O Pioneers!

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Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation 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.
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Theme Icon

In many ways, O Pioneers serves as a cautionary moral tale. Throughout the book, various temptations pull characters away from their duty to the land—but the characters who succumb are punished for their weakness. Many of the Bergsons’ neighbors sell their homesteads in exchange for an easier way of life, for example, and they find relatively small, pointless lives in town. Alexandra, on the other hand, stays behind and yields to the land, taking a risk in buying up other homesteads, and she finds success because of her hard work and dedication to the task at hand. More dramatically, Emil and Marie give in to the temptation to consummate their love, and they’re punished by Marie’s husband, Frank, who fatally shoots them. Frank is also punished for his reckless action, his drinking, and the jealousy that plagues him throughout his marriage to Marie—he’s left alone, with no one to love or love him at the end of the book. Even though the neighbors are spread far apart, it’s clear that individual actions still affect the community as a whole. Marie and Emil’s inability to resist temptation holds consequences for everyone in their farming community. Frank goes to jail, and Alexandra is left in shock.

In contrast with Emil and Marie, Carl and Alexandra act practically throughout the novel. Instead of causing trouble with Lou and Oscar, for example, Carl heads to Alaska for work. Alexandra accepts his departure without much of a reaction—she doesn’t show a particularly passionate inner life, except when it comes to the land—and in the end, the two are reunited, thanks to their steadiness and practicality.

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Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Quotes in O Pioneers!

Below you will find the important quotes in O Pioneers! related to the theme of Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation.
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 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

“He shall do whatever he wants to. He is going to have a chance, a whole chance; that’s what I’ve worked for.”

Related Characters: Alexandra Bergson (speaker), Emil Bergson
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Carl and Alexandra have been walking together in Alexandra's garden, discussing her success with the farm. Carl has asked if Emil will farm with Alexandra when he is older, and Alexandra replies that he will "do whatever he wants to." Alexandra's words reflect a quintessential immigrant narrative: the idea that personal self-sacrifice will ensure prosperity and freedom for future generations. Alexandra's attitude toward Emil is striking in its contrast to the serious, stoical approach she takes to her own life. Indeed, Alexandra's indulgence of Emil, although well-intentioned, arguably does not benefit Emil in the long run. Unlike his hard-working sister, Emil feels aimless and finds it difficult to resist temptation––specifically through his love for Marie. As a result, both he and Marie ultimately end up being killed by Marie's husband, Frank. 

“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 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 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 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.