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Giants in the Earth

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Book I, Chapter V—"Facing the Great Desolation"

Summary Book I, Chapter V—"Facing the Great Desolation"

Once again this chapter reveals the great contrasts in Per and Beret's personalities. While Beret is an introvert and increasingly turns inward during her depression, Per is an extrovert who enjoys meeting new people. Friendly and generous, Per socializes with several people on his trip to town, such as the Danish widow, the lumberman, and the storekeeper. Per is the type of individual who naturally draws people near to him. After all, he has already taken it upon himself to function as the leader of his community. He also reveals his generous nature in this chapter. When he meets a Norwegian couple who apparently has little food, he generously gives them some of his potatoes.

As the builder and planner, Per embodies the practical and material side of life, while Beret embodies the thoughtful and spiritual side. She increasingly thinks about God when she feels depressed. Per belongs to this New World, America, while Beret belongs to the Old World, Europe. Per constantly looks to the future, represented by his fairy tale daydreams, while Beret constantly looks to the past, represented by her homesickness. In this chapter, Rölvaag begins to examine the hidden chambers of Beret's mind. While Per has been in the forefront thus far, Beret increasingly becomes an important character and eventually becomes the main character in the upcoming chapters.

The incident when Beret cooks the badger meat provides a specific example of the contrast between Per and Beret's personalities. Per laughs at the matter and treats it as nothing, while Beret is deeply distressed by the incident. She cannot believe that she almost ate badger meat, which she views as animal food. She feels upset because she thinks that the settlers will turn into uncivilized beings if they stay on the prairie.

As Per and Beret represent everyman and everywoman, they both represent the two sides of the immigrant experience. Per embodies the indomitable optimism, strength, and courage needed by the pioneers to carve a new life in the new country. Beret, conversely, embodies the homesickness, the longing for everything left behind, and the fear of the unknown that were common to many immigrants. She lacks her husband's sense of adventure and would have preferred to stay in Norway. We should not simply think that Per is right because he is the optimist, while Beret is wrong because she is the pessimist. Per and Beret merely represent different—though equally real and understandable—aspects of the same immigrant experience. After all, every immigrant arriving in a new country must have experienced both courage and optimism along with fear and homesickness. Beret's nature is simply more sensitive and frail than Per's. Furthermore, Rölvaag demonstrates throughout the novel that Beret's fears of the unknown in the new land are valid. We may go so far as to assert that Per and Beret represent the stereotypical personalities of their respective sexes: the masculine Per prefers living a nomadic life of adventure, while the feminine Beret prefers having the comforts of a home and roots.