(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Settlers of the Marsh is the story of a young Swedish immigrant who becomes a successful farmer in the Canadian West, is rejected by the woman of his dreams, and unwittingly marries the nearby town’s prostitute. The novel’s pattern includes five main motifs: anticipation and preparation, rejection, degeneration, expiation, and regeneration.

Niels comes to the New World on a quest: He will work hard to build a farm that will personify his dream, namely a piece of land, a house of his own with a wife to love, and children all around. For some time, he does not know who that woman will be, until he comes to know Ellen Amundsen. His love for her and for his dream energizes him to work harder than anyone to cultivate his land and to build the biggest and worthiest house in the region, but Ellen fails to respond with a show of romantic interest. It seems that Niels has nourished an impossible dream. He throws himself into his labor with even more intensity, but now as an escape. His life is regulated only by the seasons.

Gradually, however, Ellen’s aloofness softens, and a friendship of sorts develops between them. Niels, of course, needs and hopes for more. One fateful day, she tells Niels the painful reason why the relationship can never go beyond friendship. Ellen has made a vow to her dying mother that “no man was ever to have power over me.” She did so in response to her mother’s confession that her husband had treated her like an animal. He had forced her to leave small children behind in Sweden, had forced himself on her even when she was sick, had blamed her when she became pregnant, and had manipulated her to find ways of miscarrying. The third miscarriage also ended the mother’s own wretched life. The abuse had...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Settlers of the Marsh Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As the novel opens, Niels Lindstedt and his friend Lars Nelson are trudging through the gathering night and blowing snow on the way to dig a well for a farmer who lives on a remote prairie farm. Niels is strong and ambitious and wants to earn enough money to buy his own farm and start a family. The girl who appears to fit perfectly into this ambition is Ellen Amundsen, the daughter of the farmer whose well he helps to dig. After Herculean efforts, he does establish his farm and build a large house. He is shy and repressed, however, and hides his ambition from Ellen, whom he sees only rarely during the years he is building his dream.

When he finally plucks up the courage to approach her, he discovers that she does indeed love him, but she tells him that she cannot marry him, having seen what marriage did for her own mother, now dead. As she hesitantly explains to Niels, her strongly religious father systematically brutalized his wife, forcing himself on her sexually whenever he desired. In order to prevent unwanted children, she frequently brought on miscarriages by hard labor in the fields and the house. She died worn out and in despair.

Ellen tells Niels that she will not suffer what her mother has, and asks him to forget her. At the collapse of his dreams, Niels is stunned, and in this state is easily seduced by Clara Vogel, a voluptuous woman, known to everyone but Niels as a prostitute. Having slept with her, Niels feels compelled to marry her. Clara is...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Settlers of the Marsh Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Gammel, Irene. Sexualizing Power in Naturalism: Theodore Dreiser and Frederick Philip Grove. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1994. An analysis of the family as an imprisoning institution in Grove’s fiction, with an especially helpful commentary on Ellen as feminist.

Nause, John, ed. The Grove Symposium. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1974. Includes a useful essay on women in Grove’s novels.

Spettigue, D. O. FPG: The European Years. Ottawa: Oberon, 1973. Adds important information about Grove’s first thirty-some years in Germany.

Spettigue, D. O. Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1969. A comprehensive study of Grove’s life and works, with a particular emphasis on debunking Grove’s account of his early years.

Stobie, M. R. Frederick Philip Grove. New York: Twayne, 1973. An aptly critical assessment of Grove’s weaknesses and strengths as person and as writer.

Sutherland, Donald. Essays in Comparative Quebec/Canadian Literature. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1977. Includes a provocative chapter on Grove’s humanism and naturalism.