Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Grove skillfully intertwines two themes into this straightforward and powerful tale of love, parting, marriage, murder, and reconciliation. The first is that the characters are in large part creatures of fate and chance. Character partly determines that fate, particularly the ignorance and obsession that both Niels and Ellen share about sexuality. The combination of puritanism and desire leads both toward a deep repression which finds an outlet in Niels’s killing of Clara and Ellen’s total denial of sexuality. Clara is merely the catalyst of these strong passions when chance puts her in the way of Niels just after Ellen has rejected him.

The other central theme is of the breaking and proving of this new land. Conditions are harsh, as illustrated by Grove’s fine descriptions of the snow and ice and wind of the prairie. The fall of a great chunk of ice kills Ellen’s father when he is trying to clear a brook. On the other hand, Grove paints convincing pictures of the beauty of the prairie landscape, in both sun and storm. At one point, Niels and Ellen watch the coming of a storm from the shelter of a haystack:

Then a huge suction soughs through the stems. But already the lash of the wind comes down: like the sea in a storm tree tops rise and fall, the stems bending over and down and whipping back again, tossed by enormous pressures. They dance and roll, tumble and rear, and mutely cry out as...

(The entire section is 504 words.)