Giants in the Earth

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Giants in the Earth

O. E. Rölvaag

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

O. E. Rölvaag


Giants in the Earth was 0. E. Rölvaag's most influential novel. It chronicles the story of a group of Norwegian pioneers who make the long trek from a fishing village in Norway through Canada to Spring Creek, in Dakota Territory. Although the westward migration means opportunity, the settlers must contend with the isolation and monotony of prairie life; primitive housing; long, frigid winters; and crop-destroying infestations in summer. These conditions are hard enough for people of robust nature, eager for a new life, but for people of delicate sensibility, like Per Hansa's wife Beret, life on the prairie becomes unbearable. Giants in the Earth deals with timeless themes of immigration, fear and loneliness, myth, and religion. The novel does not end happily but it is, nonetheless, an exuberant sprawling work that has won consistent praise for its unsparing account of the spiritual as well as the physical experience of its characters.

Author Biography

O. E. Rölvaag was bom April 2, 1876, on Dønna Island off the coast of Norway, where he lived until he was twenty. Despite an early and voracious appetite for literature, both Norwegian classics and writers such as Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper, Rölvaag seemed destined to be a fisherman. A violent storm at sea in which several of his friends lost their lives was a defining experience for him. Unwilling to face the prospect of the hazards and desolation of life on the North Atlantic, Rölvaag opted instead to emigrate to America, asking his uncle in Elk Point, Minnesota, to lend him money for the passage.

His first two years in America he worked as a farmhand. But farming was scarcely more appealing to Rölvaag than fishing, and he decided to further his education. He studied first at Augustana Academy in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, then at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he graduated in 1905. At St. Olaf, Rölvaag studied the works of Norwegian novelists and discovered Norwegian folklore. The work of Henrik Ibsen was a powerful influence on him, and it was while at St. Olaf that Rölvaag recognized his desire to become a writer. After graduating, Rölvaag returned to Norway for advanced study at the University of Kristiana in Oslo. This sojourn in his own country drove home to him the importance of preserving one's cultural identity in an alien land, and in fact Rölvaag would be adamantly opposed to the idea of a melting pot his whole life.

Once back in America, Rölvaag took up a position at St. Olaf teaching Norwegian language and literature. He introduced Norwegian immigrant history as a subject at the college and helped to found several organizations for the preservation of Norwegian culture. Rölvaag's first fictional work, titled Amerika-breve (Letters from America), was published in Norwegian in 1912 under the pseudonym Paal Mörck. It was an account in epistolary form, that is, told through a series of letters, of a young immigrant's dubious exchange of the perilous life of a fisherman in Norway for the servile life of a farmhand in America. He published two more novels, also in Norwegian, before taking a sabbatical from St. Olaf to work on a trilogy titled I de dage (In Those Days), the first volume of which was published in Norway in 1924, and in the United States in English in 1927 as Giants in the Earth.

Rölvaag's saga of the settling of South Dakota by a group of intrepid Norwegian immigrants was an immediate success and sold more than 80,000 copies by year's end. Critics praised the true-to-life thoughts and feelings of the characters and Rölvaag's powerful descriptions of nature. Over the next four years, despite a series of heart attacks, he completed the second and third volumes in the trilogy. Peder Victorious (1929) and Their Fathers' God (1931), however, lacked the universal import of Giants in the Earth, which stands as Rölvaag's singular contribution to American pioneer literature. Rölvaag died in 1931.

Plot Summary

O. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth narrates the story of a Norwegian immigrant family's struggles on the American plains from 1873 to 1881. The novel details the triumphs, hardships, and ultimate tragedies of South Dakota farmers as they try to wrest a livelihood from a land that, while fertile, often proves actively hostile to human habitation.

Book I: "The Land-Taking"

As the novel opens, Per Hansa leads his family with their meager possessions over the vast emptiness of the Dakotas' grassy plains. With him are his pregnant wife Beret, his sons Ole and Store-Hans, and his young daughter, And-Ongen. The family is searching for their traveling party, whom they had to leave when their rickety wagon was damaged. The family, especially Beret, fears that they are lost and may never locate their settlement, a predicament that could prove fatal. Unable to sleep, Per Hansa travels out at night and discovers evidence of a campsite, proof that they have the right trail.

At the settlement itself (called Spring Creek), Per Hansa's friends fear for him. They are soon reunited, however, and realize that Per Hansa had traveled too far west. Per Hansa and the other settlers, Hans Olsa and his wife Sörine, Syvert Tönseten and his wife Kjertsi, and the Solum brothers, Henry and Sam, all gather and speak enthusiastically of their opportunities as the first farmers on this land. Only Beret feels a sense of foreboding.

Per Hansa goes to see his quarter-section of land and realizes that it contains an Indian burial mound. He does not fear the possible implications of building on such a sacred place. After registering his land in Sioux Falls, Per Hansa plows energetically and builds a mud house that contains the house and barn in one structure. A traveling Indian band appears, scaring everyone in the settlement. Per Hansa heals one Indian man's infected hand wound, however, and receives a pony in return.

A panic overtakes the settlement when their cows, which are necessary for their survival, run away. Over Beret's frightened protests, Per Hansa leaves to retrieve them. He brings them back, along with a borrowed bull and some chickens.

While walking over the fields, Per Hansa discovers someone else's land markers on Tönseten's and Hans Olsa's lands. He secretly takes and burns the stakes, though this act is considered a grievous transgression. When she discovers his deed, Beret is deeply ashamed and afraid, for their religious traditions prohibit such actions. The Irish settlers who planted the stakes (but did not register their claim in Sioux Falls) soon come. When they cannot find their markers, a physical conflict ensues, which the large, gentle Hans Olsa ends by soundly defeating one man. The Irish families move a little further west, and the Spring Creek residents are delighted when they find how Per Hansa protected their claims. Beret, however, fears they are all turning into savages and upbraids them for celebrating an obvious sin.

When Norwegian travelers arrive, Tönseten convinces twenty of them to stay in the region, expanding the settlement. The Spring Creek men travel to town for winter supplies. On the trip, Per Hansa trades potatoes for a number of items that baffle his companions, including net twine. Always inventive, he plans to use the net to catch ducks that his sons had discovered in the swamps. At one stop, he learns how to whitewash the inside of a mud house, an accomplishment which astonishes his friends.

Winter arrives and the snow traps everyone indoors for extended periods. The lonely Solum boys intend to leave for Minnesota, but the others convince them to stay. The settlers appoint Henry, who speaks English, the settlement schoolteacher.

Beret begins to see this harsh life as retribution for her passionate love for Per Hansa, which led to their conceiving their first child out of wedlock and her leaving her family to come to America. She becomes convinced that she will die giving birth to their fourth child and wants to be buried in her only family heirloom: a large trunk. The birth is strenuous and Per Hansa is frantic. Beret and the child almost die, but fortunately Sörine and Kjertsi save them, and the baby is born on Christmas. Per Hansa has a reluctant Hans Olsa baptize the child, and, to honor Sörine, he names his son Peder Seier, which means Peder Victorious.

Book II: "Founding the Kingdom"

Two factors help the settlers withstand the winter: the new child and the school they all attend, both of which bring everyone together.

The men must journey again for more supplies. Per Hansa, though he has only oxen rather than horses, goes along. A blizzard strikes, and Per Hansa is separated from the others. He and the oxen forge their way through snowdrifts, almost freezing to death. Eventually, the oxen run into the wall of a Sioux River house, in which Per Hansa finds his companions. The men stay at the village for two days, chopping wood and attending a dance, before returning home.

Back in Spring Creek, the families discuss the future of this territory and the possibility of taking new, more American names. Per Hansa decides on Holm for a last name. Everyone except Beret applauds his choice. She thinks it wicked to abandon one's baptized name, and she silently fears that their new ways are stripping them of their civility and belief in the sacred.

In March, Per Hansa undertakes a trading expedition to the Indian settlements. He buys Indian furs and travels to Minnesota to sell them, making a large profit. He cannot understand Beret's lingering depression or her lack of excitement over his venture. He hopes the coming spring will revive her spirits.

The time for planting comes. Since Per Hansa's property sits highest in the settlement, the land dries quickly and he begins planting early. Soon, an unexpected snow comes, leading Per Hansa to believe that his impatience has destroyed the crop and, thus, his family's future. A week later, though, the wheat unexpectedly begins to sprout from the ground. Per Hansa is overcome with joy.

A disturbing episode occurs when a wandering, poverty-stricken family arrives at the settlement. The father, Jakob, must tie his wife, Kari, into their cart so she will not try to return to the grave of their youngest son, who fell ill and died on the plains. Per Hansa goes with Hans Olsa to place the dead boy in a coffin, but they cannot find his grave. The family leaves to locate their traveling party. Beret sympathizes with the woman and contemplates the misery that she has suffered and that Beret, in part, shares. She begins covering the windows to block out the evil she sees on the prairie.

After Per Hansa's wheat is harvested, a locust plague strikes the region, destroying everyone's crops. Returning home, a horrified Per Hansa finds Beret, And-Ongen, and Peder Victorious in the family chest, which was blocking the door. Beret says they must all climb inside to protect themselves from the devil. The locust plagues last from 1873 to 1878, leaving destitution in their wake. Many in the settlement hang on, however, because they have nowhere else to go.

In June of 1877, a traveling minister stops in the settlement, to everyone's delight. He holds a service at Per Hansa's, since his home is the largest. Per Hansa has done well in the intervening years, now owning three quarter-sections of land. The minister preaches about the entrance of the Israelites into the land of Canaan. He baptizes many children. When he begins baptizing Peder Victorious, however, Beret violently protests fixing her son with such a sinful name. The minister later consults with Per Hansa, who tells him of Beret's growing insanity. She talks with her dead mother, and he even fears she will try to kill her children. Per Hansa blames himself for bringing her to the prairie. Still, he cannot see any sin in this way of life and often protests against the minister's religious admonitions. The minister consults with Beret and puts her mind at ease about her son's name.

That fall, the minister returns for a communion service. He makes Beret's trunk into his altar. Though the minister has begun to doubt his own faith and feels he delivers an incomprehensible sermon, he successfully speaks to the villagers by referring to the common features of their lives. Soon after, Beret experiences a reawakened happiness and returns to her old self, much to everyone's surprise.

In the final chapter, "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied," the winter of 1880-81 comes with an eighty-day snow-storm, bringing great privation to the village. Hans Olsa, in an attempt to save his cattle during a blizzard, comes down with a fatal illness. A now vocally religious Beret attends him on his sick bed and makes him realize his need for a minister since he is dying. Both Hans Olsa and Beret want Per Hansa to travel to find the minister, though the snowed-in prairie is impassable. Because of his previous feats, however, Hans Olsa and Sörine believe he can accomplish the task, and Beret believes it would be a sin not to try. Finally, angry at Beret, Per Hansa takes skis and makes the journey into the swirling snow.

That May, two boys discover a frozen, dead Per Hansa sitting by a haystack. The book ends, "His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west."


Crazy Bridget

An old Irish woman the settlers turn to for help when they are sick. The Norwegians think she is a fraud but concede that she has "a remarkable way with sick folks."

And-Ongen Hansa

See Anna Marie Hansa

Anna Marie Hansa

Anna Marie is Per and Beret's daughter.

Beret Hansa

Beret symbolizes the moral foundation of the pioneer experience, and critics call her the most completely drawn of Rölvaag's characters. She is pregnant when the party sets off from Lofoten and is skeptical of the westward journey from the start. The product of a rigid, moralistic upbringing that considered God as the incarnation of law, Beret is ill-equipped for life as a pioneer. Fear is her motivating emotion. "Oh, Per!" she says as they make their way across the prairie. "Not another human being from here to the end of the world!" Beret is so lonely that when Per builds a sod house and barn under one roof, Beret thinks that at least the cow will be a "comfortable companion" on long winter nights. She is appalled by Per's removal of the Irish settlers' landmarks, even though he has done it to protect his friends' rightful claims, because she recognizes it as the worst sin a person can commit against a fellow human. Thus it adds to her nameless fears of the prairie "a new terror—the terror of consequences!"

Beret also fears the consequences of having her first child Ole out of wedlock, marrying Per Hansa against the wishes of her parents, and delighting in Per's desire for her. "The sweet desires of the flesh," she thinks, "are the nets of Satan." Beret is temporarily at peace after the birth on Christmas Day of Peder Victorious. But Per's choice of the child's second name seems sacrilegious to her. When the other settlers begin discussing name changes, Beret worries that, having "discarded the names of their fathers, soon they would be discarding other sacred things." Beret's isolation is spiritual as well as environmental, and it sets her apart from everyone else, including her husband. The other settlers want to be sympathetic to her, but her deepening derangement and her moralizing exasperates them. Yet, wrote critic George Leroy White, Jr., "She is not a chronic fault-finder.… She first of all does not love pioneering. She has torn the home-ties from her heart solely because she loved Per more than anything else."

Hans Kristian Hansa

Known as Store-Hans, he is the second son of Per and Beret Hansa. He is frequently enlisted to watch over his mother and sister. He is never so happy as when he is alongside his father, and he shares Per's enthusiasms. Store-Hans is given to frequent tears and nightmares. He is terrified by what is happening to his mother, and at one point he is afraid that she will kill Permand.

Ole Hansa

See Olemand Hansa

Olemand Hansa

Ole is Per Hansa's elder son. He considers himself the master of the house in his father's absence. He is impatient to be an adult, and frustrated when his father's trust in him results in his being asked to stay home to care for his mother and sister while the men make trips into town. Like his younger brother Store-Hans, Ole is frightened by his mother's increasing strangeness, but he is compelled to protect her. When, in frustration, Beret takes a willow switch to the boys, they lie to their father about how they got their bruises. Ole is too young to be burdened by the ties from home that still bind his mother. "Did you ever see anything so beautiful!" he whispers at the fall of evening when the family first reaches the Spring Creek settlement.

Peder Victorious Hansa

The youngest son of Per and Beret, Peder's arrival is loaded with portent. First, he is born on Christmas Day. He is also born with a caul, a part of the fetal membrane covering his head, and Norwegians folklore suggests that such children are destined for extraordinary things. At first, Beret considers the choice of his second name— Victorious—to be a sacrilege. "This sin shall not happen! How can a man be victorious out here, where the evil one gets us all!" she cries out at his christening. But when the minister blesses the child and prays that he, too, will answer the call of the ministry, Beret's worries are temporarily put to rest. Even Per is aware that his youngest son has a special destiny. As Per sets out on a snowy errand from which he will never return, he thinks, "Oh, Permand, Permand! Something great must come of you—you who are so tenderly watched over!"

Per Hansa

Per Hansa is the epitome of the immigrant spirit. Unlike his wife Beret, whose nature is delicate, Per is built to "wrestle with fortune." For him, the westward journey from the island of Lofoten, Norway represents the ultimate opportunity. Per is deeply devoted to his wife, whom he thinks of as "a woman of tender kindness, of deep fine fancie— one whom you could not treat like an ordinary clod." But Beret's "scruples and misgivings" about the journey fail to change his plans. "Is a man to refuse to go where his whole future calls, only because his wife doesn't like it?" Per asks the minister after Beret becomes deranged from life on the prairie.

Per's indomitable spirit and fierce individualism distinguish him from his neighbors. His best friend, Hans Olsa, recalls that Per "never would take help from any man." He takes a major risk in deciding on his own to pull up stakes planted by Irish settlers—something he would never have done at home—to avoid their usurping Hans Olsa's and Syvert Tönseten's claims to their properties. Per is impetuous and impelled by fantasies. He builds a sod hut and barn under one roof, a structure Syvert Tönseten warns him will collapse, and he is so eager to get the jump on the other settlers that he plants his wheat before the ground is dry. Sometimes his determination to survive pioneering borders on the insane, as when he attempts to disperse the invasion of locusts by shooting at them. But in Per his neighbors see what is possible. He is painfully aware of what is happening to his wife, but he cannot help her. "I have lived with her all these years," he tells the minister, "yet I must confess that I don't know her." Per is delighted by Beret's initial recovery under the guidance of the minister, but perplexed by her increasing piety. It is to fulfill a request of Beret's that Per heads out on his fatal mission at the end of the novel.

Permand Hansa

See Peder Victorious Hansa

Store-Hans Hansa

See Hans Kristian Hansa


The minister first shows up at the Spring Creek settlement in June, to the overwhelming joy of the inhabitants. His humanity is immediately evident in his response to Tönseten's confession that, as a layperson, he may have blasphemed by performing a marriage: "This probably is not the worst sin you have committed," the minister tells him. In response to Per's troubled question whether the name Peder Victorious is a "human" name, the minister says, "It is the handsomest name I can ever remember giving to any child." The minister is instrumental in bringing Beret out of her insanity. Moreover, faced with the reality of life on the prairie, he worries about his own faith and his ability to preach to the settlers meaningfully: "How can they understand [a sermon about] the things that happened to an alien people, living ages ago, in a distant land? The Israelites were an Oriental race; they didn't know anything about the Dakota Territory, either."

Hans Olsa

Per Hansa's best friend from their fishing days in the Lofoten Islands. Per depends on him "for everything," and Hans Olsa thinks he will "never tire of gazing into the bearded, roguish face of Per Hansa's." Their dream since formulating their plans for coming to America has been to be "nearest neighbours." Hans Olsa is so big that strangers stop to look, and so strong that "things that he took hold of often got crushed in his grip." Slow to react, he is steadfast in his decisions; "on this account he always found it difficult to turn back, once he had chosen his path."

Hans Olsa does not abuse his physical advantage. When the Irish settlers dispute Hans Olsa's and Syvert Tönseten's claims to their land, Hans Olsa's first impulse is to "convince them that we are here with the full sanction of law and justice," and he is remorseful when one of the settlers manages to goad him into a fight. He is a fatalist. When Per Hansa wants to shoot at the locusts to frighten them, Hans Olsa tells him, "Don't do that, Per Hansa! If the Lord has sent this affliction on us, then.…" Hans Olsa's generosity is as big as the rest of him. As he is dying, Hans Olsa reviews with Per Hansa the debts other settlers still owe him. "It transpired later that in every case he had stated less than what was owing to him."

Sofie Olsa

Hans Olsa's ten-year-old daughter.

Sörine Olsa

Sörine is Hans Olsa's wife. Per Hansa admires her lack of fear, and is repeatedly impressed by the "goodness and intelligence" in her face. Sörine helps Beret through the birth of Peder Victorious, and the child's second name is chosen out of gratitude to her. As Hans Olsa lays dying, Sörine asks Per Hansa whether he would be willing to venture out into the blizzard to find the doctor, explaining, "We all have a feeling that nothing is ever impossible for you."

Henry Solum

One of the two Solum boys. Henry and his brother Sam are the only ones of the group who know both American and Indian languages. At Syvert Tönseten's suggestion, Henry and Sam start a school for the settlers.

Sam Solum

The second of the two Solum boys.

Torkel Tallaksen

A member of the Sognings and a wealthy braggart. Store-Hans and Tallaksen's son become friends.

Kjersti Tönseten

Kjersti is Syvert Tönsetens' wife. She indulges his enthusiasms, but often compares him unfavorably with Per Hansa. When Per Hansa explains how he destroyed the Irish settlers' stakes in order to protect Hans Olsa's and Syvert's rightful claims to their land, Kjersti is "moved almost to tears over such a man. What a difference from that spineless jellyfish of a husband of hers!" Kjersti and Syvert are childless, and Kjersti finds frequent occasion to remind Syvert of that fact.

Syvert Tönseten

Another of the Lofoten group of settlers to Spring Creek. Tönseten is notorious among his neighbors for having something to say about everything. Though a hard worker, he lacks Per Hansa's spirit of enterprise. He compensates his feelings of inadequacy by criticizing Per's plans. For example, when Per whitewashes the walls of his sod hut in an effort to cheer Beret up, Tönseten tells him sourly, "It's getting to be so damned swell in here that pretty soon a fellow can't even spit!" Tönseten's own plans for building a decent house never seem to materialize. He does work tirelessly, though, to draw new members to the settlement, a mission that gives him a sense of purpose. It is his idea to start the school, which solves the dual problem of the Solum boys' sinking morale and the need of the settlers to occupy themselves during the long winter days. Tönseten blames Beret for what he calls Per Hansa's "stuck-up airs," and his dislike of her grows worse after she recovers from her nervous breakdown.


Immigration and the Westward Movement

Critics have praised Rölvaag's synthesis of the themes of immigration and the westward migration in Giants in the Earth. Per Hansa is the perfect embodiment of the immigrant spirit. "Good God!" he pants at the opening of the novel, "This kingdom is going to be mine!" Per sees economic opportunity everywhere, and he fantasizes endlessly about a fancy house and a bounty of farm animals. But the price the immigrant pays is high in terms of lost supports, prejudice, the need to remake social networks and to reformulate cultural values, and intergenerational conflicts. Beret is the supreme example of the immigrant's dilemma. As Per tells the minister, "She has never felt at home here in America.… There are some people, I know now who never should emigrate, because, you see, they can't take pleasure in that which is to come."

The paucity of culture on the frontier is such that when the Solum boys organize a school to teach the children to read, all the adults attend it as well. The settlers' inability to speak English makes communications difficult for them. For example, in settling a dispute with Irish settlers over land claims, Per must enlist the Solum boys to act as spokesman and interpreter. In the novel, the themes of immigration and westward movement are inseparable. Per's party sets off from Lofoten traveling "farther and farther onward … always west." Their original destination is Fillmore County, Minnesota. But no sooner do they reach America than they are "intoxicated by bewildering visions; they spoke dazedly, as though under the force of spell.… Go west! … Go west, folks! … The farther west, the better the land!" When Per Hansa is lost in a snowstorm, he fears that the oxen are headed east, and the name of the Rocky Mountains keeps running through his mind. "Rocky-ocky Moun-tains, Rocky-ocky Moun-tains! … Directly behind those mountains lay the Pacific Ocean.… They had no winter on that coast.… God! no winter!"

Perhaps the most poignant statement of the theme of westward movement comes at the end of the novel. Per Hansa perishes in a snowstorm, and the following spring some boys discover his body seated on the west side of a haystack, his eyes "set toward the west."

Fear and Loneliness

Fear and loneliness are the constant companions of the pioneers. The isolation Rölvaag's characters feel is both a reflection of and a reaction to the environment. They are desolate souls in a desolate place. No one experiences this isolation more keenly than Beret Hansa. From the outset she notices the "deep silence" of the prairie, the "endless blue-green solitude that had neither heart nor soul." She cannot imagine that other people had ever dwelt there or would ever come. "Never could they find home in this vast, wind-swept void." Fear is a byproduct of loneliness, and it takes many forms. It strikes the men as well as the women, "but the women were the worst off; Kjersti feared the Indians, Sörine the storms; and Beret, poor thing, feared both—feared the very air." Beret feels exposed on the prairie, where there is "nothing to hide behind," and she covers the windows with clothes to shut out the night. In the same way that Beret embodies the theme of loneliness, she incarnates that of fear as well. Critic George Leroy White, Jr., wrote that she "is a victim of the small things of life that prey upon her: the loneliness of their place; the taking of new name; the naming of the boy Peder Victorious; the stake incident; the fear of Indians, and the fear of the stars."


Rölvaag makes liberal use of mythic themes. This emphasis is immediately apparent from the novel's title. When Beret first sees Hans Olsa's sod house, she compares its center pole with the "giants she had read about as a child." She sees the plain as a monster. The settlers easily incorporate beliefs about trolls from Norse fairy tales into their explanations for various events that take place in the story. When the cows disappear, the little group sent to look for them worry that the cows might have been spirited away by trolls. Per Hansa refers to the decision over Hans Olsa's and Syvert Tönseten's land claims as being in the "grip of the trolls." The trolls are also associated with visible phenomena. The blizzard that the men run into on their way to the Trönder settlement is described as "a giant troll [that] had risen up in the west, ripped open his great sack of woolly fleece, and emptied the whole contents of it above their heads."

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and explain how the provisions of the act might have affected the land claims of the settlers at Spring Creek.
  • Explore modern methods of farming and crop protection and explain how the characters in Gi-ants in the Earth could have been helped by them.
  • Investigate current U.S. immigration patterns and policies, and compare the various experiences and concerns of today's immigrants with those of the characters in the novel.
  • Research the architecture and structure of a sod house and barn like the one Per Hansa built for his family, and make some hypotheses about its advantages and disadvantages.

Other elements of Norse mythology crop up in the novel. Per Hansa makes repeated references to his "kingdom" and to Beret as the "princess" of Norse fairy tales, "a romance in which he was both prince and king, the sole possessor of countless treasures." He refers to the kernels of wheat he is about to plant as "good fairies that had the power to create a new life over this Endless Wilderness, and transform it into a habitable land for human beings." The plague of locusts descending from the north brings to the minds of the settlers the Norse adage that "all evil dwells below and springs from the north." Mythic themes are reinforced by the title of the final chapter: "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied." As scholars Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum point out, "In the Norwegian fairy tale, the troll drinks the blood of Christian men."


Another important theme in the novel is religion. Sometimes the themes of myth and religion are intermingled, as in the reference to the trolls drinking the blood of Christian men. There are many biblical references in the novel. For example, Per Hansa compares the prairie to "the pastures of Goshen in the Land of Egypt." And when Per asks Syvert Tönseten whether he has seen signs of life, Tönseten answers, "Neither Israelites nor Canaanites!" The settlers regard the invasion of locusts as one of the plagues mentioned in the bible. The arrival of the minister and the birth of Peder Victorious on Christmas Day are significant events. Before the child is born, Store-Hans dreams that "he had seen both Joseph and Benjamin playing just beyond the house, and with them had been a tiny little fellow, who wasn't mentioned in the Bible story!" In the same way that Beret feels the loss of culture, she also fears the loss of the Lutheran religion. When the Spring Creek settlers start discussing name changes, Beret wonders whether they will abandon all sacred things. In the depths of her derangement, she imagines that Peder Victorious's name is one that "Satan has tricked Per into giving him."

According to literary critic Harold P. Simonson, "To Beret, the psychological cost in leaving their fathers' homeland is nothing when compared with the spiritual cost in forsaking their fathers' God." The minister's evaluation of Beret's condition is that she needs "above everything else … the gladness of salvation." In fact, at the end of the novel, it is an argument over religion—whether the doctor or the minister should be fetched to attend to the dying Hans Olsa—that drives Per out into the snow to his doom.



Giants in the Earth is set in the so-called east-river region of what is now South Dakota, that is, along the Big Sioux River at the Iowa border, southeast of Sioux Falls. It is a place of both astounding beauty and stark wilderness. The area is subject to extremes of weather, and these extremes have a profound effect on the characters in the novel. Winters are so cold and the snow so deep that the settlers can safely store the dead in snow banks for burial in the spring. In the summer, storms blow up with "appalling violence." The risks of living on the prairie are many: madness, pestilence, storms, and prairie fire. After weeks and months of winter, "the courage of the men was slowly ebbing away." Their relief at the passing of winter is short-lived; no sooner is the wheat up than a plague of locusts causes massive crop destruction, an event that will be repeated year after year. Eventually, Beret goes insane from the accumulated insults of prairie life. At the time the story takes place, the railroad has not yet come to the settlement, and trips to the nearest town for supplies take several days. In trying to persuade a new group of Norwegians to settle at Spring Creek, Syvert tells them that "the railroad had already reached Worthington—soon it would be at Sioux Falls! Then they would have only a twenty-five-mile journey to town—did they realize that?"


Giants in the Earth comprises two books, or parts, each of which ends with death or near-death. The novel is unique in its emphasis on psychology and character development, as opposed to plot and incident. Patrick D. Morrow is one of many critics who see the novel as a tragedy. He explains its form as "ten chapters of five well-defined acts, adhering to the tragic rhythm of exposition, conflict, crisis, and catastrophe." Other elements that confirm the work as a tragedy are its emphasis on free will and individual responsibility, a chain of events leading to catastrophe (Per Hansa's death), and its tragic rhythm. But the structure of the novel can also be considered from other points of view. Critic Steve Hahn notes the "tense dichotomy of structure: the physical world of the Great Plains, and a reality which is envisioned in terms of Norwegian religious and cultural structures." Paul A. Olson likens the structure of the book to "early Germanic epics in that the hero begins with a conquest over a series of physical threats and ends with defeat before some spiritual ones." Other scholars see a deliberate association between Book I of the novel, "The Land-Taking," and the traditional account of Norse colonization in Iceland.


The imagery of Giants in the Earth is rich and varied. Per Hansa was a fisherman before leaving for America, and there are many images of boats and the sea. The fact that the wagons crossing the plains actually were called prairie schooners adds to the power of this image. As Beret's insanity deepens, Per himself behaves "like a good boat in a heavy sea." And on the afternoon of the locust invasion, his sod hut looks to him "like a quay thrust out into a turbulent current."

Nature and the elements are often given nightmare-like qualities. In her distress, Beret fixes on a "cloud that had taken on the shape of a face, awful of mien and giantlike in proportions." At first, Per sees the locust invasion as the work of a giant's hand "shaking an immense tablecloth of iridescent colours." The night that follows Per's discovery of Beret and the smallest children hiding in the big chest, "the Great Prairie stretched herself voluptuously; giantlike." Images of light are used to varying effect. For example, the day after the birth of Peder Victorious, "The sun shone brightly through the window, spreading a golden lustre over the white walls." But after months of winter, the daylight inside the Hansas' hut casts a "pale, sickly gleam."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1870s: Prior to the 1880s, the majority of immigrants to the United States came from the British Isles and northwestern Europe.

    1927: A quota law passed in 1924, fixing the number of immigrants from each nation of origin, favored Europeans and effectively barred most Asians.

    Today: Since 1965 national quotas have been re-placed with hemispheric limitations, and provisions exist for acceptance of political refugees. The United States grapples with the issue of illegal immigration, particularly from Latin America, and its social, economic, and political effects.

  • 1870s: The Indian Removal Act of 1830 and western migration of whites following the discovery of gold in California in 1848 signaled the beginning of a grisly struggle for territory between the European immigrants and Native Americans.

    1927: By 1887 most Native Americans had been forced onto reservations, where life was marked by poverty, poor education, and unemployment that would persist throughout the century.

    Today: Restoration of original treaty lands and land won in legal battles has increased Native American property within U.S. boundaries to 53 million acres, much of which is valuable either for its natural beauty or for its mineral reserves. Native American communities struggle to find the best way to tap the economic and political potential of these lands.

  • 1870s: The railroads grew rapidly after 1830, and on May 10, 1869, the eastern and western tracks of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States met at Promontory Point, Utah.

    1927: By 1916 the railroads were handling 77% of all intercity freight traffic, but after 1920, they faced increasing competition from automobiles, buses, long-distance trucking, oil pipelines, and airplanes.

    Today: The amount of freight moved by the railroads had declined to 33% in 1990 but has since remained stable; passenger traffic, how-ever, never recovered, except for a brief period during the Second World War, and although intercity trains continue to operate, generally revenues do not cover costs.

  • 1870s: Between 1878 and 1886, South Dakota experienced a land boom, initially stimulated by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills but subsequently fueled by cattle ranching and railroad building.

    1927: A combination of droughts and the Great Depression caused widespread destruction to the area in the late 1920s, and over the following decade the population of the State of South Dakota declined by 50,000.

    Today: After the Second World War, improvements in farming methods increased agricultural and livestock production in South Dakota but also resulted in the consolidation of small farms into large units and the displacement of many small farmers. Since 1981, however, a shift to service, finance, and trade industries has been accompanied by significant economic growth.

Historical Context

The Postwar Boom

The much ballyhooed prosperity of the 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, was largely confined to the upper-middle class. Although quick fortunes were made in the stock market and in real-estate speculation, most Americans did not see their economic situation improve in the postwar years. In Giants in the Earth, Rölvaag describes the formation of farm settlements on the southeastern Dakota prairies in the late 1870s, and over the next half a century, many of these farms would do well. The First World War permanently reversed the fortunes of farmers, and during the 1920s, 4 million farmers left their farms. Nonetheless, these were important years for business, which a succession of American presidents from Warren G. Harding to Herbert Hoover believed would banish poverty in the United States. Sinclair Lewis incarnated this belief in business as the ultimate panacea in the main character of his novel Babbitt (1922).

Postwar Isolationism and Social Change

When post-First World War peace did not bring long-hoped-for prosperity, Americans re-acted by avoiding foreign entanglements. They rejected the League of Nations, and viewed the Russian Revolution with suspicion. Idealism in general was not highly valued. Although the United States received about 60% of the world's immigrants from 1820 to 1930, a quota law passed in 1924 reduced the total number of immigrants and established fixed numbers for each nation, and had the practical effect of barring most Asians.

But the 1920s turned out to be an era of important social changes. Women in particular achieved significant gains, including increased access to education. Sexual mores were less re-strained. In 1928 women were granted equal voting rights. The disciplines of medicine, architecture, science, and social reform all produced achievements of enduring worth. In business, entrepreneurs such as Walter P. Chrysler, Alfred P. Sloan, William C. Durant, and Henry Ford profited from the favorable political climate to make big business bigger. For a small segment of the population, these were years of optimism, symbolized by Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis and Ford's Model-T automotive technology, which made cars affordable for many people. Throughout the decade, the United States remained a segregated country, al-though there were some exceptions. For example, during this time Jews organized the movie industry, and black jazz, made popular by Louis Arm-strong and Duke Ellington, had a permanent influence on world culture. Sports remained closed, however, and except for some of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and a handful of Jewish publishers, the publishing industry remained white and Protestant.

Growing Urbanization

In Giants in the Earth, the settlers dream of the coming of the railroad to lessen the length of trips to town for supplies. The development of communications in the 1920s was an even more dramatic leap forward. By the end of the decade, 18.5 million telephones and 10.2 million radios were in service in the United States. A network of paved roads connected towns with major cities. By 1929, 20 million cars were on these roads. These changes helped to break down regional divisions in the country, but a by-product of the link with the cities was the death of the small towns. In the time Rölvaag's novel is set, there is no school at Spring Creek, and two of the younger settlers are pressed into service to teach the others. In contrast, between 1919 and 1928 access to education increased across the United States. College enrollment tripled, and women made up a third of the student population. Collegiate lifestyle made itself felt throughout the culture. Overall, the decade was one of real achievement in many areas, especially the arts and media. The speculative excesses of the 1920s were later blamed for the Depression, and in the decade that followed, the carefree lifestyle and values symbolic of the Jazz Age were considered frivolous.

Critical Overview

Early reviews of Giants in the Earth were highly favorable. Writing in the Chicago Daily News, Carl Sandburg called the story "so terrible and panoramic, piling up its facts with incessantly subtle intimations, that it belongs among the books to be kept and cherished." Walter Vogdes wrote in The Nation that "We may wish desperately that Rölvaag could have ended his tale in triumph and satisfaction.… But no, Rölvaag had to stand close to the facts and the truth." In his introduction to the novel, Lincoln Colcord, Rölvaag's co-translator, called the work unique for being "so palpably European in its art and atmosphere, so distinctly American in everything it deals with."

Other contemporary evaluations were equally positive. Historian Henry Commager called the novel "a milestone on American literature" and "the most penetrating and mature depictment of the westward movement in our literature." Scandinavian studies scholar Julius E. Olson was impressed that the book (which was first published in Norwegian) had "passed muster with Norwegian critics and Norwegian readers in the homeland." Clifton P. Fadiman had praise for Rölvaag's ethnic sensitivity, "as delicate as a seismograph."

Giants in the Earth has maintained its value over time. Critics often note the influence of Lutheranism and the writings of Henrik Ibsen and Kierkegaard on Rölvaag's characterization. According to Harold P. Simonson, "In spite of Beret's indomitable effort to preserve her Norwegian ways, her greater strivings concern a transcendent faith." Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum pointed out that "the robust conscience [such as Per Hansa's] is an element of character that Ibsen used time and again. The Vikings are said to be blessed with it.… They never seemed to regret their deeds, were never inclined to be morbid."

Other frequently cited literary influences are Old Norse sagas, Norwegian fairy tales, and Nordland dialect and folk memories. Particularly the Askeladd—a Norse tale in which the hero triumphs over adversity and wins the hand of a princess—is invoked in discussing the novel. Joseph E. Baker compared Rölvaag's respect for man to Homer's, and he calls the novel "a modern epic of Western man." Einer Haugen agreed. "By themselves, the events are simple and everyday, such as might have occurred to anyone. But the framework into which he has placed them deserves to be called epic." George Leroy White, Jr., praised Rölvaag's description of nature and his "Scandinavian" ability to evoke atmosphere. "It becomes oppressive; you feel that you must put the book down, you are so tired." Baker considered the passage where the minister brings Beret out of "utter darkness" to be "the greatest yet written in American fiction."

A universally acknowledged strength is Rölvaag's psychological realism, that is, his unromantic portrayal of the internal state of his characters. Though other writers such as Hamlin Garland, Edward W. Howe, and Willa Cather also dealt with psychological aspects of the westward movement, none had done it on the same scale as Rölvaag. "For the first time," wrote Commager, "a novelist has measured the westward movement with a psychological yardstick and found it wanting."

There is little disagreement that the work is tragic on several levels. According to Commager, "The westward movement… becomes the tragedy of earth's humbling of man." But this would not have been news to Rölvaag. He knew that "immigration is always tragic," wrote Julius E. Olson. "It is the price the pioneer pays for the future welfare of his children." Kristoffer Paulson recognized a tragic pattern typical of Rölvaag's novels, "inevitably ending in catastrophe," and he ranked the book among other great American tragedies such as A Farewell to Arms, The Sound and the Fury, and The Red Badge of Courage.

Critics dispute whether Per or Beret is the true hero of the story. Harold P. Simonson saw Per Hansa as "heroic in his choosing … fallen in his choice. This is the paradox informing great tragedy. Choice and the dreadful possibility of damnation are inseparable." But for Paul A. Olson, it is Beret's heroism that "is the tragic heroism of Lear, or Kierkegaard's Abraham or Job."

Critics do not stress the work's weaknesses. Charles Boewe found Giants in the Earth the most "aesthetically satisfying" of the books in Rölvaag's trilogy, "but at the same time the poorest history," because it is based on secondhand knowledge.


Darren Felty

Darren Felty is a Visiting Instructor at the College of Charleston. In the following essay, he explores O. E. Rölvaag's characterization of the Dakota plains settlers and the internal and external conflicts that ultimately determine their fate.

After publishing the English version of Giants in the Earth in 1927, O. E. Rölvaag was praised by many critics for helping to redefine the novel of the American frontier. Originally written in Norwegian and translated by Rölvaag and Lincoln Colcord, the novel dramatizes the vast opportunity the Western plains offered to those daring enough to settle it, but, unlike former plains novels, it does not overromanticize this settlement. Instead, Rölvaag details the harshness of life on the frontier and the destructive effects it had on both the weak and the hearty. Revolving around the conflict between Per Hansa and his wife Beret, who hold widely divergent views on American farm life, the novel contrasts the power of Per Hansa's vital ambition with Beret's fatalistic conviction that frontier pursuits will destroy her family's civility and jeopardize their religious salvation. An omnipresent factor in both their lives, however, is the prairie itself, which Rölvaag alternately personifies as indifferent to human beings and as intensely bent on preventing farmers' encroachments. Rölvaag's characterizations of the plains help the reader comprehend the forces arrayed against immigrant settlers. Even more important, though, Rölvaag's portrayals of Per Hansa and Beret reveal the emotional and psychological consequences of settlement, wherein one's material gains are always offset by tragedy and loss.

Rölvaag's early descriptions of the plain establish both its centrality to his work and the degree to which it dwarfs human endeavors. He opens the novel, "Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon.… Bright, clear sky, to-day, tomorrow, and for all time to come.… A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene … a cloud's gliding shadow … now and then.…" As in the rest of the book, the immensity of the frontier pervades these descriptions, as do impressions of eternity, beauty, and foreboding. Rölvaag explicitly contrasts the sense of vastness with Per Hansa's small family crossing the grassy fields. Immediately, the reader grasps one of the central questions of the novel and of plains experience: how can people survive in an environment that perpetually highlights their own insignificance and vulnerability? Rölvaag answers this question through the lives of his central characters, revealing that, in numerous cases, settlers do not survive, and those who do often suffer profound emotional and psychological afflictions because of their surroundings.

Rölvaag further emphasizes the intimidating difficulties of plains life by coupling characterizations of a vast, indifferent prairie with personified representations of an actively hostile natural world. Rölvaag presents the plain as alive, conscious, and frequently malevolent. For instance, in the beginning of Book II he describes the plain as "Monsterlike.… Man she scorned; his works she would not brook.… She would know, when the time came, how to guard herself and her own against him!" In such passages, Rölvaag's prairie jealously protects itself against settlers' attempts to tame it and exploit its fertility. The small humans who occupy the land have ambition and industry on their side, but the prairie can muster blizzards, violent storms, rampaging fires, and locust plagues. Thus, the plain wins even against the stout Hans Olsa and Per Hansa in the final chapter, chillingly entitled "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied." According to Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, Rölvaag derives this title from the Norwegian fairy tale in which the troll, satisfied by nothing else, drinks man's blood, and the characterization of the land as a troll runs through much of the book. These references to bloodthirsty retribution evoke an image of a beast both zealous and merciless as it attacks its foe and satiates itself upon his destruction. For Rölvaag, such is the life for many frontier dwellers.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, is Dee Brown's critically acclaimed 1970 account of the methodical annihilation of Native Americans by whites during the nineteenth century.
  • In Willa Cather's My Antonia (1918), a family of Bohemian immigrants confronts the hardships of pioneer life, including poverty and suicide, on the Nebraska plains.
  • The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is James Fenimore Cooper's classic tale of nobility and frontier adventure during the French and Indian War.
  • In A Doll's House (1879), one of the realistic plays for which Henrik Ibsen is best known, Nora Helmer courageously cuts herself loose from her degrading marriage of eight years to seek an independent life.
  • Mark Twain humorously recalls his escapades during a stagecoach journey through the American Midwest in Roughing It (1872).
  • Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) is Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Unset's trilogy of love and religion set in medieval Norway.

In Per Hansa, Rölvaag best embodies his views of the failed conquest of the early plains settlers. Per Hansa tames a small patch of land and even begins to gain some measure of material prosperity, but his grand visions are never realized because of both external and internal antagonistic forces. First, of course, he must confront his immediate environment. Though he recognizes the brutalities of the prairie, Per Hansa feels his own strength too profoundly to fear this adversary. For him, the vast stretches of the plains evoke not loneliness or oppressiveness but a fit arena for his ambitions. Here, indeed, is a worthy opponent for him, a creature of great beauty, fecundity, and cruelty. Full of his own vibrancy, he often sings the praises of the land and revels in the work required to tame it. He dreams of building a kingdom and being the lord of his own destiny, and it is the life-giving soil that will enable him to fashion his dream into reality. Much of the book glories in Per Hansa's ingenuity, energy, and optimism. He is like the Norwegian mythological Askeladd, the hero who rises from meager beginnings to defeat, through goodness, perseverance, and strength, the forces arrayed against him, in this case the land as a vicious troll. But Rölvaag is far too realistic about human limitations to push this mythological allusion past the point of believability. If Per Hansa is a triumphant hero, it is only in isolated moments, and his ability to overcome seemingly any obstacle ultimately leads to his death while trying to navigate a blizzard. He cannot overcome the forces of nature, however much he conceives them as a conquerable enemy.

Perhaps more significant than his confrontations with the plains, however, are his conflicts with his own ambition and pride, both of which blind him to his wife's character. He is not an overbearing man, yet because he glories in the life he has chosen, he cannot believe that Beret will remain burdened by it. He puzzles over her depressions but asserts that a change in weather or their immediate living conditions will revive her spirit. That Beret is by nature unfit for such a life does not occur to him until she moves rapidly toward psychological ruin. Though he finally blames himself for Beret's condition, he still does not abandon the tenets of his dream of frontier conquest, nor does he embrace a religious faith of humility. For him, human vitality and ambition are not sins. To reject these elements in the human character would be to reject two of his most fundamental attributes. In fact, he plants these characteristics in his youngest son by naming him Peder Victorious. True to form, though, he does not consider the effect of such a name on his wife. She is deeply offended and terrified by it, because she maintains that no one can be victorious on the prairie and any belief otherwise proves one is in Satan's grip. He later realizes his mistake, but, even so, when the kindly minister criticizes him for his complaints by saying, "'You are not willing to beat your cross with humility!"' Per Hansa replies defiantly, "'No, I am not.… We find other things to do out here than to carry crosses!"' Despite his guilt and selfrecriminations, he does not alter his way of viewing the world or his place in it in order to understand his wife better. He is a man who directly confronts physical challenges, but the subtleties of the emotional realm remain beyond his reach, much to the detriment of himself and his family.

Beret, too, suffers from an inability to alter her perception of the world, leading to her own debilitating unhappiness. Like her husband, Beret sees plains life as an opportunity. But for her it is an opportunity for people to sink to the level of animals, violating all that is sacred. She cannot see the prairie as beautiful or fecund; it is only terrible, the devil's instrument to lure people into baseness. She views the entire Western Movement as a destructive unleashing of human appetite: "Now she saw it clearly: here on the trackless plains, the thousand-year-old hunger of the poor after human happiness had been unloosed!" While to Per Hansa and the other settlers such an event is cause for celebration, for Beret it is cause for distress. Throughout the book, Beret is the epitome of a traditionalist, believing completely in the religious tenets of her upbringing and the superiority of Norwegian life. Giving in to human passions and rejecting one's familial obligations in order to chase after elusive treasure, as she has done with Per Hansa, invite God's wrath. Indeed, she views their lives on the plains as a punishment for her own sins of sexual passion, filial betrayal, and excessive pride, and the intensity of her convictions prevents her from critically confronting her own responses and feelings of impending doom. As a result, she cannot truly see the good in others or in herself.

The plain, Per Hansa's reputation for amazing exploits, and his and Beret's irreconcilable perceptions all help lead to the final tragedy in the book: Per Hansa's death. He sees the proposed journey to find the minister as the height of folly because no man could survive in such a blizzard. In addition, he does not think Hans Olsa, a good man, needs a minister. Beret, on the other hand, believes that the dangers to Hans Olsa's soul far outweigh the dangers to her husband's life. In her mind, one cannot stand idly by and watch a man be condemned to damnation. To do so would be committing a grievous sin that could bring damnation upon oneself. Added to the pressures from his wife, Per Hansa must contend with Hans Olsa and Sörine's fearful pleadings and belief in his near invincibility. When Per Hansa acquiesces, he is not convinced about the rightness of his errand, unlike his other dangerous ventures. Instead, he is angry at Beret and resigned to do his best, though he seems to know he is walking to his death. His last thoughts, fittingly, are of his home and family as he bids himself to "Move on!—Move on!", driving himself forward, as he always does. In the end, Per Hansa is killed by a combination of his anger, pride, and sympathy; his wife's singular convictions; his friends' fears and unqualified belief in him; and the vicious might of the plain. Yet, despite his defeat, he dies still adhering to his visions, as the reader sees in his Westward death gaze.

While the novel contains a number of tones, it ultimately strikes more of a naturalistic than a romantic chord. If one sees the book as romantic, then the "Giants" in the title reflect the heroic stature of the Dakota settlers, thereby glorifying Westem expansion. Yet the romantic tones in the book derive mainly from Per Hansa's praises and condemnations of the plains, as well as his sense of his own vibrant individuality. This sensibility comes through in Rölvaag's prose, but he counters it with darker, more enduring perceptions of frontier life. Individuals in the book are always at the mercy of their environment. Thus, Rölvaag implies, the "Giants" of the title refer to the natural forces (or trolls) working to prevent the success of the settlers' endeavors. Rölvaag's strongest message may be, though, that the characters suffer because of their own flawed characters. Per Hansa, for instance, is so caught by his visions that he allows his wife to suffer greatly. Even after recognizing his failings, he does not forsake his ambitions, showing the implacable grip of one's nature and dreams. Therefore, as critic Paul Reigstad asserts, the "Giants" could include the traits of the settlers themselves that, whether caused by inclination or upbringing, blind them to others' needs and to their own destructive shortcomings. Through this approach to his subject, Rölvaag identifies the settling of the plains as a widespread hunger for autonomy, adventure, and material prosperity whose silent costs often outweighed its loudly celebrated gains.

Source: Darren Felty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.

Patrick D. Morrow

In the following excerpt, Morrow discusses Rölvaag's use of and departure from tragic conventions in Giants in the Earth, a novel the critic ranks along with the great American tragedies A Farewell to Arms, The Sound and the Fury, and The Red Badge of Courage.

It's nothing but a common, ordinary romantic lie that we are 'captains of our own souls'! Nothing but one of those damned poetic phrases. Just look back over your own life and see how much you have captained!

This statement by Ole Rölvaag, less about fate than the human error of false pride, points us in a rewarding direction for an interpretation of Giants in the Earth. Concerned with hamartia, irreconcilable values, and dramatically rising to state man's universal predicament, Rölvaag's masterpiece is fundamentally a tragedy. Henry Steele Commager [in "The Literature of the Pioneer West," Minnesota History, VIII (December, 1927)] and Vernon Louis Parrington [in Main Currents in American Thought, III (New York, 1930)] suggested this possibility in 1927, shortly after the book's publication. But neither Commager nor Parrington shed much light on Rölvaag's methods for establishing Giants as a tragedy. Since those early days, the considerable scholarship on this important writer has pretty much moved to do battle on other fronts. Yet, by understanding Giants as a tragedy, I believe we can resolve much critical debate over the novel, especially about Beret and Per Hansa; perceive the book's real form, motivations, and complex thematic unity; and finally, appreciate Rölvaag's intention and considerable accomplishments as an artist.

Rölvaag develops Giants in the Earth as a tragedy by several methods, to be noted now and developed throughout this paper. In terms of genre, tragedy becomes established with a process of definition by negation. Rölvaag includes many aspects and conventions of both saga and epic, but then undercuts both by parodying them, and by having the tragic aspects increasingly dominate as his novel progresses. In terms of form, Giants has ten chapters of five well-defined acts, adhering to the tragic rhythm of exposition, conflict, crisis, and catastrophe. Unities of time and place appear with the predictable seasons, tragic winter being dominant, and almost all action takes place within the Norwegian prairie settlements. Imitations of Ibsen's dramas and Shakespearian tragedy abound, hardly surprising since from early youth Ole Rölvaag had been an avid reader of great literature. (He went on, of course, to become a literature professor at St. Olaf College from 1906 to 1931.) Finally, for the key issue of tragic recognition, Rölvaag fashions out of his Norwegian milieu and literary consciousness, a particularly American awareness.…

It seems widely agreed that tragedy emphasizes free will and individual responsibility, rather than inevitability and an external determinism, so happy in the saga or epic, but so dismal in naturalism. A tragic work typically presents a chain of events leading to catastrophe, often depicting a fall from high or successful station because of the hero's pride or hybris, an apt description of Per Hansa's life journey and fate. Some kind of chorus or community voice may function as spokesman for society's viewpoint and values. In Giants in the Earth the chorus not only advises but judges. As a community, they support Per; but later, as a congregation, they start to rally behind Beret.

Giants also has a tragic rhythm—nothing so episodic as scenes constructed and then struck, but a thematic movement of wax and wane. The exposition, the establishment of this Norwegian colony on the far edge of the prairie, is long, almost three and a half chapters. About midway in Chapter IV, "What the Waving Grass Revealed," Beret's disaffiliation and conflict with Per begins to become the book's dominant issue. Beret's withdrawal and conflict become deeper, even shocking, until a crisis is reached in Chapter VIII, "The Power of Evil in High Places." After a chapter of reprieve or counter-action, the catastrophe is consumated in the final chapter with its outrageous title. Before we can understand the recognition phase, the final tragic aspect in this book, we must see the terms of this tragedy.

Professor Harold Simonson [in "The Tenacity of History: Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth," paper presented at the Twelfth Annual Meeting, Western Literature Association, October 7, 1977, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.] has suggested that Giants in the Earth presents two intersecting but irreconcilable dimensions, Time (Beret) and Space (Per). Simonson is concerned with the opposition between traditional Lutheran faith and the frontier ethic in Giants, but if expanded, this notion can also clarify the tragic character conflict in this novel. Forceful, physically powerful and handsome, skillful and even lucky, Per Hansa is a great natural leader. He loves the frontier because it is so expansive, a fitting, infinite surface on which to move his will, enact his own destiny and that of his people. Per attempts to change the prairie, or conquer time, by establishing a kind of immortality with his pioneer kingdom. Per's will and ego fill all space. Morally, he is a pragmatic teleologist who first ignores then hates the past. In the tradition of American Romanticism, he sees himself motivated by a dream of absolute good and right. Per fears rejection by those whom he leads far more than he fears impending failure because of the overwhelmingly hostile Dakota environment with its blizzards, floods, wind, clay soil, and grasshopper plagues. Per Hansa has confused his dream with reality.

As Per acts in terms of his vision, Beret acts in terms of consequences. Beret is the party of time; she wants to find her place in history, not escape it. Beret is defined and informed by what has already been created, and thus she is drawn to the old Norwegian culture, the Lutheran religion, and such other institutions as education, motherhood, and being a wife. Within an established community, institutions have been developed to deal with time, ritualizing the cycle of birth, growth, and death. But the prairie is infinity, as Rölvaag relentlessly reminds us throughout Giants, the zone where space cancels time, making the individual reach an absolutely Kierkegaardian state of being forever alone.

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon.… Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.… "Tish-ah!" said the grass.… "Tish-ah, tish-ah!".… Never had it said anything else—never would it say anything else.

From this beginning, then, Beret is literally and figuratively "spaced-out."

Nevertheless, as critic Barbara Meldrum has established [in "Fate, Sex, and Naturalism in Rölvaag's Trilogy" in Ole Rölvaag: Artist and Cultural Leader, ed. Gerald Thorson (Northfield, Minn., 1975), 41-49.] Beret can control her disorientation and depression until she comes to feel that Per Hansa has rejected her. Like Hester in The Scarlet Letter, Beret is no witch, but a passionate woman. She does feel guilt for her productive passion with Per, but her love for him continues to increase. Out on the prairie, she loses all sense of purpose with the realization that it is his dream, not Beret, which Per loves more than life. Beret comes to see Per as a person without fear, totally, blindly committed to his vision through his all-consuming pride. Per is thus daemonic, and the consequences for following this evil course shall most certainly be destruction. Beret must bear this burden alone. She has reached a Cassandra-like impasse—doomed to knowledge, but never to be believed because he who hears her cries heeds only his own voice.

In terms of Per's dream and the ideal goals of the community, Beret does indeed lose her sanity. But in Beret's terms, her bizarre behavior—having tea with her absent mother, sleeping in her hope chest, ceasing her household chores, and attacking Per for godless megalomania—ritualizes punishment for worshipping Per, the false god, her punishment for sins against time. Beret is not, as Lloyd Hustvedt [in discussion following this paper, "The Johnson Rölvaag Correspondence," at the above noted Western Literature Association meeting] once half-seriously proffered, "a party pooper out on the prairie." Nor is she a pietistic, guilt-ridden fanatic bent on precipitating Per Hansa's early death. Nor is she the opposing view, Kierkegaard's "Knight of Faith" following God's divine imperative. However critically misunderstood, Beret remains a very human character, very hurt, and very much alone, pursuing a direction out of her moral and emotional wilderness by the only way she trusts.…

That Giants in the Earth is a tragedy of two characters frozen in their irreconcilable dimensions may now seem evident, but where is that tragic recognition scene that changes and enlightens the protagonist? Since, as Maynard Mack [in "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies," in Stratford Upon Avon Studies, I (London, 1960)] reminds us, "tragic drama is in one way or other, a record of man's affair with transcendence," where might this transcendence be found? Nowhere in the novel. Playing his trump card of dramatic irony, of making his characters realize less about themselves than the audience understands, Rölvaag throws not only the burden of interpretation but the responsibility of awareness squarely on his readers. Far from undercutting tragic conventions, by this strategy Rölvaag expands Giants into relevance, into our own dimension and consciousness.

Four key scenes in Giants, all revealing to the audience rather than to the characters, establish our participatory role in this tragic novel. The first is that opening scene of the prairie as mystical infinity, a landscape more formidable and incomprehensible than any of the characters. The second scene is the visitation of the grief-stricken and insane Kari, her husband Jakob, and their children. This episode forms a kind of play-within-a-play, a dumbshow or mirroring device for the relationship between Per and Beret. Kari's hysteria is Beret's largely self-contained depression put into action, and Jakob surely must be enacting a Per Hansa fantasy by roping Kari down in the wagon and saying: "Physically she seems as well as ever.… She certainly hasn't overworked since we've been travelling." The third scene is the christening of Peder Victorius, where the Per-Beret schism becomes public, but here too, actions are taken and positions are stated without any understanding by the characters. This pattern continues into the last scene. Per departs for his death with an almost spitefully disconnected calm, while Beret broods, paralyzed by guilt and doubt, wondering how history and the community will judge her.

Dramatically, then, Rölvaag opposes his audience's recognition against his characters' actions. But beyond dramaturgy, Rölvaag limits his characters' awareness by significantly limiting their language. Typically a tragic hero defines himself by overstatement, using hyperbole and metaphor to establish a momentum towards change and understanding. But Beret moves in circles inside the soddie, while Per Hansa moves in circles outside the house. Never soliloquizing, Beret conducts a long series of spinning monologues, usually in the form of unanswered questions in the conditional voice. Per Hansa, as suspicious of words as he is of emotions, wanders a path around the community, seeking tasks and deeds that will establish his goodness. Per and Beret are not fools blindly driven by some all-powerful malignant force. Perhaps the novel's greatest tragedy is that it centers on two very human characters who cannot understand their own tragedy. We can.

In the establishment of Giants in the Earth as a tragedy, Rölvaag owes a particular debt to two sources, Ibsen and Shakespeare. From Ibsen, whom Rölvaag intensely studied and taught for many years, he adopts a tone of pervasive overcast along with the thematic emphasis of self-deception as a psychological prison. Thus, Per Hansa is a synthesis of Brand and Peer Gynt, Brand predominating. Surely Beret's character has been filtered through the apprehension of Nora and Hedda Gabler. Ibsen's celebrated and tragically overwhelming momentum of cause and effect gives the pattern for the plot of Giants. As Rölvaag once concluded in a potent lecture on Ibsen: "… the free exercise of will in the dramas results in disaster.… Life is tragic."

Shakespeare's Macbeth provides an analogue if not a source for the characterization and context in Giants. Both Lady Macbeth and Beret act with a sane and visionary madness, reflecting on all that has happened before and its consequences. Like Macbeth, Per Hansa just gives up. Certainly the eerie atmosphere of Macbeth exists out on the prairie, but, like the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, Giants also has its moments of saving humor. Maynard Mack notes an aspect of Shakespeare's later tragedies particularly appropriate to the tragic movement of Giants in the Earth:

Whatever the themes of individual plays … the one pervasive Jacobean theme tends to be the undertaking and working out of acts of will, and especially (in that strongly Calvinistic age) of acts of self-will.

Tragedy provides neither eternal answers nor temporal game plans, but heightens our awareness, our realization of the human condition. This is Rölvaag's mission with Giants in the Earth.

Giants in the Earth, then, is not a saga or epic about Norwegian settlements and triumphs in the Land of Goshen. This tragic novel is an amalgamation of Norwegian culture and concerns turned to a pioneer experience, set on the most extreme American frontier. As John R. Milton [in "The Dakota Image," The South Dakota Review, 8 (Autumn, 1970)] has noted, Giants is the premier account of "how people remember the Dakotas or learn about them." As such, especially with Rölvaag forcing the tragic realization upon his audience, Giants is squarely in the tradition of American tragic realism, in the company of such works as The Red Badge of Courage, A Farewell to Arms, The Sound and the Fury, and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the manner of Ibsen and Shakespeare, Rölvaag's masterpiece transcends time and space to make a dramatic and universal statement about the meaning of life.

Source: Patrick D. Morrow, "Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth as Tragedy," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 83-9O.

Joseph E. Baker

In the following review, Baker notes, particularly in the character of Per Hansa, an affirmation of the Western ideas of humans possessing free will as opposed to the Eastern, deterministic outlook held by American romantic writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth is a vision of human life rich in its implications. Here the pioneer struggle with the untamed universe may serve as a symbol for the condition of man himself against inhuman Destiny. The hero, Per Hansa, is a typical man of the West, both in the regional sense that he represents our pioneer background and in the universal human sense that he embodies the independent spirit, the rationalism, and what has often been condemned as the utilitarianism of Western civilization—European mankind's determination to cherish human values against the brute force of Fate. Under the influence of German philosophy and Romantic pantheism, many modern writers have bent the knee to the gods of nature and worshiped a fatal Destiny. On the other side, we turn to French literature and its greatest thinker, Pascal, for the classic statement of the Western attitude: "Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in Nature; but he is a thinking reed.… If the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies."

This conception is developed most fully in the great tragic dramas of European literatures, but we find a similar respect for man at the very dawn of our civilization in the first Western author, Homer. His men are "like gods"; indeed, sometimes they are better and wiser than the supernatural forces and divine giants they come in contact with. Before the Heroic Age, mankind was sunk in an Age of Terror, given over to the superstition that the world is ruled by forces which can be dealt with only by magical rites—a view that still survives in Per Hansa's wife Beret. But with Homer, man emerges into the epic stage of human consciousness, with its great admiration for men of ability. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth is a modem epic of Western man.

In this novel, as in Homer, or, for that matter, in Beowulf, there is the heartiest gusto and admiration for human achievement—sophisticates would say a naïve delight in the simplest things: "Wonder of wonders!" What had Per Hansa brought back with him? "It was a bird cage, made of thin slats; and inside lay a rooster and two hens!" Nobody but Homer and Rölvaag can get us so excited over merely economic prosperity, man's achievement in acquiring fine things for his own use. One of the high dramatic points in the novel is the discovery that, after all, the wheat has come up! This sort of thing means life or death; and the preservation of human life, or the evaluation of things according to the pleasure they can give to individual men, is the very opposite of submission to material forces.

Hans Olsa was cutting hay; his new machine hummed lustily over the prairie, shearing the grass so evenly and so close to the ground that his heart leaped with joy to behold the sight. What a difference, this, from pounding away with an old scythe, on steep, stony hillsides! All the men had gathered round to see him start.

That sounds like a passage from the Odyssey. And the central figure in the novel is an epic hero. Like Odysseus, Per Hansa is "never at a loss." Hans Olsa says to him, "No matter how hard you're put to it, you always give a good account of yourself!" This might be used to translate one of Athena's remarks to Odysseus. Or one may think of Virgil. Here are some of the phrases that make the novel seem epic: "[They talked] of land and crops, and of the new kingdom which they were about to found.… Now they had gone back to the very beginning of things." This comes in the earliest pages of the book; while the last chapter states their attitude thus: "There was no such thing as the Impossible any more. The human race has not known such faith and such self-confidence since history began"—one ought to say, since the Homeric Greeks. But in the translation of this novel from Norwegian into English, made by a New Englander, there has been added, out of respect for our Atlantic seaboard, "so had been the Spirit since the day the first settlers landed on the eastern shores." Thus the novel, especially in the English translation, brings out what America meant to mankind. "He felt profoundly that the greatest moment of his life had come. Now he was about to sow wheat on his own ground!" This is exactly what Jefferson wanted America to be. And as the Middle West became the most complete type of democratic civilization that the world has ever known, our leaders have fought many battles, in politics and war, to enable the ordinary hard-working farmer to sow his wheat on his own ground.

America at its most American, this is embodied in Per Hansa, who "never liked to follow an old path while there was still unexplored land left around him." That is the spirit of the West against the East, of America against Europe, of Europe against Asia. It is not that the amenities of life are undervalued; even Per Hansa is working to achieve a civilized life. But the amenities are less exciting than the achieving. Much of the dramatic tension between the characters turns upon this choice. It is the pioneer faith that "a good barn may perhaps pay for a decent house, but no one has ever heard of a fine dwelling that paid for a decent barn." But the opposite view is expressed by one of the men: "One doesn't need to live in a gopher hole, in order to get ahead." There speaks the conservative culture of a more Eastern or more European mind. The conquest of material nature has been superciliously criticized by comfortable New Englanders from Emerson to Irving Babbitt (both guilty of an undue respect for oriental passivity) as a case of forgetting the distinction between the "law for man and law for thing," meaning by the "law for thing" not material force but human mastery. It "builds town and fleet," says Emerson; by it the forest is felled, the orchard planted, the prairie tilled, the steamer built. But it seems to me that human triumph over matter is a genuine practical humanism, and that this is the true spirit of the West; that in Bacon's phrase, knowledge may well be used for "the relief of man's estate." Emerson was closer to the spirit of the pioneers when he said, in "The Young American":

Any relation to the land, the habit of tilling it, or mining it, or even hunting on it, generates the feeling of patriotism. He who keeps shop on it, or he who merely uses it as a support to his desk … or … manufactory, values it less.… We in the Atlantic states, by position, have been commercial, and have … imbibed easily an European culture. Luckily for us … the nervous, rocky West is intruding a new and continental element into the national mind, and we shall yet have an American genius.

And he calls it a "false state of things" that "our people have their intellectual culture from one country and their duties from another." But happily "America is beginning to assert herself to the senses and to the imagination of her children." If this be true—and I must confess that it seems rather extreme doctrine even to a middle western regionalist like myself—then Rölvaag, born in Europe, is more American than some of our authors of old New England stock. All Emerson's "Representative Men" were Europeans. It was not until the Middle West came into literature that we get an epic and broadly democratic spirit in works never to be mistaken for the products of modern Europe. Emerson recognized this in Lincoln; at last he admired a representative man who came from the West. And middle western leadership in American literature, begun with Lincoln's prose, established beyond a doubt by Mark Twain, was confirmed in our day by Rölvaag.…

In "The Method of Nature" Emerson says, "When man curses, nature still testifies to truth and love. We may therefore safely study the mind in nature, because we cannot steadily gaze on it in mind"; and he proposes that "we should piously celebrate this hour: [August 11, 1841] by exploring the method of nature." We may take this to represent the attitude toward Nature that we find in the Romantic period of American literature: that is to say, the New England masters and their followers continuing up through Whitman. But romanticism came late to America. Already in England Tennyson was recognizing that the method of nature is red with blood in tooth and claw. It was this later view that came to prevail in literature toward the end of the nineteenth century, even in America, doubtless because of the increased knowledge of nature. I refer not only to the progress of science, but to the fact that later authors had struggled with Nature, more than the Romantics, whose Nature had been tamed by centuries of conquest. Thoreau said: "I love the wild not less than the good," but his Walden was within suburban distance of the cultural center and the financial center of the New World. Rölvaag had known Nature as the sea from which, as a Norwegian fisherman, he must wring his living. In 1893 a storm at sea drowned many of his companions; and this, he says, caused him "to question the romantic notion of nature's purposeful benevolence." So in this novel there are giants in the earth. On the prairie, "Man's strength availed but little out here."

That night the Great Prairie stretched herself voluptuously; giantlike and full of cunning, she laughed soffly into the reddish moon. "Now we will see what human might may avail against us!… Now we'll see!" And now had begun a seemingly endless struggle between man's fortitude in adversity, on the one hand, and power of evil in high places.

"The Power of Evil in High Places" is the title of the chapter, which includes a plague of locusts and also the terrible insanity of Per Hansa's wife. That is what we really find to be the method of Nature. For by this term Rölvaag, of course, does not merely mean scenery. He means the whole created universe that man is up against and the blind inhuman force or might that moves it. Sometimes he calls it Destiny, as in speaking of the murderous storm of 1893: "That storm changed my nature. As the seas broke over us and I believed that death was inescapable, I felt a resentment against Destiny." Twenty-seven years later another even more bitter tragedy occurred to impress Rölvaag with the murderousness of Nature: His five-year-old son Gunnar was drowned, under terrible circumstances. He writes that this tragedy changed his view of life. Previously he "had looked upon God as a logical mind in Whom the least happening" was planned and willed. Now he saw that much is "due to chance and to lawbound nature." In this novel, written later, it should be noticed that Per Hansa's wife Beret, especially when she is insane, continues Rölvaag's older view, blaming God for all miseries as if he had planned all. She broods that "beyond a doubt, it was Destiny that had brought her thither. Destiny, the inexorable law of life, which the Lord God from eternity had laid down for every human being, according to the path He knew would be taken.… Destiny had so arranged everything." Another poor miserable woman in this novel, her husband receiving his death blow from a cruel Nature, has this same dark pagan view: "Now the worst had happened and there was nothing to do about it, for Fate is inexorable." This is a continuation of the deadliest oriental fatalism, always current in misconceptions of Christianity, though actually it is just this which it has been the function of Christian philosophy and Western humanism to cast out, to exorcise in rationalizing man's relation to the universe. Emerson put his finger on the difference between West and East when he wrote in his Journals in 1847:

The Americans are free-willers, fussy, self-asserting, buzzing all round creation. But the Asiatics believe it is writ on the iron leaf, and will not turn on their heel to save them from famine, plague, or the sword. That is great, gives a great air to the people.… Orientalism is Fatalism, resignation; Occidentalism is Freedom and Will.

So, Beret does not believe they should try to conquer the prairie; she feels that it is sinful to undergo the conditions of pioneer life; she is "ashamed" that they have to put up with poor food. "Couldn't he understand that if the Lord God had intended these infinities to be peopled, He would not have left them desolate down through the ages?"

But her husband, Per Hansa, is a man of the West; he glories in the fact that he is an American free-willer, self-asserting. He rebels against Destiny and tries to master Nature. Carlyle says that the struggle between human free will and material necessity "is the sole Poetry possible," and certainly this makes the poetic content of Rölvaag's masterpiece. During the plague of locusts one of the other characters gives vent to an expression of Asiatic abnegation:

"Now the Lord is taking back what he has given.… I might have guessed that I would never be permitted to harvest such wheat." … "Stop your silly gabble!" snarled Per Hansa. "Do you really suppose He needs to take the bread out of your mouth?" There was a certain consolation in Per Hansa's outbursts of angry rationalism. [But when Per tries to scare the locusts away, Hans Olsa says, "Don't do that, Per Hansa! If the Lord has sent this affliction on us.…"]

It should be noticed that Per Hansa, though a rationalist, is also a Christian; so the author designates him in the title of the last chapter, "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men." Per is defending a higher conception of God. When Hans Olsa, dying, quotes "It is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God," Per says, "Hush, now, man! Don't talk blasphemy!" Rölvaag is aware of the divine gentleness of Christianity; the words of the minister "flowed on … softly and sweetly, like the warm rain of a summer evening" in a tender scene which suggests "Suffer little children to come unto me." This is in a chapter entitled "The Glory of the Lord"—for it is a clergyman who ministers to the "mind disease" of Beret and brings her out of her "utter darkness" in a passage that may be considered the greatest yet written in American fiction. What is implied in this novel becomes explicit in the sequel, Peder Victorious, where the first chapter is concerned with the religious musing of Per's fatherless son Peder. At one point he feels a difference between a Western as opposed to an Eastern or Old World conception of God and concludes that "no one could make him believe that a really American God would go about killing people with snowstorms and the like." But more significant is the account, in this sequel, of what the minister said to Beret after she had driven her husband out into the fatal snowstorm to satisfy her superstitious reverence for rites:

You have permitted a great sin to blind your sight; you have forgotten that it is God who muses all life to flower and who has put both good and evil into the hearts of men. I don't think I have known two better men than your husband and the friend he gave his life for … your worst sin … lies in your discontent with … your fellow men.

Surely, whatever Rölvaag's religious affiliations may have been, this is the expression of a Christian humanism. From this point of view it is far from true to say that American literature has sunk down in two or three generations from the high wisdom of Emerson to the degradation of the "naturalistic" novel. Giants in the Earth is a step in the right direction, abandoning the romantic idolatry that worshiped a Destiny in Nature and believed "the central intention of Nature to be harmony and joy." "Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity"—as Emerson puts it in his "Fate"— "Why should we be afraid of Nature, which is no other than 'philosophy and theology embodied?" This sentiment can be found repeated in many forms throughout the rhapsodies of the "prophets" of our "Golden Day." I, for one, am rather tired of the glorification of these false prophets, and I am glad that American literature has outgrown their enthusiasms, so lacking in a sense for the genuine dignity of man. Wisdom was not monopolized by the stretch of earth's surface from a little north of Boston to a little south of Brooklyn Ferry. Another passage from "The Young American" could bring home to us the repulsive inhumanity of Emerson's conception of God. Enumerating the suffering and miseries of man's lot, how individuals are crushed and "find it so hard to live," Emerson blandly tells us this is the

sublime and friendly Destiny by which the human race is guided … the individual[s] never spared.… Genius or Destiny … is not discovered in their calculated and voluntary activity, but in what befalls, with or without their design.… That Genius has infused itself into nature.… For Nature is the noblest engineer.

In opposition to this deadly submission to cruel natural force, I contend that Western civilization was built by innumerable details of calculated and voluntary activity, that the Christian God is a God concerned not with race but with individuals according to their moral worth, and that in the tragic event which befalls Per Hansa in this novel, without his design, we do not witness a God infused into Nature.

Source: Joseph E. Baker, "Western Man Against Nature: Giants in the Earth," in College English, Vol. 4, October, 1942-May, 1943, pp. 19-26.


Joseph E. Baker, "Western Man against Nature: 'Giants in the Earth'," in College English, Vol. 4, No. 1, October, 1941, pp. 19-26.

Charles Boewe, "Rölvaag's America: An Immigrant Novelist's Views," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1957, pp. 3-12.

Percy H. Boynton, "O. E. Rölvaag and the Conquest of the Pioneer," in English Journal, Vol. 18, No. 7, September, 1929, pp. 535-42.

Lincoln Colcord, in an introduction to Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie by O. E. Rölvaag, translated by Lincoln Colcord and O. E. Rölvaag, Harper and Row, 1927, pp. xi-xxii.

Henry Commager, "The Literature of the Pioneer West," in Minnesota History, Vol. 8, No. 4, December, 1927, pp. 319-28.

Clifton P. Fadiman, "Diminished Giants," in Forum, Vol. 81, No. 3, March, 1929, pp. xx, xxii.

Steve Hahn, "Vision and Reality in 'Giants in the Earth'," in The South Dakota Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 85-100.

Einar Haugen, in Ole Edvart Rölvaag, Twayne, 1983, pp. 80-1.

Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography, Harper and Brothers, 1939, pp. 344-46.

Patrick D. Morrow, "Rölvaag's 'Giants in the Earth' as Tragedy," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 83-90.

Julius E. Olsen, "Rölvaag's Novels of Norwegian Pioneer Life in the Dakotas," in Scandinavian Studies and Notes, Vol. 9, No. 3, August, 1926, pp. 45-55.

Paul A. Olson, "The Epic and Great Plains Literature: Rölvaag, Cather, and Neidhardt," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 55, No. 182, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 263-85.

Kristoffer Paulson, "What Was Lost: Ole Rölvaag's 'The Boat of Longing'," in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 51-60.

Carl Sandburg, "Review of Giants in the Earth, by Ole Rölvaag," in The Chicago Daily News, February 11, 1928, p. 9.

Harold P. Simonson, "Rölvaag and Kierkegaard," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 67-80.

Walter Vogdes, "Hamsun's Rival," in The Nation, Vol. 125, No. 3236, July 13, 1927, pp. 41-2.

George Leroy White, Jr., "The Scandinavian Settlement in American Fiction," in Scandinavian Themes in American Fiction, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1937, pp. 69-108.

For Further Study

American Prefaces, Vol. 1, No. 7, April, 1936, pp. 98-112.

An issue devoted to Rölvaag that includes a commemorative poem written by Paul Engle, an excerpt of Rölvaag's unfinished autobiography, and recollections by his daughter.

Joseph E. Baker, "Western Man Against Nature: 'Giants in the Earth'," in College English Vol. 4, No. 1, October, 1942, pp. 19-26.

Baker views Per Hansa as a typically rational, independent Western man concerned with achievement, contrasting him with a more Eastern, submissive, and romantic figure one would find in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Charles Boewe, "Rölvaag's America: An Immigrant Novelist's Views," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1957, pp. 3-12.

Boewe discusses Rölvaag's focus on the Norwegian-American immigrant experience and his philosophy of culture.

Lincoln Colcord, "Rölvaag the Fisherman Shook His Fist at Fate," in The American Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 3, March, 1928, pp. 36-7, 188-9, 192.

Conversations between Rölvaag and his translator, Colcord, about emigrating to America and the writing of Giants in the Earth.

Henry Commager, "The Literature of the Pioneer West," in Minnesota History, Vol. 8, No. 4, December, 1927, pp. 319-28.

Commager connects Rölvaag's exploration of the suffering and futility of plains settlement with similar strains in historical studies. He discusses Rölvaag's contrast between the romantic ideal of the West and the harsh reality of pioneer life.

Sylvia Grider, "Madness and Personification in Giants in the Earth," in Women, Women Writers, and the West, edited by L. L. Lee and Merrill Lewis, Whitson, 1979, pp. 111-17.

A study of Beret Hansa's struggles with the forces of nature on the prairie, her mental breakdown, and her recovery.

Steve Hahn, "Vision and Reality in 'Giants in the Earth'," in South Dakota Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 85-100.

Hahn explores the impact of Norwegian heritage on Rölvaag's characters and their search for selfhood. He contends that Norse, folk, and especially Christian traditions dominate the narrative.

Theodore Jorgenson and Nora O. Solum, in Ole Edvart Rölvaag: A Biography, Harper, 1939.

In the first extensive English biography of Rölvaag, Jorgenson and Solum analyze the influence of Henrik Ibsen and Norwegian saga and folk tale culture on Rölvaag's prairie novels.

Barbara Howard Meldrum, "Agrarian versus Frontiersman in Midwestern Fiction," in Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains, edited by Virginia Faulkner and Frederick C. Luebke, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 44-63.

In one section of her essay, Meldrum explores Per Hansa's dual nature as a frontiersman and an agrarian. She also discusses Beret's role as a truth-teller in the book.

Patrick D. Morrow, "Rölvaag's 'Giants in the Earth' as Tragedy," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 83-90.

Though he recognizes Rölvaag's use of saga and epic, Morrow contends that tragic conventions define the progress of Rölvaag's narrative and characters, placing the novel firmly in the tradition of American tragic realism.

Paul A. Olson, "The Epic and Great Plains Literature: Rölvaag, Cather, and Neidhardt," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 55, No. 182, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 263-85.

Olson asserts that Beret is Rölvaag's true hero because of her God-centered heroic vision, while Per Hansa is a failed epic hero because of his disconnection to his community and God.

Paul Reigstad, "Mythical Aspects of Giants in the Earth," in Vision and Refuge: Essays on the Literature of the Great Plains, edited by Virginia Faulkner and Frederick C. Luebke, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, pp. 64-7O.

Reigstad briefly examines Per Hansa's connections with Faust, the multiple connotations of the book's title, and Rölvaag's use of trolls in the novel.

Paul Reigstad, in Rölvaag: His Life and Art, University of Nebraska Press, 1972.

Reigstad explores the development of Rölvaag's art and, in the chapter on Giants in the Earth, cites Rölvaag's letters to recount the composition history of the novel.

Harold P. Simonson, "Rölvaag and Kierkegaard," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 67-80.

Simonson examines Kierkegaard's influence on Rölvaag's prairie novels and their characters' religious sensibilities. From this perspective, Beret becomes the true hero of the novels.