When Johan Nilsen Nagel disembarks from a steamer one midsummer evening, wearing a loud yellow suit and an oversized cap and carrying only a suitcase, a violin case, and a huge fur coat, he inevitably becomes an object of curiosity in the small Norwegian coastal town to which he has come. His eccentric appearance, his unusual behavior, and his lack of any discernible purpose for being in the town make him a bizarre and mysterious stranger. The only thing that the hotelkeeper is able to learn about his guest is that he is supposedly an agronomist who just returned from abroad and plans to spend some weeks in their town.
Nagel’s first act is to befriend Johannes Grogaard, the Midget, a grotesque but likable character who survives by playing the fool for the town sadists. One night, Nagel intervenes when the Midget is being ordered by his tormentor, the deputy Reinert, to drink a glass of beer which has been used as an ashtray and to dance and grind his teeth loudly for the amusement of the hotel cafe’s patrons. Nagel beats Reinert, drives him from the hotel, and, to the astonishment of the easily astonished townspeople, invites the Midget to his room for champagne and cigars. The Midget reveals that he is from a good family (the son of a parson and a relative of one of the authors of the country’s constitution), but since an accident (a fall from the ship’s rigging while he was a sailor), he has lived with and worked for his uncle, a coal dealer. Nagel gives him money and admonishes him to remember his family name and breeding and not to accept “clown money” any longer.
Nagel uses his friendship with the Midget to extract information from him about the townspeople who interest him. He asks about Karlsen, a young divinity student who recently committed suicide, and he asks about Dagny Kielland, whom Nagel has already encountered and frightened by his aggressive behavior. He learns that Dagny is the parson’s daughter and is engaged to a naval officer currently on duty in Malta, the son of a wealthy businessman. He manipulates the Midget into confessing that he carried a letter from Karlsen to Dagny, thus giving added weight to the rumor that the unfortunate Karlsen killed himself because of his unrequited love for her. Nagel also inquires about a woman, prematurely gray, whose eyes remind him of a woman he once loved. He learns that she is Martha Gude, a respectable spinster, the daughter of a deceased sea captain, now reduced to selling eggs for her meager living.
Nagel is invited by Dr. and Mrs. Stenersen to a party at their home, where he distinguishes himself by his loquacity and his iconoclastic views. He dismisses the Christiania (Oslo) of which they are so proud as a cultural backwater; he characterizes the celebrated Grand Cafe, gathering place of great artists, as a place where nobodies are “elated because other nobodies acknowledge them.” He is arrogant and insolent but also intriguing, particularly to Dagny...
(The entire section is 1211 words.)