. Below him, Emil and Marie advance cautiously towards the pond, hoping to hunt some ducks. When Emil manages to shoot a few, however, Marie’s face crumples. She says that Ivar’s... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 6
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...she was a child. She recalls a time when he drew a lot of little birds and flowers for her when her uncle left her at the store. Carl smiles and... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 2
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
...time when the two of them picnicked by a river and saw a solitary wild duck swimming and diving in the water. Both Alexandra and Emil remembered the duck for how... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 3
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
...Mexico and that he will soon be settled in life. Emil suddenly brings up the duck that he and Alexandra once saw in the river. Alexandra says that she often thinks... (full context)
Part 4, Chapter 5
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
Marie wanders to the pond where Emil once shot the wild ducks, and it occurs to her that there is a dirty way out of this life.... (full context)
Part 5, Chapter 3
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
Carl describes the day he saw Emil and Marie hunting ducks by the pond, and how he felt they were young and charming and full of... (full context)