Giants in the Earth

by: O.E. Rölvaag

Beret Hansa

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.