Per Hansa is one of the novel's two main protagonists. He is a middle-aged man, physically strong and plain, with a wife and four children. As a fisherman in Norway, Per fell in love with and married Beret against the wishes of her parents, who objected to Per on the grounds that he was not good enough for her. Per yearned to immigrate to America, where he believed he could become successful and wealthy, and he persuaded Beret to come to America with him. Although Beret's parents offered Per everything they possessed if he and Beret would stay in Norway, he refused because he wanted to make his own fortune. In America, Per Hansa dreams about building a kingdom on the prairie because he believes that nothing is too good for his family, especially Beret. He is both a natural pioneer and a natural entrepreneur he works hard to cultivate his land and makes money through trading goods. After years of hard work, he becomes one of the most successful farmers in the Dakota Territory. Per is a man of action who takes on responsibility and takes charge of situations. In Book I, Chapter IV, he takes charge of the situation when he finds stakes that earlier settlers have placed on his land. Per removes the stakes even though he knows his act is a crime, because he is willing to do everything he can to protect his land his neighbors.
Per believes that he is invincible. We may begin to think so too, in light of the fact that he escapes dangerous situations all the time perhaps most notably in Book II, Chapter I, when he survives being lost in a snowstorm. The title of the novel even seems to refer to Per as a "giant." Per, Hans Olsa, and the other settlers farming the land are the "giants in the earth" who attempt to tame a wilderness by being the first people to settle permanently on the land. In the last chapter, Per's neighbor Sorine even tells him, "we all have a feeling that nothing is ever impossible for you." However, Per's strength diminishes as the novel progresses, and Beret begins to overpower him. Indeed, Per's greatest weakness lies in his wife. As the novel progresses, Beret gradually succumbs to fear and mental illness. The one thing that Per cannot achieve is a cure for his beloved wife's insanity.
Throughout the novel, Per functions as an epic hero like Odysseus, for instance who overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles and performs incredible feats. Some critics also believe that Per identifies himself in the role of Askeladd, a character in Norwegian folk tales who succeeds in finding the Castle of Soria Moria and wins the princess of the kingdom. After all, Per envisions himself living in a fairy tale, striving to build a kingdom in the Great Plains. Per also represents an everyman because he represents the millions of immigrants like him who left Europe in the nineteenth century to immigrate to America, hoping to find a better life in the "land of opportunity." In this sense, Per represents the pioneering spirit of the nineteenth century. He is dedicated, strong, hardworking, courageous, adventurous, and willing to make sacrifices.
Per is contrasted most consistently with his wife, Beret. Per is a man of action a doer while Beret is a thinker. While Per is a natural pioneer who thrives in his new environment, his suffering wife cannot endure life on the prairie. She longs to return to Norway, where she can feel comfort of civilization. Beret does not want to become Americanized, and she prefers to retain her ties to her heritage. Critics point out that the Rölvaag uses the two characters to represent the natural instincts of man and woman: man wants to move and seek adventure, while the female wants to nest and build a home.
Beret, the other main protagonist of the novel, is Per's wife. A more complex individual than her husband, she is also the complete antithesis of him in terms of personality and outlook. While Per is a man of action, Beret possesses a more introspective nature. She does not share Per's optimism for a new life on the prairie because her frail nature cannot endure the crude lifestyle of the pioneer in the prairie wilderness. Although Beret did not really want to immigrate to America, she gave in to her husband's pleas because she wanted to make him happy. Although she feels deeply unhappy in America, she does not blame him for persuading her to emigrate. Toward the end of the novel, Per at last understands that Beret is the type of individual who should never emigrate. When the husband and wife first reach their destination in the Dakota Territory, their contrasting reactions to the prairie foreshadow their relationship to the environment. Per sees opportunity, comparing the land to Egypt. Beret sees only the desolation of the endless prairie; she is continually struck by the fear that there is nothing to "hide behind." Her fears at last drive her into depression and then madness. When she is finally cured of her insanity, she replaces her madness with religious mania and becomes exacting and cold in her relationships with others, particularly her husband.
We may tend to want to judge Beret harshly because of her pessimistic, brooding personality. However, we must keep in mind that the lifestyle of the early settlers was not easy to endure. Beret only makes her life even harder for herself by constantly brooding about her homeland and the sins of her past. In fact, Rölvaag treats Beret with great sympathy: she is the novel's tragic character, suffering far more than anyone else. Rölvaag further sympathizes with Beret in her wish to hold onto her Norwegian heritage while the other settlers appear all too eager to sever such ties, as we see when they change their names in order to become "real" Americans. In the end, Beret unintentionally destroys the thing she loves the most: her husband.
While Per functions as an everyman in the novel, representing the spirit of pioneering, Beret functions as an everywoman, representing the cost of immigration and pioneering in terms of human suffering. Critics note that Rölvaag uses a married couple as his main characters because they represent opposite sides of the same coin the coin of immigration. Like the Hansas as a couple, every immigrant feels both the spirit of optimism in starting a new life and the spirit of fear and pessimism in leaving everything familiar behind.