Independent People is one of the few novels to give a faithful and artistic picture of some essentially unrewarding lives in bleak, small Iceland. In addition to the background, Halldór Laxness has written in a style and with a scope approaching the epic. The reader gets some of the feeling of the traditions of the Vikings and sees the old give way to the new. Only the hard, barren life of the crofter is unchanging, for the Icelander in the remoter sections of his country lives on about the plane of the primitive savage.
Laxness’s work is an excellent example of the naturalistic novel, for it demonstrates the thesis that people have no connection with a religious or spiritual world and that people are subject to the natural forces of heredity and environment. According to the tenets of naturalism, one’s life is largely determined by the social and economic forces of one’s background, which are usually presented by an author of this school with elaborate and minute documentation. The characters usually show strong animal drives, but they are helpless in their fight against sociological pressures. All of these characteristics fit Independent People. In it, Laxness starkly presents all the grim details of the life of Bjartur, the “independent man,” who fights to rise above his environment, becomes successful for a period, and then sinks back into the miserable life he worked so hard to escape.
Except for occasional references to automobiles and electricity, one would not know that the novel is set in the twentieth century, for the lifestyle of the crofters is no better than that of peasants in medieval times. The poverty of the crofters is almost unbelievable. They live in small, one-room hovels above the stables and are plagued by the smoke of peat-stoked fires, the dampness of spring, and the bitter cold of winter, when snow may cover the entire house. In an environment where humans live little better than beasts, it is almost unavoidable that they become animalistic and lose compassion and emotion. In Independent People, there is no communication or understanding among the characters, and any attempt at communication is viewed with suspicion.
The role of women in such circumstances is particularly hard. This is shown in the grotesque death of Rosa, who is found dead on the croft floor in a pool of blood. Her infant is kept alive by the warmth of the dog that lies upon it until Bjartur returns. The harshness of a woman’s life is also seen in the yearly pregnancies of Finna and in the miserable life Asta is forced to live after Bjartur drives her from the house.
Even more interesting, however, is the perverted responses that one is conditioned into making by the hard life one lives. For example, Bjartur mourns for neither of his wives. When looking for a housekeeper to care for the infant Asta, he admits that he talks more about animals than about human beings. He dismisses Rosa’s death by telling the minister that she just died from loss of blood. No effort to care for her seems to have entered his mind.
There are several prominent themes running through the novel; politics, economics, social reform, and the clash between religion and ancient superstitions are all dealt with in some detail. For years Laxness searched for a sustaining religious and political ideology, and in Independent People , the restless energy generated by that search finds its first powerful outlet in his bitter attack on materialism. He holds the greed and the oppression inherent in the materialistic philosophy responsible for the sordidness and suffering that fills the lives of his countrymen in rural Iceland. In exposing the cruelties of rural conditions with all the merciless determination of the naturalist school, the author enraged many Icelanders—who resented having such a brutal picture of their emerging nation published abroad—and impressed liberals all over Europe and America. For all Laxness’s revolutionary vigor, hatred of power of and...
(The entire section is 1,238 words.)