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.
Pioneering and Immigration ThemeTracker
Pioneering and Immigration Quotes in O Pioneers!
But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes.
…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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”