- Desire, Reproduction, and Death:Reading the Silences in Ragnhild Jølsen's Rikka Gan (1904)
How could a young, unmarried female Norwegian author in the early twentieth century write about topics that were taboo, such as feminine sexuality, infanticide, and pimping? Ragnhild Jølsen (1875-1908) had already been reprimanded by reviewers for her radical representation of feminine sexual desire in her first novel.1 Her literary style, choice of topics, and manner of representing sex made many believe she was a man.2 Despite this, her second novel, Rikka Gan (1904) contains representations of topics that were proscribed at the time, especially for a female writer.
How did Rikka Gan gain the readers' sympathy for a female character who experiences and acts upon sexual desire outside marriage and then kills her own offspring? Its female protagonist certainly does not conform to the standards of "proper" fin-de-siècle femininity. In spite of this, the text does not demonize its female character, thus, leaving her acts incomprehensible, as is the case of many texts written by male authors of the time.3 Instead, Rikka Gan permits its protagonist both erotic desire and illegitimate actions without representing her as wicked. The novel delivers a devastating critique against societal norms through radical and provocative representations of femininity. [End Page 467]
This article discusses the sophisticated narrative techniques used in Rikka Gan such as representing what must not be said openly by leaving it in the white spaces between chapters or blocks of text and siding with a trustworthy character to ensure sympathy for its unconventional protagonist. It further examines the strong influence of the decadent literary style4 and pre-psychoanalytic attitudes in Rikka Gan by showing how the novel appropriates a misogynist decadent male style and subverts it to rehabilitate the feminine.5 It also discusses how the text challenges dominant Modern-Breakthrough gender discourse by its representations of transgressive femininity.
Only a handful of scholars have dealt with Ragnhild Jølsen and even fewer with Rikka Gan. Antonie Tiberg published the first biography, Ragnhild Jølsen i liv og diktning in 1909, only a year after Ragnhild Jølsen's death. Thereafter, only articles appeared until Kari Christensen published Portrett på mørk treplate (1989), which is a combination of biography and literary analysis based on psychoanalytical theory. Janet Garton has given an overview in Norwegian Women's Writing 1850-1990 (1993), and Astrid Lorenz has written about Jølsen in Nordisk Kvinnolitteraturhistoria (1996; Nordic Literary History of Women Authors). In 2009, historian Arnhild Skre published La meg bli som leoparden, a well-contextualized new biography of Jølsen. A documentary novel about her life—Jens Bjørneboe's Drømmen og hjulet—has appeared as well as two self-published works.6 The predominance of biographies reveals the interest in the unmarried Jølsen's unconventional lifestyle, [End Page 468] while her fascinating works seldom have been analyzed.7 It is time for a more extensive analysis of Rikka Gan, highly interesting because of its radical representations of femininity and its innovative techniques of representing what must not be said.
In the novel, the young Rikka Torsen lives with her poor family on Gan, a big farm that has been in the family for generations but which they have been forced to sell. Deeply attached to the farm, Rikka persuades the new owner, Aga, to employ her sickly, weak brother as a foreman so that she and her brother's family can stay there. Forced by her sister-in-law, Fernanda, she prostitutes herself to the new owner in return. Rikka consequently has three children, whom she or Fernanda kill as newborns. She lives in a state of depression, longing for a love that is both sensual and spiritual until she finally decides to break away.
As was common at the time, especially when it came to female authors, literary works tended to be read autobiographically. As late as 1949, Louise Bohr Nilsen reviewed Rikka Gan appreciatively, but suspiciously wrote: "Den unge kvinnen som har skrevet om [Rikka], må selv ha drukket dypt av lidelsens beger" (255) [the young woman who wrote about Rikka must...