This is the first book in a two-novel set about life on the remote and isolated Ulvaskog farm in Småland, Sweden, at the end of the 19th century. The young farmer Adolf and his family are the fourth generation to cultivate the Ulvaskog farmland. Their struggles and destinies are put in perspective by detailed descriptions of the recurring aspects of farming and the repetitive elements of Christmas, weddings, and funerals. The second novel in the set is Clenched Fist. The two novels represent an early example of Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moberg’s (1898–1973) literary primitivism and his use of the novel form as social criticism.
The old head of the Ulvaskog family, Bengt, catches pneumonia and dies during sowing. His son Adolf inherits the responsibility for the farm and his younger siblings and mother. Central to the story is Adolf’s infatuation with Emma, the daughter of the lay assessor Otto, and the many disappointments that the two lovers must endure before they can finally marry. Their initial love results in a son born out of wedlock and sent off to live with foster parents. Otto, Emma’s father, does not consider Adolf a worthy suitor and for years refuses to give his daughter in marriage to the young man. Meanwhile Adolf struggles to buy out his siblings, Hasse and Tilda, for their share of the farmstead. Hasse solves his money problem by marrying a rich woman. Signe is also preparing for marriage, but her fiancé drowns before the ceremony. She is heartbroken but gives birth to a daughter, Gärda, whom she raises on Ulvaskog. Adolf’s youngest brother, Kalle, is crosseyed and worries that as a consequence of his physical abnormality that he will never marry.
Death marks the changes of the seasons at Ulvaskog. Kalle succumbs to fever and dies. Soon after, Adolf’s mother, Lotta, dies, but not before she has put up a long and stubborn fight against Emma, who is finally wedded to Adolf. Otto has been declared bankrupt and suddenly finds Adolf to be a most suitable son-in-law. But neither Adolf nor Emma can forget their first child, Per-Adolf, who is, according to Emma, still living with his foster parents. Adolf is also disappointed with his and Emma’s first legitimate son, Emil, and worries that he cannot live up to the responsibility of managing a large farm. The real crisis occurs when Emma refuses to get Per-Adolf and bring him back to Ulvaskog. She finally reveals the truth about the fate of their first-born son. Because she could not part with him as her father had demanded, she drowned the baby in a ditch when he was just 17 days old, and she has been composing the letters from his imaginative foster parents ever since. Adolf’s hatred and an all-consuming feeling of guilt lead Emma to take her own life. Her death is paired with a description of a group of parish members who wait in vain for the world to cease and the Savior to appear with the passing of the old century. The book ends with the beginning of the new century and the realization that there is no salvation from the daily toils and tragedies that humans must endure.
Moberg’s pessimism is alleviated by his detailed descriptions of daily life on the farm. The beauty that is conveyed both in and through the many accounts of repetitive tasks such as sowing, plowing, and reaping suggests that there is meaning in life, but, as Adolf realizes after he learns about the death of Per-Adolf, the significance of any meaning lies beyond human understanding. The novel is an early example of the primitivism that would come to characterize much of Moberg’s writing. Adolf has rejected the teachings of the church on the basis that he cannot ask forgiveness for sins that he does not regret, but his decision also corresponds with his increasing closeness and dedication to the land, which can be likened to a form of pantheism where nature and spirituality are closely linked. He realizes that he is but a link in a long chain of people who have lived and will continue to live off the farm’s riches. Life and death surround the temporary home that is every person’s lot.
Holmes, Philip. Vilhelm Moberg: En Introduktion Till Hans Författarskap. Stockholm: Carlsson, 2001.
Platen, Magnus von. Den Unge Vilhem Moberg: En Levnadsteckning. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1978.