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Giants in the Earth

O.E. Rölvaag

Important Quotations Explained

Book II, Chapter IV—"The Great Plains Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied"

Key Facts

"Tish-ah!" said the grass. "Tish-ah, tish-ah!" Never had it said anything else—never would it say anything else. It bent resiliently under the trampling feet; it did not break, but it complained aloud every time—for nothing like this had ever happened to it before.

This passage occurs in the very beginning of the novel, Chapter I, as the omniscient narrator describes the prairie landscape that Per Hansa's caravan crosses. Rölvaag personifies the land to emphasize its power. The prairie is also the first "character" of the novel to speak, as it says "tish-ah" in this passage—indeed, we may argue that the land is the main character of the novel, as the novel's full title is Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. The narrator references the land's continuity by repeating the words "never" and "ever," referring to the fact that the land will remain forever while the people living on the land will only come and go. The repetitions of "never" also reference the fact that the pioneers of the novel are the very first people to arrive and to settle in the area permanently. The land resists the encroachment of man because it "complains aloud" and "bends resiliently" as the caravan passes through the land. While the grass "bends" as it is trampled—just as the land bends to man by letting him settle—it does not "break" because the land remains more powerful than man.

That summer Per Hansa was transported, was carried farther and ever farther away on the wings of a wondrous fairy tale—a romance in which he was both prince and king, sole possessor of countless treasures.

As the first paragraph of the chapter "What the Waving Grass Revealed," the passage conveys Per's euphoric vision of building a successful life in America for his family. He even daydreams about being a hero in a Norwegian fairy tale in which he defeats obstacles, represented by trolls, in order to reach the castle of Soria Moria, which, in Norwegian folklore, symbolizes perfect happiness. In fact, the reference to fairy tales and Scandinavian folk tales becomes a major motif of the novel. Per imagines himself not only as a hero, but also as a prince and a king; he regards being a landowner as the noblest pursuit of man. In the first few chapters of the novel, Per's optimistic tone dominates while Beret's fears only occasionally interrupt her husband's euphoric vision. As the novel progresses, it increasingly focuses on Beret as the main character. At this point in the novel, however, Per is still the main character, and his optimism still dominates.

Life [the prairie] held not; a magic ring lay on the horizon, extending upward into the sky; within this circle no living form could enter; it was like the chain enclosing the king's garden, that prevented it from bearing fruit. How could human beings continue to live here while that magic ring encompassed them? And those who were strong enough to break through were only being enticed still farther to their destruction.

This passage occurs in the chapter "What the Waving Grass Revealed" after Per removes the stakes that the Irish settlers had placed in the land earlier. As Beret increasingly feels the dread and loneliness of the empty prairie, she sinks into depression. Above all, she is afraid of the unknown. She continually scans the flat horizon of the Great Plains, seeing only the landscape and no other living thing. This passage strikes us by highlighting the loneliness the early pioneers endured and by revealing Beret's psychology. Above all else, Beret finds life on the prairie unbearable because her frail nature cannot endure the hard life of the pioneer. While the narrator concentrates on Per's indomitable optimism in the first few chapters of the novel, he gradually shifts his focus to concentrate on Beret's point of view. This passage occurs at a pivotal point in the story, when Per begins to diminish as the main character and Beret increasingly takes his place as the protagonist. The novel ceases to be only an action story, as it begins to increasingly probe the inner psychology of the characters—Beret is a more introspective individual than her husband.

For you and me, life out here is nothing; but there may be others so constructed that they don't fit into this life at all; and yet they are finer and better souls than either one of us. She is a better soul than any I've ever met. It's only lately that I have begun to realize all she suffered since we came out here.

Per speaks these words to Hans Olsa to describe Beret near the end of the novel, in the chapter "The Glory of the Lord." Throughout the novel, Per notices his wife change as she sinks into depression, but he always believes that she will improve with time. His vision remains optimistic, and he never understands her point of view. At last, he comes to the realization in this chapter that she belongs to the category of individual who should never emigrate, who is unsuited to the pioneer life and who demands the comforts of the Old World. Per now thinks that he should have never forced Beret to immigrate. Per and his wife have remarkably contrasting personalities, and Per now realizes that the two of them are even perhaps unsuited for the other. Remembering the fact that Beret belonged to a better family than he did and that she came to America for him, Per tells Hans Olsa that Beret is a better individual than himself. Per's confession in this chapter marks the first time he abandons his attempts to be a man of action. Instead, at this moment, he is primarily insightful. As Per professes his love of her to Hans Olsa, Beret overhears him. His words in this speech provide Beret with the motivation to get better, and by the end of the chapter her spirit and sanity return to her.

His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west.

These words conclude Giants in the Earth, providing a haunting image of Per's dead body lying against a haystack. As one of the novel's primary concerns is the struggle between the settlers of the Great Plains and the inhospitable environment—summer heat, fierce winter blizzards, and plagues of locusts—we may conclude that this ending pronounces the land as the final victor. However, the last word of the novel symbolizes man's continual hope and optimism. Nature may win this round, but man may win the next. After all, Per recognizes the fact that, one day, the prairie will be settled and will yield rich farmland; he remains optimistic even as he faces death. Throughout the novel, he looks toward the western horizon because, to him, the West represents the future and the hope of building a new life in America. The American spirit of manifest destiny in the nineteenth century seems to validate Per's optimism—many people from the East migrate West and many people from Europe immigrate to America because they see opportunities for themselves. However, another allegorical representation of the West references death, as the sun rises in the east and sets—symbolically dies—in the west each day. The immigrants of the novel follow the sun's path, the path of all humanity, as they are born in the east (Europe) and move west (America). By continuing to set his eyes to the West, Per finds success in America but finds death as well. The double meaning of the West effectively summarizes the double nature—optimistic and pessimistic—of the novel's tone. By setting his eyes to the West, Per continues to look outward, rather than inward as his wife, Beret, does. In this sense, the novel's final line provides a last moment to contrast the conflicting personalities of the two protagonists.

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