The Family at Gilje

by Jonas Lie

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 970

The Family at Gilje is often considered only a minor Scandinavian classic. It is accorded little significance outside Scandinavian literary history. The novel nevertheless reflects many of the major themes of mainstream European literature of the nineteenth century. One of the most striking commonalities is the theme of the conflict between the individual and various social codes. Very often, this is expressed in terms of romantic love as a metaphor for individual choice. Inger-Johanna Jäger is obliged to chose between submission to what her society wants for her and her own desires.

In raising Inger-Johanna, the Captain and Mrs. Jäger are faced with a paradox. As members of the relatively prosperous landholding class, they are at the top of the social pyramid, as far as Gilje is concerned, but in the eyes of the wider world they are rural, backward, and, most importantly, culturally impoverished. In sending Inger-Johanna to the city, they try to gain entry for their daughter into social circles that they have not themselves penetrated. The parents find, however, that once the process of Inger-Johanna’s acculturation is under way, it cannot be controlled. The reader senses before it happens that Inger-Johanna will find the charms of the conventional Captain Rönnow lacking and prefer the earnest student Arent Grip. One of Grip’s charms is that Inger-Johanna’s aunt and her parents find him an unattractive candidate for her hand in marriage. As often happens in the nineteenth century European novel, the choice of a spouse is used as a metaphor for self-discovery and the exploration of various philosophical alternatives. Inger-Johanna is exposed to various potential directions in life, and she is encouraged to have the appearance of exploring all her options, but she finds that ultimately her family tries to constrain her freedom.

Although the Jägers are frustrated by Inger-Johanna’s willful and headstrong ways, they nevertheless prefer her to the more earthbound Thinka, whose ordinariness illuminates by contrast Inger-Johanna’s intellectual and spiritual curiosity. Jorgen is more like his oldest sister in his ambition and drive. He eventually finds his energies cannot be contained by provincial Norway and ends up immigrating to America, where the traits that threaten to make his life unfulfilled at home assist him in achieving considerable success in America. Being a woman, Inger-Johanna does not really have the option of emigrating alone in the society of her day.

The plot of The Family at Gilje surprises by its relative unconventionality. Throughout the first half of the book, the reader is led to think either that Inger-Johanna will elope with Grip and be spiritually and emotionally fulfilled, or that she will marry Captain Rönnow and have her energy and impulsiveness co-opted and reintegrated into the existing structure of social manners and mores. She ends up marrying neither man. Looking beyond the superficial plot contrivance by which Jonas Lie secures this outcome, the reader sees that Inger-Johanna’s disappointment and renunciation of her once-cherished personal goals provide, for all their depressing limitation, an opportunity for the fulfillment of her spiritual potential. This outcome stands in vivid contrast to that of Thinka, who does not have the backbone to resist the imposition of an unwanted husband by her family. Inger-Johanna is aging, alone, and disappointed at the end of the book. However, unlike Thinka, she has not only kept her freedom but also maintained her personal and moral integrity.

The crucial force in the book’s unexpected plot is Grip. Grip is a character type familiar to the nineteenth century novel. He is the idealist who rebels against ingrained social expectations and who advertises vague, radical ideas while also exerting a sort of romantic charisma—a figure highly familiar to European readers of the day. Most of these figures turn out to be either hopelessly shallow and unrealistic or ultimately slack and self-serving, but Grip is different. He has deep beliefs to which he faithfully adheres and by which he lives his life. More important, he is a good man. He is not only intelligent and engaging but also genuinely charitable, wanting unselfishly to help others. The crude and backward Norway of his day cannot comprehend these traits, so his life seems a waste. His life is not wasted, however, because he provides Inger-Johanna with the vision of how life should be, how it should have meaning. Even though they see each other only briefly in the twenty years between the time of their failed courtship and that of Grip’s death, and although their relationship is never consummated, their relationship has, in spiritual terms, a positive ending. Grip enables Inger-Johanna to glimpse the full beauty of life, even if she never fully experiences it.

Lie’s novel thus turns from being a rather conventional chronicle of bourgeois family life to being a portrait of the imaginative triumphs that the framework of family life cannot fully succeed in containing. Lie is not hostile to bourgeois society; he recognizes its necessity and its achievements. The Jäger family is a genuinely happy one, and without the kindness of her parents Inger-Johanna could never achieve her own unusual and winning personality. In a way, Lie argues, all Inger-Johanna is trying to do is take her childhood happiness and reproduce it on a higher, more spiritual plane by marrying Grip; it is only the constraints of society that prevent Inger-Johanna from fulfilling herself within the bounds of family life.

After this book, Lie’s interest turned much more toward the mystical and the spiritual, toward strange sea tales and ghost stories. The Family at Gilje, being his most mainstream work, is the only book of Lie’s to have any recognized place in world literature. It holds that status because of the depth of its characters and the importance of its themes.

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