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Essays

The Alienation of Abe and the Infinite Nature of the Prairie

“The Prairie” is the first chapter of Part II of Frederick Philip Grove’s Fruits of the Earth. It is a crucial turning point for Abe, whose philosophy changes as he questions the significance of his material aspirations against the infinite landscape. “The Prairie” is the quintessential chapter of pioneer literature, where the pioneer, Abe, through exploring the alienation of man in the omnipresent frontier, finally understands his place and purpose in the prairie.

The first part of the novel ends with the death of Charlie, a tragedy that is a constant undercurrent in “The Prairie”. Abe was previously marked by his obstinate nature, singularly focused on his economic legacy. Charlie’s death is a reminder of mortality and the finite nature of humanity, prompting Abe to question his philosophy. “The children, he felt, would drift away; for whom should he go on working on that large scale on which he had worked in the past?” (Grove) Grove employs a rhetorical question to emphasize the absence of an answer and the absence of Abe’s motivation and meaning.  Abe is in a state of flux: he begins to actively seek meaning by reading and listening to others. Crucially, Grove does not allow Abe to completely rationalize or articulate this uncertainty: “He began to formulate such things to himself; he tried to find how he felt about things and to put that feeling into words.” The use of the third person narrative is perfect in this scenario for it allows the reader insight without Abe being able to express anything himself. There is a distinct sense of internal struggle and alienation on Abe’s part, which the reader heavily empathizes with.

Abe begins to examine his extrinsic role in relation to the landscape. “Abe looked about and seemed to see for the first time.” (Grove) For the first time, Abe truly understands the infinite nature of the prairie and just how futile his material aspirations are: slowly but surely, his house and land are being worn down. Grove uses great micro and macro imagery to show this alienation and futility on every level. On a micro level, Abe can see the minute destruction of his home by nature, “the little sand grains embedded in the mortar” (Grove). Abe’s property acts as a synecdoche of his material wealth and accomplishments—all will fade, “They would age and decay and die.” (Grove) Grove purposefully repeats the conjunction to highlight the inevitability of such a process, emphasizing the determinism so characteristic of naturalism. The most striking macro imagery is the ditches. Abe experiences a metaphysical reaction to the ditches, “his mind lost itself in the mysteries of cosmic change.” (Grove) The ditches are enormous man-made structures, essential to taming the prairie. But it is their very size that isolates the pioneers, neighbors “might have to travel four miles to get from one farm to the other.” (Grove) Despite the settlers’ best efforts, the ditches reinforce their innately extraneous status, and even further isolate them.

There is a distinct sense of mimetic representation as Grove seeks to accurately capture the vastness of the ubiquitous frontier and its influence. Indeed, nature is practically personified as a conscious antagonist to Abe. “The moment a work of man was finished, nature set to work to take it down again.” (Grove) Indeed, it is not only man’s efforts that succumb to the prairie—man himself does. An almost reversal of anthropomorphism takes place, with the settlers taking on the characteristics of the landscape, “the landscape has had time to enforce in them a reaction to its own character.” (Grove)

Abe understands the infinite nature of the prairie, and accepts it. If meaning cannot be derived from the ends, it must be derived from the means, hence Abe’s arrived-at aphorism, “The thing done is nothing; the doing everything.” (Grove) He understands that the prairie cannot be mastered, and that he will always be extrinsic to the landscape. But he does not need to be alienated from his fellow man—Abe’s goal explicitly shifts, “that aim was now to live on, not in a material sense, through his economic achievement, but in what he did for district and municipality.” (Grove) Abe accepts his fundamental alienation from the frontier, but endeavors to overcome the alienation from his fellow man.

Like the progression of the novel’s part names, from “Abe Spaulding” to “The District” might suggest, “The Prairie” introduces a shift in focus from Abe to the greater community. This shift is reflected in Abe’s changed philosophy from a material selfishness to a communal conscience. Grove ends the chapter on a series of rhetorical questions that emphasizes Abe’s isolation from his community. In doing so, Grove sets the second half of Fruits of the Earth for Abe’s eventual conciliation with the district, finally achieving meaning and purpose in the prairie.

 

Works cited

Grove, Frederick Philip. Fruits of the Earth. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1933. Project Gutenburg of Australia. Web. 28 September 2013.

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