Independent People tells the tale of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man that has worked for the wealthy Bailiff for eighteen long years and has at long last earned enough money to purchase his own small homestead. He wishes only to live a life unbeholden to any other, to be completely independent. Bjartur is proud, stubborn, and surly. He has no time for either religion or superstition and is impatient with idleness and fools.
Bjartur is also a blockhead. In his mulish quest for independence, he destroys almost everyone and everything he comes in contact with: his sheep, his farm and especially his family. He refuses to accept that he can never be fully independent. He may not be a slave to the Bailiff any longer, but he yet remains a slave to poverty, to
’s cold and unforgiving climate, to his lack of education, to his own stubbornly-held ideals. Bjartur can never be free. Iceland
If my description has you expecting a long string of tragedies and heartbreak, you’d be right. The book can be bleak, very bleak. In truth, it was a difficult book for me to read. I found it rather depressing, especially as most of the misfortunes were self-inflicted, a direct result of Bjartur’s pigheaded decisions.
What kept me going? My conviction that something good or meaningful must arise from the mire. To some extent, I was right. In the end, in the last few pages of the book, Bjartur does find a small (but largely unsatisfying) measure of redemption. I was also left with the conviction that an independent life is a poor life indeed. Our lives are made richer by fostering an interdependence with friends and family.
Don’t get me wrong: Halldór Laxness is a truly gifted writer, and I think the book has a fine message. This is probably as great a book as its introduction and its numerous fans would have you believe. But not all great books are easy or fun to read, and Independent People was neither easy nor fun for me. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? I honestly don’t know. Ask me again in a couple of years.