“The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”, intones Dr. Stockman in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (82). His words ring true, as the heroes of the latter work, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Heinesen’s Laterna Magica, and the film The Celebration, stand firmly alone, alienated by social forces, lacking any metaphysical help or extemporaneous talent. Whether the protagonist is affected and constrained by an intimate familial group, society at large, or some self-imposed deception, all of the heroes are not of the same stock of the Volsungs. These newer heroes mark a distinct transition in Scandinavian literature, from mythological explanations of how life began or how things came to be, to realistic, yet abstract, social commentary. Whether the mythological veil was pierced by advances in physical science or advances in economics and early political economy, authors from the Industrial Revolution onward predominantly cared less and less about fictionalized glory. Much modern literary craft concerned itself with documenting the hypocritical lifestyles of the effluent bourgeoisies and the deplorable, easily manipulated position of the laboring class. A closer examination of the aforementioned works reveals what sort of heroes, or, from a classical perspective, lack thereof, are possible in a more modern framework of social realism.
Dr. Stockman, from An Enemy of the People, is an ostensible hero in a more traditional sense. His act of exposition regarding certain elements contained in the bath, the sole means of economic production for the town, is brutally repressed in a propaganda battle with the capitalists who are the only stockholders of the bath. Nevertheless, he stands firmly in his convictions, allowing his reputation to be soiled for principle’s sake. Ibsen reveals dimension after dimension of the ruling class manipulation of the press in order to subdue an element which will undermine their social position. Peter Stockman, mayor and leader of the capitalists, in one instance threatens to burden the tradesmen majority with a “municipal loan”, unless the newspaper, a principle influence on the “extremely mutable” lower class opinion, refuses to print and instead denies the validity of Dr. Stockman’s report (73). By the end of the play, Dr. Stockman becomes a social pariah, a near martyr for refusing to retract his claim at a town meeting. Ibsen has thus created a macro-social group as being easily controlled by those with money and education, a direct parallel he certainly discerned in contemporary society. Dr. Stockman as well alludes to the importance of education and class with his claim “you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones” (59). The heroic nature in Dr. Stockman becomes revealed in his upstanding moral character and refusal to acquiesce to demands he knows are wrong. However, he, like the other heroes I will be discussing, is restrained by circumstances—external in his case—limiting the breadth by which he can enact his heroic vision. Dr. Sockman is relegated by the end of the play to educating the lower class children, one convert at a time, to his vision and social criticism.
Nora, of A Doll’s House, is a definite anti-hero. She abandons her children and remains for years in a subjugated matrimonial position with her husband. Finally, Nora comes to an epiphany regarding her position, but instead of a path of action, chooses a path of abandonment: she leaves her home. While her realization is heroic, she exhibits no demonstrable concern with for universal condition of women other than that of her own circumstance. Her character, however, in the context of the play, implies her as such. Thus, while she is not a hero, Ibsen the playwright is; he is the pioneer and social visionary, not Nora. He creates the awareness; Nora’s exaggerated position of inequality and helplessness only serves to stir the audience to greater social abstractions. It is, in fact, my contention that Ibsen intended such an end to his play, that Nora’s ambiguous destiny would sow the seeds of discontent in an oblivious, self-legitimized ‘enlightened’ bourgeois audience.
The Celebration, while its plot not uncommonly dissects a bourgeois family, it does so in a micro-social sense. The family, I believe, does not act as a universally applicable paradigm to indict a way of life or a society—a necessary requirement for a social hero, in my opinion. The protagonist, Christian, is more of a personal hero, an anti-heroic man. His entire life, wrought with mental instability, has been constrained by the instance of molestation by his father. Nothing remarkable or legendary can be said about Christian—or anyone else in the family—besides the fact that he is still alive (unlike his sister who committed suicide after the same perpetual abuse). Personally, for reasons I have cited in past essays, I do not consider Christian any remote sort of absolute hero. His actions destabilize the ostensible happiness of a family built upon seeds of molestation and moral corruption. In totality, he affects no one but his own sense of closure. A film which revolves around an isolated incident, much like Ibsen’s play with Nora, contains no actual heroes in the literal sense of the world.
Laterna Magica does not contain heroes in the same sense as Ibsen or The Celebration. Heinesen’s characters are curious creations, at times noble, but all so constrained by mental labyrinths that they cannot possibly obtain a substantial or balanced existence. Stubborn Stina, for instance, has an ability to outwait time itself. While her immovability is laudable, she ignores living any semblance of a healthy existence. Any human being from any culture who meets Stina is going to deem her a crazy woman for her slavish devotion to the man who abandoned her. Another great character, Master Jakob, has performed an ultimately benevolent act of gathering “words and proverbs, ballads and poems hundreds of years old” that “were about to die out” (20). However, his social/personal constraint is that “no one cared” and he ends up withdrawing inward for self-support, nursing an unmentioned injury (20). All of Heinesen’s characters display muted brilliance or unrecognized, unrealizable heroic aptitude. His quiet heroes are also anti-heroes but they contain little, if any at all, useful social application besides what a reader will personally take from the displayed psychological dynamics.
The aforementioned quartet of works express definite opinions on what constitutes a heroic act grounded in practice, not accomplished by some hopelessly idealized theoretical means. My contention is that while these psychological and social exercises do not generate clear-cut heroes, in a traditional sense, in some ways the anti-hero is almost satisfying because the reader is able to place himself, without a great deal of fantasizing, into the context of the situation. Thus, Supermen, for the time being, have been grounded, allowing the succession of realistic, more personal heroes in which a viewer is supposed to dwell upon humanity and society.
by Steven Holmes
Major: English pre-law
Expected Graduation Date: May 2006
Hometown: Walla Walla, WA
This paper attempts to define the nature of a social hero in Scandinavian literature. Modern heroes show a distinct transition from their legendary or epic predecessors to natures more grounded in reality. In certain works, Ibsen's plays for example, no discernable character can be called an unequivocal hero, which is, in my opinion, the nascent pre-postmodern attitude declaring the death of Supermen and the evolution of social consciousness in literature.