Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
Pelle the Conqueror resembles successful radical and socialist literature in being basically autobiographical. Like Martin Andersen Nexø, who was born in one of the poorest slums of Copenhagen, Denmark, the central character of Pelle the Conqueror is a member of the working class. While he follows his own particular destiny, Pelle also represents choices for the working-class movement as a whole, and there can be no doubt that, beyond telling an interesting story, Nexø intended his book to help transform the life of working people. Lasse, Pelle, Kalle, and Erik are all meant to serve as social types and as indicators of working-class responses.
The background of Pelle the Conqueror is the struggle between workers and employers during the rise of the labor movement in Denmark in the last half of the nineteenth century. At no time, however, does social criticism overwhelm the narrative. The book indeed exposes the struggles of working people, but the maturing of a young man from direst poverty is always foremost. The author’s love for common people and their daily concerns is perhaps best illustrated in the insight with which Nexø depicts small incidents of life. The many digressions from the main story to customs and experiences of other characters in whom Nexø was interested are anything but boring because of the sympathy and warmheartedness with which they are presented.
Lasse, Pelle’s father, is already an old widower when the novel opens; he is conservative, unwilling to rebel, and resigned to his fate. Pelle dreams of being like Erik, a fighter and rebel, but Erik’s problem is that he is subject to rages; he is meant to suggest a certain type of rural worker who rebels blindly but without plans or organization. One day, goaded beyond endurance, Erik assaults the bailiff and is smashed on the head and severely injured, disabling him mentally. Kalle, at the other extreme, is willing to accept everything. Erik and Kalle represent opposite aspects of the rural working poor who, as a group, vacillate between blind rebellion and passive acceptance.
Pelle’s youth, described in book 1 of the novel, represents the experience of the rural working class that, at the onset of industrialization, was attracted to the city and became the urban proletariat. The adolescence of the working class, corresponding to the stage of handicraft industry, is pictured in Apprenticeship, the second book, and Pelle’s maturity as a workingman is portrayed in The Great Struggle, the third volume, which takes place during a time of trade union activity on a mass scale. The final book, Daybreak, contains Nexø’s ideas for the future: profit sharing, communal living near nature, and human solidarity. Nexø rejects more radical solutions, such as revolutionary communism, and in the end Pelle is shown at rest.
Nexø’s novel, which influenced proletarian, socialist, and communist writers around the world, stands as a monumental vision of class history and struggle summarized and dramatized in the life of a single, interesting man. Pelle the Conqueror is a competent novel that does an excellent job of dramatizing, individualizing, and organizing its vast subject.
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