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During the winter of 1880–1881, snow falls day and night for eighty days. The fierce winter begins in October and does not end until April. The settlers have to build tunnels in the snow to travel outdoors, and many people die from famine as their food and fuel supplies run out.
One night, Hans Olsa goes outside to care for his cattle during a snowstorm. He is unable to find his way back to the house in the blizzard, so he stays in the shed with the animals to keep warm and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he notices that he is frostbitten and realizes that he must find his way home. With much difficulty, Hans staggers back to his house.
Sorine tries frantically to do everything she can to help Hans, but he fails to recover and develops a severe cough. When the blizzard abates, their daughter Sofie tells Per Hansa that her father is very sick. Per fetches an Irish woman who knows home remedies to help Hans. The woman prepares poultices for Hans, and everyone hopes that he will improve. Per tells Tonseten about Hans's illness. Tonseten visits Hans and tries to cheer him up, but Tonseten fears the worst when he sees how sick Hans looks.
Beret comes over to help Sorine take care of the house and Hans. Beret feels disgusted by Tonseten's unseemliness in the face of death. That night, she sits by Hans's bedside. When he awakes, she tells him that he must prepare himself for death. Her words make him uncomfortable, but she considers it her duty as his childhood friend to make sure that he enters heaven. At last, Hans suggests that someone could fetch a doctor for him, but Beret suggests that someone get a minister instead. Later, Per comes to see Hans, whose condition remains serious. Hans asks Per to help Sorine and the kids after he passes away, and dread seizes Per as he looks at Hans. Hans continues to ask about the weather, and he finally admits to Per that he would like someone to fetch a minister.
When Per tells Beret that Hans wants a minister, she tells him that he must do so right away, because without a minister Hans will die in sin. Per laughs at Beret, saying that a man as good as Hans will surely get into heaven. Per tells his wife that a trip in this fierce weather is impossible, but she continues to insist that he fetch the minister. Per storms out of the house, furious with Beret's unreasonable demands.
Sorine comes and tells Per that Hans has no hope for recovery. She begins to plead that Per find some way to get the minister, as he has the strength to do anything, even make a journey in a storm. That evening, Per and Beret scarcely speak to one another. When Beret tauntingly tells Per that she will fetch the minister herself, he flies into a rage and then leaves.
Per decides at last to fetch the minister. He says goodbye to his sons who are working outside and scarcely notice him. Beret fixes coffee for Per, hoping that will come inside and say goodbye to her, but he never does. When he leaves, he notices her looking at him from a window. He first goes to Hans's to tell him that he is going for the minister. Per straps on his skis and starts off into the storm. He thinks about Beret and the children as night falls.
Per never comes back, and Hans dies. In the spring, some boys find Per's frozen body against a haystack, facing west.
The contrast of Per and Beret's religion is made even clearer in this final chapter. Beret's religion is exacting and unsympathetic, while Per's religion is simple—he believes that Hans will go to heaven simply because he is a good man. Beret believes that everyone, including Hans, is a sinner, and she maintains that he must have a minister at his deathbed to absolve his sins in order to enter heaven. While Beret has seemingly regained her sanity, she has also become extreme in her religion. Her growing religious fanaticism exacerbates the distance between her and her husband. While Per devotes himself to his land, Beret admonishes him for neglecting his family and spirituality, telling him that he thinks only about "land and houses, and then more land, and cattle." As we have seen throughout the entire novel, Per represents the man of action while Beret represents the woman of introspection. This contrast frequently brings the two opposing personalities into odds with one another.
The lack of communication between Per and Beret proves to be fatal to Per in the end. Beret taunts Per by questioning his manhood until he agrees to fetch the minister, but at the last minute she seems to want to apologize to him. Per, however, is too proud and angry to return to his house and speak to his wife. In part, we may argue that Beret indirectly kills Per by sending him out to his death, but Per is also responsible in part for his own death. Like many other epic heroes, Per may be accused of possessing hubris—excessive pride that is his tragic fault. After all, his belief that every obstacle is conquerable, though perhaps admirably optimistic, is a foolish one. In the end, Per's death symbolizes the punishment the gods impose on him, the tragic hero. Throughout the novel, Rölvaag emphasizes the struggle between man and his hostile environment. We may argue that the deaths of Hans and Per represent the fact that, in the end, nature wins.
Throughout the novel, we may wonder whether the novel is primarily Beret's story or Per's story. After all, Rölvaag wrote two sequels to Giants in the Earth in which he continues the story of Beret and her children, picking up after Per's death. Beret's story emphasizes the cost of the settlement in terms of human suffering. As futility is the dominant mood of Beret's story, we may assume that the novel is primarily Beret's story, in light of the futility of Per's death in the end. However, we should remember that this novel is both Per's story and Beret's story. Per's story emphasizes the strength and courage necessary for the pioneers to succeed. After all, Per becomes quite wealthy by the end of this novel, and Beret and the children stay in America after his death. Per's body is also the last image and final symbol of the novel. The last line—"His eyes were set to the west"—ends on the word "west," which throughout the novel symbolizes Per's goal and the spirit of his optimism. Even facing death, Per maintains his optimism by looking westward. He knows that one day the land will be settled and will yield rich farmland. He also continues to look outward—not inward like his wife.
Throughout the novel, Rölvaag warns of the coming tragedy, and now the tragedy strikes. In this chapter, the author foreshadows the upcoming tragedy, writing, "everything was possible out here. There was no such thing as the Impossible any more." Sorine later tells Per that she feels "nothing is impossible" for Per. Per's death symbolizes the end of his romantic vision, and Rölvaag's proof that some things are impossible; after all, the author is more a realist than a romantic. Per's death further symbolizes the sacrifices the immigrants have to make in order to achieve their dream in America. Per's death, however, does not represent the fact that his dreams—his fairy tale—are entirely futile or lost forever.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Giants in the Earth!