One morning during his stay at Alexandra Bergson's farm, Carl Linstrum gets up early to walk through the fields. Unseen, he watches Emil Bergson hunt ducks with Marie Shabata. Later that day, Carl and Alexandra visit Marie in her orchard. Marie's energetic pleasantness contrasts with her husband Frank's melancholic reserve.
The reader learns that Marie was the daughter of a Bohemian immigrant to Omaha, Nebraska. She fell in love with Frank and ran away from home with him; at the time, he seemed a gentleman, handsome and romantic. But after their marriage and move to the Divide, Frank's true nature revealed itself. He is a hard worker, but a perpetual malcontent. He resents everyone and everything for his arduous farmer's life.
A romance grows between Marie and Emil, but it becomes shaky when Emil tells Marie, during a difficult and tense conversation in the fields, that they must be realistic and face the impossibility of their situation. He expresses his growing resolve to leave the Divide. When he goes to a fair at the local French Catholic church, his best friend, Amedee Chevalier, unaware of Emil's forbidden love for Marie, encourages him to find a love interest. He takes Emil's unresponsiveness for cold-heartedness.
While Emil is at the fair, Alexandra is visited by her other two brothers, Lou and Oscar. They are concerned that Alexandra will marry Carl, whom they believe to be an untrustworthy gold-digger. They claim that Alexandra has no business sharing the farm with Carl; they argue, instead, that the property truly belongs to the men of the family, ignoring Alexandra's pivotal role in bringing prosperity to all of them. Furthermore, they tell her that social propriety dictates that she must send Carl away. Alexandra angrily rejects these patently specious arguments and effectively declares that any ties of affection between her and her brothers have been severed.
Emil returns from the fair to tell Alexandra that he plans to leave for Mexico. She is distracted by her fight with Lou and Oscar, and he gets caught up pining for Marie. Soon after Emil's return, Carl returns from having spoken with Lou and Oscar. Carl now believes that he must leave the Divide and try to make his fortune in Alaska. Abandoned by Carl and Emil, the two people who were truly important to her, Alexandra is devastated.
These chapters of the novel focus on the difficulty in achieving successful romantic relationships. A collection of fragmented scenes illuminates the tensions between Marie and Emil; the relationship between Marie and her husband Frank is dysfunctional, predicated on unhappiness. Marie's unhappiness is compounded by her inability to improve her situation, since she is a believing Catholic, precluding the possibility of divorce.
Marie's flirting with Emil places her on the brink of infidelity to her husband and to God. While the justifiability of interpreting Marie as a sinner grows as the novel progresses, it becomes equally clear that Emil is guilty of what the novel establishes as a typically masculine sin: the desire for what one cannot have. Emil resembles his eventual murderer, Frank Shabata, and the temperamental Carl Linstrum, in that all three are perpetually dissatisfied and restless. The women in O Pioneers!, on the other hand, have learned how to be, and practice being, content. Marie, for example, denies her romantic feelings for Emil so that the two of them can continue to enjoy each other's company without guilt; she effectively shields herself, at least initially, from the self-destructive melancholy that plagues Frank, Carl, and Emil.
The novel's lack of faith in the potential for romance and passion manifests itself in several other relationships. Alexandra's attachment to Carl, for example, is devoid of any romantic element; their friendship seems to serve more as a mutual pact against loneliness. The marriage between Signa and Nelse Jensen is an unhappy union, seemingly borne out of ease and convenience, since both work for Alexandra. The one truly happy romantic relationship in the novel--the marriage of Amedee and Angelique Chevalier--is destroyed as if by an act of God. Some of Cather's critics have suggested that the failure of romance in O Pioneers! is a function of Cather's "aversion to heterosexual love" (Gelfant, xxxi), her putative lesbianism. It is possible also, however, that just as a Thoreau-like contentment seems the novel's replacement for passion, so too does companionship seem the accepted alternative to romance. By this line of reasoning, then, the novel preaches a religion of making do, of quiet resignation, rather than of ambition and passion. In this light, romantic relationships in O Pioneers! resemble the relationship between individuals and the land, in which making do is the best for which one can hope.