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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1367

First published: 1858 (English translation, 1890)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Pastoral romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Nils, a tailor

Margit, his wife

Arne, their son

Baard Boen, Nils’s enemy

Eli, Baard’s daughter

The Story:

Arne was...

(The entire section contains 1367 words.)

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First published: 1858 (English translation, 1890)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Pastoral romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Norway

Principal Characters:

Nils, a tailor

Margit, his wife

Arne, their son

Baard Boen, Nils’s enemy

Eli, Baard’s daughter

The Story:

Arne was born on the hillside farm of Kampen. He was the son of Margit, betrayed one night when she attended a dance. The man said to be the child’s father was Nils, the tailor, who in his free time fiddled for country dances. Arne’s grandmother was a frugal widow who saved what she earned so that her daughter and her grandson might not want for lack of a man to look after them. In the meantime, the fiddler-tailor Nils drank more and tailored less so that his business fell off.

By the time Arne was six years old, he knew a local song written about the wild behavior of his father. His grandmother insisted that Arne be taught his origin. Not long afterward, Nils suffered a broken back in a barn fight with Baard Boen. About the same time, the old grandmother, who felt that her days were numbered, warned her daughter against wasting the money saved for her use.

When the grandmother died, Arne’s mother brought Nils home to be nursed. The next spring, Margit and Nils were married and Nils recovered enough to help with some of the farm work. At first, Nils was gloomy and morose because he was no longer able to join the fiddlers and the dancers at weddings, and he drank heavily. As his strength returned, he began to fiddle once more. Arne went along to merrymakings to carry his fiddle case. By this companionship, Nils slowly weaned Arne away from Margit. Occasionally, the boy was remorseful, but his father’s hold grew stronger as time passed.

Finally, during a scene of drunken violence, Nils died. Arne and his mother took the blame for his death partly upon themselves. Arne became aloof from the villagers; he tended his cattle and wrote a few songs.

He became more and more shy. At a wedding, interpreting one of the folktales as referring to him, he told a wild story, part truth, part fancy, about his father’s death. Then he rushed from the house. He had consumed too much brandy, and while he lay in the barn recovering, his mother told him she had once found Nils there in the same condition—on the occasion of Arne’s christening.

Arne began to take a new interest in old legends and ballads. As he listened to stories told by an old man of the village, he found himself making up tales of his own. Sometimes he wandered alone in the forest and sang songs as they came into his head.

From a distance, he observed Eli Boen and her good friend, the pastor’s daughter. He began to sing love songs. Arne did some carpentering, and his work took him into the village more often. That winter, Boen sent for Arne to do some carpentering. Arne’s mother was disturbed, because it had been Boen who had caused Nils to break his back years before. At first, Boen’s wife refused to speak to Arne. Eli Boen, who was attentive to him in the beginning, later ignored him. One day, Arne brought word that the pastor’s daughter was leaving the village. Eli fainted when she heard the news, for the two girls had been close friends.

Baard Boen tried to explain to Arne what had happened years before between Nils and himself, but he did not manage to make himself clear; after many years, Baard himself was not sure of the cause of their longstanding quarrel.

Eli’s mother became friendly with Arne at last and asked him to sing for Eli, who seemed to be recovering from her illness. While he sang, he and Eli felt a deep intimacy spring up between them. The next day, after his work was completed, Arne took his tools and left. From that time on, he thought more and more about Baard Boen’s daughter.

Arne had a friend, Kristian, who had gone to America. Now Kristian began to write urging Arne to join him, but Margit hid the letters as they came. Finally, she went to the pastor for advice. He felt that Arne must be allowed to live his own life as he saw fit.

The farm was beautiful when spring came. On one of his rambles, Arne came upon Eli and thought her more beautiful than he had ever seen her before. Margit took heart from his fondness for the girl. One midsummer evening, she discovered Eli in the village and asked her to go for a walk. She took the girl to her homestead and showed her about, from the stables to the chest in which Arne kept the many gifts that were to belong to his bride, among them a hymnbook with a silver clasp. Eli saw her own name engraved on the clasp.

Presently, Arne appeared and later walked with Eli back to her own home. They realized now that they were completely in love. Shortly afterward, they were married. Children stood by the church bearing bits of cake. Baard Boen, remembering his long-ago feud with Arne’s father, marveled at this wedding of his daughter and the son of his old enemy.

Critical Evaluation:

The legends and folktales of the Norwegian country people are woven into this story of Arne and his songs. The novel is a strange mixture of realism and fancy, of accurate description of peasant life and of symbolism and poetry. The reader becomes immersed in the sense of magic which pervaded the life of the simple Norwegian country folk of a century and more ago. The prose is graceful and poetic but never pretentious or false. The symbols arise naturally from the story, such as the black dress of the grandmother that becomes a shirt for the sober young Arne after she dies, and her spectacles that are crushed beneath Arne’s heel the day she is buried.

Although he dies early, Nils is in some ways the most interesting character in the book. He is a complex man who nurses a grudge because of frustrated ambitions. He is a deeply flawed individual, with a bad temper and a weak character, but he is ultimately a sympathetic person. His wife, Margit, Arne’s mother, is a long-suffering woman, meant to be sympathetic, yet she comes perilously close to becoming a stereotype.

From childhood, Arne finds it difficult to express or act upon his emotions. His early life was one that taught him to suppress outward signs of his feelings. Young Arne’s fluctuating attitudes toward his parents are portrayed with subtlety and compassion. As he matures, he wrestles with both his own nature and the world in which he finds himself confined. His songs, however, always give him comfort. These songs are a major part of the narrative, both revealing the young man’s feelings and thoughts and lending a poetic and magical quality to the tale. As he finds his way into adulthood, Arne is haunted by the one time he raised his hand to his father, the moment when Nils died. The guilt festers inside Arne, until he fears for his sanity. Finally when he falls in love, it is with the daughter of his father’s enemy. It seems to him that he never can escape his past, with its one act of wrath.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson sought in his fiction and dramas to liberate Norwegian literature from the dominance of Denmark. For years, Norway had been subservient to Danish ideas, both politically and artistically. By turning to the legends of his own northern land, Bjørnson helped to establish a distinctive Norwegian literature. ARNE was one of his first novels of peasant life; it had a great influence on other writers and was acclaimed around the world. It is an unusual work but one which still can be enjoyed for its poetic qualities and for its sympathetic portrayals of human weakness and desire.

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