Jenny (1911) by Sigrid Undset

The story: We follow Jenny as she tries to make it as an artist while dealing with the men in her life.

My thoughts: After finishing books I sometimes read reviews to help me formulate my thoughts. After I read Kristin Lavransdatter (part I, part II, part III) I read several reviews claiming Kristin Lavransdatter was feminist literature. I don’t understand why people would think that since Kristin is very rarely stepping outside the roles permitted to her, and when she is stepping outside them this is considered wrong but not ground-breaking. If you want to put a feminist reading to it, I think it’s more down to Norwegian culture, which has “always” tried to highlight equality between men and women, than anything else. Jenny, which was the break-through book for Sigrid Undset, can very easily be read as feministic literature.

Jenny writes itself into a larger debate at the time and a debate that we are, globally, still having.

*Before I continue this review, I want to point out that the balance of having it all by no means only affect women. While traditionally men have not been forced to choose the same way as women have been, some research points to men feeling more and more a struggle with work-family balance. This struggle especially pertains to having a relationship with their children. Historically, in western culture at least, fathers were not expected to have a close relationship with their children. You can make the argument that men suffered from lack of something positive, but that this was not articulated the same way as women’s suffering.  

Jenny is charismatic, empathic, engaging, and sensitive. She is not in the deep and tortured school of artists, but more skirting on the edge of bohemia without knowing if she can (or should) be that kind of artist. Since she is a complex, charming person she also have men falling at her feet, and knowing what she is supposed to do with them. She does show interest to some of them, but is drawn between doing her art and living the type of life they offer her. What I found fresh about this book was that the men didn’t want her to give up being an artist. Nor is the issue that Jenny doesn’t want a man, but feels pressure from society around her. Jenny has a need or a want, (figuring out which this could be a remarkably interesting literary discussion) for a man that she can look up to. She expresses certain ideals that she wants to live by, which is expressed in her art, and want someone who can teach her the way of these ideals. The issue of the book is if she can find someone who can be her role model. Jenny has through her art found a way of living, and is struggling with finding someone who can live this way with her.

I found this an interesting take on discussing women artist. There aren’t any bad guys here, and just like Kristin Lavransdatter, the whole book was penned very realistically. We feel with Jenny as a friend struggling to understand what it means to be human. Just as Jenny we act and react to the world around us, and while the people around us disappoint, they aren’t villains who just want to hurt us. The book doesn’t give any answers to the question if women can have it all. The book just tells you that wanting it all is human, and struggling to get it all is also human.

What are some interesting need vs. want topics from other literary works that you really enjoyed? Jenny was paned by both conservative and liberal critics when it was first published. Do you know of other books that were hated by both sides of the aisle (doesn’t matter which aisle)? Please leave your comments down below.

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