Aleksis Kivi Essay - Critical Essays

Aleksis Stenvall


Three chief impulses are at work in the dramas of Aleksis Kivi. The first is his desire to create classics that, by their very presence, would make literature in Finnish a worthy part of European letters. The second is the infinitely more modest wish to write short plays readily accessible to amateur actors. Kivi could only hope that, sooner or later, professional theater in Finnish would come into being. The third is his own urge toward self-expression. Scholarship has detected self-portraits, or at least self-comments, in his plays on the stage of his imagination and of aspects of his own life.


The publication of the national epic, the Kalevala (in 1835, and, revised and expanded, in 1849), had been a source of intense national pride. Kivi was one of the first authors to use its themes for drama in his Kullervo; Topelius’s curious mix of Greek and Finnish material in Prinsessan of Cypern (1860; the Princess of Cyprus) is another example. Even if Cygnaeus had not suggested that the Kullervo story in the Kalevala was an apt subject for treatment in a tragedy, Kivi might well have been drawn to it; it provided expression for his own sense of isolation and his awareness of his great-uncle’s fate. When Kullervo, in the play’s most famous monologue, laments that he has been “locked into a mountain of steel,” into a “cell so small that he can only sit curled up within it,” Kivi must have thought of Matti Stenvall, chained for life to a wall inside Suomenlinna. In Lönnrot’s Kalevala, Kullervo’s family has been wiped out (or so he believes), by his evil uncle Untamo. Brutally brought up by Untamo and sold as a slave to the smith, Ilmarinen, Kullervo takes revenge on Ilmarinen’s malicious wife, who has given him a stone instead of bread as he goes out to tend the family’s cattle. He drives the livestock into a bog, where they drown. By magic, he then gives cattle’s shape to bears and wolves, and brings them home, where they devour his tormentor. Learning that his parents are still alive, Kullervo finds them on the frontier of Lapland, but discovers that one of his sisters has vanished while berrying. Incapable of carrying out even the simplest of tasks at his father’s farm (a trait left over from his unhappy childhood and youth), he is sent to deliver the taxes, and as he returns, he meets and swiftly seduces a young girl. Realizing, after their night of love, that they are siblings, she kills herself. Kullervo tells his mother what has happened, and she persuades him not to take his own life. Cursed by his father, his brother, and his surviving sister, he sets out to take bloody vengeance on Untamo; going home again, he finds that his family has been slaughtered, as the feud continues. Accompanied only by the family dog, Musti, he roams the woods until he comes to the place of the encounter with his sister; there, “the luckless one” throws himself on his sword.

Kivi makes several important changes in the tale: Forever lonely in the original, the drama’s Kullervo is given both a devoted companion, Kimmo, and a boastful and cowardly one, Nyyrikki—Shakespeare’s Pistol transferred to the Finnish wilderness. In the second act, Kullervo, pondering revenge, is confronted by two spirits of the woods, the evil Ajatar, who urges him to follow his murderous urge, and the good Sinipiika, who counsels self-control. (A resemblance to the myth of Hercules at the crossroads, the subject of the most important piece of Swedish literature from the seventeenth century, a hexameter poem by Georg Stiernhielm, has been noted in the scene.) Though far more introspective than the impulsive Kullervo of the epic, Kivi’s hero, not heeding the wiser voice, slays Ilmarinen’s wife. Aware of nineteenth century sensibilities and stage practicalities, however, Kivi does not employ the original’s magnificently grotesque transmogrification of the cattle; rather, he simply has Kullervo slay the woman after she calls him a slave. Similarly, the third act deals in a very gingerly fashion with the seduction of the sister, here given the name of Ainikki. While Kullervo is in pursuit of Untamo, Kivi causes him to fall in with a company of bear hunters, crude and almost comical lovers of violence for its own sake, who show more than a passing resemblance to the members of Karl Moor’s band in Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (pb. 1781; The Robbers, 1792). At the end, Kimmo goes mad on learning that Kullervo’s parents have been slain in the feud; obeying the voice of his mother’s ghost, Kullervo withdraws to the forest, where he kills himself. His mother’s spirit has asked the forest nymph Sinipiika to forgive his deeds, and his death is witnessed by the three great heroes of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen, and Kullervo’s sometime master, Ilmarinen, who, though he still mourns his wife, prays that the youth will be granted peace in death.

Readers, or viewers of the play’s occasional revivals, may smile at the apparently old-fashioned device of the evil nymphs and good nymphs and the mother’s ghost; the exchanges between the mother’s spirit and Sinipiika in the final act are particularly trying. It must be remembered, however, that the young Ibsen, almost simultaneously, used similar melodramatic effects: for example, the struggles between Aurelia and Furia in his Catalina (pb. 1850, rev. pb. 1875; Catiline, 1921) and the appearance of the vengeful spirit of Bishop Nicholas in Kongsemnerne (pb. 1863; The Pretenders, 1890). Also, choosing prose instead of blank verse, Kivi broke free of the standard linguistic dress of high tragedy in his age—just as Ibsen did in Hærmænde paa Helgeland (pr., pb. 1858; The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890), Fru Inger til Østraat (pr. 1855; Lady Inger of Østraat, 1906), and, again, The Pretenders. Although the play does not expressly address the topic, Kullervo is one of those several idea dramas of the mid-century (such as Friedrich Hebbel’s trilogy Die Nibelungen of 1861) in which pagan and Christian codes of conduct are contrasted. Most important, in the depiction of the violent yet intelligent Kullervo, the gifted man who cannot rise above his misfortunes but rather is twisted by them, Kivi made a first effort to plumb his own nature. Kullervo, it is hinted, realizes that, whatever effort he may make to escape, he is trapped, as much by personality as by circumstance.


Kullervo has a single complex character, the eponymous hero; the main strength of Nummisuutarit lies in its large gallery of memorable portraits. Writers on Kivi have repeatedly said that the debt to Holberg is obvious: The dictatorial mother of the play’s main family, Martta, is kin to the shrewish Rille in Jeppe paa Bjerget (pr. 1722, pb. 1723; Jeppe of the Hill, 1906), and Sepeteus, the half-educated parish clerk, resembles Per Degn in Erasmus Montanus (wr. 1723, pb. 1731; English translation, 1885). Nevertheless, in both cases, Kivi has expanded the pattern; he lets his audience know that a weak husband and silly sons have turned Martta into a bossy and scheming woman, and he gives Sepeteus a voice of reason amid the complications of Nummisuutarit’s final act, where the play’s several strands, in the best comic tradition, are brought together. The male members of Martta’s family are prone to an extraordinary credulity: Believing that he has arranged a marriage between his older son, Esko, and Kreeta, the foster daughter of a prosperous farmer, the cobbler Topias sends the trusting Esko off to fetch his bride. (Both Martta and Topias want to get Esko married as quickly as possible, lest a mysterious inheritance, left behind by a whimsical old corporal, fall to Jaana, who has been reared as a ward of the cobbler’s household. The first of the children to marry, Esko or Jaana, will get the money. The high-minded Jaana does want to get married, to the honest smith Kristo; but she is moved by true love, not the thought of the five hundred rix-dollars.) Accompanied by the quick-witted Mikko, Esko proceeds to the nearby farm; it takes him some time to realize that the wedding preparations there are intended not for him but for Kreeta’s union with Jaakko, a maker of wooden shoes who wants to be a farmer, like his father-in-law-to-be. Baffled, then foolishly aggressive, and egged on by Mikko, Esko is twice bested in fights, first with the hot-tempered Teemu, a fiddler, and then with Teemu and the fiddler’s father. Unable to bear so much humiliation, Esko goes berserk and wrecks the bridal hall. The angry guests at their heels, Esko and Mikko run away. The scene is not unlike the conclusion of the second act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (pb. 1867, English translation, 1892): There, to be sure, the outsider Peer abducts the willing bride.

Meanwhile, Iivari, Esko’s younger brother, has been sent to the city to...

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