CLMS Project Banner

Prologue: Examining Norwegian National Identity in Literature

When examining national identity in Norway in various mediums, sources, and expressions, I ask myself two overarching questions:

What is Norwegian national identity and how is it expressed?
In what ways has this national identity been changed and challenged, through a historical perspective, but especially with respect to modern times?

To begin this exploration, one key argument stands out to explain this seemingly imprecise view of Norwegian national identity, a view that at times espouses cultural, linguistic, and social homogeneity but at other times advocates distinctiveness to one’s heritage and place of birth. In examining different conceptualizations of national identity in Norwegian literature through time, I argue that Norwegian identity has embraced both of these views, but it has been a sense of identity that has evolved over time. Norway’s early expressions of national identity at the time of their constitutional independence from Denmark in 1814, which we can see evidence of in their national literature, championed a very homogeneous, Norwegian-centric view that tried to create a dominant, isolationist and nationalistic Norwegian identity.

Over time, as other political, social, and linguistic movements rose and fell throughout Norwegian history, these events and the growing multicultural nature of Norway’s society has changed this sense of national identity in Norway, and to the present day, this national identity has evolved into one that recognizes and embraces this multiculturalism and linguistic diversification. At the same time, this identity remains complex in that it retains Norwegian Romantic Nationalism and a desire for linguistic distinctness and dominance in ascribing prestige to those knowledgeable in the Norwegian language. In other words, the national identity of Norway, as we can see in Norwegian literature, has shifted from that of a homogeneous, Norwegian-centric national identity to one that is more complexly multicultural, linguistically diverse, and reflective of the complex political, linguistic, and social changes that have occurred in Norwegian’s short history as an independent nation. This is not to say that there does not exist anymore a unifying sense of Norwegian national identity. Quite the opposite; Norwegian national identity as a unifying concept of authentic belonging within Norwegian society does exist, but those concepts and ideas which help define this identity have grown, evolved, and become more complex and arguably inclusive over time.

To examine this argument, this project will survey a corpus of Norwegian literature from the advent of Norwegian constitutional independence in 1814 to the present day for concepts which constitute national identity, and track these concepts in a number of ways. I will examine concepts used to establish national identity in the following forms: linguistic expressions of the words “national identity” and their variants, tangible heritage, intangible heritage, language, and relationships with nature. I will examine and track when they are spoken about (to find correlations to historical events), in what ways are they creating identity or making connections to a Norwegian identity, and how these concepts are developed in the literature over time to the present day. To understand these connections between the concepts and national identity, I will utilize theories from anthropology and history that explore meaning-making, symbolism, and the use of narrative expression to create ideologies of identity.

Exploring national identity in Norway is important because expressions of identity in Norway, especially during the Romantic Nationalism period where concepts of identity were expressed in ways that demanded homogeneity with a dominant Norwegian-centric culture, often had repercussions and consequences for those who did not fit into these identities. This comprised mainly marginalized populations of the indigenous and minorities. These expressions of identity often led to questions of one's authenticity in Norwegian society, regardless of legal status as a citizen of the country; your status as a Norwegian hinged upon your participation and identification with these themes which constituted a national identity. Problems occurred in history when one did not fit into these identities. However, through time, I argue that the people of Norway acknowledged their history as a once colonized country in which they struggled in determining their own identity in the face of a dominating force (Denmark). Thus, maintaining a Norwegian distinctness became very important, but the meaning of this distinctiveness has changed and what constitutes this distinctness has become more complex, accepting, and multicultural over time. In light of this, this evolution of national identity has continued to have implications for the people of Norway, and understanding this evolution and place of national identity in an increasingly multicultural society is important to the livelihood of those who call Norway home.

A note on terminology: I will often refer to the corpus of literature sampled for this project using the words "Norwegian literature". It has been problematic in creating a term that is all inclusive of the literature that comprises this corpus, one that both reflects the essence of the body of literature and one that is easy to use. However, this is obviously contentious in terms of labeling. Some pieces of literature, as we move through the timeline, are disputed as being labeled as Norwegian, and labeling can imply an identity or connotation that is not necessarily clear or appropriate. Indeed, this is the point of the project, to explore what these identities are! For example, Sami writers may not themselves classify their literature as Norwegian, because this literature, for them, is expressive of Sami identity, and does not necessarily address a specifically termed Norwegian identity; yet it is included as an expression of identity in Norway (Eriksen 1993; Gaski 1996). Therefore, I am still searching for an umbrella reference that I can use to talk about the all-inclusive corpus of literature in Norway used for this project. For now, I am using the terms "Norwegian literature" when referencing the corpus, and will use, when referring to the individual groups of literature, terms such as Norwegian national literature (typically referring to the literature of the Romantic Nationalism period), Sami literature, and immigrant literature, and other terms as they arise throughout my research.