Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234
Independent People, by Halldor Laxness, is the story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a poor sheep farmer in rural Iceland, who, in his desire to live independently, endures a life of poverty and hardship and engages in a constant struggle for survival. Bjartur always works hard, but he is indebted to others and subjected to harsh treatment and brutal working conditions. Finally, he saves enough money to buy some land in a remote area of Iceland, and he begins a new life there as a sheep farmer. He marries a local woman named Rosa, who gives birth to a baby girl, Asta Sollija, who, as Bjartur soon discovers, is the child of another man. Rosa dies in childbirth, but Bjartur raises the baby and loves her as his daughter.
Bjartur eventually remarries, has three sons, and continues his life of drudgery. He suffers as he struggles against the land; he loses one son when he moves to America, he loses another to death, and he rejects his daughter and banishes her from Summerhouses when she becomes pregnant at the age of 15. Despite Bjartur’s hardships, however, he perseveres and lives independently as best he can until he can no longer survive at Summerhouses. He then resigns himself to give up sheep farming and take out a loan on Summerhouses. He reconciles with his daughter, rents a home further north, and continues his life of hardship.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144
After working for eighteen years for Bailiff Jon, Bjartur is at last able to buy, with a heavy mortgage, the croft (small farm) called Winterhouses. Proud of his new status as a landowner and fiercely independent, Bjartur promptly renames the place Summerhouses. It is a poor place, fit only for sheep grazing. The house, which Bjartur rebuilds, consists of one room over the stable. The walls are of sod, and the roof is made of a few sheets of corrugated iron covered with turf. Nevertheless, it is his own place, and Bjartur is determined to be a hired workman for no one and to put his trust in sheep. He chooses for his wife the twenty-six-year-old Rosa, a small, sturdy woman with a cast in one eye, who was also in service to the bailiff. Rosa is disappointed in her house, and Bjartur is disappointed in Rosa. He soon finds that she is already pregnant. He suspects, and is sure much later, that the lover is the bailiff’s son, Ingolfur.
After a few months of marriage, Bjartur leaves on a cold winter day to look for his sheep. Seeing a buck reindeer in the woods, he jumps on the animal’s back and attempts to subdue it. The reindeer, however, is too strong and takes off in mad flight for the river. With Bjartur still holding on, the animal swims downstream and finally lands on the other shore. Bjartur, nearly frozen to death, stays to recuperate at a nearby croft.
He returns home after several days to find his wife dead from childbirth and a baby daughter still alive. Disregarding the parentage of the girl, he proudly names her Asta Sollilja. The bailiff’s wife sends the pauper Finna and her mother to look after Bjartur and the baby. Finna is nearly forty years old but strong and well preserved. To settle the problem of the child’s care, Bjartur marries her.
Each year Finna has another child, usually stillborn. After some years, however, there are Helgi, Gvendur, and Nonni, and their half-sister Asta. The croft is crowded, and the beds are all dirty and filled with vermin, but the land is clear of debt.
A southerner comes to the croft one day to ask permission to camp and hunt. The stranger delights Asta, who is awkward and uncouth but bursting with love. The stranger hardly notices her, however, and each night he is gone most of the night. The reason for his visit comes out later, when the bailiff’s daughter leaves the country in great haste.
After little Helgi is lost on the moor, the tie between Asta and Bjartur becomes closer. When Finna dies from poor diet and childbearing, the father tries his best to make life easier for the girl. He refuses to let Asta go to school, but he does teach her much of the old Icelandic poetry. Bjartur takes Asta on his yearly trip to town, where, after doing the shopping, they stay overnight in a lodging house for country folk. To save money, father and daughter sleep in the same bed. Asta is unhappy. The townspeople laugh at her homely clothes, and the snores of the drunken farmers in the nearby beds are terrifying. She snuggles closer to her father and kisses him. He puts his arms around her, but to his horror he finds that she is kissing him repeatedly. Bjartur abruptly gets up and goes out for their horse. Father and daughter leave for home in the rainy night.
Then a series of misfortunes, which the Icelanders attribute to a witch buried near Summerhouses, greatly reduces Bjartur’s flock of sheep, and he goes to town to work. Trying to meet his obligations to his children, Bjartur sends a schoolmaster to instruct Asta, Gvendur, and Nonni during the winter; but Bjartur’s choice of teacher is unfortunate. After getting drunk one night, the schoolmaster takes Asta. When Bjartur comes home in the spring, Asta is pregnant. In his rage Bjartur casts out his daughter, who goes gladly, full of romantic notions of her lover. She walks to his fine town house, which turns out to be a shack. There she learns that he has many children and that his wife is again pregnant.
Just before World War II, Nonni goes to America to join his uncle. Only Gvendur, Bjartur, and the old mother-in-law are left. The war boom raises the price of lambs, and Bjartur prospers. He has two cows and three horses. At the same time, a cooperative movement, with Ingolfur at its head, is organized. In the parish, only Bjartur holds out; he remains loyal to the merchants who were gouging him for years.
Nonni sends two hundred dollars from America to pay for Gvendur’s passage. In spite of his father’s objections, Gvendur, who is seventeen years old and big and strong for his age, decides to emigrate. He puts on his best clothes and goes to town to take the coastal steamer. There he is admired because he is going to America. During the day and night, as Gvendur waits before his ship sails, he meets the bailiff’s granddaughter. She takes him riding on the moor, where they spend the night together. Hoping to win her love, Gvendur renounces his emigration and goes back to Summerhouses.
In spite of the depression following the war, Bjartur resolves to build his new house. He goes deeply into debt to buy great supplies of stone and timber. That year he gets the walls and roof completed, but there are no doors and windows. Before he can finish the house, the mortgage is foreclosed, and Summerhouses passes into the hands of the bank. The only place left for the family is the mother-in-law’s old croft, long since abandoned. During the moving, Bjartur meets Asta and reconciles with her. Asta has a second child by another man, and she is carrying a third. The family is complete again, except for Nonni.
Asta, like Bjartur, is independent. Ingolfur, now rich and a member of Parliament, reveals to her that he is her father. His offer of support is soundly rejected. Bjartur falls in with some strikers who strike against the government’s low wages. For a while he is sympathetic with the men, who are, in a way, led by the Communist Party. Gvendur is even more sympathetic, but they both reject in principle the idea of collective action. They are independent farmers and herders.
They move to the wretched hovel far to the north, with only Blesi, their twenty-five-year-old horse, to do the hauling. By hard work, they continue their old way of life. They have one room in a turf-covered hut. Their diet is cast-off fish. With luck they will be only a little less comfortable than savages in a jungle.