Jotuni, Maria (1880–1943)

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Jotuni, Maria (1880–1943)

Finnish author whose realistic depictions of ordinary people paint a group portrait of her country in the first decades of the 20th century, and whose novel A Tottering House remains a powerful statement about the collapse of both a marriage and a civilization. Name variations: Maria Haggrén or Maria Haggren; Maria Tarkiainen. Born Maria Gustava Haggrén in Kuopio, Finland, on April 9, 1880; died in Helsinki, on September 30, 1943; married Viljo Tarkiainen.

The literature of Finland has a long and rich history. Until the final years of the 19th century, Finland was a bilingual nation in which the Swedish-speaking minority enjoyed elite status. Scholars differ as to whether the literary history of Finland can be seen in terms of two distinct bodies of literature—Finnish-language and Swedish-language—or as a unified but bilingual entity. For almost seven centuries, from around 1150 to 1809, Finland belonged to Sweden and the Swedish language functioned as the vehicle of government, trade and high culture. Held in disdain as the language of illiterate peasants, Finnish was spoken only in the countryside and virtually the only books published in that language were a primer, a translation of the New Testament, and several collections of the Psalms. When Finland became part of Russia in 1809 (enjoying an autonomous status), Swedish remained the language of the urban intelligentsia, while books in Finnish remained almost entirely church books for the use of the peasantry. However, after 1809, inspired by Romanticism and the ideals of cultural nationalism, a growing number of intellectuals began to collect folklore and write poems, novels and plays in Finnish. In 1831, the Finnish Literary Society was founded to collect works of folklore and encourage the publication of periodicals and individual writings. Finnish-language literature came of age with the writings of Aleksis Kivi (1834–1872), a tailor's son who wrote works of lasting merit, including the Romantic tragedy Kullervo and Seven Brothers, a novel with strongly realistic touches.

Life after all is quite ridiculous if you take it seriously.

—Maria Jotuni

Born into a family of modest means—her father was an artisan—Maria Gustava Haggrén grew up observing the lives of the lower-middle class. After completing her secondary education, she enrolled at the University of Helsinki where she met the man she married, Viljo Tarkiainen (1879–1951), an academic lecturer who went on to become a distinguished literary scholar. In 1905, using her pseudonym for the first time, Jotuni published her first book, Suhteita (Relationships), a collection of short stories that pleased readers and critics alike by the author's understanding of the subtleties of the speech of ordinary people. Jotuni's comprehension of social mores and aspirations was reflected in this debut work, which announced to the Finnish reading public a significant literary talent.

Her next book, entitled Rakkautta (Love), appeared in 1907. Because the work also appeared in a Swedish translation, it was read by the influential Danish critic Georg Brandes, who was highly impressed by the "bitter erotic masterpiece." Sharply realistic in her portraits of the Finnish lower-middle class, Jotuni depicted with irony the preoccupation with social climbing and money as well as with other attempts to improve status, particularly through marriage. The women portrayed by Jotuni in these and later writings often reveal themselves in both their words and deeds as greedy, power-seeking, crude, and unpleasant individuals. Critics and audiences alike were shocked and angered by Jotuni's stripping away of Victorian conventions and ideals. The titles of her books, such as Love or Kun on tunteet (When There Are Feelings, a collection of short stories published in 1913), are imbued with irony, given that her characters exhibit a lack of the traits her titles imply.

In her first novel, Arkielämää (Everyday Life), published in 1909, Jotuni looks at rural life, exploring the strengths and contradictions of its men and women. Set in a remote rural village, the story takes place within a single day. The central character of this short novel (some critics have described it as a long short story) is "Reverend" Nyman, a rootless wanderer who may or may not have once studied theology. He is an acute observer of the human condition in his tour of the village, meeting individuals from all social strata, from domestics and penniless farmhands to the wealthiest farmers. From his observations, Nyman concludes that happiness, social status, and wealth are rarely linked. Whereas a poor farmhand and his beloved, a servant girl, are among the happiest people in the village, an old master of a large farm whose daughter is about to enter into a loveless marriage of convenience knows only miserable loneliness. In Everyday Life, Jotuni not only created a sociological cross section of Finnish village life, but also crafted a work of literature that presents attitudes toward life and happiness that can be seen as universal and timeless.

In 1910, Jotuni published her first play, a tragedy entitled Vanha koti (The Old Home). In this Ibsenesque drama, she portrays a seemingly respectable middle-class family with many skeletons in its closets. By the end of the last act, a death, a suicide and a nervous breakdown have demolished all facades of order and moral stability. At the end, only two impractical dreamers are left, individuals who stubbornly refuse to accept that sometimes life is ugly and painful. Jotuni's 1914 play Miehen kylkiluu (Man's Rib) ruffled the theater's board of directors with its frank depiction of man-hunting.

In the several more plays she wrote over the next few years, pessimism coexists with a sharp wit. The ability to see and accept the paradoxes of existence would later be summed up by a character in her 1924 play Tohvelisankarin rouva (Wife of a Henpecked Husband), who states, "Life after all is quite ridiculous if you take it seriously." Jotuni's obvious lack of respect for the sacred cows of society often angered social and cultural conservatives, and when Wife of a Henpecked Husband came to the attention of some politicians they started a parliamentary debate on the possibility of cutting off funding to the National Theater because of its showcasing of works with "un-Finnish" sentiments like those found in Jotuni's dramas.

Like so many of Europe's artists and intellectuals, Jotuni was profoundly affected by the carnage of World War I. In the years before 1914, she wrote positively about aspects of the subconscious and instinctive forces of humankind, and in a 1908 essay on the achievements of novelist Knut Hamsun she praised his glorification of the irrational forces that surged uncontrollably within the human psyche and in the world at large. With the onset of the world conflict, however, she began to rethink her earlier position, arguing that "If our social self … would not control … our instinctive self … our world would be full of slavery, violence and disorder, and what would we not be able to do with our present efficient instruments of destruction." Perhaps because she had given up hope of reasoning with adults during the spreading conflict, in 1915 Jotuni published a children's book, Musta Härkä (The Black Ox).

Troubled by the war, which now was raging within Finland itself as a bloody civil conflict between Whites and Reds, Jotuni wrote a play with a contemporary theme, Kultaine vasikka (The Golden Calf). In this drama, first performed in the autumn of 1918, she lays bare one of the ugly by-products of war, namely business profiteering and corruption. Jotuni continued to write plays after the war. Appearing in 1924, The Wife of a Henpecked Husband—on the surface a rollicking comedy in which a scheming woman has her plans foiled—had a dark and bitter tone which did not sit well with audiences expecting an intellectually undemanding night's entertainment. Several other plays from this period were seen by some critics as representing a decline in Jotuni's talent, in that they could be just as easily interpreted as essays in rural sociology as convincing works of dramatic art. Her final plays, Olen syyllinen (I am Guilty, 1929), about Saul and David, and Klaus, Louhikon herra (Klaus, Lord of Louhikko, published in 1946), a Nietzschean philosophical drama set in the Renaissance, have both been seen as of lesser quality than her earlier dramas.

Although Jotuni wrote a number of works during the last decade of her life, including a comedy and a short novel, much of her time was spent on creating the richly textured novel Huojuva talo (The Tottering House). Not published until 1963, two decades after the author's death, this depiction of a hellish marriage is an epic work of fiction and very likely an autobiographical document. The character of the husband is shown to be one of tyranny incarnate, indicating that even in the most cultured environment the most brutal traits are often only thinly concealed beneath a veneer

of education and cultivation. By the 1930s, her own marriage to Viljo Tarkiainen was in shreds. Jotuni's real-life alienation from her husband, who was sympathetic to the authoritarian trends of the decade, is mirrored in the novel's husband, whose fascistic personality yearns for totalitarian solutions to the world's woes. Deeply pessimistic in tone, and often written with more passion than stylistic grace, The Tottering House has been seen as a powerful work of world literature, a document of one writer's despair and rage against a world devoid of reason and bent on self-destruction. The reputation of this novel has continued to grow since its posthumous publication. It was staged in 1984 at Oslo's Nordic Theater Festival in an adaptation by Maaria Koskiluoma . In 1995, a dramatized version of The Tottering House was shown on Finnish television. Maria Jotuni died in an age of terror, in the middle of World War II, in Helsinki on September 30, 1943. Finland honored her with a commemorative postage stamp issued on April 9, 1980, the centenary of her birth.


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——, and Mary Lomas. "Maria Jotuni: Money, Morals and Love," in Books from Finland. Vol. 14, 1980, pp. 20–26.

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