Settlers of the Marsh by Felix Paul Greve

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Summary

(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 embittered her mother, and her tale so repulsed Ellen that she promised she would never marry. She wants and needs Niels as a friend, even a brother, but he cannot be her husband.

Niels’s dream is now shattered. He leaves Ellen, not to return, because he cannot be merely her friend. He resolves that he will shun social relationships and marry himself to the land, but he discovers that it is difficult to ignore his sexual desires. One day, all too naïvely, he succumbs to the artful wiles of the town’s “merry widow,” Clara Vogel, who has had her eye on him for many years. His moral rectitude dictates that he marry her at once, but it soon becomes obvious to both that this marriage was not made in heaven. Clara’s masklike makeup, trivial knick-knacks, and showy finery represent her counterfeit values, which now invade Niels’s home and dreams. When Clara discovers that Niels does not love her but that his principles make him unable to divorce her, she sets out to destroy his life. Strife, discontent, and hate separate them. Niels moves out to live in a little shack with Bobby, his hired hand. When eventually he discovers what everyone else has always known, namely that he has in fact married the district whore and that Clara has turned his house of dreams into a brothel by entertaining midnight visitors, his moral universe disintegrates; in a fitful rage, he kills her. The noble quester has become a murderer.

It is a crime that cannot go unpunished, but public sympathy is on Niels’s side. He is sentenced to ten years in jail, but aided by the influence of a kindly warden, he is paroled after only six for his exemplary behavior. Now forty, he returns to his farm and, in one of the most effective scenes in the novel, discovers that Bobby, Mrs. Lund, and even Ellen have maintained the place well in his long absence. Niels burns all the reminders of Clara’s onetime presence and then sets out to make his peace with Ellen, asking her forgiveness for turning away from her. However, in his long absence, Ellen too has come to a new realization: She also needs more than friendship; she too wants a home and children. In a serene but moving final scene, Niels’s dream becomes a shared dream, the vision...

(The entire section is 1,486 words.)