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Giants in the Earth

  • Study Guide
Summary

Book I, Chapter I—"Toward the Sunset"

Summary Book I, Chapter I—"Toward the Sunset"

Analysis

Rölvaag provides a description of the landscape at the very beginning of the novel to emphasize the importance of the setting. In fact, we may argue that the land itself is the main character of the novel, as the prairie is the first "character" to speak: "Tish-ah!" said the grass. "Tish-ah, tish-ah!" In this passage and throughout the novel, the land is personified. Rölvaag emphasizes the majestic size of the Great Plains by comparing the prairie to an ocean. He also emphasizes the desolation of the setting by zooming in from a long shot of the unsettled landscape to a close-up of the Hansa family caravan, which he claims could have been dropped from the sky in the first few paragraphs of the novel. Furthermore, the very first chapter and even the first paragraph of the novel reflects the simple fact that the land will remain forever, while the people passing through it will come and go.

Interestingly, Per and Beret are not at first identified by name. They are simply referred to as "the man" and "the woman." In this novel, Rölvaag suggests that Per and Beret represent everyman and everywoman. The author uses his two characters to relate what the immigrant experience was like for millions of others who came to America in the nineteenth century. These immigrants left behind everything that was familiar to them because to pursue a dream of a better life in America. They arrived at Ellis Island, and many of them stayed in the big cities like New York. However, many chose to continue their journey westward, to the unsettled interior of the continent, because the government offered them free land.

The characters of Per and Beret are only lightly sketched in this first chapter, but we already note an obvious contrast in their personalities. We see Per and Beret's sharply contrasting reactions to the environment, which resurface throughout the novel and provide its central conflict. Per is optimistic, continually reassuring his family that they will eventually reach their destination. Beret is pessimistic, harbors a great deal of fear and homesickness. The fact that Per walks ahead of the caravan symbolizes his vision and his optimism, and it also symbolizes his role as the leader of his family. While he has doubts about whether he can find the trail, he remains at heart an optimist, keeping his spirits up not only for his own sake but also for his family's sake. He constantly reassures his family—especially Beret—that they will soon find the other Norwegian families. Finally, Per also walks ahead because it gives him distance from his wife, whom he can feel silently reproaching him for getting the family lost.

We may note that the dialogues between Per and Beret are short and do not express a lot; only the omniscient narrator reveals what the characters are thinking and feeling. We should not assume that the couple does not get along with one another, however; these two people are, simply, not naturally talkative. Per can be thought of as the strong silent type, while Beret may be thought of as the silent suffering type. They act like many married couples do after they have been together for a long time: without speaking to one another, each is able to know what the other is thinking. Beret knows that they are lost because of the way Per acts, even though he keeps reassuring her that they are on the right path. Similarly, Per knows that Beret did not want to immigrate to America and that she came to America only because he wanted to come. However, we must remember that the husband and wife still deeply care for each other, even though their relationship currently contains a lot of tension.