Published in 1911, Jenny is written by Swedish Nobel-prize winning author Sigrid Undset and concerns Jenny Winge. Jenny is a young woman painter. Here is your brief, spoiler-laden plot summery — Jenny Winge meets a young man in Italy, convinces herself that she is in love with him (she isn’t), is engaged to him and then breaks up with him, has an awkward sexual affair with her ex’s father, gets pregnant, leaves for Germany, has the baby, the baby dies, and her miserable life ends in suicide. There were a lot of similarities to Anna Karenina. One exception, though, is that I hate Anna and couldn’t wait for her to die. I thought her vapid, whiny, and annoying. Jenny, however, is thoughtful and introspective and, though I knew she was doomed, I found myself sympathizing with the thoughtful and introverted Jenny.
When the reader first meets Jenny she is kind, reserved, and caring and also honest with herself and her companions. More than anything she wants to be true to herself and her artwork. As a child she spent years ignoring her feelings to emotionally support her twice-widowed mother. Now she endeavors to be kind and true and to hang back to protect herself from hurt, loss, and loneliness. The young man she meets in Italy, Helge, declares that he is in love with Jenny. She doesn’t think she is in love with Helge (btw – Helge is an over-emotional mama’s boy), but she is fond of him and she desperately wants to be in love. When Jenny meets Helge’s overbearing, overprotective mother that false love is smashed. Jenny continues to have relationships with people (romantic and platonic) in an effort to be helpful or make herself feel as she thinks she should; shouldn’t a woman want to fall in love, marry, and have babies?
Jenny is depressed, anxious, and worries about hurting others because she more progressive and modern than her time. This is most apparent when she turns down and offer of protection and a surname for her infant. She wants independence and claims she cannot paint and be true to her art if she engages in being tied to someone she doesn’t love. Her thirst for independence is at odds with her ideas of morality and she struggles to be both a woman and an artist. She longs to be completely possessed by love, yet pulls away from emotionally giving herself to others.
As I read Jenny, I realized I was picturing a novel set in the mid-1970s as a part of second wave Feminism. Then Jenny mentioned her corset straining against her pregnancy and I was plunged back more than 50 years. The grittiness, sexually, and violent end of Jenny’s life seems like the stuff of a modern novel and did cause quite an uproar when first published. Jenny is a product of her time (giving, kind, differing to men) and yet also pushes against those rules (refusing marriage, assistance, and choosing to keep her child). As Jenny muses,
“The purity of her twenty-nine years. Oh yes, she had saved it like a white bridal gown, and it was neither used nor sullied. And in her longing and anguish that she might never wear it, in despair at her own icy loneliness, at her inability to love, she had clung to it, crushing it and mauling it with her thoughts. Wasn’t the person who had lived a life of love purer than she, who had only brooded and brooded and kept watch and yearned, until all her faculties were paralyzed with longing?” (207)
Jenny cannot be an independent artist, true to her ideology and values and have a passionate love. Society dictates she must be weaker than her male partner and Jenny cannot compromise her values. She is destined to be alone.
But what of the baby? Prepare yourself for tears. The baby dies after living for six weeks and I sat in the middle of a Moe’s weeping into my — ironic — junior homewrecker tofu burrito. Never before have I read such beautiful rage against the tragedy of a child dying. Her chance at try, equalizing, non-selfish love was squelched when her son died:
“I thought that was the only thing I was good at — and cared about — being the mother of my little boy. He was someone I could love. Maybe I’m an egoist at heart, because every time I tried to love others, my own self felt like a wall between us. But my son was mine. ” (270)
Just keep crying through the last quarter of the book. Jenny mourns her son, she begins drinking and takes on a false brightness, her best friend — Gunnar — realizes he is in love with her, but she won’t be with him. Helge shows back up. He rapes Jenny so that he can finally “own” her and then Jenny commits suicide.
Bleak stuff, but moving and thoughtful and beautifully written all the same. I truly feel like this half-assed, sleep-deprived review cannot fully express how much I liked this book. It has haunted my thoughts. All of Undsets novels are on my “buy it now” list. Such a richly satisfying read!