Places: Independent People

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Sjálfstætt fólk, 1934-1935 (English translation, 1946)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social

Time of work: Twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSummerhouses

Summerhouses. Independent PeopleSmall farm, formerly wintering pens for sheep, in a mountain valley of north-central Iceland. The story’s protagonist, Gudbjartur Jonsson, fulfills his dream of becoming an independent man by buying Summerhouses, a marginal tract of heath, and raising his own flock. To the south rise desolate mountains with glaciers, and ranges extend to the east and west, making the farmstead an island of fertile land within the surrounding desert highlands. Furthermore, it lies under a legendary curse, haunted by the Irish sorcerer Kolumkilli and the witch Gunnvor. In a major theme, these spirits symbolize the harsh, alien hostility of the environment to human occupation; everyone before Bjartur has been driven from Summerhouses. To avoid the humiliation of eating the bread of others or accepting charity of any kind, Bjartur must have stony resolution as unforgiving as the natural environment. In the best of years the heath barely supports enough sheep to feed a family; during bad years Bjartur loses two wives and several children to starvation and disease. Bjartur represents all poor people who dream of standing on their own land and controlling their own fortunes, and his fate–he eventually loses Summerhouses after decades of struggle–reveals the brittleness of that dream.

*Iceland

*Iceland. North Atlantic island nation, whose countryside contains natural features that are both beautiful and terrifying–desert, heath, hot springs, freezing rivers, volcanic vents–all of it snowbound much of the year. On the northern part of Iceland, Bjartur and his family respond to the conditions variously. Bjartur himself finds nature a foe to tame with his strength and steadfastness. The summer pastures and native creatures imbue his youngest son, Nonni, with peace and contentment and inspire him to become a singer. The beauty of spring, especially its fragile wildflowers, reflects the innocent eroticism of Bjartur’s daughter, Asta Sollilja.

To most others in the area, however, the north is either a place of social exile, a backwater retaining relicts of medieval pastoral culture, as it is to the regional minister, the Reverend Godmundur, or it is a base from which to acquire larger wealth and status in greater Iceland, as it is for Bailiff Jon of Utirauthsmyri.

Rauthsmyri

Rauthsmyri (roths-meer-ee). Small community, whose name means “Red Moors,” centered on a wealthy farm, Utirauthsmyri, just north of Summerhouses. Bailiff Jon is the resident rural squire, whose large farm and household employ many locals (Bjartur was one for eighteen years) and dominate local politics and culture. Summerhouses originally was part of Utirauthsmyri, and it returns to the bailiff after Bjartur defaults on unwise loans made at the bailiff’s urging. The prosperity of the bailiff’s holdings and his shifty machinations to regain Summerhouses at a bargain contrast with Bjartur’s wretched poverty and single-mindedness. Moreover, to Bjartur, Summerhouses is all the world he wants; the bailiff, on the other hand, uses his wealth and position to establish a farmers’ cooperative that supplants local merchants in supplying loans and goods to members and finding markets for their sheep. His son, Ingolfur Jonsson (Bjartur’s foster brother), builds on these efforts to become a member of parliament, governor of the Bank of Iceland, and, even as Bjartur is reduced to a tenant farmer, prime minister.

Fjord

Fjord (fee-yohrd). Icelandic seacoast town dependent on fishing and on merchants who cater to farmers. Perhaps modeled on Akureyri, now a major Icelandic city at the end of a long fjord, Fjord and its nearest neighbor Vik (“bay,” possibly modeled on Husavik) indicate coastal topography, as well as identify settlements, and so contrast with the inland landscape of Summerhouses and Rauthsmyri. The townspeople set themselves apart from country folk, whose rustic clothes they laugh at because those in town pay attention to fashion, live in better houses, and consume more luxuries. For his part, Bjartur considers towns to be full of corruption, especially among greedy merchants who cheat farmers, and the refuge of lost souls who gave up the independent farm life to be wager earners.

*Reykjavik

*Reykjavik (RAY-kyeh-veek). Iceland’s capital city, a seaport in the southwest. Whatever corruption exists in small towns is compounded many times in Reykjavik in Bjartur’s eyes. The distant capital is the home of banks and the national government, both full of time-servers and middlemen who depend upon rural revenues and taxes and who make decisions that affect the independence of small landholders.

BibliographyEinarsson, Stefán. A History of Icelandic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957. Sketches the writer’s career and comments on major publications. Claims that in Independent People and other novels, Laxness deals sensitively with contemporary themes. The poor farmer in the novel emerges as a symbol of his class and a hero of great stature.Hallberg, Peter. Halldór Laxness. Translated by Rory McTurk. New York: Twayne, 1971. Chapter devoted to Independent People compares the novel with the work of Knut Hamsun and discusses Laxness’ infatuation with socialism. Extensive commentary on the protagonist and his children.Hallmundsson, Hallbe. Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 39-63. Collection of essays on the novelist’s achievements. Includes a critical essay on the ways the novelist is able to use regional materials to describe universal traits of human character. Reprints Laxness’ 1955 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.Leithauser, Brad. “The Book of My Life: Halldór Laxness’ Independent People.” In Penchants and Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Personal commentary on a book that Leithauser claims has great power to evoke sympathetic responses in readers, especially those whose experiences parallel the novelist and his characters.Rossel, Sven H. A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980. Translated by Anne C. Ulmer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982. Provides a biographical sketch and a summary of Laxness’ literary achievements. Places Independent People in the context of the author’s canon, examining ways the novel shows Laxness’ faith in socialism as an antidote to capitalism.
Categories: Places