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Giants in the Earth

O.E. Rölvaag

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Study Questions

How does Beret challenge the frontier myth of nineteenth-century America?

Beret challenges the frontier myth of nineteenth-century America—the myth of pioneers moving to the West with big dreams to build new lives for themselves and thrive happily in their new environment—in her refusal or inability to adapt to her new life. She does not dream about the future or about building a life in America, but only about her past life in Norway. Beret constantly yearns to return to Norway because her frail nature cannot endure the hardships of the pioneer lifestyle—she demands the comforts and civilization of the Old World. When Beret first sees the prairie in Chapter II, disappointment strikes her; she can only think, "Was this the place? Here? Could it be possible?" Throughout the novel, she is constantly afraid of the unknown dangers lurking on the prairie. She does not share Per's optimism or his adventurous, pioneer spirit. Furthermore, Beret challenges the frontier myth because her very character debunks the myth. Through her character, Rölvaag reveals the realistic costs of immigration through human suffering. The life of the pioneer is not glamorous or idyllic; the pioneers suffered many physical and mental afflictions as they lived in sod homes and toiled the soil. Finally, Beret challenges the frontier myth of America by resisting becoming completely Americanized. When the other Norwegian settlers change their last names to more American ones, Beret is the only one to object. Instead, she wants to retain ties to her Norwegian heritage.

Who is the main character of the novel, Per or Beret?

In a sense, Per and Beret are both main characters in the novel. While most of the story and plot focus on Per's actions, the dominant tone and main conflict center on the character of Beret. The novel's heart lies in its psychological profile of Beret, particularly in the chapter "The Heart that Dared Not Let In the Sun," revealing her depression and mental suffering to an extent that we can sympathize with her as Rölvaag does. In the first chapters of the novel, Per appears to be the main character, but Beret gains prominence in the later chapters. In a sense, Per and Beret are both main characters because the novel seems to embrace both their points of view: Rölvaag understands both Per's optimism and Beret's homesickness, and he judges neither character as wholly right or wrong. After all, both characters realistic portray the pioneer immigrant experience, albeit two opposing aspects: the dreams and the despair. We admire Per for his optimism and determination to build a new life in America, but we also understand Beret's homesickness and her wish to retain ties to her heritage.

What are some of the major motifs of the novel? Why particularly are these motifs used in this novel?

Among the most important motifs of the novel are Beret's homesickness, the references to Scandinavian folklore and Per's fairy tale vision, and the allusions to the Israelites of the Old Testament. Beret's homesickness is the dominant motif of the novel because it challenges the frontier myth of nineteenth century America. Her depression reveals the cost many nineteenth- century immigrants had to pay when they came to America: in order to achieve their dream, they had to make many sacrifices and cut themselves off from everything that was once familiar to them. Beret's homesickness is intertwined with what is perhaps the main theme of the novel, Rölvaag's realistic, unromantic portrait of pioneer life. The numerous references to Scandinavian folklore, including the references to trolls and gnomes and other creatures, reveal the characters' superstitious beliefs, and also help to identify the settlers' cultural heritage. To Per, "trolls" refer to all the obstacles he feels that he has to overcome to find success in America. His vision throughout most the novel remains optimistic, as he considers himself to be a hero of a fairy tale who will eventually live happily ever after in America. The motif of Per's fairy-tale daydream represents his euphoric vision, and it contrasts sharply with Beret's homesickness. While Per looks to the future, Beret looks to the past. Furthermore, the numerous allusions to the Israelites of the Old Testament compare the Norwegian settlers of the novel with the Jews. In the Old Testament, God led the Jews from their persecution in Egypt to the land of Israel—the Promised Land—after years of leaving them wandering in the desert in order to test their fortitude. Like the Israelites, the settlers of the novel are immigrants who believe that they have found their own Promised Land in the rich farmlands of the Great Plains. Like the Israelites, however, the settlers also face years of hardship and tests of fortitude.

Suggested Essay Topics

What motivates the characters of the novel to immigrate to America? What is Per's vision?

How and why do Per and Beret drift apart in their relationship? At what moments in the novel do they fail to communicate to each other?

What is the importance of the land in the novel? What is the relationship between the land and the characters?

What does the appearance of the minister represent to the settlers? What does he represent to Beret?

Is the dominant tone of the novel optimistic or pessimistic? Is the novel actually a tragedy? What does Per's death at the end of the novel represent? Is he wrong for wanting to immigrate to America? Is he wrong for being so optimistic?

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