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Giants in the Earth

O.E. Rölvaag

Book I, Chapter VI—"The Heart That Dared Not Let in the Sun"

Book I, Chapter V—"Facing the Great Desolation"

Book II, Chapter I—"On the Border of Utter Darkness"

Summary

As winter approaches the prairie, the sky darkens, the days shorten, and the weather chills. Per Hansa works hard to prepare for the winter, always busy with dreams and schemes. He whitewashes the interior of the sod house, and he catches fish and ducks with his net. Beret grows more and more desolate, unable to share in Per's good mood. Beret's neighbors rarely visit her now because they feel uncomfortable being around her. One day, everyone visits Per and Beret to see the whitewashed walls. Everyone praises Per for whitewashing his house, but Hans warns Per about becoming too vain.

Per feels restless about being indoors all day, and he sleeps all the time. As the snow falls and the temperature drops, the winter becomes increasingly fierce. One evening, Tonseten and Kjersti visit Per and Beret. Another evening, Hans and Sorine visit. Both Kjersti and Sorine give Beret presents for her expected baby.

Per worries about Beret more and more, noticing that she acts strangely but feeling unable to communicate with her. Beret often cries, does not eat or sleep, becomes forgetful and loses things, and no longer takes care of her appearance. Beret tidies herself up only when Per delicately calls her attention to the fact that she is unkempt. She continues to act morosely. Per tries to convince himself that everything will be alright after she has her baby. He continues to grow restless with inactivity. When Per makes Beret some wooden clogs to keep her feet warm, she thanks him coldly by asking why he failed to make the shoes earlier.

One day, Per gets into an argument with Henry Solum. Henry tells Per that he wants to leave the settlement for the winter and return to the East. Per thinks that the Solums are cowards. Beret, however, tells Per that she understands why the Solums want to leave, and the two get into an argument. Per visits Hans and Sorine and asks Sorine to talk to Beret. Next, Per, Tonseten, and Hans Olsa try to persuade the Solum brothers to stay. They offer the Solum brothers positions as teachers for the children of the settlement. While the Solums are at first reluctant, Per pleads with them until they agree to stay.

Beret feels increasingly unhappy. She thinks that God is punishing her for all of her sins. She remembers how she conceived Ole out of wedlock. She regrets that she disobeyed her parents, first by marrying Per and then by leaving them to emigrate to America. She also recalls how she loved Per so much that she would have done anything he asked. Even though she did not want to move to America, she agreed when Per persuaded her to leave Norway and move to the West. Beret thinks about death often, and thinks that her death will serve as retribution to her sins. She even begins to plan her own funeral. She regrets having to be buried in America, but decides that she would like to be buried in her seventeenth-century emigrant chest, which belonged to her great-grandfather.

At Christmas, Sorine and Kjersti stay with Beret as she goes into labor. Per feels deeply concerned about Beret's condition. She alarms him even further when she tells him that she is convinced that she will die. He tries to comfort her without success. Beret says that she wants to be buried and that she wants the family to return to Norway. She suffers a difficult delivery while Per paces around outside, in tears. Beret finally gives birth to a boy. While both mother and baby appear fine, Sorine tells Per that the child should be baptized at once. Sorine also tells him that the baby was born with a caul, which is considered good luck. Per fetches Hans Olsa to baptize the baby, and Per decides to name the baby Peder Victorious. It is Christmas Day and everyone celebrates.

Analysis

In this chapter, Rölvaag further emphasizes Beret's inability to adapt to life on the prairie. Beret sinks deeper and deeper into a depression, as the winter increases her feelings of desolation and loneliness and makes her feel like an exile in the prairie wilderness. Although we may attribute her depression to her pregnancy, we must remember that her real depression stems from homesickness. In short, Beret hates America and wants to return to Norway.

As Rölvaag examines Beret further, the tone of the novel becomes increasingly tragic. In the first few chapters, Per dominates as the main character, and the tone of the novel remains optimistic. However, now that Beret has become the main character, the tone of the novel turns dark. Rölvaag proves to be more interested in characterization than plot. Through Per and Beret, the author examines the immigrant experience as a psychological experience. Since Per and Beret symbolize everyman and everywoman, Rölvaag records both the triumphs and tragedies of other immigrants through them. We may assume that Rölvaag chooses to record the triumphs of the pioneers through Per and the hardships of the pioneers through Beret. However, we must keep in mind that Per and Beret are married and are therefore, in a sense, one person. The couple represents the fact that every immigrant had to experience both success and defeat. Every immigrant had to leave his homeland because he or she dreamed of a better life in America.

Here, Rölvaag reveals the psychological suffering of Beret to such an extent that we feel sympathy for her just as Rölvaag seems to. Beret's inner psychology is revealed more often than Per's because Beret is a more introspective person. Per, as a man of action, primarily dominates the novel's plot. However, Beret remains the heart of the story, the center of the main conflict and the fulcrum of the novel's increasingly dark tone. This chapter also presents Beret's deeply religious nature. As her depression grows, she feels haunted by religious guilt as she recalls the sins of her past.

Here, Rölvaag provides a flashback as Beret thinks about her past in Norway—an interlude that offers a background and history to the novel's present action. While Per and Beret appear increasingly unable to communicate with each other, we should note that they were once quite capable of expressing their fondness to each other and even now still care deeply for one another. Per refused to stay in Norway and refused to accept the financial help of Beret's parents because he wanted to control his own destiny. While Beret does not like America, she does not blame Per for persuading her to come—she blames herself for agreeing. She even believes that she is a burden to Per because she cannot be strong like him. On the other hand, Per still thinks of Beret as a fragile princess, and he wants to build a kingdom on the prairie for her. Beret's emigrant chest, with the inscription "Anno 16-," functions as a major symbol in the novel. The chest symbolizes her ties to her old country and her family in Norway, as the chest has belonged in her family for generations. By wanting to be buried in the chest, Beret, in a sense, feels that she can symbolically return to Norway.

When Beret gives birth to a son on Christmas Day at the end of this chapter, we feels that the major threat—Beret's death—has been averted and that the novel's tone must necessarily lighten from this point forward. After all, the fact that the child is born on Christmas and is born with an auspicious caul serves as a harbinger of hope and optimism. Per feels optimistic that Beret's spirits will return to normal, and he expresses his optimistic vision by choosing to name the child Peder Victorious—choosing the unusual name because he believes that his family will be victorious in America and will ultimately conquer the land.

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