Analysis of Vilhelm Moberg’s Clenched Fists

The second book in a two-novel set about life on the remote and isolated Ulvaskog farm in the early 1920s, Clenched Fists describes a time period and a geographical setting very familiar to novelist Karl Artur Vilhelm Moberg (1898–1973). Clenched Fists has been called a Småland version of King Lear. The stubborn farmer Adolf of Ulvaskog plows and cultivates his land with his own hands and refuses to acknowledge the changes around him. When his children wish to leave the farm for the city, he clenches his fists and resists so fiercely that he ends up with nothing.

New opportunities and Adolf’s need for total control result in open rebellion among the grown-up children. The oldest daughter, Signe, leaves to make a living by waiting tables in Växjö. Erik applies for and is accepted to business school. Emil, the oldest son, is so disgusted with Adolf’s stubborn refusal to modernize the farming methods that he takes on work as a road builder. The empire of Ulvaskog that Adolf has envisioned crumbles. Left behind is only Mari, the youngest daughter and Adolf’s favorite.

Vilhelm Moberg

Life in the city, however, is not as carefree as the children imagined. Having spent their inheritance from their mother’s death, they soon find themselves in financial trouble. Moral erosion also threatens. A friend reveals to Adolf that the latter’s niece Gärda, who has lived in Stockholm for many years, is not working in an office as she claims but makes her living as a prostitute. Meanwhile, Mari has fallen in love with Martin, a glassblower working at the mill. Adolf opposes the match with the objection that a glassblower will never marry and settle down on a farm but will always travel to where there is work. When he reveals to Mari his wishes for a new generation on Ulvaskog, one that will secure him in his old age, she promises to stay with him until he dies.

In an attempt to persuade Adolf to sell the farm and hand over the proceeds to them, the children return to Ulvaskog to confront their father one last time. Erik is facing personal bankruptcy, while Signe has married the snobbish Gustav Nord and is also in need of extra money. But Adolf clenches his fists and stubbornly refuses to sell his farm. The siblings turn their attentions to Mari, without whom, they reason correctly, Adolf cannot possibly remain on the farm. Mari is persuaded to break her promise in an attempt to secure the happiness of her sister and brothers. She has corresponded with her cousin Gärda and decides to join her in Stockholm, unaware of Gärda’s real profession. When Adolf finds out about Mari’s plans, rather than allowing her to go, he kills her the night before her departure.

The novel is an attempt to describe the personal tragedies that followed in the wake of the depopulation of the Swedish countryside in the early 20th century. The land has taken Adolf prisoner, and his stubborn refusal to invest in agricultural machines alienates the children on whose working hands he depends. But Moberg’s descriptions of Adolf’s selfish and thoughtless children also suggest that the author’s allegiance does not lie with them either. Their failures exemplify how ill equipped people straight from the farms are to handle city life and the capitalist system that governs it. Like the first book in the Ulvaskog-series, Far From the Highway, the pessimism of the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and a strong element of determinism can be discerned in the plot of Clenched Fists. Moberg later adapted his novel into a five-act play with the same name, which was first performed in 1939.

Holmes, Philip. Vilhelm Moberg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
———. Vilhelm Moberg: En Introduktion Till Hans Författarskap. Stockholm: Carlsson, 2001.
Platen, Magnus von. Den Unge Vilhem Moberg: En Levnadsteckning. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1978.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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