Independent People

by Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This acclaimed novel depicts the challenges of nature, poverty, and isolation that poor farmers in Iceland faced in the early 1900s after generations of servitude. This piece is described as a powerful example of social realism and a stern indictment of capitalism and materialism.

Laxness clearly promotes the strength of the individual and the necessity of independence. The next two quotes reveal this sentiment:

A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat. . . .

The tyranny of mankind; it was like the obstinate drip of water falling on a stone and hollowing it little by little; and this drip continued, falling obstinately, falling without pause on the souls of the children.

The main character of the book, Bjartur, conveys the same thought throughout the book:

People who aren’t independent aren’t people.

In one scene, Bjartur stands his ground as an independent, stern man:

I would certainly have bought a cow and have had hired help as well. But it so happens that all my life I’ve had the opinion that freedom and independence are worth more than all the cattle that any crofter ever got himself into debt for.

Again, Bjartur defends independence over persuasion when he stops trying to prevent his son from making a particular choice:

He made no further attempt to talk his son over; it is a mark of weakness to try to talk anyone over. An independent man thinks over for himself and lets others do as they please.

As well, the author encourages a distrust of the human propensity to control or manipulate others with ideas or propaganda.

It's a useful habit never to believe more than half of what people tell you, and not to concern yourself with the rest. Rather keep your mind free and your path your own.

Laxness wrote about enduring the harsh conditions of living on the land:

it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty.

He also describes the brutal winters, to which the people had to adapt to survive:

One boy's footprints are not long in being lost in the snow, in the steadily falling snow of the shortest day, the longest night; they are lost as soon as they are made. And once again the heath is clothed in drifting white.

Laxness also provides insight into the character of the Icelandic people, as he describes Bjartur:

It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left, when you have lost what you had; and fortunately he had the sense to hang on to the sheep as long as possible.

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