Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s authorship extended from the 1850’s to the beginning of the twentieth century. This was a period of great social and political upheaval in Norway, and the author was a central figure in the public debate throughout his adult life. Bjørnson did not make much distinction between art and life, and his works therefore exhibit a strong connection with the life of his nation.

This intense participation in public life caused Bjørnson to feel a need to reflect on and to distance himself from the various battles in which he took part. From time to time, he would escape from the heat of the current debate by going abroad, and his most significant works came into being during such respites from politics. His participation in public life thus gave him material for his art, and he was able to use this material by temporarily distancing himself from the various battles he fought.

Bjørnson was the son of a pastor, but he grew up in the country and always felt close to the common people. This made it natural for him to first champion liberal causes and later to consider himself a socialist. He was never a revolutionary, however, for he always placed the individual human being above theory of any kind. His concern for the individual is a common feature found in all of his works.

The Norwegian economy changed radically during the second half of the nineteenth century, a period of rapid industrialization during which trade expanded greatly. The development was cyclical rather than linear, however, and in periods of economic stagnation there were numerous business failures. During his time in Bergen, Bjørnson had closely observed a number of bankruptcies, and business conditions in the early 1870’s caused him to reflect again on the subject.

The Bankrupt

Bjørnson was not only interested in the financial aspect of bankruptcy but also in its effects on public and private morality, as well as its consequences for family life. All these aspects are explored in The Bankrupt, which became a great success in both Scandinavia and Germany.

The play’s main characters are the visionary and creative businessman Tjælde, his wife, and his antagonist in the bankruptcy proceedings, the lawyer Berent. Tjælde’s business is diversified and includes both manufacturing and trade, and a large number of people are dependent on him for their livelihood. In his zeal to build his business, he has overextended himself financially, and a turn for the worse in the general economy has caused him to become insolvent. Tjælde refuses to face the consequences of this fact and place his firm in receivership. Instead, he continues his activities by obtaining short-term credit in the hope that business conditions will improve, and justifies his actions by pointing to the welfare of his employees.

To inspire confidence and obtain credit, however, he must project an image not merely of solvency but also of abundance. He does this by entertaining lavishly and by essentially wasting money that does not belong to him. He also refuses to reveal the true state of the firm to his wife, who nevertheless understands that there are difficulties. Bjørnson is extremely critical of the resulting weakening of Tjælde’s family relationships, the strength of which the author views as fundamental to any kind of professional success. He also criticizes Tjælde for the hypocrisy inherent in his projection of an image of affluence, when in reality he is squandering the funds of numerous small savers.

The author’s chief spokesperson in the play is the lawyer Berent, who confronts Tjælde with his true financial situation and exacts from him a promise that he will admit to being bankrupt. Tjælde has much difficulty keeping the promise, however, and considers both fleeing the country and committing suicide as alternatives to being dishonored, as he sees it. Support from his wife and children nevertheless enables him to live through the bankruptcy, and in the play’s final act, he has established a successful smaller business and is working on repaying obligations that have no legal force but for which he feels morally responsible. The optimistic Bjørnson thus allows Tjælde to rehabilitate himself.

A Gauntlet

The greatest issue to be debated in Scandinavia during the 1880’s was that of sexual morality, and Bjørnson, like many other writers, contributed to the discussion. The conflict in the two-act play A Gauntlet is between Svava, a young woman of the upper-middle class, and her fiancé, Alf, the oldest son of one of the wealthiest families in the country. Svava is a firm believer in sexual abstinence before marriage, and this is a principle that she expects both men and women to follow. When, in the first act, she discovers that Alf has had an affair with one of the servant girls in his parents’ home, she confronts him with the facts and...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)