Aleksis Kivi Analysis
by Aleksis Stenvall

Start Your Free Trial

Download Aleksis Kivi Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Aleksis Kivi Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 3,710 words.)