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Giants in the Earth

O.E. Rölvaag

Book II, Chapter III—"The Glory of the Lord"

Book II, Chapter II—"The Power of Evil in High Places"

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

Summary

Several years pass, and the settlement grows. One day in June, an itinerant minister arrives at Tonseten's home. Tonseten and Kjersti give their distinguished visitor the best food they have and invite him to spend the night. Throughout the evening, the minister asks them questions about the settlement.

Later, Tonseten talks privately to the minister about an issue that troubles him. For several years, Tonseten's responsibility as the settlement's elected justice of the peace has occasionally demanded that he perform marriage ceremonies. Tonseten feels that the ceremonies he performed are not legal in God's eyes, and he feels that he has committed an act of sacrilege. However, the minister reassures him that the marriages are indeed legitimate in God's eyes. The minister then tells Tonseten that he wants to conduct divine services and baptisms in the home of Per Hansa that afternoon. Tonseten and Kjersti tell him that Per's wife, Beret, is not well, so the minister decides to speak to Per and Beret.

The minister holds a service at Per's house, where the whole community gathers. The minister preaches about the coming of the Israelites into Canaan, and he applies it as a parable for the settlers. He warns them not to forsake their God, and he tells them that they are founding a kingdom like the Jews. Next, the minister baptizes several children. When the minister baptizes Per and Beret's youngest son, Peder Victorious, Beret breaks down and cries, saying that no child should be given the name Victorious. Per finally calms his wife, and the service ends.

After the service, the minister stays to talk to Per and Beret. Per relates the tragic story of Beret to the minister, saying that he sees now that some people should never emigrate. Per admits that he was the one who wanted to go to the West, against Beret's wishes. Now he feels that his wife has lost her mind because she cannot endure life on the prairie. Per relates how strange Beret has acted since the first plague of locusts arrived years ago, how she sometimes talks to her dead mother, and how he even fears that she may someday unintentionally harm their youngest child. Per says that Beret objects to the name Victorious because she considers the name a sacrilege. The minister tells Per that Victorious is a fine name and that he cannot understand why Beret objects to it. The minister then asks for a chance to talk to Beret alone.

The minister enters the house where Beret and Sorine are busy preparing supper. Beret feels somewhat bashful and uneasy in the minister's presence. He begins praying, and the others join him. The next day, the minister talks with Beret about holding a communion service in her house on Sunday. He recognizes that she wants to feel the joy of salvation. When the minister leaves, Beret caresses Peder Victorious.

Many people from the area arrive for communion on Sunday, and Beret's emigrant chest serves as the altar. The minister begins the sermon, but feels he is incompetent preaching about the glory of God. He then relates a common story about a mother's love, rather than delivering his sermon. He holds communion, absolving the people of their sins. When he finishes, he feels like an utter failure.

Some time later, Hans Olsa happily builds himself a real house for his growing family when he learns that Sorine is pregnant. As Per and Beret's closest friends, The Olsas discuss whether or not they should raise Peder Victorious, as they question whether Beret, in her madness, is fit to take care of the boy. However, they realize that Per will not consent.

Meanwhile, Beret fondly remembers the minister and thinks that his absolution has relieved her of many of her burdens. She dreams that Peder will one day become a minister. One day, Beret overhears Hans talking to Per about raising Peder. Per says that Beret needs her child with her and that he feels responsible bringing her to America. Beret overhears Per and feels a wave of happiness sweeping over her. She goes to play with Peder and then falls asleep. When she wakes up, everything looks strange to her, and she feels that she has been away for a long time. Per comes home and looks at Beret like a stranger. He weeps, realizing that her senses have finally returned to her.

Analysis

This chapter reveals the deeply religious nature of the early settlers. Tonseten, Per, and Beret all feel that they have committed heavy sins, but the minister comforts them by absolving them. The settlement reveres the minister because he is a man of God, even though he himself feels that he is inadequate to preach the word of God. In this chapter, especially in the case of Beret, the minister functions like a deus ex machina, an unexpected savior who unexpectedly arrives on a scene—usually at the end—to set everything right again. After all, the minister is the one largely responsible for Beret's mental recovery.

The minister's arrival in this chapter also provides further explorationof the contrasting personalities of Per and Beret. Per's religion is uncomplicated: he believes naturally that if one leads a good life, one will be blessed. He also sees nothing wrong in naming his son Victorious. Beret, on the other hand, is a deeply religious and superstitious individual. She feels the need for organized religion, and she thinks that the devil has created the plagues of locusts and the storms in order to punish the settlers for their transgressions—mainly their transgression of abandoning their homeland and heritage to come to America. Beret thinks that baptizing the boy Victorious is sacrilegious because she believes that no one can be "victorious" against the evil of the American wilderness. To her, the name also signifies the Americanization of the child, as Norwegian custom dictates that children do not normally receive second names. Indeed, Beret feels that the turning of one's back on one's heritage is the biggest sin the settlers are committing. Her need to talk to her dead mother and her need for religion symbolize her need to retain ties to her past and to the old country. The minister's sermon—telling the settlers that they should not forsake the truths and customs of their fathers—affirms Beret's belief that the settlers should retain ties to their heritage. Rölvaag himself uses the minister as a spokesman for his beliefs, as he himself believed that one should not forsake his or her cultural heritage.

As critic Paul Reigstad notes, the minister helps the immigrants bridge the gap between the Old World of Europe and the strange New World of America, using the emigrant chest as an altar during his service at Per's house. As a dominant motif in the novel, the chest symbolizes Beret's ties to the Norway, which she feels she has lost. One of Beret's family heirlooms, the chest embodies the continuity essential to the lives of these immigrants. In using the chest as an altar, the minister affirms Beret's belief in the sacredness of her heritage. The minister's sermon in this chapter also references a recurring motif of the novel—the comparison of the Norwegian immigrants to the Israelites. He explicitly compares the settlers' kingdom in America to the kingdom of Israel. Like the Israelites, the Norwegians of the novel immigrate to a new country in order to find their own version of the Promised Land.

Along with the minister, Per is also responsible for bringing Beret out of her madness. When Beret overhears Per say how much he loves her, how he feels wrong bringing her to America, and how he cannot let her part with her son, she feels a wave of tenderness that comforts her just like the minister's absolution. In this chapter, for the first time in the novel, Per recognizes that Beret is an example of the type of individual "who never should emigrate." Per recognizes the fundamental differences between himself and his wife: he belongs to America because he looks to the future, while his wife belongs to Norway because she looks to the past. The chapter ends on an optimistic note, however, as Per and Beret reconcile and Beret's sanity returns. Therefore, we probably expect that the novel will end just as happily, and may be surprised at what actually transpires.

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