The story shows a young woman's (Johanna) disastrous marriage to a scoundrel, Risto, which leads to her living in poverty and misery, and eventually dying at a young age. Risto is the most over-the-top villainous husband imaginable: he married only for money (and broke his engagement to a young half-gypsy girl, Homsantuu - a promise he was unlikely to intend to keep), he's a drunkard, doesn't work (unlike Johanna, who tries desperately to support her family), steals shamelessly from his wife and child, continues to seduce and torment Homsantuu, is completely unphased by his wife's death and immediately attempts to propose to another woman, Vappu.
A story of the plight of women in oppressive societies and/or marriages is one worth telling, and it's great that Canth dared to explore these themes in her various writings. But I can't make myself like this book, and I'm trying to figure out why.
I loved The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which deals with similar themes. It's been a while since I read it, but I seem to remember that it had a lot more depth than Canth's play. Canth paints the world as a hopelessly cruel, hypocritical and hostile place, with nearly every person in Johanna's life being completely horrible, infuriating people. I remember only one male character who's nice to Johanna from the entire play, and he only shows up for a few sentences. The villains (which is, nearly everybody) are almost over the top in their stupidity and maliciousness. The only emotion the story left me with was frustration. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there were genuinely horrible people, but there were also plenty of normal, flawed, but fundamentally good characters. And even Huntington, the abusive husband, wasn't a 100% evil from the start. A lot of the story was sad and showed unashamedly the suffering and injustice that women in Helen's situation had to face, but there were also moments of happiness and joy. Those happy moments not only brought the darkness into stronger contrast, but pointed the way forward by showing how people should try to treat each other.
Overall the world of The Tenant felt real, which made the story all the more powerful. Compared to it Canth's story feels more like a fever-dream, a nightmarish and claustrophobic place designed for one purpose alone. But on the other hand, if Canth wanted to portray what the world can look like from the point of view of a truly oppressed, suffering and despairing person, I have to admit that she succeeded perfectly. But personally I miss some goodness in this story, some indication that the world is not all evil. The world of this play seems really black-and-white at times: Christians are evil hypocrites, men are evil oppressors, rich people are evil and snotty... It would've been nice to see a story that didn't fall back on those cheap clichés, while still exploring the important issue of women's oppression.
I guess I just wish there had been more depth to the characters and the story. As it is, it felt just a little too focused on its one and only message. Especially the final speech by Vappu wrenched me out of the story, and made me feel like Canth had just punched her way through the fourth wall to explain to me what was what in her story. While it was satisfying to see Risto verbally bitch-slapped in such a way, it definitely didn't help the feeling that most of the characters lacked a third dimension.
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|Book rating||4.08 (194 votes)
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