- Scandinavian literature in the 1870s and 1880s can be summed up with the two words "objectivity" and "society." Around 1890 the pendulum swung back toward a greater concern with the individual and with human consciousness. The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) was a contributing factor, but so was French Symbolist poetry. The trend toward individual psychology can be found in both established writers and new talents. One of the most Nietzschean novels of the time is, for example, Strindberg's I havsbandet (1890; tr. By the Open Sea, 1913 and 1984), in which the mental state of the superman Borg is carefully chronicled. In Norway, Garborg's novel Trætte Mænd (1891; tr. Weary Men, 1999) attracted a great deal of attention not only because its form was that of a modified diary novel, but also because it carefully articulated the difference between the scientific worldview of the 1880s, represented by the character Georg Jonathan, and the religious striving of its narrator-protagonist, Gabriel Gram. But the most clear-cut example of the new subjectivist literature was surely the novel Sult (1890; tr. Hunger, 1899), by the young Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). Set in Christiania, it tells about its narrator's experimentation with his own mind, as he periodically starves himself so as to observe the effects of hunger. In drama, the female psyche was probed by Ibsen in the plays Fruen fra havet (1888; tr. The Lady from the Sea, 1890) and Hedda Gabler (1890; tr. 1891), while the male mind was similarly examined in Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder, 1893).One of the major themes in the literature of the 1890s, also known as the fin-de-siecle or the decadent period, is that of decay and degeneration. In Strindberg's Fröken Julie, for example, Julie is the last surviving person in her family line and slits her throat at the end of the play. Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, an only child with no family mentioned, similarly shoots herself. Already in the novel Haabløse Slægter (1880;Hopeless Generations) by the Danish novelist Herman Bang (18571912), the theme of the decaying family had been prominently featured, with the problem in question being inherited mental illness. Moral degeneration is given a prominent place in the novel Doktor Glas (1905; tr. Doctor Glas, 1970) by the Swedish writer Hjalmar Soderberg (1869-1941), in which a physician murders a local clergyman because he finds him aesthetically repulsive. But not all literature of the turn of the century is bleak and depressing. The novel Gosta Berlings saga (1891; tr. The Story of Gosta Berling, 1898), written by the great Swedish story-teller Selma Lagerlof (1858-1941), offers probing psychological portraits of its characters, while the theme of cultural change—some might say decay—is presented against a background of fable and myth, the result being that Lagerlof's book is both highly entertaining and a great antidote to cultural pessimism. Life is cyclical, Lagerlof seems to say, and positive change is always just around the corner.
Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. Jan Sjavik. 2006.
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