Growth of the Soil Summary
Starting with the novels Children of the Age and Segelfoss Town, Hamsun severely criticized the decline of traditional society and the problems associated with modernization. This critique was continued in Growth of the Soil, in which Hamsun both wanted to show the full extent of the evils of the modern age and to offer his portrait of modernity against the backdrop of the story of a heroic homesteader, Isak Sellanraa.
Like some of the outsiders in Hamsun’s novels from the 1890’s, Isak has no history when he appears in the wilderness, looking for a place to settle. Hamsun emphasizes that his presence is as natural as that of the wild animals of the area, and shows that his premodern approach to living is both healthier and more natural than a life based on a monetary economy. Isak works hard, clearing land and building shelter for himself and his farm animals with simple hand tools, and his work is portrayed as more authentic than the mechanized and highly capitalized alternative.
As Isak’s farm grows and prospers, he is able to attract a woman, Inger, whose cleft lip makes her willing to settle for the strong but physically unattractive homesteader. Inger bears two healthy sons, Eleseus and Sivert, but her third child is a girl with a cleft lip. Worried that the child will have a miserable life, Inger gives birth to her in secret and kills her before anyone sees her. While she is generally unsentimental, Inger deeply mourns her daughter.
Inger’s criminal act is discovered and she is sentenced to six years in prison in the city of Trondheim. While Inger is basically a good person, another mother and child murderess in the novel, a servant named Barbro, is not. Barbro lacks the sound instincts that could have allowed her to bond with Axel, the homesteader who wants her as his wife.
When Inger returns from prison after completing her sentence, she brings many new ideas that she learned while she was away from home. She also encourages Eleseus, her first-born son and heir to the Sellanraa farm, to get a job in town. This experience makes Eleseus unfit for farm life and he eventually has no choice but to leave Norway for the United States.
The biggest threat to the rural values depicted by Hamsun, however, comes from the discovery of copper ore on Isak’s land. The local sheriff, Geisler, helps Isak obtain title to his homestead and is a generally helpful adviser to him, but he is also the agent through which the copper mine is developed, and modernity invades Isak’s paradise. Ultimately, however, the mine fails, while Isak’s farm continues to prosper and is taken over by his son Sivert, who represents the next generation of the family.
Isak leaves a small Norwegian village and sets out into the wilds to claim a homestead. Carrying some food and a few rude implements, he wanders until he finds a stretch of grass and woodland, with a stream nearby. There he clears the land. He has to carry everything he buys out from the village on his back. He builds a sod house, procures several goats, and prepares for winter.
He sends word by traveling Lapps that he needs a woman to help in the fields. One day, Inger appears with her belongings. She has a cleft lip and is not beautiful, but she is a good worker and shares Isak’s bed. She brings things from her home, including a cow.
That winter, Inger bears her first child, Eleseus. He is a fine boy, with no cleft lip. In the spring, Inger’s relative Oline comes to see the new family. She promises to return to take care of the farming in the fall, when Inger and Isak plan to go to town to be married and have the child baptized. The farm prospers through the summer.
The harvest is not good, but potatoes carry Isak’s family through the winter without hunger. Inger bears a second son, Sivert. Then Geissler, the sheriff’s officer, comes to tell Isak that he will have to pay the government for his land. He promises to make the terms as easy as possible. Geissler loses his position, however,...
(The entire section is 1,667 words.)