Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1238
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 authority, scorn for bourgeois morality, and anger and grim satire, he still is able to express his artist’s love of beauty. Alongside scenes of coarseness and themes marked by their bitterness, Laxness displays throughout Independent People a great compassion and sensitivity, a capacity for tenderness and concern, and a burning devotion to the spirit of individualism and idealism.
The center of interest, however, is always the character Bjartur. At times, his seeming indifference is nothing more than an attempt to cope with life’s harshness. In the spring following Helgi’s disappearance, for example, Bjartur, looking for a lost ewe, finds the decayed body of a young boy, which no longer looks like a human being. Bjartur touches it once or twice with his stick, takes a good pinch of snuff, and leaves. Bjartur reveals, at times, that affection is possible in his life. Although he knows Asta is not his child, she is his favorite. He calls her his “little flower” and is horrified when he finds his fingers undoing the fastenings of her undergarment in the bed they share. He also has a poetic side, for he continually composes complicated verses and teaches the ancient poems of Iceland to Asta. However, poetry is the only fancy he allows himself; all else is harsh reality. To Bjartur, the sheep and the land are the most important things in the world, for after years of debt his only desire is to be considered an independent man. When he brings his bride, Rosa, to Summerhouses, he says that independence is the most important thing in life. He intends to maintain his independence. This is the great irony of the book, for his independence is false; he is completely at the mercy of his environment. His stubbornness and pride lead him to disaster when he refuses to take the advice of wiser men and falls into bankruptcy when he borrows money to build a “real” house, which he hopes will rival the bailiff’s mansion. Bjartur defies everything and everyone. He refuses to believe in either the Christian religion or in the ancient superstitions of the country. In a show of bravado, he defies the spirit of Gunnvor, the witch buried upon his land, who is supposed to have killed most of her children and to have drunk the blood of those who survived. Everyone else in the district adds a rock to her grave when they pass, but this Bjartur refuses to do. Instead, he purchases a headstone for her grave marked “To Gunnvor from Bjartur.” It is after this act of defiance that his financial troubles begin.
Laxness was reared in the country and is able to give an intimate picture of the starkness of Icelandic life on the frontier. This great attention to detail makes the book approach epic proportions. There are, however, some flaws in the author’s style. He often makes authorial intrusions, commenting upon politics, economics, or human nature. The style is also uneven. At times, it is smooth and poetic, but at others it is extremely awkward. On the whole, however, the book is valuable as a social document and as the story of Bjartur, the independent man who, struggling against impossible odds, is never defeated psychologically, even when he loses all he has worked so hard for. Without remorse, he plans to begin again at the wretched, abandoned croft of his mother-in-law.
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