Author: Knut Hamsun
First published: Konerne ved vandposten, 1920 (English translation, 1928)
Locale: A small coastal town in northern Norway
Time: The late nineteenth century
Oliver Andersen, a man who lost a leg and possibly (the villagers speculate) something more in a mysterious shipboard accident. Lazy, self-seeking, and full of guile, Oliver is nevertheless charming and sympathetic. He drifts from job to job, never failing to capitalize on his handicap. With his wife, Petra, he rears a large family (though his paternity is questionable) and is much like a self-indulgent, boastful child himself. Fortune and misfortune alike leave Oliver unfazed for long; he squanders the gains from his spectacular salvage of a wrecked ship and from his discovery of the loot from a mail robbery, but his resiliency and cunning enable him time after time to turn misfortune to his advantage.
Petra Andersen,anattractivewomanwhoisengagedtoOliver before his accident but who rejects him for Mattis the Carpenter when Oliver returns disabled. Later, she reconsiders and marries him, and shortly thereafter she bears a son. Her repeated “visits” to Scheldrup Johnsen, the wealthy double consul's son, and to lawyer Fredriksen, who holds the Andersens' mortgage, often save the family from financial ruin.
Frank Andersen, Petra's eldest son, who is introverted and academically brilliant. He studies languages at the university and eventually returns to the village as headmaster of the local senior school.
Abel Andersen, Petra's second son, a blacksmith. Called the Squirrel as a child, he is lively, industrious, and straightforward. His infatuation with Little Lydia and his unswerving determination to marry her despite her equally determined refusals offer some of the novel's more touching comic scenes. When she refuses his offer of a gold engagement ring that he has forged himself, he quickly and pragmatically gets engaged to a local farm girl, Louise, whom he soon marries.
C. A. (Double Consul) Johnsen, known as the First Consul until he becomes the town's only double consul. Wealthy and socially ascendant, Johnsen busies himself with more ponderous (though less concrete) duties than the running of his successful mercantile and shipping business, which he happily leaves to his clerk and his son. When his steamship sinks and is discovered to be uninsured, Johnsen is crushed by the prospect of financial ruin; when his son Scheldrup arrives and mysteriously manages to pay off the creditors, however, Johnsen revives and reassumes his role as unchallenged patriarch of the village.
Scheldrup Johnsen, the double consul's son. Frank, businesslike, and thoroughly “modern,” Scheldrup travels extensively to foreign ports to learn the shipping business. Brown-eyed, amorous Scheldrup once got his ears boxed by Petra over something he whispered to her at a dance hall; not a few villagers suspect that he might have something to do with the surprising number of brown-eyed babies born in the village.
Fia Johnsen, the double consul's daughter, called the Countess because of her her refinement and artistic temperament. Attractive and accomplished, Fia prefers a life of moderation and calm to one of passion and rejects all of her several suitors, whom she rightly suspects of wooing her dowry as much as her. A talented but not brilliant artist, she is content to paint, travel, and act as a cultured hostess to her artist friends.
Fredriksen, a pompous and aspiring lawyer. Fredriksen is elected to the Storting (the Norwegian legislature), where he makes a name for himself by sponsoring a bill in direct conflict with the interests of his wealthy constituents. He energetically but unsuccessfully courts the daughters of the wealthiest villagers, thinking to win them with the suggestion that he may soon be appointed a government minister.
The Doctor, a rational, humorless, and suspicious man. He takes vindictive pleasure in baiting others and fomenting trouble. In expounding genetic theory, he hints broadly that Scheldrup is the father of the inexplicable number of brown-eyed children in the village.
The Postmaster, a long-winded philosopher. He bores others with his interminable ramblings on human thought, enlightenment, and God. The trauma of the post office robbery leaves him a childlike, babbling madman.
Little Lydia, a childhood friend of Abel. Lighthearted and changeable, she resists his determined efforts to win her heart.