Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Oliver Andersen

Oliver Andersen, a man who lost a leg and possibly (the villagers speculate) something more in a mysterious shipboard accident. Lazy, self-seeking, and full of guile, Oliver is nevertheless charming and sympathetic. He drifts from job to job, never failing to capitalize on his handicap. With his wife, Petra, he rears a large family (though his paternity is questionable) and is much like a self-indulgent, boastful child himself. Fortune and misfortune alike leave Oliver unfazed for long; he squanders the gains from his spectacular salvage of a wrecked ship and from his discovery of the loot from a mail robbery, but his resiliency and cunning enable him time after time to turn misfortune to his advantage.

Petra Andersen

Petra Andersen, an attractive woman who is engaged to Oliver before his accident but who rejects him for Mattis the Carpenter when Oliver returns disabled. Later, she reconsiders and marries him, and shortly thereafter she bears a son. Her repeated “visits” to Scheldrup Johnsen, the wealthy double consul’s son, and to lawyer Fredriksen, who holds the Andersens’ mortgage, often save the family from financial ruin.

Frank Andersen

Frank Andersen, Petra’s eldest son, who is introverted and academically brilliant. He studies languages at the university and eventually returns to the village as headmaster of the local senior school.

Abel Andersen

Abel Andersen, Petra’s second son, a blacksmith. Called the Squirrel as a child, he is lively, industrious, and straightforward. His infatuation with Little Lydia and his unswerving determination to marry her despite her equally determined...

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Besides Oliver Andersen and his family, Hamsun has included representatives from all social strata of the town, from Double Counsel Johnsen (tradesman, shipowner, and recipient of the Cross of Danish Order of Knighthood) to Olaus the Glazier (foul-mouthed town drunk, blue and disfigured from a blasting charge which exploded in his face, and lacking one hand). Yet Hamsun’s omniscient editorial narrative technique allows readers to see that there is little real difference between the “high” and the “low,” except that the “high” have more money. It seems that both Johnsen and his son, Scheldrup, have had sexual relationships with Petra Andersen, as has another town luminary, Frederickson the Lawyer, member of the Storthing. Frederickson can be persuaded not to foreclose the mortgage that he holds on Oliver’s house if he receives frequent visits from Petra. Supposedly, he would like to marry Fia, daughter of Counsel Johnson. Yet when it appears that Johnsen’s ship, the Fia, has sunk uninsured and that Johnsen’s financial ruin is imminent, Frederickson finds it easy to shift his attentions to Froken Olsen, whose father’s financial prospects are improving. The Doctor is yet another particularly repellent character—bitter, arrogant, and cruel. Hamsun reserves his purest scorn for such white-collar types, showing them to be calculating, ruthless, corrupt little men.

Yet even when Hamsun presumably wishes to present a more positive character, as in the Postmaster, for example, the result is at best a shift from the repulsive to the merely exasperating. The Postmaster, a failed architect become full-time philosophical bore, tires everyone with his interminable babbling on such subjects as the transmigration of souls. After his son is implicated in a mail robbery, he loses his wits and seems to have been struck dumb.

Olaus the Glazier also comes to a bad end. As the town’s other notable cripple, he has had a relationship of complex hatred with Oliver. When Oliver’s pedant son, Frank, arrives home from his studies in order to assume the position of Headmaster, the drunken Olaus makes loud, taunting re-marks about Oliver’s impotence, Petra’s prodigious fertility, and Frank’s paternity. Oliver decides such insolence is not to be borne; it may even threaten Frank’s position. In the middle of the night, Oliver arranges for some oil barrels to tumble down and crush Olaus as he lies sleeping under a tarp on the wharf.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, 1987.

Gustavson, Alrik. Six Scandinavian Novelists, 1940.

Larsen, Hanna Astrup. Knut Hamsun, 1922.

Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun, 1984.

Naess, Harald. “Who Was Hamsun’s Hero?” in The Hero in Scandinavian Literature, 1975. Edited by John M. Weinstock and Robert T. Rovinsky.