Henrik Pontoppidan

The pessimism of the late decades of the nineteenth century, which determined Herman Bang's view of life, found even more powerful expression in the works of Pontoppidan (1857-1943). He was a confirmed realist, an opponent of complacency, but he also sharply criticized naturalism. Scorn and biting irony lifted his writing to an irrational sphere of passion and fantasy. He was born in the Jutland city of Fredericia, the son of a minister. Rebelling against the gloomy atmosphere of the parsonage, Pontoppidan went to study at the Polytechnical Institute in Copenhagen. He quit school shortly before final examinations, left Copenhagen, and until 1910 lived in North Sealand, where the peasant environment offered him new inspiration. Then he settled in Copenhagen. In 1917 he shared the Nobel Prize with Karl Gjellerup.

The best-known piece in his first collection of short stories, Stækkede Vinger (Clipped Wings, 1881), is "Kirkeskuden" ("The Ship Model"). It deals with the orphaned gypsy youth Ove, who is raised, like a bird with clipped wings, by a minister and his wife. Ove perceives a comrade in suffering in the votive ship that hangs in the church, and he sets it into the water, where it immediately sinks. This allegory of the immutable force of environment is varied by Pontoppidan in later works; in the two novel cycles Det forjættede Land (The Promised Land) and Lykke-Per (Lucky-Per), and in the fable "Ørneflugt" ("Eagle's Flight"), a counterpiece to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "Den grimme Ælling" ("The Ugly Duckling") with its faith in genius. Other major themes are present in "The Ship Model": rebellion against the parsonage, as well as a crassly realistic and satiric presentation of the materialistic, wealthy farmers.

While the farmers were organizing in Grundtvigian folk high schools and in the Parliament, the lower, impoverished classes found a champion in Pontoppidan. He published two volumes of short story Landsbybilleder (Village Sketches, 1883) and Fra Hytterne (From the Huts. New Village Sketches, 1887). There is no idealization; they are realistic accounts of the misery of the country proletariat told sternly and unsentimentally. A comparison of stories in the two collections reveals a stylistic development from doctrinaire naturalism to pellucid objectivity, development that continues in the books he wrote later. In the novel Isbjørnen (The Polar Bear, 1887), which portrays a maverick priest struggling against his "civilized" colleagues, gray realism is succeeded by delight in poetic narration. This cheerful satire modulates into cruel derision in the short-story collection Skyer (Clouds, 1890), stories about city and country in the years of the conservative Estrup government. In "Den første Gendarm" ("The First Gendarme"), the village inhabitants prepare for a military reception of the first "Estrup" gendarme, but when he appears, high on horseback, they all simply stand there and gape. In this volume, Pontoppidan's "double viewpoint" becomes clear: He is attacking and deriding not only the misuse of power by the conservative government, but also the cowardice of the Left and of the people who tolerate these offenses.

Pontoppidan's trilogy Det forjættede Land (1881-95; Eng. tr. Emanuel or Children of the Soil and The Promised Land, 18961) is also a satiric portrait of the times. It is at the same time a penetrating study of the soul of a religious dreamer and the tragedy of an idealist, and as such is a counterpart of Bjørnson's Beyond Our Power I. Young Pastor Emanuel Hansted is isolated not only from the Copenhagen bourgeoisie from which he came, but also from the rural population. As a country minister, he eagerly participates in the political and spiritual life of his community; he walks behind a plow and he marries a farmer's daughter, Hansine. But his attempt to find "the promised land" proves unsuccessful. When he is totally isolated by a Grundtvigian adversary, he loses faith in the people and in his profession, he turns away from his infatuation with nature and deserts his office, wife, and children. He flees to Copenhagen but does not find peace there either. In his personal and religious quest, he brings the enmity of his surroundings upon himself. The encounter with the cosmopolitan woman Ragnhild plunges him into an erotic-religious crisis which robs him of his last contact with reality. He buries himself deeper and deeper in mystical religiosity; at first he believes that he is a prophet sent by God, then that he is Christ himself; finally he dies in a mental institution. Seen from the perspective of intellectual history Emanuel is a weak echo of Rousseau's and Tolstoy's anti-cultural messages. As a national type, he enters the great gallery of dreamers in Danish literature. Pontoppidan does not condemn him; here, too, his double viewpoint is evident. Although Emanuel's idealism shatters when it encounters external reality, his striving is serious; even in his madness he has an acute self-awareness which the author presents reverently.

As in The Promised Land, the next novel cycle, Lykke-Per (Lucky-Per, 1898-1904) contains autobiographical material. Like Emanuel, Per Sidenius is searching for happiness, but in an entirely different way. Whereas Emanuel pursues great, unselfish goals, and perishes as a result, Per is interested only in his own happiness and finds it by finally losing everything except himself. He is the son of a pietist priest in a Jutland provincial city. His upbringing is characterized by strong authority, against which he rebels by deciding to study engineering rather than theology in Copenhagen. Here he begins to work out a major project designed to transform Denmark into a great industrial country. Although he rebels against his family, he is incapable of cutting himself off from them. He is unable to accomplish his great technical projects because his inheritance, his Sidenius nature, cripples his ability to act at decisive moments. Per settles in Jutland and finds consolation in idyllic traditional Christianity. He believes he has found a harmonious existence. Only later, influenced by medieval mysticism and pietism, does he discover his innermost self, and thereby also his happiness, in a lonely area in northern Jutland.

As a roman a clef, Lucky-Per provides a lively and richly populated picture of the last years of the nineteenth century. The sharp satire of land and people is informed with Pontoppidan's usual double viewpoint. Like Emanuel, Per is a national type: The Danes are a people of "Sideniuses"—passionate, lyrically gifted, but weak when action is necessary. All this is perceived sympathetically. Per sees the spiritual strength of his ailing mother as a symbol of the nation after 1864, which is rescuing itself through inner strength from catastrophe. He himself founders on the shoals of life, but achieves a sense of inner reality.

Pontoppidan wrote a series of shorter novels and stories at the beginning of the twentieth century that can be considered a prelude to The Realm of the Dead, the major work of the last period of Pontoppidan's authorship in which destruction and nihilism predominate. Borgmester Hoeck og Hustru (1905; Eng. tr. Burgomaster Hoeck and His Wife, 1999) is permeated with anxiety about the secrets of the soul, which can erect insuperable walls between people. In the story Det store Spøgelse (The Great Ghost, 1907) fear of fellow humans is combined with mystical anxiety in the face of nature. Universal fear pervades the long novel De Dødes Rige (The Realm of the Dead, 1912-16).

By 1901 the transition to parliamentary government had been made. But as a picture of contemporary Denmark at the turn of the century, The Realm of the Dead again reveals the author's disappointment with political developments. Pontoppidan condemns his epoch by showing how the characters, in their conflicts with moral and political conditions, demean themselves or are even destroyed. The basic theme of the novel is the emptiness of human existence owing to the absence of love, the relationships of the major characters to their fellow human beings being measured by their ability to love. Pontoppidan applies this criterion most strictly to the politician Enslev. He cannot achieve his democratic goals because he pursues his career selfishly and wants to change people according to his own willful ideas. Enslev is not only the major character, he is also the major cause of the transformation of the realm of the living into the realm of the dead. He personifies Pontoppidan's gloomy view of life and his attitudes toward humankind. After all, is the longing for freedom anything but a powerless rattling of the chains of the imprisoned? Is love anything more than a deceptive dream? This opinion is shared by the landowner Torben Dihmer. A miracle medicine slows the pace of his fatal illness, but when young Jytte Abildgaard deserts him and he realizes he cannot find happiness, Torben withdraws to his estate to die alone. Jytte, because she is egotistical, is incapable of yielding to love. After the break with Torben, she ponders about herself, but understanding less than ever, she plunges into the sparkling artistic life of Copenhagen. When she hears of Torben's death, she praises her dead friend happily: "He had been released from the terrible world where everything was deception—except for disappointment." After a year, she herself dies: "Now I am dying, and yet I have never lived." This grandiose work is sustained by a shattering feeling of ennui. The religious experience of the nothingness of life, combined with the moral experience of its valuelessness, makes it unique in Nordic literature.

Pontoppidan's last novel, Mands Himmerig (Man's Heaven, 1927), portrays the tragedy of a ruthless authoritarian figure. The author's concern here is with the threatening moral decline of the Danish nation during World War I. In contrast to the unconcerned populace, Thorsen, a journalist, thinks Denmark has an obligation to participate in the war; through his impotent criticism, he destroys his happiness and his wife's. Although Thorsen, with his absolute demand, politically echoes Emanuel Hansted's religious vision, Pontoppidan does not treat him in his usual ironic fashion. He is firmly on Thorsen's side.

The basic theme in Pontoppidan's work is a demand for the liberation of the individual, which cannot be accomplished within the confines of a deterministic world view. As late as 1894, in the "artist's" novel Nattevagt (Night Watch), he accepted radical naturalism on equal terms with the poetic, religious renaissance of the 1890s. However, after 1900 one senses in his books an ever-increasing metaphysical emphasis. Henrik Pontoppidan characterized himself as a "popular storyteller". This modest self-characterization by an inspired epic writer corresponds to his clear style, which "de-lyricizes" language. No other modern Danish author has been able to paint so precisely a complete picture of his time—its intellectual movements and its people.

[1] The promised Land: The translation only includes the two first of three volumes. tilbage