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.
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation ThemeTracker
Self-sacrifice vs. Temptation Quotes in O Pioneers!
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.
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.
“He shall do whatever he wants to. He is going to have a chance, a whole chance; that’s what I’ve worked for.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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…
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.