Widely regarded as Norway’s foremost novelist and one of the greatest prose writers of Scandinavia, Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, after a career that had already spanned thirty years and was to last for almost thirty more. Growth of the Soil was preceded by twenty-eight earlier books, including fourteen novels and six plays; seven more volumes were to come. A man of scant formal education, Hamsun nevertheless read widely, particularly in the literature of his homeland, and he traveled a great deal, including two extended stays in America when he was a young man.
At first a practitioner (and, according to many literary historians, a chief innovator) of the psychological novel, Hamsun turned his attention to issues of recent history and contemporary society shortly after the turn of the century. In such books as Børn av tiden (1913; Children of the Age, 1924) and Segelfoss by (1915; Segelfoss Town, 1925), he voiced merciless criticism of the modern age for allowing industrial production to replace craftsmanship and democracy to substitute for the leadership of exceptional individuals. These concerns are also found in Growth of the Soil, but instead of simply criticizing modernity, Hamsun here attempted to prescribe a positive remedy for the problems he saw. He did so by presenting his readers with an example worthy of emulation and by pointing to nature’s power to eliminate corruption and strengthen true humanity.
Hamsun’s main theme is the salutary influence of a rural life and a close relationship with the soil. The protagonist of the book, Isak, is presented as a man without a personal history, but it is hinted that he may have had a dark past. He comes to an isolated area of northern Norway in search of a place to homestead and finds a spot far away from human society. He is presented as a simple but noble man. Not unlike the settlers on the American frontier, he builds a good farm and a fine life for himself and his family through hard work.
Like Isak, his wife Inger is also able to rebuild her life by working to establish the farm. Because she was born with a harelip, Inger has had a difficult time as a child and young woman. In contrast to her peers, who looked only at her outward appearance, however, Isak is able to appreciate Inger’s essential qualities: her potential for becoming a help to him in his work and good mother for his children. Life on the wilderness farm allows Inger to flourish in a manner that would have been impossible for her in an established community.
Hamsun couples his emphasis on the simple values of hard work, cooperation with nature, and the natural attraction between a man and a woman with great simplicity of style and characterization. Inger and Isak, both simple human beings, address each other without rhetorical flourish. Hamsun tells the story of an idealized enterprise almost in the style of a folktale. He focuses on the mere narration of events and adds few philosophical asides.
Like a folktale, however, Growth of the Soil describes challenges and tests to which a protagonist is subjected, and it is through his description of such trials that Hamsun voices his social criticism. Isak’s first challenge comes from the Norwegian government. Having settled on public land, Isak is in danger of being deprived of the results of his hard work because he has neglected to secure legal title to his farm. Through the assistance of the local bailiff, a man named Geissler, Isak is allowed to purchase...
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the land on quite favorable terms, but society has intruded into Isak’s paradise with its insistence that the concept of ownership be acknowledged, and Isak must yield to the authority of the state. The law also makes itself felt when it discovers that Inger has strangled one of her babies to death. Remembering her own suffering as a child and young woman, Inger cannot bear to think that her daughter might meet with the same fate.
When as a result of her crime Inger is sent to prison, she is educated, learns to sew, and has an operation for her harelip. By the time she returns to Isak, she has changed both literally and figuratively. She has been profoundly affected by civilization and brings its contagion with her into Isak’s family. Hamsun voices his social criticism by showing what becomes of the oldest son as a result of his mother’s influence. Ill at ease with farm life, Eleseus first gets a position as a clerk in a local store and then moves to the city. After squandering much money, he finally emigrates to America and is never heard from again. Hamsun shows that the life of the city, with its emphasis on commerce and industry, has a destructive effect on human character. In contrast to Eleseus, his brother Sivert, who stays with the farm, avoids spiritual corruption.
Hamsun also develops his theme of social and spiritual degeneration by showing what happens to a community when it moves away from cultivating the soil. A small settlement is formed when Isak is joined by other homesteaders. When copper ore is discovered in a nearby mountain, however, industry comes to the area in the shape of a mining operation, and with it comes the establishment of a general store. People begin to rely increasingly on a monetary economy. Only when the mining enterprise collapses do they discover that they should have stayed with the land.
The book’s worst example of corruption is found in the character Barbro, who, motivated by the selfishness and lack of natural affection that Hamsun associates with city life, kills two healthy babies. Hamsun, nevertheless, allows even her to be rehabilitated through marriage to a hard-working homesteader. The final lesson of Growth of the Soil is that nature has an almost unlimited power to heal.