Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson was born at Kvikne in eastern Norway on December 8, 1832, the oldest son of Peder Bjørnson, a rural pastor, and his wife, Elise Nordraak. His father was the son of a prosperous farmer, and his mother came from a family of merchants.
When the boy was five years old, his father became the pastor at Nesset in Romsdalen on the west coast of Norway, and this is where Bjørnstjerne grew up. At the age of twelve, however, he was sent to school in the town of Molde and remained there until the winter of 1850, when he went to Christiania (Oslo) to prepare for his matriculation examinations. There Bjørnson attended a famous private school commonly referred to as “Heltberg’s Student Factory,” where Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, and A. O. Vinje were also students at the time. He received his matriculation certificate in 1852 but decided against a career in theology and became a journalist instead, fighting for more realism both in prose fiction and on the stage. He also founded a periodical in which he published a number of rather immature short stories.
In the summer of 1856, however, he wrote his first play, Between the Battles, which was a great success when performed in Christiania. In the fall of the same year he went to Copenhagen, where he wrote the greater portion of his next play, Halte Hulda (lame Hulda), as well as a short story titled “Thrond,” and part of his first short novel, Trust and Trial. This book was followed by two others, Arne (1859; English translation, 1861) and En glad Gut (1860; A Happy Boy, 1869).
Bjørnson’s early works should be viewed in the context of contemporary Norwegian history. In 1814, Norway had become independent of Denmark and had obtained a free constitution but remained united with Sweden. Culturally, however, it was still dependent on Denmark. Bjørnson wanted to create an awareness of the heritage of his people by drawing attention to the deeds of the forefathers and by showing that contemporary farmers were not much different from their ancestors. In his writing, he therefore alternated between plays based on historical material and prose tales presenting his view of the farmers.
From 1857 to 1859, Bjørnson was the head of the theater in Bergen. There he met the young actress Karoline Reimers, to whom he was married in 1858. Bjørnson’s later emphasis on the value of family life is to a great extent a result of this successful union.
While in Bergen, Bjørnson became seriously involved in politics for the first time. As the editor of a local newspaper, he was instrumental in having the city’s conservative representatives in the parliament replaced by liberal politicians. His voice was also heard in national politics, and there was little time for creative writing. He therefore traveled to Italy in 1860, hoping that a stay abroad would help him concentrate on his art. Kong Sverre and Sigurd Slembe, two historical plays that established Bjørnson as Norway’s greatest writer, were both written in Italy.
Bjørnson returned to Norway in the spring of 1863, and in 1865 he became associated with Christiania Theater. He also edited a paper and continued his political involvement. At the same time, he wrote his first modern drama, The Newlyweds, and in 1868, he published a novel, Fiskerjenten (The Fisher Maiden, 1869), in which he discussed the place of the theater in cultural life and argued against the narrow views expressed by the leaders of Norway’s influential Pietist movement. Bjørnson had strong religious convictions, but his religion was the liberal and national Christianity of the Dane, Nikolai Grundtvig.
In 1873, Bjørnson again fled to Italy in order to concentrate on his writing. The result was two plays, The Bankrupt and The Editor, which were both finished when he returned home in 1874. Now Bjørnson settled on the farm Aulestad, near the town of Lillehammer.
There had always been a close connection between Bjørnson’s art and his involvement with political and social questions. This relationship became even more pronounced after 1878, when he abandoned his religious faith and actively advocated the ideas of the modern breakthrough. Having studied Charles Darwin and some of the higher critics, Bjørnson now allied himself with the radical Dane Georg Brandes and his circle. In his drama The King, he attacked both the institution of the monarchy itself and the social forces that traditionally have allied themselves with it, such as the state church and the military. In the short novel Magnhild (1877; English translation, 1883) and the play Leonarda, he argued for women’s right to divorce, an idea to which the church was strongly opposed.
Bjørnson visited the United States during the years 1880-1881, after which he went to Paris, where he remained until 1887. The first play he finished there was A Gauntlet, a contribution to what has been called the great Nordic war of sexual morality. At issue in this debate was whether women ought to be given the same sexual freedom that men had traditionally enjoyed among the Scandinavian bourgeoisie, as well as what should be done about prostitution and the economic position of married women. The conservatives wanted to preserve the status quo—that is, keep wives economically dependent on their husbands, who could continue to enjoy the services of socially ostracized prostitutes—while the radicals argued to replace this arrangement with what they termed free love, which would give women the same sexual rights as men. Bjørnson was the only major Scandinavian writer who argued that men ought to be as chaste as the women had traditionally been, a view that earned for him the support of women’s organizations and the scorn of both radical and conservative men.
During his time in Paris, Bjørnson wrote his finest drama, Pastor Sang, the first of two plays known as “Beyond Human Power,” in which he both attacks the Christian belief in miracles and poignantly portrays human desire for that which goes beyond the bounds of the physical world. Then came his novel Det flager i byen og på havnen (1884; The Heritage of the Kurts, 1892) and a comedy titled Geography and Love, neither of which was artistically successful. After his return to Norway he wrote another novel, På Guds veje (1889; In God’s Way, 1890), which is more successful as a work of art.
In 1892, Bjørnson declared that he was a socialist, and three years later came his drama Beyond Our Might (the second of the “Beyond Human Power” plays), the first Scandinavian drama portraying the class struggle. Its background is the rapidly progressing industrialization of Norway and a number of strikes that took place in the early 1890’s. Bjørnson’s next significant drama, Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg, has its background in the suicide of Ole Richter, the Norwegian prime minister in Stockholm and a close friend of Bjørnson. The playwright’s last piece, titled When the New Wine Blooms, is his best comedy and expresses Bjørnson’s fundamentally optimistic view of life.
Bjørnson received the Nobel Prize in 1903. His influence was great both in literature and in politics, and he was able to maintain his creative powers to the end of his life. During his last decade, he commonly spent the summers in Norway and the winters abroad. In the spring of 1909, he had a stroke that paralyzed his left side, and he died in Paris on April 26, 1910.