O Pioneers!

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Pioneering and Immigration 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.
Pioneering and Immigration Theme Icon

In a most basic summary of the book, one could say that O Pioneers describes the difficulties of homestead life. It’s a book about inhabiting a land that resists habitation. Loneliness permeates the community, thanks to the distances that separate neighbors, the language barriers between immigrants of different countries, and the often-extreme weather.

As immigrants, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Bergson struggle with the harshness of the New World, as they pine for what they left behind. Mr. Bergson’s early death represents how easily the harsh New World crushes the Old World when the characters don’t make adjustments to the land, and Mrs. Bergson’s constant comparisons between life in Nebraska and life in Norway prevent her from ever finding happiness in Nebraska. As pioneers, the characters live difficult lives in an attempt to pave the way for generations to come. Their way of life depends on persistence and the delay of gratification. Those who do give in to temptation are punished, and the ones who succeed, like Alexandra, give away the best years of their lives to the land.

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Pioneering and Immigration Quotes in O Pioneers!

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

But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes.

Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Emil, a 5-year-old Swedish boy, has been fretting over his kitten, who has climbed up a telegraph pole. His older sister Alexandra has fetched her friend Carl, who has rescued the kitten. After playing with his friend Marie, then Emil rides away in a wagon along with Alexandra and Carl. The narrator describes the landscape in this part of Nebraska; the homesteads are few and far apart, and although it is only four o'clock in the afternoon, it is already getting dark. In this passage, the narrator emphasizes the power of "the land itself," which dwarfs human attempts to dominate it. 

Early on in the book, the relationship between the characters and the environment in which they live is established as a power struggle that humans are ill-equipped to win. In comparison to the vast expanse of the land, the "little beginnings of human society" are weak and fragile. The mood of this struggle is melancholy, illustrated by the phrase "its somber wastes." In the novel, the experiences of pioneers are not romanticized, but shown to be harsh, lonely, and often tragic. 


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…he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.

Related Characters: John Bergson
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl, Alexandra, and Emil are riding away from the town as dusk spreads over the landscape. The narrator has described the sombre gazes of both Carl and Alexandra––yet while Alexandra looks to the future, Carl seems fixated on the past. In this passage, the narrator explains how Carl has been embittered by his experience of struggling with the land. He has now come to believe that "the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength." This observation confirms the difficult position of the pioneers, whose task it is to control and exploit the land for their own benefit, yet who are faced with the resistance of the land itself. 

Note that this is one of many instances in the novel when the narrator anthropomorphizes the land, suggesting that it not only has human qualities but even a kind of consciousness, with its own emotions and desires. One could interpret this view of the land as the result of the intense loneliness and isolation of pioneer life; because human interaction was rare, the landscape began to take on human characteristics. 

On the other hand, it is also possible to interpret this anthropomorphization as a kind of haunting presence of the Native Americans who lived on the land before the arrival of the pioneers. Due to genocide and forced "removal," many Native American populations had been eradicated or displaced from their original homelands. Although there is little mention of Native Americans in O Pioneers!, passages like this perhaps indicate the haunting legacy of their resistance, and the pioneers' role as unwelcome invaders.

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. 

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

The conversation at the table was all in English. Oscar’s wife, from the malaria district of Missouri, was ashamed of marrying a foreigner, and his boys do not understand a word of Swedish. Annie and Lou sometimes speak Swedish at home, but Annie is almost as much afraid of being “caught” at it as ever her mother was of being caught barefoot.

Related Characters: Lou Bergson, Oscar Bergson, Annie Lee
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Oscar and Lou have come to Alexandra's house for dinner. Alexandra has ensured that her house is elegantly furnished for her guests, although she personally prefers "plain things." Oscar, Lou, and their wives are tense and uncomfortable, and in this passage the narrator explains that the dinner conversation was in English, as the wives are embarrassed of speaking Swedish (and one doesn't even know the language). The fact that Oscar's sons "do not understand a word of Swedish" highlights how quickly all connection to the Old World can be lost. Meanwhile, the comparison between Annie's fear of being caught speaking Swedish and "being caught barefoot" emphasizes a symbolic connection between the English language and modern civilization, in contrast to the Swedish language, which––like Alexandra––is associated with an untamed, natural state of being (in the world of the novel, at least). 

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 8 Quotes

“The Bohemians, you know, were tree worshipers before the missionaries came. Father says the people in the mountains still do queer things, sometimes,--they believe that trees bring good or bad luck.”

Related Characters: Marie Shabata (speaker)
Related Symbols: Land, White Mulberry Tree
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a sunny day; Frank has gone to the saloon, and Marie has ventured into the orchard to pick cherries. There she encounters Emil, who she promises not to disturb her; however, she then proceeds to talk to him about the natural landscape and pagan spirituality. She has asked Emil about the religion of Swedes before Christianity. He isn't sure about it, and in this passage Marie explains that the Bohemians were "tree worshippers" before the arrival of Christian missionaries. Although Marie frames the Bohemian's pagan practices as "queer," it is obvious that she is fascinated by this way of life, and indeed, the pagan worship of nature coheres with the magical significance of the natural world within the novel. 

Like the "people in the mountains," the characters in the novel––particularly Alexandra––come to think of the land as having a will of its own. To some extent, the experience of migrating to the New World has prompted a temporal return back to a pre-Christian way of life. Marie's description of the Bohemians also brings to mind Native Americans, whose absence haunts the novel. Like Bohemian paganism, Native American religious practices bestow significance on trees and the natural world. Although they have been murdered and driven from the land the pioneers now occupy, their presence lingers through passages like this. 

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

“Hard on you? I never meant to be hard. Conditions were hard. Maybe I would never have been very soft, anyhow; but I certainly didn’t choose to be the kind of girl I was. If you take even a vine and cut it back again and again, it grows hard, like a tree.”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker), Lou Bergson, Oscar Bergson
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

With Carl and Emil away, Lou and Oscar have come to visit Alexandra. They protest about her relationship with Carl, claiming that she is giving the family a bad reputation. They complain that, as men, they should have controlled the land, not Alexandra. They also complain that Alexandra has been hard on them, to which she responds that this was because "conditions were hard," and that it is not in her nature to be "soft." Alexandra's words emphasize her absolute coherence with the landscape around her. Like the land itself, Alexandra can seem tough and stubborn; yet it is these qualities that have allowed her farm and family to flourish.

In comparison to their sister, Oscar and Lou appear whiny and childish. As this conversation suggests, they do not possess the stoic grit and mature temper required to successfully thrive in harsh surroundings. Indeed, Alexandra's description of the vine suggests that it is the difficulty of her life that has made her so hard and resilient. Like the vine, she has been "cut... back again and again," yet has responded by becoming stronger and tougher. To some extent, this also posits her as possessing more traditionally masculine virtues than her more sensitive, weak-willed brothers. 

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. 

Part 5, Chapter 3 Quotes

“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.