Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1816
First published: 1880 (English translation, 1896)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of work: Nineteenth century
Niels Lyhne, the hero
Erik, his friend
Fru Boyle, a widow
Fennimore, Niels’s cousin
Gerda, Niels’s wife
Bartholine was not like her family. They were common types, not desirous of knowledge or power, seeing little beyond the daily routine. Bartholine, however, loved beauty, lived in poetry. When Lyhne came to woo her, she accepted him as a matter of course, for he was of a family of poets and travelers. Her husband disappointed her, however; he was the youngest, and all gifts of insight had been given to his older brothers.
When Niels was born, she put her hopes in him. Her son must be a real poet. She brooded on her boy and dreamed dreams for him, but Niels remained an ordinary insentient boy until he began to play with the pastor’s son. The two youngsters played at the usual imaginative childhood games, but they had one special pastime. They told each other, turn and turn about, an interminable story which continued for months. Then Erik, a little older and a little stronger, became their leader. He had no time for stories; their play now was of pirates and secret caves.
When Niels was twelve years old, two new people came to the Lyhne farm, Herr Bigum, a tutor, and Edele, Lyhne’s unmarried sister. The tutor was forty years old and insignificant; he had failed to pass his examinations for the priesthood. Edele was a belle from Copenhagen. Her carefree social life had ruined her health, and she had been sent to the country to recuperate. Niels, strongly attracted to his aunt, followed her constantly. One day he heard the ridiculous tutor declare his hopeless love for Edele. When Edele died, her death filled Niels with melancholy. He became quieter and more imaginative.
Since Erik was older, he went away to school first. He early showed promise as an artist. When Niels visited him, he found his old friend already a sculptor with a studio covered with dust. That first day Fru Boyle was in Erik’s studio. She and Erik were laughing heartily over a book of poetry. Fru Boyle was a voluptuous, thirty-year-old widow. Her husband, who was in his sixties when they were married, had been dead for some three years. She led a Bohemian life, entertaining students and artists, and she was estranged from her family.
Niels, neglecting his duties as a student, spent most of his time with the widow. Wiser than he, she had no desire for a real love affair. Niels, too sensitive to push his love, was content to have their intimacy remain poetic and platonic. From time to time he felt guilty about his neglected studies and about his almost forgotten parents, to whom he seldom wrote. He was abruptly brought back to duty when he was notified of his father’s sudden death.
Niels was alarmed when he saw how sad and aged his mother had grown. To please her he planned a trip so that she could see the places she had dreamed of so long. She agreed to go on the journey, but with many misgivings. They settled down in Clarens for the winter, a spot rich in memories of Rousseau. Bartholine grew weaker steadily, but she lived to see the gentle spring come to the Savoyard countryside. Niels buried her in Clarens.
Back in Copenhagen, he learned that Fru Boyle had closed up her town house to...
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move into the country to be nearer her family. He resolved not to see her, but she wrote him an urgent note setting a meeting time for the next day. When they met, he embraced her ardently. At first Fru Boyle seemed to return his ardor, but after a while she drew away and told him she was engaged to be married. Niels left her for good, upset that she had forsaken him.
He took Erik with him to visit his uncle, a prosperous merchant who had an estate near the sea. There the two friends were comfortable, loafing and loving nineteen-year-old Fennimore, Niels’s cousin, an eager girl with eyes only for Erik. Resignedly Niels gave way to his friend, who had already achieved some reputation as a painter rather than a sculptor. Niels attended the wedding in a melancholy spirit.
In the city Niels avoided his former friends. His only intimate was an atheistic doctor who influenced him strongly. Gradually Niels came to see that a personal God was a rationalized fiction, that Rousseau’s innate nobility of man was a philosophic speculation.
Erik wrote him an appealing letter. Since his marriage, he could no longer paint; his country companions gave him no inspiration. On a visit to his old friend, Niels found that his Erik had become a dissipated squire, drinking and gambling night after night. Niels’s arrival induced him to stay home occasionally for a while, but soon Erik went back to his old haunts. He seemed to have no more ambition. Niels was thrown much in the company of Fennimore who had come to despise her husband. The cousins became lovers.
Fennimore did not seem to mind their secret kisses and their troubled rendezvous. One night, as she waited for Niels to come, word was brought that Erik had been in an accident. His carriage had overturned, and his head had been smashed against a stone wall. The news threw her into a torment of grief and remorse. When Niels arrived she turned on him savagely for having despoiled the noble, dead Erik. Again saddened but resigned, Niels went back to his own estate.
For a while he was busy with farm affairs, content to learn about crops and rents. From time to time he visited a neighbor, a man with five children. The oldest was seventeen-year-old Gerda. By accident Niels came upon a curious scene: He saw the four younger brothers and sisters mimicking Niels’s big-city ways and unmercifully teasing Gerda, who defended him against his tormenters. Niels quietly went to her father to ask for her hand.
He was very happy with Gerda. At last Niels seemed to have found a haven. Charmed by his young wife’s avid desire for knowledge, he patiently led her away from her old anthropomorphic God to his own independent humanism, and soon she was more convinced than he. Their son brought a new joy to them and bound them close together.
After two years Gerda became gravely ill. Realizing that she was going to die, she renounced her advanced views and called for her pastor. When his son also died soon afterward, it seemed to Niels that there was nothing left in life for him.
After he had joined the army, he felt strengthened somehow to belong to something. During a battle he was fatally wounded in the chest. On his deathbed he rejected religion finally. In his memory he saw the people he had known. Had he been faithful to them? Were they worth caring about? Questioning to the last, he died a bitter death.
Jens Peter Jacobsen’s original plan for NIELS LYHNE dealt with a novel titled “The Atheist,” incorporating the historical impact of atheism on European youth between 1830 and 1865. As he worked on the book, however, his approach changed. He decided that the atheistic material would be included only insofar as it was necessary for the understanding of the people, which was for him the main aspect of a novel. NIELS LYHNE came to be a study of the struggle of a man to unite two portions of his personality, that which embraced fantasy and that which craved the solidity of reality. Although little-known in America, it is considered one of the great novels in European literature.
The struggle began in Niels Lyhne’s childhood, his mother telling him fairy stories, trying to protect him from reality in the person of his father, a worn-out believer in the intellect, a man who once had seemed to be romantic but soon settled down to a complacent existence. As the child grew older, the struggle became more intense. Mr. Bigum, Niels’s tutor, a fascinating and brilliant character, wanders through life congratulating himself on his own brilliance, smirking because nobody else suspects the riches that must dwell within him. The foolish Bigum makes his contribution to the essential flabbiness of Niels’s nature; as a boy, Niels observes, learns, and dreams and is seemingly surrounded by dreamers, people who avoid staring at the nakedness of truth. NIELS LYHNE is a naturalistic novel in that it takes great pains to show the hereditary and social forces which mold the protagonist; but the story of Niels Lyhne is much more complex than any naturalistic formula. Jacobsen’s famous style is often dazzling, with its cool precision and rich ornamentation and intensity, but it is Jacobsen’s insight into human feelings which gives the book its greatness, even more than its memorable prose.
Jacobsen possessed a gift for freezing a moment in time, like a frame from a motion picture. Symbols enrich the power and meaning of the novel, from the beginning to the end, but few are as significant as the plaster cast of the hand holding an egg which Fennimore finds on the garbage heap and then smashes. This event seems to foreshadow the end of the relationship among the three: Erik the artist, Fennimore, his wife, and Niels. The author’s description of Fennimore’s reaction when Erik is killed, and the depth of his insight into her mental state, is extraordinary. It is significant that it is on the ice where Fennimore tells Niels of Erik’s death—and that they both burn with the cold reality of their guilt. If the entire book can be said to burn with emotion, it is with the fierceness of ice.
Throughout his life, Niels cannot face reality. He invents his relationships with his friends as a youth, and as he grows older, he still seeks refuge in fantasies. Even his atheism is a kind of escape for him, and when put to the test, his son’s deathbed, he fails. Erik Refstruf, the artist, is more of a realist than Niels, producing statues and pictures while Niels dreams of writing poetry. The women Niels encounters in his life are all different and all portrayed with amazing insight, but none of them can help Niels; he must save himself if he is to be saved, and, ultimately, he fails. He never learned that while one can deceive others, one never can successfully cheat oneself. The philosophical and psychological insights of NIELS LYHNE, and the beauty of its composition, place it high in the ranks of Danish and European literature.