Erik Werenskiold, "Ma and Thinka" (detail), illustration for Jonas Lie, “The Family at Gilje”, 1904
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Dag A. Ivarsøy


Text by Shazia Majid

I recognize myself in Erik Werenskiold’s drawings and the text of Jonas Lie’s novel, "The Family at Gilje" (Familien på Gilje). 

Although Lie’s story takes place almost 200 years ago, his family could just as well have been one living in Groruddalen in Oslo, Fjell in Drammen, or a conservative Christian community in Agder today. There are places and homes where patriarchy and the male-dominated system still prevail.  

Male dominance and female oppression in Norway in the mid1800s is what Lie has chosen to describe, and the turning points in the characters’ lives are what Werenskiold so masterfully interprets. Moments that still resonate in our own time – they are like scenes from my own life or my friends’ lives. We who are children of the immigrants who came to Norway in the 1970s from countries where patriarchy rules.   

Every day, more women come to Norway from these countries. Family life for them here in Norway resembles in many ways that of Captain Peter Wennechen Jæger’s family. There is a Gitte, a Thinka, a Thea, or an Inger Johanna. 

Jonas Lie’s novel and Erik Werenskiold’s drawings are still relevant. That is why this literature is important, why the artworks are important, just as Camilla Collett and Edvard Munch are important to us today and will be to future generations.  

Because there will always be some still living those lives we ourselves put behind us. Some still fighting the fights we ourselves won long ago. They live in our own apartment buildings, in our own cities, among our own neighbors, friends and colleagues. Many of these women do not necessarily realize that Norwegian women once stood where they stand today: Should they choose to follow tradition, or should they choose the freedom to make their own choices and decisions?

Erik Werenskiold, "Ma", preliminary sketch for illustration for Jonas Lie, “The Family at Gilje”, 1903
Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Dag A. Ivarsøy

"The Family at Gilje", like Camilla Collett’s novel, "The County Governor’s Daughters" (Amtmannens døtre), shows us that women’s struggles are alike, regardless of whether we are Norwegian women or Norwegian women with immigrant backgrounds, and the experiences of women can have much in common despite long spans of time between them. Where I recognize myself in parts of Gitte’s and Inger-Johanna’s story, you may find the same was the case for your Norwegian grandmother. 1968 is not so long ago, when it was still socially unacceptable in Norway for a married woman to work outside of the home, and only one in ten had a paying job. Even today, in 2023, there are municipalities in this country where a large number of ethnic Norwegian women work part-time because children do not have school on Wednesdays, and the woman are expected to take care of the home and the children.  

A line can be drawn back to Gitte in "The Family at Gilje". Gitte is the mother who is called "Ma". "Ma" also means mother in Urdu, my native language, and so it is probably not surprising that Ma reminds me of my own mother. At a certain point in the book, she says: “But – of course you live for the children!” That is Ma’s favorite ‘sigh of consolation’. It was also my mother’s sigh; never expressed, but lived. She lived for the children, like countless other immigrant women who come from homes where women who become wives and mothers also die as wives and mothers and nothing else.  

In certain communities and families in Norway, a woman’s death is still reported: “Mr. Xxx’s wife is dead.” Or Mr. Xxx’s mother, or sister, or daughter is dead. Without mentioning the woman’s own name.

It could hardly have been like that in Norway in Ma’s time – or perhaps it was exactly like that? That she had no identity apart from her husband’s?

She had become “old before her time”, like so many other “ma’s” keeping house at that time – old from putting on the smile, from the fuss and bother, from never having enough money, from all the kowtowing, from always looking like nothing and yet being everything… “you live for the children, of course!…” 

Reading Jonas Lie’s novel was like reading a description of my own mother and many other first-generation immigrant mothers I know. 

Captain Jæger is not unlike my own father who, along with many other immigrant fathers, is caught in a pattern of traditional gender roles. Jæger is expected to be able to provide for his four women: a wife and three daughters. The daughters are to be married off as soon as possible so that other men can take over the role of provider for them. The son Jørgen, however, will have to provide for himself, his own prospective family, and his aging parents. Thus, it is sensible for Jæger to use his finances on their son’s upbringing and education. Conversely, it would be seen as foolish to waste money educating their girls. Even today, girls get less food and a poorer education than their brothers in many countries.

The captain and Ma both want the girls to marry well, an aspiration that impacts the mood within the family. Everything is focused on this singular objective, but it requires a degree of investment – in dresses and shoes and trips to Ryfylke for Thinka and to Christiania for Inger-Johanna – and their provider does not particularly approve of this. Why should he spend money on the girls, when Jørgen is the one who needs an education and status? After the captain’s wife has convinced him to send Inger-Johanna away, but asks for silk ribbon for dresses, he says to her:   

“She must go! [to Christiania] – but the costs of war... The costs of war, Ma, I have learned in my strategy, are to be borne by the enemy! And the governor must of course take care of her needs there.”  

It is possible to understand and empathize with Captain Jæger, just as it is possible to feel sympathy for fathers in a patriarchy. They are responsible for their children, boys as well as girls, and do what they believe is in the children’s best interest. Historically and culturally, in both 1840s Norway and some families in Norway today, women are supported by men. The man is the head of the family and makes decisions on behalf of its members. That fathers want economic security for their daughters is an expression of concern, yet also of an inability to see women as anything other than nurturers who bring children into the world, raise them, and keep the home tidy. Women’s potential and possibilities as independent individuals are overshadowed by norms and rules that in reality function as barriers in their lives.

Women’s economic dependency on men is not the only aspect of the book that is familiar to women like me. There is also the view of love, and how readily love is sacrificed by men and women in a patriarchy – as Ma and Jæger demand of Thinka. Here, Werenskiold draws one of his strongest interpretations of a scene in the book. His illustration depicts a despondent Thinka who is in love with Aas and yet compelled to renounce her love because he is not rich enough. We see a mother grieving along with her daughter, but who also knows there is no alternative. Because the father demands it. And the father, who has become ill and frail, may die if Thinka refuses to do his bidding. Thinka is pressured to say yes to a proposal from a much older, and wealthier, man.

“Nowhere to turn, you see, when you do not want to become a pitiful burden on the family... sew, sew the eyes out of your head, until finally you are lying in someone else’s corner... many would think such an honorable offer was great thing.”

“Aas – Aas – mamma!... Thinka sobbed quietly. God knows, child, if I saw any other way, I would show you, even if I had to hold my fingers in the fire to do so.” 

This dialogue, this scenario, could have been lifted from the lives of many women I know.

Inger-Johanna on the other hand is a defiant woman, one who stands up to her father. Little suggested that she would have the courage to do so, but during her stay in the big city, she is exposed to new perspectives that stimulate new ideas about her own life, even though the goal of this kind of cultivating trip was for culture to supplant nature, i.e., a person's inherent desire for autonomy. A young woman was to be formed, like many women before her, to become one of the of the bourgeoisie’s beautiful and refined women meant to please and support the men of the elite. There was a distinct division between women and men in the social life of the city. Women were considered neither educated enough nor fit to partake in meaningful dialogue. One should not challenge established truths or speak one's heart in a room full of men. A woman’s goal should be to marry well. In Inger-Johanna’s case, her father wanted her to become the wife of the cosmopolitan lieutenant Rønnow, with whom he was well-acquainted. 

Inger-Johanna is a thoughtful young woman. She has many conversations with the more rebellious and intellectual student, Arent Grip, and she also falls in love with him. Meanwhile, arrangements are made for her wedding to the lieutenant, until she protests and unambiguously rejects her parents plans. Captain Jæger accepts her refusal to marry the lieutenant in the end, albeit reluctantly. He loves his daughter, and his daughter has learned to speak in a room normally reserved for men. She is willing to pay the price. Because freedom comes at a price: Inger-Johanna ends up running her own school in Gilje village, but she remains unmarried. The similarities between Inger-Johanna and women today end here.  

Whereas Inger-Johanna could not have the best of both worlds, more and more immigrant women and daughters of immigrant women are able to choose their own lives: opportunities for education, earning their own livings, and marrying for love are open to them. Unfortunately, however, this is still not the case for all women. Inger-Johanna pays a high price for her choice. Being financially self-sufficient should not have to imply living without love, be it the love of a life partner or the love of one’s own father, brother, or entire family.

In some families in Groruddalen, Fjell in Drammen, and other places where patriarchy prevails, this is unfortunately exactly what happens. Even in 2023. 

Shazia Majid is author, journalist and works as a commentator in  VG (newspaper).
She has published the book "Ut av skyggene – den lange veien mot likestilling for innvandrerkvinner".

Photo: Janne Møller Hansen