Because Fruits of the Earth is built so obviously around the central and dominating protagonist, a clear understanding of that character will show how the minor characters act as complements or foils to his all-important qualities. Abe Spalding may be counted among the most important creations of Canadian literature dealing with the pioneer spirit. He is given near-tragic dimensions, for he embodies the indomitable singleness of spirit required to combat nature, a singleness which also limits him from full participation in the society to which he gives birth.
Abe represents the duality which haunts so much of Canadian writing. On one hand, he is the striking, admirable individual of heroic stature who can, and does, overcome nature, at least in the immediate sense. He builds where there was nothing before him and therefore earns the reader’s respect and admiration. Moreover, he is an intelligent man who becomes, gradually, fully aware of his dilemma: He can build the foundations for a society, but he cannot sustain it.
Frederick Philip Grove is particularly masterful in his method of gradually allowing his protagonist to gain insight into his own flaw. Employing a third-person narrator, he usually describes the successes and failures of his main character from an exterior point of view; in crucial scenes, however, he allows the narrative voice to merge with the consciousness revealed, thereby giving a powerful and clear sense of the inner feelings of the protagonist. Particularly memorable is the presentation of Abe’s insight into the impermanence of his own creation: “The moment a work of man was finished, nature set to work to take it down again.” Just as nature—the weathering process—gradually begins to erode his house the moment it is completed, so society and culture begin to erode the singleness of purpose used to give a basis to the District of Spalding. The gradual process of decay represented by nature, and the inevitable winds of change represented by social forces, will gradually and inevitably disperse and erode the single force that gave shape to the whole. A tremendous measure of sympathy is accorded Abe by the end of the book.