Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Summerhouses. Small farm, formerly wintering pens for sheep, in a mountain valley of north-central Iceland. The story’s protagonist, Gudbjartur Jonsson, fulfills his dream of becoming an independent man by buying Summerhouses, a marginal tract of heath, and raising his own flock. To the south rise desolate mountains with glaciers, and ranges extend to the east and west, making the farmstead an island of fertile land within the surrounding desert highlands. Furthermore, it lies under a legendary curse, haunted by the Irish sorcerer Kolumkilli and the witch Gunnvor. In a major theme, these spirits symbolize the harsh, alien hostility of the environment to human occupation; everyone before Bjartur has been driven from Summerhouses. To avoid the humiliation of eating the bread of others or accepting charity of any kind, Bjartur must have stony resolution as unforgiving as the natural environment. In the best of years the heath barely supports enough sheep to feed a family; during bad years Bjartur loses two wives and several children to starvation and disease. Bjartur represents all poor people who dream of standing on their own land and controlling their own fortunes, and his fate—he eventually loses Summerhouses after decades of struggle—reveals the brittleness of that dream.


*Iceland. North Atlantic island nation, whose countryside contains natural features that are both beautiful and terrifying—desert, heath, hot springs, freezing rivers, volcanic vents—all of it snowbound much of the year. On the northern part of Iceland, Bjartur and his family respond to the conditions variously. Bjartur himself finds nature a foe to tame with his strength and steadfastness. The summer pastures and native creatures...

(The entire section is 730 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Einarsson, Stefán. A History of Icelandic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957. Sketches the writer’s career and comments on major publications. Claims that in Independent People and other novels, Laxness deals sensitively with contemporary themes. The poor farmer in the novel emerges as a symbol of his class and a hero of great stature.

Hallberg, Peter. Halldór Laxness. Translated by Rory McTurk. New York: Twayne, 1971. Chapter devoted to Independent People compares the novel with the work of Knut Hamsun and discusses Laxness’ infatuation with socialism. Extensive commentary on the protagonist and his children.

Hallmundsson, Hallbe. Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 39-63. Collection of essays on the novelist’s achievements. Includes a critical essay on the ways the novelist is able to use regional materials to describe universal traits of human character. Reprints Laxness’ 1955 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Leithauser, Brad. “The Book of My Life: Halldór Laxness’ Independent People.” In Penchants and Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Personal commentary on a book that Leithauser claims has great power to evoke sympathetic responses in readers, especially those whose experiences parallel the novelist and his characters.

Rossel, Sven H. A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980. Translated by Anne C. Ulmer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. Provides a biographical sketch and a summary of Laxness’ literary achievements. Places Independent People in the context of the author’s canon, examining ways the novel shows Laxness’ faith in socialism as an antidote to capitalism.