This last section occurs two years later and mostly covers the one year Niel took off from school to help the Forresters.
Summary of Chapter I
Two years later on his way back to Sweet Water for the summer, Niel meets Ivy Peters on the train. They sit together, and Niel finds out that Ivy is renting the Forrester meadow, which he has drained and is farming. He says the Forresters could not get along without his help. He seems to gloat over their fall: “The Forresters have come down in the world like the rest” (p. 111). Ivy says the Captain is only “half there” and that Mrs. Forrester takes good care of him, though she drinks too much.
Niel thinks about what Ivy said. They have hated each other since childhood because they stand for different things. “The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers . . . a courteous brotherhood” (p. 112), and now the Ivy Peters’s have taken over.
Commentary on Chapter I
This is a key analysis of the meaning of the story, especially from Niel’s point of view. The Captain had said that the secret of success was to dream something into existence, and that is what he and his generation of pioneers had done. Now, the people who follow are like parasites and vultures: They “had never dared anything” and they are the ones who destroy the dream. They “root out the great brooding spirit of freedom, the generous, easy life . . . the space, the colour, the princely carelessness of the pioneer” (pp. 112-13). Cather believed there were cycles of civilization and that the earlier generations have a chance to use their ideals and creativity more than the ones who follow. The latecomers, far from appreciating what has been achieved, like Niel does, try to live off the dreams of others. Ivy is clever but spends his whole effort trying to tear down what the Captain has built. This is his way of feeling important and as good as they are. By draining the marsh, he “had asserted his power over the people who had loved those unproductive meadows for their idleness and silvery beauty” (p. 112).
The imitators and power mongers do not recognize or understand beauty, nor do they understand the fineness of feeling the Forresters represent. The bank directors watched the Captain strip himself for honor. Ivy drains the marsh not because he needs the money but to destroy the intangible legacy of graciousness that the Forresters represent. The modern sensibility is materialistic, based on power. The Captain is on one side of the spectrum, and Ivy Peters is on the other, and Marian Forrester is trapped between the two ethics as a sort of tragic figure.
The characters judge themselves through their response to the land. Niel and the Captain love the land for itself and try to preserve it because its beauty nourishes their spirits. Marian also loves the wildness of nature, but she does not defend it and gives in to the new ways.