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O Pioneers! | Themes

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Relationship between Humans and Nature

The relationship between people and nature permeates O Pioneers! For some characters, like Alexandra Bergson, the connection to nature is more pronounced. For others, like her brothers Lou Bergson and Oscar Bergson, nature is unimportant except as a way to make money. The Nebraska plains seem to have a spirit of their own, particularly in the way Alexandra and the narrator view them. From Alexandra's perspective, the years when the fields refused to grow crops and people gave up their homesteads and left in droves were nature's way of testing the settlers. After those years had passed, the people who remained were rewarded with fertile land and abundant crops. As a result of her connection to the natural world, Alexandra is more comfortable in nature than inside a house: "Alexandra's house is the big out-of-doors, and that it is in the soil that she expresses herself best." For those who are at one with nature, nature yields to them.

Ivar also has a special connection with nature. He understands what ails animals and has special techniques for curing them. Alexandra sees and understands this part of Ivar and connects to it, which is perhaps why the two of them look after each other. While everyone else views Ivar as crazy, Alexandra sees something in him that she also has within herself. They both have a deep respect for and understanding of wild things and the natural world. While Ivar's understanding of nature manifests as a sort of wildness, Alexandra's manifests in her work as a farmer.

Fleetingness of Life

The very construction of the story highlights the idea of impermanence. In the beginning of the novel, Alexandra Bergson's father is already dying. Almost as soon as John Bergson is introduced, he is gone, and the same for his wife. The story skips ahead in large chunks, focusing on the passage of time more than the linear development of Alexandra's life. The fragility and impermanence of human life are central to this story about settlers trying desperately to carve an existence out of wild plains. Many of them die or leave in the process. In the end, the lives of four young people—including Amedee Chevalier who does not see a doctor in time—are taken or changed forever from the decision of a moment. Some of the young people whose lives are ended so quickly were in the prime of their youth and vigor, unaware of their mortality. This innocence is what makes their downfall so tragic and powerful and drives home the truth that no one is immune to the impermanence of life.

Even the landscape is one of impermanence. The normal passage of seasons brings regular (and sometimes irregular) change, death, and rebirth. Storms or droughts can wipe out plants, animals, and people. In another way, the people themselves change the land into something unrecognizable. The plains look very different when Alexandra is an older, successful farmer than they look when she and Carl are children. People make their mark on the land, changing it—although nature is powerful and fickle and may always reclaim the fields.

Friendship and Love

The human relationships in O Pioneers! are also of profound importance. The relationships between the characters drive their actions and shape their lives. Lou Bergson's and Oscar Bergson's lack of love and respect for their sister cause the relationship to fracture. Love and understanding exist between Alexandra Bergson and Ivar, whose wisdom is often overlooked because of his mental illness. Alexandra Bergson's friendship with Marie Shabata and Alexandra's love for her brother Emil cause Alexandra to be blind to what is developing between the two star-crossed lovers. However, Alexandra's love for Marie and Emil is also what draws the two together. Alexandra and Carl Linstrum's love is long and slow to develop, but it is a constant presence in their relationship. What begins as friendship love, over many years becomes something deeper and more complex.

Alexandra Bergson's character is, again, the most revealing example by which the theme of love and friendship slowly unfolds in the novel. The middle section of the narrative, where she spends most of a long, cold winter alone, reveals the vital importance of love and companionship between human beings. Alexandra surrounds herself with companionship and love as much as possible—she brings in Swedish girls to help her in the house, makes lunch for her hired hands, has her family over regularly for dinners, and strikes up friendships with all her neighbors. When her family seems to all draw away from her over the winter—Emil Bergson and Carl Linstrum leave and her other brothers ostracize themselves from her—Alexandra is left with a profound sense of loneliness. In the absence of love and friendship, the importance of love and family is revealed. So much about Alexandra's character is revealed as well because, although she may be independent in terms of her strength and her ideas, she is also someone who needs to be surrounded and comforted by love.

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