Johannes V. Jensen Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

“It is a force in itself, the love of my soil and my stock.My entire life is a description of Himmerland.” Thus does Johannes V. Jensen acknowledge the influence of his home region upon his life, and an understanding of that influence provides the key to Jensen’s writing as well. The dream of the lost land of his childhood made him search both in the past and in distant places for milieus and conditions that would recall the life and traditions of his ancestors. This expansion, Jensen’s mythic method, led him back to his home region and in his best works established a balance between an optimistic and a materialistic view of life, the latter influenced by Darwin’s theories and the former by spiritual reflection.

This balance was not yet established when Jensen wrote his first novels. In his descriptions of students from the provinces and their confrontation with the modern metropolis, Copenhagen, both Buris in Danskere and the title character of Einar Elkær are afflicted with a paralyzing introspection. Their inability to accept life leads to cynicism and destruction. To be sure, it is suggested that Buris will escape the advancing process of disintegration, but Einar dies in a mental hospital. Preoccupation with the self remains a major problem in the fictitious travelogue Skovene, written in the capricious and ironic style of Heine; here, the contrast between white civilization and indigenous life also shows the influence of Kipling. The work tells humorously of Jensen’s stay among Malaysians during his world trip of 1902 and 1903, focusing on a tiger hunt that is supposed to affirm the author as a man of action. Scattered throughout the narration is a marvelous wealth of witticisms, brilliant animal and nature descriptions, and lyric passages full of beauty and color. The predominant mood is one of homesickness and longing, which, together with a penetrating introspection, haunts the narrator throughout the book. If Skovene—like Jensen’s other youthful works—was an attempt to escape his preoccupation during the 1890’s with soul and self, the attempt did not succeed.

Madame d’Ora

A more successful attempt can be found in Jensen’s Himmerland stories, the robust realism of which is continued in two of his novels, Madame d’Ora and Hjulet (the wheel), set in the splendidly depicted milieus of New York and Chicago, respectively. These works, however, are marred by lengthy monologues and dialogues attacking metaphysical speculation. Thus, in Madame d’Ora, a spiritualist séance to which the Faustian scientist and neurasthenic dreamer Hall falls prey is revealed as pure swindle. In addition, Jensen employs stereotyped suspense effects in an unsuccessful attempt to parody the detective story, as well as grotesque character delineation in accordance with his wish to portray stages in human evolution rather than individual evolution. The extremes of these stages are represented by the “ape-man” and religious charlatan Evanston and by his opponent, the poet Lee, a man of Nordic descent who in Hjulet kills Evanston, now symbolically called Cancer. Lee is thereby changed from a passive spectator to a man of action who condemns any aestheticism as an illness preventing acceptance of reality and social commitment.

The Faust theme of Madame d’Ora was thus replaced with social motifs, clearly influenced by Norris, an author Jensen greatly respected and admired, although it was to resurface in the novel Dr. Renaults Fristelser. In contrast to the famous Faust story by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1790-1833), Jensen’s “Faust” wins over Mefisto (here called Asbest) because he is willing to accept wholeheartedly the experience of the moment—life as it is. Structurally, the novel is one of Jensen’s more uneven books. The explanation lies in his intention to write a philosophical treatise disguised as fiction, a goal he had set for himself in Madame d’Ora and Hjulet. Greater artistic strength is noticeable when Jensen gives rein to his mythic imagination. Masterful are his cinematic view of modern civilization, his description of modern technology and machinery, and his evocation of the magic power of nature over the human spirit.


Jensen’s last novel, Gudrun, is a contemporary portrayal of the Copenhagen woman and thus also a novel about the Danish capital. It is, however, completely different from...

(The entire section is 1852 words.)