O Pioneers!

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Love and Relationships Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Power of the Land Theme Icon
Love and Relationships Theme Icon
Dignity of Work Theme Icon
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon
Pioneering and Immigration Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in O Pioneers!, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Love and Relationships Theme Icon

The relationships in the novel cover both romantic and familial love. Both types of love are complicated. While Alexandra has a chillier relationship with two of her brothers, Lou and Oscar—who resist both the land and Alexandra’s management because she is a woman—she genuinely cares for Emil, whom she dotes on from the beginning of the novel. Romantic love falls into two categories as well—there’s the reckless, passionate love between Emil and Marie, and the steadier, practical love of Carl and Alexandra. Marie and Emil’s violent end at the end of the book suggests that the life of a pioneer has no room for the selfishness and passion that accompany illicit love, however.

As immigrants and pioneers, the characters inhabit a world that is in no way designed for them, and they’re separated from their neighbors by vast expanses of land, language barriers, and harsh weather. As a result, loneliness permeates the book’s rural setting, and the characters struggle to maintain meaningful relationships with one another. Marie secretly pines for Emil, instead of her husband Frank, and when Frank discovers the two lovers, he fatally shoots them, simultaneously ending their relationship as well as his own free life. Alexandra must choose between her affection for Carl and her loyalty to her brothers, who are suspicious of an outsider marrying into the family. When Carl leaves to avoid trouble, he isolates both himself and Alexandra. The characters struggle through their platonic relationships as well; Alexandra, for example, has difficulty understanding her brother’s actions until Carl explains them to her. Her biggest flaw is a lack of empathy for other people; inversely, her biggest asset in the book is her relationship with the land, possibly suggesting that in order for pioneers to succeed, their relationship with the land must come first.

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Love and Relationships Quotes in O Pioneers!

Below you will find the important quotes in O Pioneers! related to the theme of Love and Relationships.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

John Bergson’s father had been a shipbuilder, a man of considerable force and of some fortune. Late in life he married a second time, a Stockholm woman of questionable character, much younger than he, who goaded him into every sort of extravagance. On the shipbuilder’s part, this marriage was an infatuation, the despairing folly of a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old. In a few years his unprincipled wife warped the probity of a lifetime.

Related Characters: John Bergson
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described the Bergson homestead and the patriarch of the family, John Bergson. John has struggled as a result of his Old World beliefs and has relied on the judgments of his daughter Alexandra, who has a much better understanding of the land. John has compared Alexandra to her grandfather, a man who was strong-willed yet mistakenly decided to marry a much younger second wife from Stockholm who "goaded him into every sort of extravagance." This story introduces the dangers posed by sexual desire and "infatuation," a major theme in the novel. Despite his "considerable force and... fortune," John's father was easily ruined by the temptation of a younger woman. By comparing Alexandra to her grandfather, John implicitly warns Alexandra not to make the same error. 

This passage also emphasizes the importance of not resisting natural forces, such as the passage of time. John's father's motivation for marrying the younger woman is characterized as "the despairing folly of a powerful man who cannot bear to grow old." Just as successful farming requires submitting to the natural "will" of the land, so too must people accept the inevitability of growing old, or else risk ruining their lives and fortunes. 


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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. 

“Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him…We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

Related Characters: Carl Linstrum (speaker), Alexandra Bergson
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

As Alexandra and Carl continue to discuss what's happened in the years since they last saw one another, Alexandra asks why Carl is so "dissatisfied." Although alarmed at Alexandra's bluntness, Carl confesses that he does not enjoy his work, and in this passage explains that the allure of "freedom" and life in the city is merely an illusion. Carl's experience highlights the paradox of the pioneers' relationship to the New World and modernity. Alexandra and the other pioneers work the land in pursuit of freedom, prosperity, and the chance to participate in the consumer-based urban lifestyle that Carl references when he describes "restaurants and concert halls." Indeed, this lifestyle is the end goal of many of the pioneers' struggle. 

However, in this passage Carl suggests that the communal existence of pioneers is fundamentally preferable to the life of a "free," individual, urban worker. Although the mythology of the American dream usually constructs freedom and individuality as being intertwined, Carl contradicts this, arguing that total freedom makes a person anonymous and indistinguishable from the masses. Individuals, he claims, are produced by communities where there are people who care about a person and know that person's history. This paradox is central to debates over modernity that continue in the present day. 

Part 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

“Maybe,” said Alexandra placidly; “but I’ve found that it sometimes pays to mend other people’s fences.”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker)
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl, Marie, and Alexandra have been catching up on all that has happened during their years apart. Later, as Carl and Alexandra are leaving, they run into Frank Shabata, who complains about his neighbor's hogs. In this passage, Alexandra responds to Frank's grumbling by calmly pointing out that "sometimes it pays" to help one's neighbors. Alexandra's even-tempered, generous spirit is a marked contrast to Frank's violent bitterness. At the same time, note that Alexandra frames neighborly compassion in a way that shows how it can lead to personal gain. Although Alexandra is far from selfish, she is extremely pragmatic, and her behavior is governed by the strategic self-interest necessary in order to survive and flourish as a pioneer. Frank, on the other hand, is sabotaged by his own selfish anger. 

Part 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

He and Amédée had ridden and wrestled and larked together since they were lads of twelve…It seemed strange that now he should have to hide the thing that Amédée was so proud of, that the feeling which gave one of them such happiness should bring the other such despair. It was like that when Alexandra tested her seed-corn in the spring, he mused. From two ears that had grown side by side, the grains of one shot up joyfully into the light, projecting themselves into the future, and the grains from the other lay still in the earth and rotted, and nobody knew why.

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Amédée Chevalier
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl and Emil have gone to a Catholic fair in the French country; here, they have encountered Emil's best friend, Amédée, who is newly married. Amédée is very happy, and has advised Emil to marry as well, but Emil has responded that he has no one to marry. However, a few moments later he catches Marie's eye as she looks on with jealousy (when he is teasing Amédée's wife flirtatiously). In this passage, Emil reflects on the divergence between himself and Amédée. Although as boys they were inseparable, there is now a stark difference between them––Amédée is happily and proudly married, whereas Emil must keep his love for Marie a secret and cannot marry her.

Emil's comparison of his and Amédée's friendship to the two ears of corn once again highlights the significance of nature as a parallel to the social lives of the characters in the novel. Like the workings of nature, human relationships are mysterious and unpredictable. Although the image of the rotting corn is deeply sad, Emil's analogy suggests he has accepted the fact that his tragic romantic fate is beyond his control. Like plants in the natural world, not all people are able to thrive and "project themselves into the future." Some are left behind and suffer, for reasons that we will never know. 

Part 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

“I have a feeling that if you go away, you will not come back. Something will happen to one of us, or to both. People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find. What I have is yours, if you care enough about me to take it.”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker), Carl Linstrum
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

Having learned of Lou and Oscar's anger about his relationship with Alexandra, Carl resolves to leave Alexandra's farm. He has told Alexandra that he will try to find "something to offer" Alexandra––implying that he will strive to earn money. Hearing this, however, Alexandra protests that there is no point in offering people things they don't need, and in this passage she asks Carl not to leave. Alexandra's words reflect her solemn, serious view of life. Even as she suggests marrying Carl, she frames this in terms of the ultimate harshness of life, saying "it is always easier to lose than to find." Although this attitude may appear pessimistic, it allows Alexandra to pursue long-term, sustainable happiness, rather than acting according to her own whims or those of other people. 

Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Alexandra had never heard Marie speak so frankly about her husband before, and she felt that it was wiser not to encourage her. No good, she reasoned, ever came from talking about such things…

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson, Marie Shabata, Frank Shabata
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

Marie has invited Alexandra and Mrs. Lee over to her house while Frank is out. Here, Marie admits to Alexandra that the night before she had been crying from loneliness, and later tells Alexandra that she thinks Frank should have married a different woman, one who was more devoted to him. Alexandra is surprised by this comment and worries that no good "ever came from talking about such things." Although Alexandra is less worried about propriety and reputation than other characters (such as her brothers), she has a strong aversion to the dangers of passionate emotions.

Alexandra's maturity and pragmatism allow her to sense that "no good" will come of Marie's expression of regret (and, by extension, her love for Emil). To Alexandra, it is better to stoically endure misfortunes one cannot change than to speak too openly about them. As it turns out, of course, Alexandra's intuition on this matter is tragically correct (although also not very romantic or personally fulfilling). 

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

If Alexandra had had much imagination she might have guessed what was going on in Marie’s mind, and she would have seen long before what was going on in Emil’s. But that, as Emil himself had more than once reflected, was Alexandra’s blind side, and her life had not been of the kind to sharpen her vision. Her training had all been toward the end of making her proficient in what she had undertaken to do. Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields.

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Marie Shabata
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

After the visit to Marie's house, Alexandra has seen her less and less, as Marie has become more withdrawn and religious. In this passage, the narrator reflects that if Alexandra had more "imagination," she would have been able to guess that Marie and Emil were in love. However, this kind of social intuition is Alexandra's weak point. She understands how to thrive as a successful farmer, but her own "personal life" remains a mystery to her––"like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there." By comparing Alexandra to a river, the narrator again emphasizes her unusual similarity to the natural landscape. With little interest in or understanding of social life, Alexandra's consciousness resembles the impassivity of the land to human affairs. 

While there are many ways in which Alexandra's harmony with the land allows her to thrive, this passage illustrates that it also hinders her. Her poor understanding of the interior lives of those around her prevents her from acknowledging the suffering of Emil and Marie, and from doing anything to alter their tragic fate. 

Sometimes, as she lay thus luxuriously idle, her eyes closed, she used to have an illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him.

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has continued to describe Alexandra's interior life and relationship to the land, commenting that she has not had the usual emotional experiences that come with falling in love and indulging in "sentimental reveries." The harsh challenges of her life are reflected in her personality, which is serious and practical. However, in this passage, the narrator mentions that Alexandra would occasionally dream about being "lifted up bodily and carried lightly" by an anonymous man, whom she imagines resembles the natural world––"yellow like the sunlight" and smelling of "ripe cornfields."

This passage provides a new depth to Alexandra's character, suggesting that she may be more similar to "ordinary" people than we might expect. However, the details of her romantic dream also confirm her exceptional personality and relationship to the world. Indeed, one could interpret this passage as suggesting that Alexandra's dream is about the land itself. After a difficult, "serious" life working hard as a farmer, Alexandra fantasizes about being carried and cared for in the same way as she has always done for others and for nature. 

Part 5, Chapter 3 Quotes

“You belong to the land, “ Carl murmured, “as you have always said. Now more than ever.”

Related Characters: Carl Linstrum (speaker), Alexandra Bergson
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexandra and Carl have been discussing what happened to Emil and Marie, and Carl has gently advised Alexandra not to be too harsh toward them, as the evidence suggests that they tried to resist their feelings. Alexandra has told Carl that she would like to come with him to Alaska, but that after she will return to the land; Carl agrees that Alexandra belongs to the land "now more than ever." This comment shows that Alexandra's bond to the land is strengthened by the drama and tragedy of life, rather than being weakened by it. Unlike human affairs, the land is constant; its purpose and value is unchanging and eternal. Alexandra's closeness to the land thus allows her to endure the unpredictable, difficult, and often tragic course of life.  

“The land belongs to the future, Carl; that’s the way it seems to me. How many of the names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker), Carl Linstrum
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexandra has told Carl that she will come with him to Alaska, but that afterward she will return to her farm, where they both agree she belongs. Alexandra suddenly expresses concern about leaving the land to Oscar and Lou's children. In this passage, she explains that "the people who love and understand [the land] are the people who own it," a fact that means Oscar and Lou and their descendants could never truly own the land. Alexandra's words emphasize the transient, fragile nature of human existence in comparison to the enduring power of the natural world. For this reason, the idea of people owning the land is somewhat absurd, especially if those people do not have the proper respect and understanding for the land.

On the other hand, Alexandra herself must accept that the future of the land and its owners is ultimately beyond her control. Note that her thoughts represent a perversion of the usual narrative around pioneering and immigration. Although Alexandra states that "the land belongs to the future," she does not mean that it will be used in a way to make future generations more prosperous––rather, the land will exist even when human individuals do not.