Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

28 Jan 2011

(Novel) Growth of the Soil by: Knut Hamsun

(Reaction) Progress to What End by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Knut Hamsun.

Most of us will use our current cellphone for less than a year. This is an odd fact to begin a reaction with but it illustrates the speed of progress in the modern world. Even our most intimate tools (we bring our phones everywhere) are discarded posthaste in favor of the next hot item. Progress, instead of fulfilling wants, has now become a question of creating wants; a constant replenishment of our desire for novelty and material goods.

A quick read through Growth of the Soil may leave one with the impression that it is a hopelessly outdated novel, one that champions the tired old refrain that the old ways are better and that modern progress is fast, loose and ultimately unsatisfying. However, a closer look at the novel reveals that not all progress is unsatisfying; that there is a type of progress which can uplift both man's material condition and his spirit.

In the beginning was a man - Isak - and this man stakes his claim to the land and begins to turn it to his benefit. He is the quintessential frontier man, hardworking (A born carrier of loads... a lumbering barge of a man... as if life without a load upon one's shoulders were a miserable thing...) and rough (the man himself was no way charming or pleasant). He quickly finds a woman (or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the woman finds him), Inger, who is a blessing.

The novel thus begins with parallels to the biblical creation story, a rustic couple full of innocence and life settle down to tame the land around them. However, Growth of the Soil, while undoubtedly fond of Isak and Inger, does not hide their character flaws. Both succumb at various points to vanity.

Isak constantly seeks the approval of Inger. Thus, if she is capable of bringing him a cow (Goldenhorns), then by golly he can bring her a horse! Isak was no longer littleness and humility; he had paid, as it were, like a gentleman, for Goldenhorns. 'Here you are,' he could say. 'Ive brought along a horse; we can call it quits.'

Later, he buys the first mowing machine to be seen around their parts and he preens upon riding it, in clothes ill suited to working, Oh, but now is Isak's hour. Now he is truly proud, a mighty man, sitting high aloft dressed in holiday clothes, in all his finery; in jacket and hat, though the sweat is pouring off him.

Moreover, praise reaffirms Isak's self worth as the patriarch of his house and the master of his land. When Oline (a recurring character notable for her utility and forked tongue - a double edged sword) praises him early in the novel on for his vast estate, Isak seemingly gently rebukes her, 'Your with your foolish talk...' says Isak. But he is pleased all the same... Isak had been feeling the need of praise, and is the better for it now. Feels a man again.

As such, for Isak it is not enough that he gains mastery over the land but that someone acknowledges this feat. There is a quiet pride in the character after he surveys what he has accomplished but every now and again Isak feels this success must be recognized by those around him.

Where Isak though is only occasionally given to indulge in pride in his accomplishments, Inger often goes out of her way to flaunt what she has. She becomes a skilled seamstress and makes herself a cloak, But when she made the cloak, she had to find some one to show it to; accordingly, when the boys went down to the village to be put to school, Inger herself went with them... There sat Inger and the two boys, driving down lordly-wise - the boys on their way to school, nothing less, and Inger wearing a cloak.

At one point, so high is Inger's opinion of herself that she despises her rustic life with her provincial husband, And here came her superiority... And so she kept Isak in his place, treated him, as it were, no better than he deserved. He was only a peasant, a clodhopper of the wilds; if her mouth had been as it was now from the start she would never have taken him; be sure of that.

The novel though points out that Inger's new found arrogance is a result of her incarceration in the city, she had learned to look differently at life. Progress (and its attendant features, education, technology, commerce) encroaches repeatedly throughout the novel on Isak's domain and he must determine how best to deal with these things which are not of the soil.

The telegraph line illustrates Isak's uneasy relationship with progress, particularly of technology. He acknowledges that the telegraph as a wonderful thing but it is also ...something altogether above the common earth. The mention of it now seemed to shake his faith in Geissler's big words [that Inger would soon be freed].. He finds it hard to believe that something not rooted in the soil, as airy - as insubstantial - as wires in the air can bring him news that his beloved wife is free.

While Isak mistrusts progress though, he does not reject it. He does very well for himself buying the title to his lands (adopting the land registration system which progress brings), uses labor saving machines on the farm (the first one in his area to do so - moreover he takes a delight in the machines) and sends his children to school.

That progress, education and change are not the enemies is clearly seen in the novel's sympathetic portrayal of Geissler, a character who embodies all these traits. Isak and Geissler are almost complete opposites, but good men, each in their own way. Where Isak remains in the same place for the entirety of the novel, Geissler is constantly flitting about, almost to the point that he may be described as a vagabond. Where Isak is slow and patient in his approach to work, Geissler approaches every task with manic intensity but then soon tires of the endeavor. Isak has a stolid mind, he was no great hand at thinking more than one thing at a time while Geissler is highly educated and quick with his wits.

Yet Geissler, the character most associated with change, education and progress, does not impede Isak's success. On the contrary Geissler continually assists Isak throughout the novel; so much so that Isak owes a great part of his success to Geissler. It is Geissler after all who arranges the purchase of Sellanraa (he is even the one who gives the places its name). It is Geissler who arranges the release of Inger and he is also the architect of the irrigation system which staves off the drought in Sellanraa. Lastly, Geissler never uses his intelligence to cheat Isak in any way, he goes out of his way to ensure that Isak gets a fair share of any deal in progress (as seen in the purchase and sale of the mine).

Thus, Growth of the Soil argues that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with education, modernity and progress. However, it must be an education and progress still rooted in the soil. Even Geissler, the character of modernity, emphasizes the importance of the soil, He's [Geissler's son] the lightning in the family, I'm more sort of a fog... But the lightning by itself's a barren thing. Look at you folk at Sellanraa now; looking up at blue peaks every day of your lives; no new-fangled inventions about that, but fjeld and rocky peaks, rooted deep in the past - but you've them for companionship. There you are, living in touch with heaven and earth, one with them, one with all these wide, deep-rooted things.

Geissler emphasizes that there is a progress which can remain true to the soil, to the truths of what has come before; and then there is the type of progress which is only interested in speed and flash - an insubstantial progress.

A character very much taken with this insubstantial type of progress is Eleseus, he who knew a fork was just as important as a knife. Eleseus sees himself as devoted to the ways and affectations of the city. But these ways, this type of progress, leads to weakness of character, ...something in him had been warped, and quietly spoiled; he was not bad, but something blemished.

Ultimately what comes to define Eleseus, what is brought about the type of progress he embraces, is a smallness of spirit, a narrowing of the human dimension, ...he's a man that has learned to write and use letters; no grip in him, no depth. For all that, no pitch-black devil of a man, not in love, not ambitious, hardly nothing at all is Eleseus, not even a bad thing of any great dimensions. Progress leaves Eleseus a small man with no dreams and no fire.

Modern progress is defined by the transactional value of a commodity, ie. it is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. No accident then that Eleseus, a character tainted by this type of progress, was a shopkeeper.

But the growth of the soil has intrinsic value, something of worth by its nature, and is not dependent on the price others put on it, ...art, newspapers, luxuries, politics, and such-like were worth just what folk were willing to pay for them,no more. Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all.

Review:

My impression is that when people talk about Growth of the Soil most of their comments revolve around the beautiful language of the novel. While I found this to be true, I also found that I didn't find the language particularly stirring - it was pretty but it didn't get my blood going.

For me, the highlight of the novel is its often times tongue in cheek humor, almost a slyness. One such episode is when Isak buys back the sheep Oline had previously stolen from him, Isak bought a certain sheep with flat ears... and people looked at him. Isak from Sellanraa was a rich man, in a good position, with no need of more sheep than he had. One can almost imagine the pique on his face when he says, I know it [the sheep with the flat ears]... I've seen it before.

Talk of Growth in the Soil inevitably leads to talk of its author, Knut Hamsun, and the causes he championed. While a work is in many ways the child of the author, I do not think the author's concerns have any bearing on how one reads a work. The sins of the father are not the sins of the son, and vice versa. I think Isak in particular would agree with the notion that sons lead very different lives from that of their fathers.

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