O Pioneers!

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Power of the Land 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.
Power of the Land Theme Icon

The novel portrays the Nebraskan prairie wilderness, describing it as a powerful expanse where settlers felt themselves “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.” As Cather famously said, the land is the real hero of O Pioneers, making the real story one about its transformation from wilderness to civilization and its relationship with the characters who try to push this transformation. Lou, Oscar, and their father, for example, all struggle against the land, attempting to treat the soil like other soil they’ve known, something they can own and control. They tire themselves out without making real progress. Alexandra, on the other hand, succeeds where others have failed because she submits to the land, understanding that she must work with it in order to bring out its riches. When Alexandra has built up her farm, it appears almost to be part of the outdoors: “There was something individual about the great farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail.... You feel that, properly, Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best.” Alexandra makes the realization that she belongs to the land and not vice versa.

Alexandra further expresses at one point that she has no personality “apart from the soil,” to which Carl replies, “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…. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.” Carl’s point is that Alexandra’s connection to the land is what provides her with a unique identity—as opposed to the rootless traveling workers who remain anonymous wherever they go. At the same time, it is Alexandra's goal to allow Emil to go to college and law school and establish an identity separate from the soil. But Emil, too, feels rootless and is unable to resist his attraction to Marie, perhaps suggesting that the effort to separate oneself from the land is inherently destructive.

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Power of the Land Quotes in O Pioneers!

Below you will find the important quotes in O Pioneers! related to the theme of Power of the Land.
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 4 Quotes

“We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself…”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker), Carl Linstrum
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After years of absence, Carl has arrived at Alexandra's house. Alexandra observes that he hasn't changed much in the years that have passed, and as they stroll together in the garden Carl asks how Alexandra managed to become so successful. Alexandra responds that "the land did it," once again anthropomorphizing (giving human qualities or identity to) the land by describing its formerly harsh, unyielding nature as a "little joke." This passage shows how intimately Alexandra feels connected to the land; her relationship with it is akin to a relationship with another person. Her words also confirm the idea that the land is hostile to people who do not treat it with the proper understanding and respect. Alexandra's respect for the land is shown by the fact that she credits the land itself for what others would see as her success. 

“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. 

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 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 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 1 Quotes

The hedgerows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

Winter has returned to the prairie, and the ground is completely frozen over. In this passage the narrator describes the total desolation of the land, which is so stark that it is hard to imagine that anything will ever grow there again. This passage emphasizes the harsh character of the land––even when farmed successfully, winter still renders it bleak and barren, and there is never any guarantee that life will grow again. Indeed, the seasonal cycle is similar to the shifts in happiness and fortune in the lives of the characters. The novel is filled with suffering and tragedy as well as success, love, and joy, and both good and bad experiences inevitably end, giving way to their opposite. Like the land, however, the dominant mood is one of "rigor and melancholy." 

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil.

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson
Related Symbols: Land
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has described Alexandra's ignorance of Emil and Marie's love, and commented that Alexandra's interior consciousness is concealed and mysterious to her. On the other hand, the narrator adds, Alexandra does have a strength of personality that has allowed her to thrive as a pioneer. In this passage, the narrator mentions that Alexandra remembers some days of her life as particularly happy, "days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her." This passage confirms Alexandra's absolute unity with the land; indeed, her joy originates in her ability to feel at one with the landscape and personally implicated in its fertility. 

In this way, Alexandra takes on a peculiarly invested, almost maternal role in relation to the land. Her farming work allows her to lose her sense of self in the land, and this is what makes her happy. Rather than seeking personal, individual success, Alexandra simply wants to become united with nature. 

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.