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.
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...
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