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...
(The entire section is 613 words.)