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