Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 458
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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