One of the most interesting qualities of this novel is in the way it is told. I kept getting the feeling I was being told this story by a narrator who had taken me up in a hot air balloon and would describe to me everything going on below – we’d descend down and follow one person at a time, getting as close as possible to them, but never so far inside the minds of each character as to know their most personal thoughts. In this way the novel is very Norwegian in that there is a distance between people, an unspoken understanding between husbands and wives and children and neighbors, but never too much is said or revealed. For a novel that canvasses so much and can be quite intimate at times, there is a privacy, too.
Structurally the novel reminds me a lot of the book of Genesis. The novel begins with the first man in a pristine Garden of Eden who quietly and happily makes his way alone until the first woman comes along. Together the man and woman can split the labor and together they are fruitful and, of course, they multiply. And this biblical quality is not just a structural parallel, but it’s also thematic in how conservative its point of view is on what the ideal society should be and how it should be managed. Men are the unspeaking center of power and authority, women are the gossiping center of the domestic sphere, children are prodigal, foreigners are suspicious, and modernity is both a marvel and a corrupting force. The only virtue is that of hard work and extreme labor; all other thoughts are at worst sinful and at best a waste of time.
There is one part in the novel that I found to be difficult to relate to and that is when Isak physically controls Inger by picking her up and throwing her down to get her to stop (I believe) spending money. The scene is not written with anger and so there is no malice or enjoyment in what Isak does (he is not sadistic and therefore not what you’d call abusive), however, it does reflect a very uncomfortable dynamic between men and women where physical violence towards women is something that happens in the home. The novel does take the side of Isak, and this might turn many readers off.
And very often women do not come out looking all that great in the novel. Inger begins as a social outcast with a harelip, Oline is a terrible gossip and manipulator, Barbo is willful and (like Inger) a murderer, and by the end of the novel these women are all “tamed”. Not that all the men come off as saints, however, Isak and Sivert, and to a degree Geissler too are the characters of wisdom and righteousness whom should be obeyed. This male dominated society of conservative values and hard labor on the land is very much at odds with modern society and, again, many readers might find it borderline misogynistic.
Yet to dismiss the book based on what I’ve described in its philosophy would be to misunderstand the novel’s complexity and nuance. In one scene near the end there is a trial where Barbo is defending herself from the charge of having murdered her newborn. This parallels the exact same event that takes place near the beginning of the novel, yet here after so much time has passed, Barbo is defended by a woman who convinces the men in the court that they have no right to judge Barbo and her actions. She says that men could never know the struggles and the pain of a woman and to put her in jail would be cruel. There is a strong thread of social justice that is brought to the countryside, a more Christian and forgiving attitude towards one’s fellow neighbor. In fact the entire second half of the novel seems to parallel the New Testament whereas the first half parallel the Old Testament. There is even a clear dividing line between the two and this is when Isak sees a vision in the forest one night, a vision of perhaps Death, or Salvation, or God Himself. This is never explained in the novel, but the philosophy and attitude of the novel does change going forward from this scene.
The most interesting character in the novel is Geissler. I kept trying to imagine if Hamsun was using Geissler as a metaphor for God or for the Devil; he works both ways. For Isak and everyone at Sellanraa, Geissler is a God, he brings good fortune every time he shows up and seems exist solely to aid Isak and all his endeavors. Yet for the surrounding countryside Geissler is the Devil. He was driven out from his post as a public official, his involvement with the owning of property (the mine) brings near ruin to everyone in the town, he is poorly understood and even less liked by almost everyone else. I suppose the best way to describe Geissler is that of a gardener, someone who tends after the garden all day pulling weeds, favoring one plant over another for its perfection, tilling the soil when it needs work, bringing water when it’s dry (he literally teaches Isak how to do this) – he’s the Garden of Eden’s caretaker – he’s both Good and Evil, and he describes himself as “fog”: he’s everywhere all the time but he’s hard to see or understand.
But all the characters in the novel are brilliant and the entire construction of the novel is so well done, so clear, that I felt as if I too had walked with Isak out of the forest and started this small village and got to know all these people and all their troubles and successes. Very early on you inhabit the world of this novel completely to the point where you feel as if you knew where every stone lay on the ground, every tree sat in the forest, where that telegraph line was in the forest, where the huts were, what everyone looked like, what the weather was everyday – everything. And this is the novel’s greatest achievement in its slow, methodical world-building, its construction of an entire civilization, of all humanity on display in this one corner of Norway at the turn of the 20th century.