The main action of Giants in the Earth centers of the conflict between Per and Beret Hansa. While Per dreams of building success for his family in America, Beret cannot adapt to the new environment. One of Rölvaag's primary goals in the novel is to realistically portray the struggles and hardships of the pioneering immigrants in America. This exploration offers Rölvaag an opportunity to rethink the frontier myth of nineteenth-century America. In the spirit of manifest destiny in America, the pioneer settlers saw the frontier West as the embodiment of opportunity, possibility, and optimism. The frontier myth celebrated the American West as a "promised land" where the settlers could live happily ever after. Rölvaag overturns this myth, detailing the daily life of the settlers in order to debunk the fairy tale of the frontier as a land of instant prosperity. Early in the novel, as the characters build sod homes and toil the land, Rölvaag shows that the prairie is a brutally real place, not a mere mythical conception. As an immigrant himself who knew first-hand the difficulty of building a new life on the prairie, he realistically chronicles many of the hardships that the pioneers face. Throughout the novel, the characters battle the elements of nature (storms and a plague of locusts), their own psychological demons (Beret's depression), and each other—conflicts that represent the lengthy catalog of challenges that many immigrants faced.
Giants in the Earth is not a celebration of American manifest destiny; instead, it is a tragedy that reveals the human cost of the immigrant experience. Beret, who embodies this cost, represents the antithesis of the frontier myth; she is unable adapt to life in the New World and longs to return to her native Norway. She feels homesick throughout the novel, as she does not enjoy living in America and fears the unknown perils lurking on the prairie. Beret's depression and mental illness and Per's death represent the sacrifices the immigrants made to achieve their dream in America.
In his novels, Rölvaag is primarily concerned with immigration. In Giants in the Earth he explores the cost of this immigration, showing that success in America does not always compensate for the loss of a homeland. Indeed, loneliness, displacement, and alienation were sober realities in the experience of millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century. The Norwegian immigrants in Rölvaag's novel feel displaced in America because they do not know the native language or possess any filial ties to the land. Some of the immigrants, such as Beret, are simply unable to adapt to their new land because, in their strange new land, they feel uprooted from everything once dear to them. Beret's homesickness, depression, and mental illness represent the psychological toil many immigrants suffered. Her psychological conflict appears to its full extent in the chapter "The Heart That Dared Not Let in the Sun," in which she remembers her home and family back in Norway.
Rölvaag himself deeply believed in the sacredness of one's heritage, and in his own life he taught Norwegian language, literature, and history as a professor in Minnesota. He appears to sympathize with Beret and her resistance to the increasing Americanization of her friends. When the Norwegian settlers learn English and decide to adopt more pleasing American last names, only Beret objects. The minister serves as another spokesman for Rölvaag's beliefs, preaching to the settlers that they should not forsake their past.
Per and Beret represent two opposing aspects of immigration. Per represents the hopes and optimism of the immigrants who dream of achieving success in America, the land of opportunity. Beret, on the other hand, embodies the cost of immigration in that she represents everything the immigrants lose coming to America. Through Beret, Rölvaag depicts the angst of uprootedness, the sense of loss and alienation immigrants suffer when they surrender themselves to a new culture.
The land is an important element in Rölvaag's novel, and therefore it is no surprise that the relationship between humans and the environment is a major topic of exploration. Throughout the novel, especially in the first pages of Book I and Book II, Rölvaag portrays the prairie as an important character and a powerful force—in fact, we may even argue that the prairie is the most important character in the novel. In narrative asides, Rölvaag frequently describes the landscape, emphasizing its vastness and desolation. The emptiness of the land haunts Beret the most she cannot bear the fact that on the empty prairie "there isn't even a thing that one can hide behind."
At the beginning of Book II, Rölvaag personifies the Great Plains as a monster that increasingly resists the encroachment of man: "Man she scorned; his works she would not brook." Such personification of the land throughout the novel emphasizes the power of the land over the characters. Rölvaag also characterizes the land as possessing elements of Scandinavian folklore, such as magic, witchcraft, and trolls, to further suggest the malevolent power of nature. The scene in "On the Border of Utter Darkness" in which Per becomes caught in the fierce blizzard provides a dramatic example of this conflict between humans and nature—a struggle that dominates the action of the novel. The desolation and harshness of the prairie environment are responsible for most of the major tragedies of the novel: Beret's depression and loss of sanity, the plague of locusts, and the deaths of Per and Hans Olsa at the end. In light of the fact that Per, the novel's optimist, dies in the end, we may feel that the land proves the victor in the battle between humans and nature. Nonetheless, Per recognizes that someday the land will be tamed and will yield rich farmland, making the settlers prosperous.
To Per, the land represents his kingdom; he imagines himself a fairy-tale hero, and, as a landowner, he feels like a king or a prince. The land embodies Per's euphoric dreams as he toils hard to build a successful life for his family. However, the unfamiliar prairie also represents Beret's hidden fears, and the desolation of the land mirrors her loss of sanity.
Beret's feeling of homesickness pervades Giants in the Earth from start to finish. Beret longs to return to Norway, and her flashback in the chapter "The Heart That Dared Not Let in the Sun" reveals the extent of her unhappiness in America. Beret wants to die and be buried in her emigrant chest—a symbol of her relationship to her homeland and her family—in an attempt to return to Norway. She also speaks to her dead mother near the end of the novel in an attempt to retain her ties to her home and family.
Per, in his euphoric vision his future on the prairie, imagines himself in a fairy-tale role. He thinks of himself as Askeladd of Norwegian folklore, a character in search of the Castle of Soria Moria—a place that represents perfect happiness. Many references to creatures of Scandinavian folklore, especially trolls, appear in the novel. In these myths, trolls often represent a force that is hostile to humans. Throughout the novel, Per often refers to the obstacles he has to overcome in America—Beret's depression, for instance—as trolls who stand in his path to the castle of Soria Moria. The novel's repeated references to Scandinavian folklore also remind us of the characters' cultural heritage, which they have brought with them from Norway.
Rölvaag frequently compares the Norwegian immigrants of the novel to the Israelites of the Old Testament, whom God led from persecution in Egypt to their new home in Israel—the Promised Land—after years of wandering in the desert. Like the Israelites, the Norwegian immigrants left their homeland expecting to find their own version of the Promised Land in the Great Plains. However, the Norwegian immigrants are ignorant to the fact that they will have to endure many hardships—just as the Jewish people endured in the desert—before they can finally reach the Promised Land. The arrival of the locusts and the minister's sermon emphasize this Biblical motif in the novel.
Beret's emigrant chest represents her ties to her native country. Its inscription—"Anno 16-"—emphasizes the continuity essential of the lives of the immigrant pioneers. The chest also serves as a symbolic coffin: when Beret crawls into the chest, she figuratively wants to die and return to Norway. Furthermore, the use of the chest as an altar during the first communion service in the Spring Creek settlement serves to bridge the gap between the familiar Old World of Europe and the strange New World of America and helps confirm Beret's belief in the sacredness of her heritage.
As the first child of the settlement on Spring Creek to be born in America, Peder Victorious represents the growing Americanization of the immigrant settlers. The settlers embrace American customs by dropping their Norwegian names and adopting more pleasing last names to appear more "American." Peder's unusual middle name encapsulates Per's optimistic dreams. To Per, his youngest son represents the future of the community, and the name Victorious references the success Per dreams about achieving in America.
In the American spirit of manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, the West represented opportunity and optimism for many pioneers and immigrants, who received free land by the American government in return for farming. The settlers who moved West dreamed about building a new life for themselves. However, the West represents two different things to Per and Beret. To Beret, the West represents her homesickness and her sense of being cut off from civilization. To Per, it represents his optimism and the future. In the last chapter of the novel, the role of the West appears ambiguous because it at once symbolizes death and continual optimism.
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