- Bjørnson, Bjørnstjerne
- (1832-1910)A Norwegian poet, novelist, and dramatist, Bjørnson was considered Norway's most important writer during his lifetime and heads a list of four 19th-century Norwegian writers commonly referred to as "de fire store" (the four great ones; the others are, in order, Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie). His significance to Norwegian literature, culture, and society cannot be overestimated; for half a century he used his preeminence as a writer to provide leadership both intellectually and artistically.Bjørnson was the son of a Lutheran minister in Romsdal on the northwestern coast of Norway. He grew up among farmers and became thoroughly familiar with most aspects of rural life. After schooling in Molde and Christiania (now Oslo), he started writing cultural journalism for the Christiania paper Morgenbladet (The Morning Post) in 1854. He had a tremendous amount of energy and involved himself in a variety of causes, including Norway's first workers movement and the struggle to establish a Norwegian theater, as well as liberal politics in general.He burst upon the literary scene in 1857, when he published both the historical drama Mellem Slagene (tr. Between the Acts, 1941) and a bondefortelling (peasant tale) entitled Synnøve Solbakken (tr. 1858), a prose narrative roughly the length of a short novel that was set in the type of environment that he knew so well from his youth. Both works were influenced by the ideas of national romanticism as well as those of the Dane N. F. S. Grundtvig, for Bjørnson wanted to show that contemporary Norwegian peasants were the natural heirs of the greatness of their ancient forbears. But his characters nevertheless come across as real human beings who must struggle to overcome personal problems before they can find happiness.For the next several years, Bjørnson alternated between writing historical plays, which are generally referred to as "saga dramas," and peasant stories with a contemporary setting. Both forms, but particularly the latter, gave him a reputation as Scandinavia's foremost writer, and his peasant stories are still widely read in Norway. Two of his most important such tales, next to Synnøve Solbakken, are Arne (1859; tr. 1866) and En glad Gut (1860; tr. A Happy Boy 1870), both of which have male protagonists who have to overcome weaknesses of character. Among his most important saga dramas are Halte-Hulda (1858), Kong Sverre (1861; King Sverre), and Sigurd Slembe (1862; tr. 1888), which borrows heavily from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. A stay in Italy (1860-1862) removed Bjørnson from the political fray for a time and enabled him to focus more fully on his writing, and Rome also gave him a stronger sense ofhistory and fostered his appreciation for such classical values as balance and equilibrium.The breadth of Bjørnson's literary output during the 1860s was substantial. The play Maria Stuart i Skotland (1864; tr. Mary, Queen ofScots, 1897) was written partly in response to Friedrich von Schiller's treatment of the same material. A cycle of epic poetry, begun in 1860, was finished and published as Arnljot Gelline (1870; tr. 1917), and Bjørnson collected his poetry as Digte og Sange (1870; tr. Poems and Songs, 1915). He also wrote his first contemporary domestic play, De Nygifte (1865; tr. A Lesson in Marriage, 1911), which examines the situation of a woman who is forced to choose between her husband and her parents.After again escaping the contemporary debate by going to Italy, this time in 1873, Bjørnson wrote two plays that introduced realistic drama to Scandinavia. En fallit (1875; tr. The Bankrupt, 1914) is thematically related to Henrik Ibsen's Samfundets støtter (1877; tr. The Pillars ofSociety, 1888) in that its subject is honesty and integrity in business and public life, while Redaktøren (1875; tr. The Editor, 1914) offers a portrait of a rather harsh man and pleads for tolerance in politics. Bjørnson's demand for truth is also the theme of Kongen (1877; tr. The King, 1914), which attacks the institution of the monarchy.The most important development in Bjørnson's life in the late 1870s was that he abandoned his Grundtvigian-colored Christian beliefs, replacing them with a reliance on secular ethics and a trust in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Det ny system (1879; tr. The New System, 1913), a play about difficulties associated with telling the truth in a small country, records his spiritual struggle, and the drama Leonarda (1879; tr. 1911) shows that he was quick to adopt his new outlook. Taking a woman's right to divorce as its subject, Leonarda was, however, eclipsed by Ibsen's far superior play Et dukkehjem (1879; tr. A Doll's House, 1880).Politics took much of Bjørnson's time in the 1880s, and his play En handske (1883; tr. A Gauntlet, 1886) is considered his intervention in the so-called morality debate that raged in the middle years of the decade. The social issue was whether women should be given the same freedom in sexual matters as had traditionally been claimed by men; Bjørnson's heroine argues that men should be held to the same standards as had traditionally been required of women. The author was consequently attacked from both the right and the left. These years also saw his first full-scale novel, Det flager i byen og pa havnen (1884; tr. The Heritage of the Kurts, 1892), which argues for broader educational opportunities for women. There is a lighter touch in the comedy Geografi og kærlighed (1885; tr. Love and Geography, 1914), however, in which an egotistical scholar and husband is taught an important lesson in commitment.Most of Bjørnson's works from the latter part of his career have not withstood the test oftime. The most notable exception is his dramatic masterpiece Over ævne I (1883; tr. Pastor Sang, 1893), which probes the psychology of faith. Another fine play from his later years is Paul Lange og Tora Parsberg (1898; tr. Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg, 1899), which pleads for less cruelty in politics. Bjørnson's legacy is in large measure constituted by his best poems, many of which have become part of Norway's national patrimony and are known— and often sung—by large numbers of Norwegians.
Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. Jan Sjavik. 2006.