Places: Growth of the Soil

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Markens grøde, 1917 (English translation, 1920)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Places DiscussedSellanraa

Sellanraa. Growth of the SoilFarm of the Norwegian protagonist, Isak, and his wife, Inger. Hamsun was in many ways the opposite of Isak, a simple, honest, and hard-working subsistence farmer who leads the kind of life that Hamsun might have wished for himself. As an aspiring writer, however, he was not attached to the soil or even to his native Norway. He worked for many years as an itinerant farm laborer in North America, where he saw the Industrial Revolution tearing millions from the soil. He suffered loneliness, poverty, and spiritual alienation, as suggested by the titles of some of his other books, such as Hunger (1890), Vagabonds (1930), and The Road Leads On (1934). Through his description of the transformation of Sellanraa, his utopia, Hamsun eloquently expresses his thesis that country life is more wholesome than town life.

Breidablik

Breidablik. Farm of Brede Olsen, whose character is undermined by town life. Scatterbrained, impractical, and lazy, he is used to taking orders from others and is unable to think independently. He envies Isak but fails to realize how much sweat and perseverance are behind Sellanraa’s development. Brede lacks the knowledge required to cultivate the soil, raise livestock, build dwellings and barns, repair tools, store fuel and fodder, and perform all the other tasks necessary for independent survival. As Isak passes Breidablik on his way to and from the village, he notices tangible signs of neglect and deterioration, which proceed from Brede’s weak character. When Breidablik is auctioned off by Olsen’s creditors, Hamsun’s description of the dilapidated farm, its few scrawny animals, and farm implements ruined by neglect eloquently expresses his contempt for dreamers whose characters are undermined by modern civilization.

Maaneland

Maaneland. Axel Ström’s farm. Maaneland is not as successful as Isak’s Sellanraa, although Axel shares Isak’s values. The major difference is that Axel does not have a faithful, industrious, and skillful wife like Isak’s Inger. Axel’s servant, and later wife, Barbro, has been corrupted by city living and causes Axel much anxiety and heartache.

Storborg

Storborg. Combination farm and general store owned by Aronsen. Unfit to be a farmer, Aronsen sells out to Isak at a loss when the local mine closes down. Isak’s son receives the place as a gift, but he is too corrupted by city living to make a go of it, either as store or farm. He invests in such unsaleable merchandise as bird whistles and rocking horses. Eventually Storborg passes into the hands of Andresen, another man who loves the land and is content with a simple lifestyle.

Mine

Mine. Local copper mine that changes hands many times and creates both wealth and poverty. The mine illustrates the vanity of capitalistic speculation and the plight of wage slaves everywhere. It attracts a horde of rootless working men, whose interests are limited to drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Their shiftless lives undermine their characters, and they themselves have a harmful influence on the simple folk who live in the wilderness.

Village

Village. Unnamed hamlet that is important to Isak and his family only as a place to sell surplus goods, such as cheeses and eggs, for which they obtain staples they cannot produce themselves, such as coffee and sugar. The village illustrates the dependency and insecurity of all those who have lost the skill and inclination to wrest their own livings from the land, the source of all wealth.

Cities

Cities. Norway’s big cities of Trondheim and Bergen are almost legendary places to people like Isak. Never used for scenes in the novel, they are only mentioned in conversations. City dwellers seem like a different race of people. They can manage to eat and drink and wear fine clothes without ever doing any productive labor. At most they live by talking, scheming, and manipulating pieces of paper. City people are cold, selfish, materialistic, and dehumanized in direct proportion to the size of their city’s population.

BibliographyFerguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. The best biography of Humsun in any language. Presents a balanced and detailed overview of Humsun’s life and places Growth of the Soil in the context of the author’s life and works. Ferguson stresses the mythic aspects of the novel.Ford, Jesse Hill. “On Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil.” In Rediscoveries: Informal Essays in Which Well-Known Novelists Rediscover Neglected Works of Fiction by One of Their Favorite Authors, edited by David Madden. New York: Crown Publishers, 1971. Emphasizes the ethical concerns underlying Growth of the Soil, particularly Hamsun’s sense of the benefits of honest stewardship of the land.Næss, Harald. Knut Hamsun. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A survey of Hamsun’s works written by one of the world’s foremost Hamsun scholars. Includes a section devoted to Growth of the Soil as well as additional references throughout the text. Næss emphasizes Geissler’s role as a spokesperson for the author.Næss, Harald. “Knut Hamsun and Growth of the Soil.” Scandinavica 25, no. 1 (May, 1986): 5-17. A general discussion of the novel and Hamsun’s ideas at the time when he was working on it.
Categories: Places