Print Article

A Perfect Creature of the New Age

Written by: Maria-Liisa Nevala |

Canth lost her husband when she was thirty-five and pregnant for the seventh time. Absent that tragic reversal, she would certainly have remained the wife of a lecturer at a training college with literature as her chief interest. Only as a widow did she enjoy enough intellectual and financial independence to embark on a writing career.

Her whole existence seemed to have turned on a dime. Before she knew it, she was a single mother, businesswoman, and author all at once. Instead of being satisfied with the simple and retired life of a widow, as was customary at the time, she became the most controversial of Finnish authors and shaped the direction of the country’s drama. Obituaries described her as a national hero, and her plays are still among the most popular on Finnish stages.

The newspaper Päivälehti, a spiritual ally of Minna Canth (1844-1897), praised her as one of the most important realistic female authors. The paper reported her funeral with great feeling:

“Not for a generation have we seen such a huge procession follow someone to their final resting place […] as was the case with this genius, who performed her lifework so honourably, who defended the oppressed, and who was such a trustworthy friend. Such were the multitudes that gathered at her grave.”

Only four months had passed since her husband’s death when Canth offered the Finnish Theatre her first play. After eight months of widowhood, she and her children took a sled from Jyväskylä in central Finland to her birthplace of Kuopio in the northeast, where she bought a yarn shop that had declared bankruptcy. Eventually, she turned it into a flourishing business that assured her financial independence for the rest of her life and enabled her to make a career as an author.

Et Dukkehjem at Suomalainen Teatteri, 1880. Photo: Daniel Nyblin, Teatermuseets arkiv, Finland

Strong as she was, starting a new life was far from easy. She suffered serious postpartum depression. Restoring the business to health took time, and she eventually had a seventeen-person household to manage, including the servants. Combining business and belles-lettres was also a challenge. She lamented in a letter dated February 1882, “I have to admit that the shop is a major distraction from my writing”. On top of everything else, the spiritual atmosphere of the small provincial town was inimical to her unconventional lifestyle and viewpoints. Mothers were particularly worried about her appeal to young men. “The Canth Salon” soon became known as a forum for modern ideas, bringing together both active supporters of women’s emancipation and young literary realists.

In addition to discussing French and Scandinavian realists, the female intelligentsia of Kuopio read early modern literature. Because the new generation of authors was still bilingual, the Scandinavian network was as dynamic as could be. Even those who wrote in Finnish might speak Swedish at home, while a great deal of correspondence and social interaction was in Swedish. Canth may have regarded herself as “a perfect creature of the new age”, but she struggled mightily with her conscience to convince herself that writing for the stage was not a sinful enterprise. She wrote to a friend after the opening night of Murtovarkaus (1882; The Burglary), her first play: “Once more I have been experiencing agonising doubts about the importance of the theatre. The pain lasted for two nights and a day, after which my bodily strength was depleted, but my soul grew calm. The thought that my conscience would torture me on my death bed because I had created such a worthless pastime for my fellow human beings was nigh unto unbearable.”

The play was exactly what the Finnish Theatre and its fans had been waiting for: a popular comedy with a happy ending. After the opening, theatre manager Kaarlo Bergbom recommended that she stick to the genre she had mastered: “If you want my advice, write popular comedies, scenes from real life and especially that of women, describe the humour that our peasants are blessed with and the charm of their daughters, conjure up the carefree existence that Finnish youth lead every summer in our parsonages.”

Canth never shirked her moral responsibilities in the public realm, viewing them as integral to an author’s social obligations. She spoke out courageously and fought for the issues that she regarded as important. But she was no celebrity in the present-day sense of the word. Her ideas, rather than her name, were often in the spotlight. She rarely left town or bothered to attend the opening nights of her own plays.

Death Instead of Rebellion

What Bergbom had in mind was certainly not the kind of life that Canth portrayed in Työmiehen vaimo (1885; The Workingman’s Wife) three years later. Although she took him at his word when it came to realism, the play is devoid of sprightly humour, loveable farmer’s daughters, or hints of carefree summers.Instead, it reveals that Canth had acquainted herself with the theorists of socialism and emancipation; the central theme concerns the laws, customs, and habits that govern human life. And the play unabashedly poses the question of women’s rights.

The plot revolved around a love triangle involving Johanna, her husband Risto, and Homsantuu, a Roma woman. The first act takes place on Johanna’s and Risto’s wedding day, the last one two years later. Risto announces right off the bat that he has a legal right to Johanna’s savings. That is old hat to her, and she has no choice but to accept it; what is harder to deal with is finding out during the wedding feast that Risto and Homsantuu have once had a relationship. Her idyllic existence cracks wide open. When she threatens divorce, the other women warn her that those who violate their wedding vows are damned. Only Vappu – an independent, unmarried woman at the local market – dares to think differently. Johanna persuades herself that her duty is to bear the cross that has been laid on her. Risto magnanimously forgives her for having forgotten, if even for a moment, that she is subservient to his commands.

A year passes. Johanna supports herself and her child by weaving for the wives of the local bourgeoisie. Risto leads a happy-go-lucky life and squanders the money she has so grudgingly scraped together at the pub. Johanna, who has grown weak from hunger and arduous labour, loses her fighting spirit and will to live. Not even the rich middle-class wives are willing to help someone who finds herself in such a hopeless predicament.

After Johanna’s death, Homsantuu unsuccessfully tries to shoot Risto, who has already betrayed her a second time. The police arrest her. He has now destroyed the lives of two women, but he manages to escape any moral responsibility for their fates. Words are all the female protagonists have to rebel with. Homsantuu, the social outcast whose role is to highlight women’s situation, makes it clear that she understands this dilemma when she screams after her arrest: “Your laws and rights, what a joke. I was really aiming at them.” Change is possible only if patriarchal thinking and laws are questioned. For now, everything remains the same. While far from optimistic, the play pleads with the audience to consider men’s responsibilities.

It was a big hit and spurred an unprecedented debate in the press. Never before had the brutal treatment of women been depicted from a female perspective. The play was both praised as “a major and lasting step forward for our literature” and blasted for defying law and justice, the prevailing, God-given social order. Canth was accused of inciting people to “grab a dagger, revolver, or piece of dynamite” to advance their own cause. Such anarchistic tendencies were said to be particularly evident in the women’s movement, of which Canth came to be a leading polemicist.

Kovan onnen lapsia (1888; Children of Misfortune) which is about a revolt of anarchist workers, was removed from the repertoire after a single performance.

When the Self Is Denied

“Hanna” was an important contribution to the nineteenth century debate about morality and gender roles. Canth was well acquainted with the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and she shared the feminist viewpoints of her Swedish contemporaries Alfhild Agrell, Victoria Benedictsson, and Anne Charlotte Edgren Leffler.

In many ways the story typifies nineteenth century literature by women. Hanna is a high-spirited, optimistic girl who dreams of a teaching career, only to become a shy, fatalistic woman who submits to the will of her father and her lover, finally resigning herself to whatever crumbs life throws her way. Without a smidgen of rebellion, she accepts the role that the world has assigned to her, thereby denying her inner self.

The principal responsibility for her fate lies with two out-and-out hypocrites: Kalle Salmela, a young theologian who is the object of her affections, and her father, who lives as a feudal lord, carousing and molesting his maidservants. He squashes her career ambitions, while Kalle forbids her to have other friends. He demands absolute “purity” and obedience on her part, while he himself goes to a brothel in Helsinki. She accedes to his dictates, but loses him anyway. On one and the same day, she finds out that he has become engaged to another woman and that one of their maidservants has given birth to her father’s child.

The short story “Hanna” (1886) was so controversial that Canth had to switch publishers; the brothel scene was too much for the first one. The story plays on two other portraits of women in Finnish literature: an 1836 poem of the same name by Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Papin tytär (1885; The Clergyman’s Daughter), a novel by Juhani Aho, who was staying with Canth while he read the proofs of his novel.

Rebellion as an Option

Elin Danielson-Gambogi: Ved Thebordet, 1890. Oil painting. Ateneum, Helsinki

In no work by Canth do the female and male worlds impinge on each other as intimately as in her play Papin perhe (1891; The Parson’s Family). The children of Valtari, the protagonist, rebel against his conservative viewpoints. Gender conflict has a central role beside generational strife.

Seventeen-year-old Maiju dreams of an acting career and feels stifled by the atmosphere at home. Believing that a woman should not be allowed to support herself and that theatre is sinful, Valtari curses her, but she single-mindedly overcomes all obstacles and achieves her goal.

Maiju’s sister, Hanna, who is more thoughtful and analytical, approaches life from a different angle and develops her own strategy for escaping submission. The nucleus of her worldview is a philosophy of love, which opposes all forms of violence. Regardless of gender, she argues, human solidarity should preclude the use of force. The young male characters appear to share Hanna’s opinions, but it soon turns out that they are mired in the traditional way of looking at things. They have already become political tacticians who think they can distinguish between realistic and unrealistic objectives. But Hanna refuses to accept the tenet that a moral alternative can ever be impractical:

TEUVO: Abolishing war, military service and the army – it goes without saying that such demands are quixotic.

HANNA: I don’t understand what you’re talking about.

JUSSI: Because people must be able to defend themselves if the enemy attacks.

HANNA: People must be fit and strong enough to stick to the truth. Killing a man and spilling blood is sinful and brutal; no power in the world should have the authority to make someone commit such a sin. Anybody can see that.

Maiju generally plays a central role when the play is staged. Hanna, who actually manages to bring peace and harmony to the household, usually takes a back seat to Maiju’s uncompromising attitude. Frequently, Hanna’s philosophical reflections are omitted as well, obscuring the fact that she is the first female intellectual in Finnish literature.

Women’s Moral Responsibility?

The double standard was a general topic of conversation in Scandinavia during the 1880s, stirring emotions and shattering friendships. The Finnish debate reached a climax in 1887, when both Georg Brandes and Gustaf af Geijerstam held lectures in Helsinki. Canth was highly critical of Geijerstam’s presentation. Like the Finnish women’s movement, Canth allied herself with Ibsen and Bjørnson when it came to moral relativism versus absolutism, while constantly aiming her salvos at Max Nordau and August Strindberg. Her scepticism of Ellen Key’s ideas in the 1890s is fully evident in her pamphlet Arvostelu Neiti Ellen Keyn viime lausunnoista Naisasiassa (1896; A Critique of Miss Ellen Key’s Most Recent Statements on the Issue of Women’s Emancipation).

Canth wrote to Lucina Hagman, a leading proponent of women’s emancipation, in December 1886: “I hardly have the courage to go outside the house any longer, even though walking is a vital necessity for me. People would burn me at the stake or send me to Siberia if they could. The governor calls me ‘a rotten maggot’ and throws murderous looks in my direction and refuses to greet me.”

Minna Canth’s most notable literary contribution to the debate was the short story “Salakari” (1887, Pitfall), in which Alma Karell, a married woman, pays with her life for having violated the taboo of adultery. A schoolmaster by the name of Nymark, an advocate of modern ideas with whom she falls in love, is the indirect cause of her death. He introduces her to the works of August Strindberg, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and Arne Garborg. The books and the new morality they preach both strengthen and legitimise her attraction. Nevertheless, her breeding and disposition stand in the way of an extramarital relationship. When she finally surrenders, it is far from an unfettered and joyous encounter, but a terrifying event that leads to moral despair: “In her fright she gave a start, strained every nerve once again, and screamed out loud. The sound was stifled by a pair of strange lips that pressed themselves to hers; she closed her eyes and fell limply backwards. A moment passed. Alma sat up in the heather; terror-stricken, she looked all around her […] ‘Shall we go?’ His voice was calm and unperturbed, but Alma was appalled when she heard it; she crouched in anguish, threw herself to the ground, and tore at the heather with both hands. The scrub cut her fingers, but she didn’t notice it.”

As the heartless seducer, Nymark escapes unscathed from the escapade, whereas Alma is destroyed after having taken all the responsibility upon herself. But the message is hardly that only women are capable of moral behaviour and must perish if they betray their conscience. Canth seems to be saying that girls are still not brought up in a way that allows them to live in accordance with men’s new moral code. An emotionally starved woman who is forced to play a particular role against her will becomes the prey of situations that she cannot control.

Anna Liisa, Canth’s last play, deals with the taboo subjects of infanticide and premarital sex. The suspense arises from the conflict in the life of the young protagonist. Her neighbours regard her as a paragon of virtue and respectability, whereas Husso, the paternal grandmother of her dead child, accuses her of hypocrisy. Aware of the condemnation that falls upon a single mother, she kept her pregnancy secret and strangled the baby as soon as it was born:

HUSSO: You speak of compassion and conscience. You have murdered your own child and yet you pass yourself off as a respectable woman. You have let your fiancé down and betrayed the whole world. Meanwhile, you speak of compassion and conscience. That’s a good one. Pardon me if I must laugh. What would you say if my conscience compelled me to reveal the truth?

Husso and her son Mikko try to blackmail Anna Liisa into marrying him so that he will be the heir apparent of her father’s prosperous farm. When she refuses, he spills the beans to Johannes, her fiancé, and she falls from her pedestal into a condition of general disrepute, the lowest of the low. In her despair, Anna Liisa tries to drown herself but is rescued. Finally, she learns to accept responsibility and make amends for her actions. Inspired by her courage, Johannes recovers his ideals as well.

The play ends on a note of reconciliation, which does not make the critique of the double standard any less damning. Anna Liisa, who is portrayed in a positive light despite her faults, has to bear the entire guilt. It never occurs to any of the other characters that Mikko shares some of the responsibility.

Premarital relationships were very common in rural Finland in Canth’s time. Nor were they frowned upon, as long as they led to marriage, especially if the woman got pregnant.

Trailblazers and Guides

For the most part, Canth’s female characters acquiesce to the demands that are placed on them without thinking very much about it. With a few exceptions, their fate is to lose everything they have. Few of them have the strength to break with the traditional concept of women and create a framework for their own lives. They almost always live in the sheltered world of the home and on the terms it dictates. Nevertheless, they are far from one-dimensional creatures. With admirable precision, Canth analyses the various roles that women assume, as well as the social and psychological mechanisms that oppress them. The tension between expectations and personal experience is there for all to see. Her women are on the verge of shaking off their chains.

Translated by Ken Schubert