Themes and Meanings
Settlers of the Marsh intends to impress on the reader the purity of the human dream for perfection and the inevitable tragedy such a dream entails. Niels towers above all the others in his single-minded pursuit not of material things but of satisfying his soul. All of his physical strength and emotional longings are spent in the service of that goal. Yet Grove shows that such idealistic visionaries necessarily suffer in a flawed world where cruel circumstance and twisted human nature can turn dreams into nightmares and hope into despair.
The novel follows an archetypal pattern of theme and meaning: The hero sets out to possess his dream; the dream is thwarted but retained; the dream is denied, the hero defeated; the dream is fatally defiled and mocked, the hero enraged; the hero, dehumanized (he kills both the guilty and the innocent, his wife and his horse), must do penance; the hero returns to human community, ready to accept a compromised dream.
Clearly, Grove injects an aura of doom into his story. A movement toward tragedy is foreshadowed in the gathering storms of nature. Yet the structural pattern moves beyond tragedy toward comedy. Significantly, the novel begins with the onset of winter and ends with the renewal of spring. It begins with the vision of youth. At its close, eighteen years later, the dream has been subjected to the trials of hell, but it is still intact, now as a shared vision between two mature adults whose youth has long fled, who have suffered much, but who, renewed, will come home together.