Critical Evaluation

(Essentials of European Literature)

MEEK HERITAGE conveys the atmosphere of a brooding folk epic. Jussi, the protagonist, symbolizes the lower-class Finn who is jostled and led by fate. The harsh climate, the grubbing toil, the cruel class cleavages are his natural lot. Even the birth and death cycles are indifferent to him. His redeeming virtue is his ability to work hard under direction. Over the whole novel lies a tone of melancholy. The style is discursive and penetrating.

The novel begins and ends with the death of Jussi Toivola. His death is caused by men to whom he means nothing more than another body. Jussi Toivola’s insignificance is underlined through the novel by the way his name keeps changing. When he is young, he is called Jussi; as an adult making his own way in the world, he becomes Juha. When he begins to rise a little, the people around him take to calling him Janne, but when his status again declines, he once more becomes Juha. He is nothing more than the social status he possesses, and that is usually lowly.

Jussi grows up feeling that he has no control over his own life. The events in his existence are like acts of God: They happen without reason, and he must endure them. It never occurs to him that he might be able to shape his own destiny. Fatalistic and absentminded, Jussi accepts what comes, as do most of the peasants in the novel. Passively, they wait for life to decide what it will do with them. The primitive world of Jussi’s childhood marks him for life. The peasants he is reared among might be living in the Middle Ages rather than during the end of the nineteenth century. To the child Jussi, grownups are a mysterious problem of nature, to be feared and avoided. His father, old Benjamin, possesses nothing but contempt for either women or children. All a boy can do is wait for the time when he will be a man and can torment women and children as his father did. Meanwhile, everyone struggles on, from week to week, month to month, aware of nothing beyond their tight little world. They do not even think of the country they live in; the term “Finnish nation” means nothing to them. In the depths of their souls, these rough, ignorant beings nurse a bitter mysterious melancholy.

The author points out that from the distance of time, this primitive world might seem interesting or even attractive in its simplicity, but it was nothing but drab misery to those who had to live in it. Particularly to the women, the dominant color of life was a permanent gray. If one survived, however, there would be a turning point, some place in the beginning of adulthood, when life might almost seem desirable. For a brief moment, a spark of hope might burn in one’s breast. A few individuals did manage to go up in the world, to find a bit of happiness. Usually, however, a new grayness settled over the remainder of one’s life. In the last report, one found oneself alone: This was the chief lesson that life taught Jussi. Dreams were futile. Survival was all.

If Jussi could have been said to possess any philosophy, it was a kind of fatalism. His parents died while he was...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)