Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

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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...

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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 asks him to explain and, if possible, defend himself. Alf appeals to the tacit understanding that exists in the bourgeoisie—namely, that women are expected to remain chaste but that the same demand is not to be made of the men. This causes Svava to slap his face with her gauntlet and to threaten to break off the engagement.

Svava is no longer willing to marry Alf because she has lost faith in him. She finds no reason to trust that he will remain faithful to her after their marriage. In the second act, she discovers that this is precisely the situation in which her own mother has found herself throughout her married life. Her mother considered leaving her husband at the time when she first discovered his unfaithfulness but decided against it for the sake of her small child, Svava. Her mother’s example opens two possible courses of action to the daughter; she may resign herself to the fact that faithfulness in marriage is a rarity among people of her class and marry Alf, or she may resolve never to let herself be brought into her mother’s situation. The play does not indicate which choice she finally makes.

A Gauntlet successfully presents one of the most important questions in the so-called morality debate—namely, whether men should be required to meet the same standards of sexual purity as those which were required of women. Bjørnson, the only major Scandinavian author to do so, placed himself on the same side of the issue as the emerging women’s movement. For this reason he had to endure much scorn from some of his fellow writers, who were probably both more cynical and more realistic than he.

Pastor Sang

In the late 1870’s, Bjørnson abandoned his belief in Christianity, and Pastor Sang presents the kind of thinking that led to his decision. When discussing religion with representatives of the church, Bjørnson had been told that the miracle constitutes the decisive proof of the truth of the Christian religion. The idea of the miracle is therefore central to Pastor Sang. The play takes place in northern Norway, and its main character is the pastor Adolf Sang, a man of great faith who has wrought such miracles as causing a lame woman to walk and who has even brought a dead person back to life. The ultimate test of Sang’s faith is the healing of his paralyzed and bedridden wife, Klara, who does not share his religious belief.

The play presents several events that are accepted as miracles by the characters onstage. The first of these is an avalanche that turns away from the church (where the pastor is praying), and, which therefore, is received as a sign from God. The audience has been prepared to view the event differently, however, for early in act 1 it is stated that there has recently been much rain and that there is danger of avalanches, and also that the church had been moved some time in the past so that it might be brought out of the avalanche’s path. Through dramatic ironies such as this one, Bjørnson questions the validity of the idea of the miracle.

At the climax of the play, the pastor appears to be able actually to heal his wife, who gets up from her bed and is seen walking toward him. As they meet and embrace, however, they both die. The miracle appears to be a bona fide one, but a postscript to the play indicates that Klara’s illness has a psychological not a neurological basis and that her death is the result of her having overextended herself because she has felt the pressure of her husband’s religious belief. Sang’s death indicates not only that a belief in miracles is vain but also that Christianity itself is literally beyond human power, in that the human mind cannot comply with the demands placed on it by religion.

The play constitutes a successful explanation of Bjørnson’s rejection of the Christian religion. It is also the dramatist’s finest work, for Bjørnson is able to motivate and involve the audience in a series of actions that are completely beyond the realm of reality. The strength of the drama is not that it ridicules religion but rather that it makes a faith in miracles almost acceptable to the audience. It thus brings out people’s desire for that which is beyond the bounds of this physical world and poignantly demonstrates how this desire cannot be satisfied.

Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg

Written in 1898, Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg is the best of Bjørnson’s later plays. It has its roots in the tragic suicide, a decade earlier, of Ole Richter, Bjørnson’s friend and the Norwegian prime minister in Stockholm. Bjørnson had been blamed for Richter’s death, for he had pressured his friend into promising not to support the Norwegian prime minister in Oslo, Johan Sverdrup, during a critical debate in the Norwegian parliament. When Richter nevertheless supported Sverdrup, Bjørnson published a private letter from Richter that made its author feel compromised and undoubtedly was damaging to him both politically and personally.

The play was in part an attempt by Bjørnson to free himself from the nagging suspicion that he was responsible for Richter’s death, as well as a means of erecting a literary memorial to his friend. The drama’s action basically follows the historical course of events, which are, however, somewhat simplified. Paul Lange, who corresponds to Richter, is portrayed as a gifted but weak and sensitive man. When he supports his old leader in a situation of conflicting loyalties, he is not only criticized but also scorned and ostracized because of his choice. The only person who supports him is his fiancé, the wise and proud Tora Parsberg, who loves him despite his weakness. At first she helps him cope with the situation, but when he is not given a promised diplomatic appointment which would have rehabilitated him, he is thrown into despair and chooses to die, a victim of the ugly side of politics.

Bjørnson was not quite able to realize his intentions. Lange is too concerned with the diplomatic appointment to pass for a noble man whose only flaw is that he allows himself to be destroyed by party politics. He comes across as a man who is so weak that he is unable to accept even a woman’s love, and the drama becomes the story of his and Tora Parsberg’s tragic relationship. As such it is well written, but it is not necessarily an appropriate memorial to an old friend.

In this later play, as in most of Bjørnson’s other dramas, there is an intimate connection between life and art. This is both a strength and a weakness for the dramatist. Some of Bjørnson’s plays, such as those which have been discussed above, are fine pieces of literature that also have the potential of being made into good theater. They have contributed much to making Bjørnson’s literary reputation secure.