Canth, Minna (1844–1897)

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Canth, Minna (1844–1897)

Finnish playwright and author, a major representative of the realist school, who was an eloquent advocate for women's rights. Name variations: Ulrika Wilhelmina Canth. Born Ulrika Vilhelmina Johansson on March 19, 1844, in Tampere, Finland; died on May 12, 1897, in Kuopio, Finland; daughter of Gustaf Wilhelm Johannson or Johnson (inspector in a cotton mill, then shopkeeper) and Ulrika Johannson or Johnson; attended a teacher's college at Jyväskylä; married Johan Ferdinand Canth (a natural science instructor and newspaper editor), around 1864 (died around 1877); children: seven.

Born Ulrika Vilhelmina Johansson into a shopkeeper's family in Tampere, Finland, the future playwright and feminist attended a teacher's college at Jyväskylä where she met and married one of her teachers, Johan Ferdinand Canth. Marriage and motherhood—she was to have seven children—interrupted her studies, but she never gave up her youthful ambition of becoming a noted writer. After the death of her husband left her and her children in a precarious economic state (she was pregnant with her last when he died), Ulrika Canth supported her family by running the shop she had inherited from her father. Busy as she was, she used her nickname Minna, and began to submit articles to local newspapers; some of these pieces were short literary essays, while others dealt with such controversial issues of the day as temperance and women's suffrage. The sharp, incisive nature of her articles gave Minna Canth the confidence to tackle larger artistic forms, particularly drama.

By 1879, she had completed a folk play entitled The Burglary. The difficult years of widowhood and economic struggle had matured Canth, and in this and other plays her combination of powerfully depicted characters and a strong sense of social indignation appealed to a generation of Finns ready to change society and help create a new world based on justice and freedom. The founding of a professional Finnish-language theater in Helsinki in 1872 signaled the dawn of a new era in the nation's cultural life, free of Swedish domination over a people traditionally regarded as little more than ignorant peasants and fishermen. In the 1880s, Minna Canth became a leading member of the Young Finns, a movement organized to promote both social reforms and the heightening of national cultural awareness. Her plays The Workman's Wife (1885) and Children of Misfortune (1888) were often shocking in their depiction of brutal exploitation and human degradation. These tragedies, although didactic in intent, were recognized as significant works of art. Thanks to Canth, by the 1890s the Finnish stage could claim equality with that of Sweden.

Encouraged by the success of her plays, Canth turned to other literary forms. Her novellas Poor Folk (1886) and The Sunken Rock (1887) were generally well received by both critics and the reading public. Equally successful were her short stories "Hanna" and "Poor People" (both 1886) and "Lopo the Peddler" (1889). Canth's last plays revealed a depth and philosophical wisdom often lacking in her earlier efforts. In these final works, The Vicar's Family (1891), Sylvi (1893) and Anna-Liisa (1895), she became the voice of the long-oppressed Finnish people, particularly its women who had for centuries suffered not only from foreign oppression but also from the injustices at the hands of a patriarchal regime. With these plays, the tradition of Finnish literary realism reached its apex. While mercilessly exposing the hypocrisies of bourgeois society in these works, Canth also looked forward to a new age of reason by calling for social peace and reconciliation based on a spirit of national harmony. Minna Canth died in Kuopio on May 12, 1897, deeply mourned by her nation. She was honored on the centenary of her birth in 1944 with a commemorative postage stamp, and her works continue to be read and staged in Finland.


Frenckell-Thesleff, Greta von. Minna Canth och "det unga Finland." Helsinki: H. Schildt, 1942.

——. Minna Canth: Suomen-tanut Tyyni Tuulio. Helsinki: Otava, 1944.

Kannila, Helle. Minna Canthin kirjeet. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia, 1973.

Korhonen, Hilkka. "Hymyt ja naurut Canthin novellissa 'Salakari'," in Kirjallisuudentutkijain Seuran Vuosikirja. Vol. 22, 1967, pp. 24–34.

Lehtonen, Soila. "Jouko Turkka's The Burglary," in The Drama Review. Vol. 26, no. 2. Fall 1982, pp. 51–56.

Ravila, Paavo. Finnish Literary Reader with Notes. The Hague: Mouton, 1965.

Tuovinen, Elia, ed. Taisteleva Minna: Minna Canthin lehtirkirjoituksia ja puheita 1874–1896. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia