Among Frederick Philip Grove’s primary themes, the foremost is the issue of free will. Through his characters, Grove asks how much freedom anyone has in the face of often accidental but usually overwhelming pressures of instinct and environment. Even as he dramatizes the complexity and frustration wrought by such pressures, Grove seems, paradoxically, to celebrate the determination of his heroic figures to act as if such pressures hardly exist. Of almost equal importance to Grove’s vision is the more existential question of where in time one ought to situate objectives. While he can admire the person who plans and looks toward the future, he often exposes the illusions attending such an orientation. His novels also involve themes that develop out of the distinction made between materialism and a more transcendental value system, a distinction that his characters frequently fail to identify. That Grove does not always favor his characters, even as he sympathizes with their search for an authentic New World, suggests the complex viewpoint and dilemma central to much of his writing.
Settlers of the Marsh
After publishing his two books of travel sketches, Grove moved into book-length and explicitly fictional narrative, retaining this critical stance toward the efforts of pioneers to conquer the plains. Although the detailed accounting of nature continues in Settlers of the Marsh, Grove’s sympathy with nature and his corresponding critique of man-in-nature are found in the novel’s characterization and plotting. The pioneering enterprise is questioned through the depiction of Niels Lindstedt, a young Swede who emigrated to escape the perpetual poverty meted him in Europe and to build his own fortune through hard work. Niels outdoes his neighbors and succeeds handsomely: He saves money, clears land, and harvests a bounteous crop. His crowning achievement is the building of a great house, in which he plans to live with Ellen Amundsen. Out of the presumptuousness and naïveté of Niels’s scheme, Grove constructs the complications of his novel.
A curiously antiromantic love triangle develops in the novel, which combines elements of Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence with Gustave Flaubert. Niels is cast as impressionable and sexually vulnerable, not unlike Hardy’s Jude or the young Paul Morel of Sons and Lovers (1913). Just as Paul turns to an older, more aggressive woman when the younger woman of his choice rebuffs his sexuality, so Niels falls prey to the seductiveness of Clara Vogel—whose first name significantly matches that of her counterpart in the Lawrence novel. Grove’s Clara, unlike Lawrence’s and like Arabella in Jude the Obscure (1896), knowingly takes advantage of his ignorance and inexperience in sex. The literary triangle is completed in Ellen’s aversion to sex despite her affection for Niels; the complex psychology behind her refusal to marry him recalls the different but equally complex reasoning of Lawrence’s Miriam and Sue Bridehead.
To a much greater degree than Hardy or Lawrence, Grove limits sympathy with his central character. Although the reader sees the novel’s action almost exclusively from Niels’s viewpoint, and although Niels’s strengths are reported and his intentions are understandable, each of the two women in his life is given a position of equal validity to his, and Niels’s inability, or unwillingness, to appreciate that position constitutes a grave weakness. Ellen’s sexual problems stem from her having witnessed the brutal subjugation of her mother by her father—who forced sex on his wife when she was ill and pressured her to seek abortions when she was pregnant—and from having promised her mother she would avoid intimacy with a man. Ellen’s telling Niels all of this, even as she insists she admires him and desperately needs his friendship, shocked many of the novel’s first readers.
Unfortunately, Niels cannot bring himself to accept a purely friendly relationship with Ellen, or to wait for her to feel differently about him—although subsequent developments suggest waiting might not have gone unrewarded. Instead, he ignores her plea for friendship and largely avoids her. His assumption that he can control his own sexuality backfires in his going to town in search of pleasure, in his succumbing there to Clara, and in—to her astonishment—his remorsefully insisting that they marry.
Despite Clara’s promiscuous past, it is mostly Niels’s blindness to the dullness of farm life for a city woman and his refusal to free her that lead to Clara’s actively seeking other men and to the climactic discovery scene in which Niels murders her. Just as Clara would not idealize sexuality, neither would she denigrate it, or try to compensate for it, as does Niels. His response to the compelling problems of Ellen and Clara reveal him to be more insensitive and more shackled by sex than either of them. Objections to the final reunion of Niels with a now-willing Ellen reflect readers’ uneasiness with Niels’s ultimately receiving rewards without acknowledging the legitimacy of the two women’s claims against him. Aesthetically pleasing injustice in a more or less tragic plot thus gives way to the jarring injustice of a romantic finale.
The problems of the novel’s ending are reinforced by Grove’s portrayal of prairie women as victims of male stupidity and insensitivity. If Niels’s friend Nelson enjoys a happy marriage because, unlike Niels, he pursues a simple, earthy type of woman, Nelson is the exception. Otherwise, Grove surrounds Niels with consistently unhappy marriages, where the blame rests mostly on husbands whose wives are burdened with hard work, too many children, and too little sympathy. Grove finds the problem not to be so much marriage itself but specifically marriage between unequals to which the male pioneer aspires and in which the wife becomes simply another beast of burden subordinate to the husband’s selfish ambitions. Grove ironically compounds the human toil of such selfishness in the case of Niels, who has a measure of sensitivity not shared by his fellow settlers. Niels mistakenly acts as if this sensitivity translates into completely good behavior. Having sought a land of freedom, Niels increasingly wonders if he is not, in fact, enslaved. Never does he fully put together the puzzle of his failures, however. Through one of its gentlest members, Grove thus indicts a whole pioneer movement.
A Search for America
A Search for America proved to be much less offensive and much more popular to its first readers than Settlers in the Marsh; in fact, it became the most popular of Grove’s books. Rather than a narrative of constriction, it offers a story of discovery, of an opening up to the positive possibilities of life in America. In Phil Brandon, the narrator andprotagonist, Grove presents his true adventurer, who reveals the moral ambiguities of the feverish activity characterizing North America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Until recently, readers saw the narrative as thinly disguised autobiography; certainly Grove encouraged this notion by inserting parts in...
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