The Family at Gilje is often considered only a minor Scandinavian classic. It is accorded little significance outside Scandinavian literary history. The novel nevertheless reflects many of the major themes of mainstream European literature of the nineteenth century. One of the most striking commonalities is the theme of the conflict between the individual and various social codes. Very often, this is expressed in terms of romantic love as a metaphor for individual choice. Inger-Johanna Jäger is obliged to chose between submission to what her society wants for her and her own desires.
In raising Inger-Johanna, the Captain and Mrs. Jäger are faced with a paradox. As members of the relatively prosperous landholding class, they are at the top of the social pyramid, as far as Gilje is concerned, but in the eyes of the wider world they are rural, backward, and, most importantly, culturally impoverished. In sending Inger-Johanna to the city, they try to gain entry for their daughter into social circles that they have not themselves penetrated. The parents find, however, that once the process of Inger-Johanna’s acculturation is under way, it cannot be controlled. The reader senses before it happens that Inger-Johanna will find the charms of the conventional Captain Rönnow lacking and prefer the earnest student Arent Grip. One of Grip’s charms is that Inger-Johanna’s aunt and her parents find him an unattractive candidate for her hand in marriage. As often happens in the nineteenth century European novel, the choice of a spouse is used as a metaphor for self-discovery and the exploration of various philosophical alternatives. Inger-Johanna is exposed to various potential directions in life, and she is encouraged to have the appearance of exploring all her options, but she finds that ultimately her family tries to constrain her freedom.
Although the Jägers are frustrated by Inger-Johanna’s willful and headstrong ways, they nevertheless prefer her to the more earthbound Thinka, whose ordinariness illuminates by contrast Inger-Johanna’s intellectual and spiritual curiosity. Jorgen is more like his oldest sister in his ambition and drive. He eventually finds his energies cannot be contained by provincial Norway and ends up immigrating to America, where the traits that threaten to make his life unfulfilled at home assist him in achieving...
(The entire section is 970 words.)