Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Minna Canth started her career as a journalist. In 1874, when her husband, J. F. Canth, took over the editorship of a weekly paper, Keski-Suomi, it was Minna who did most of the actual writing. With her forceful articles, she angered the owners of the paper, and subsequently, in 1878, the Canths switched over to another publication, Päijänne. Even as an acknowledged author, Canth pursued her journalistic writing mainly in the liberal periodical Valvoja and, from 1889 to 1890, in her own journal, Vapaita aatteita. Canth’s first collection of short stories, Novelleja ja kertomuksia, was published in 1878 under the pseudonym Vilja. The stories are light, romantic tales written under the influence of the Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. The themes that Canth explored in her drama are the same as those in her short stories: social commitment, anger at society’s neglect of its poor, and women’s issues. Canth’s dramatic talent and sharp ear for natural speech characterize her stories. Truly remarkable is the range of her female portraits; with equal veracity and sensitivity, she describes the gloomy existence of lowly maids, the strength of the women of the people, and the restricted lives of middle-class girls. Yet Canth’s stories are uneven in quality: Many bear the imprint of haste, written as they were during a spare moment and often lacking a final touch. Nevertheless, some of them, Köyhää kansaa (1886), Hanna (1886), Kauppa-Lopo (1889), and Agnes (1892), are among the most lasting artistic accomplishments of Canth’s career.

Minna Canth Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Minna Canth has maintained her position as one of Finland’s foremost playwrights. Her works belong to the living cultural heritage of Finnish Finland. Both professional theaters and amateur groups continue to stage her plays on a regular basis. As a daughter of the working class, she entered the country’s cultural scene as an outsider and, propelled by her inner fire, introduced almost single-handedly the ideas of the “modern breakthrough” to Finland. Besides her literary accomplishments, her social significance cannot be overestimated. She championed the rights both of women and of the working class. Although active within the organized women’s movement, she never slavishly followed its dictates. Unlike the majority of the participants in the movement, who came from the educated classes and primarily strove for equality with the men of their own class, Canth stressed the necessity for women of all classes to unite in a common struggle. She also realized that the initiative had to come from bourgeois women, who must be prepared for certain sacrifices in the beginning. As long as working-class women saw their families starve, their primary allegiance would not be with their sex but rather with their class in a fight for survival. Canth criticized the institutionalized Church, which supported the status quo by teaching the poor to accept their lot in life with humility and the upper classes to regard their privileges as theirs by the grace of God. To Canth, such views represented a ticking time bomb that would one day explode. As much as the most radical of her works shocked contemporary audiences, in equal measure they have inspired later generations of the working class. Canth spurred their cultural interests by providing them with “plays of their own” and thereby strengthening their self-confidence.

Canth’s achievements were indeed remarkable, but they could have been even greater. She had the potential to become another August Strindberg or Henrik Ibsen had she the same opportunities. As it was, Canth never traveled outside Finland, and her exposure to theater was limited—a few visits to Helsinki and occasional guest performances in Kuopio by the Finnish theater. In addition to her writing, she managed a business and reared seven children.

Minna Canth Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Marjormaa, Ulpu, ed. One Hundred Faces from Finland: A Biographical Kaleidoscope. Helsinki: FLS, 2000. An essay on Canth is included among the famous Finns covered in this volume.

Sinkkonen, Sirkka, and Aneneli Milén, eds. Toward Equality: Proceedings of the American and Finnish Workshop on Minna Canth, June 19-20, 1985. Kuopio: University of Kuopio, 1986. A collection of papers presented at the workshop on Canth held in Finland at the University of Kuopio in 1985. It examines her works as well as women’s issues and feminism in Finland. Includes bibliography.

Wilmer, S. E., ed. Portraits of Courage: Plays by Finnish Women. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1997. Examines the work of Canth and other Finnish women playwrights.