Money, Morals and Love

Issue 1/1980 | Archives online, Authors

Maria Jotuni

Maria Jotuni. Photo: Atelier Nyblin / CC-BY-4.0

Maria Jotuni‘s reputation as a writer rests on her daring and highly individual portrayals of women and on her gifts as a dramatist. Her works concentrate on analyses of the human condition, the contradictions, the frustrations, the fantasies. As the creative ‘observer’ she is both deeply sympathetic and ruthlessly revealing.

Maria Jotuni, whose centenary is celebrated this year, grew up in the eastern Finnish province of Savo and her early work draws richly on that background for subject matter and local colour. Her style, which over the years was honed and polished into a unique form of expression, certainly owes something to the lilting rhythms of the Savo dialect – and something to the lyricism of the Finnish Bible, with which she was familiar from her earliest years. Maria Haggrén, as she was born, was the second of six children; they lived in Kuopio, the home town of J. V. Snellman (1806–81), a man who did much to formulate the Finnish national identity, and of Minna Canth (1844–97), one of Finland’s major woman writers. The Haggréns were not wealthy, but they believed strongly in the pursuit of learning and knowledge. The home also provided a fruitful contact with rural life with opportunities to listen to the chatter and tales of the farm boys and servant girls.

Maria’s enthusiasm for literature manifested itself early on. Through her writing she was able to find a new world outside the reality of everyday life in Kuopio. She describes with charm her early ventures and the thrill of manipulating words: ‘I had drafted in block capitals on a scrap of paper a poem: “A brook bubbles up in a grove”. I thought this was an astonishing achievement; the invention thrilled me enormously. “Grove” was not a word a child would naturally use. These were magic words, because I saw the brook and the whole wood. And it made me exceedingly happy.’

Breaking loose

Maria’s connection with Kuopio was not broken until she went to Helsinki in the autumn of 1900 to register as a student at the University. She attended lectures in history, comparative literature and art history. She read widely and went to the theatre frequently, familiarizing herself with the important writers of the day: Ibsen, Strindberg, Hamsun, Altenberg and Chekhov. But she also spent long periods at home, writing. It was during such a period that she first met Joel Lehtonen, the writer, and Viljo Tarkiainen, the literary critic and university teacher; the latter was to become her husband and a grand old man of Finnish letters.

The year 1905 was an important one for Finnish literature in a number of ways, not least because it saw the publication of works like Lehtonen’s Mataleena (‘Magdalene’), Linnankoski’s Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta (Eng. transl. The Song of the Blood-red Flower, 1920) and Leino’s Naamioita (‘Masks’). In this year Maria Jotuni (under her maiden name of Haggrén) published her first work, Suhteita (‘Relationships’). The work is a collection of short stories, mostly about love. They are full of insight into human behaviour and were well received. Her career as a writer looked full of promise. Two years later she brought out a collection of stories called Rakkautta (‘Love’). Although praised, this work evoked the negative reactions which later came to be associated with Jotuni’s work.

She was attacked for her outrageous view of life, the open sensuality of her female characters, her alleged disrespect for the deeper human values.

Today the reader finds it difficult to understand how the general public could have been roused to such indignation by a literary work of this sort. But readers of any age are afraid of encountering in literature anything which disturbs the security of their own view of life, anything that cuts too deeply through their prejudices. For a generation accustomed to idealized pictures of women it was obviously difficult to approach characters like Jotuni’s Augusta Aurell, who thirsts for life and love – yet fears them; or Joseph, a ‘soldier’ of the Salvation Army, who has clear but unconventional ideas about God and man.

The one-day novel

In 1909 the publication of a story entitled Arkielämää (‘Everyday life’) was an artistic breakthrough for Jotuni. In this story she takes us through a sunny summer’s day in a rural community in Savo, as seen through the eyes of the main character, a tramp who is called ‘the Priest’. The Priest is skilful both as a tinker and a mender of shattered human relationships. The whole work is dominated by the sureness of its realistic depiction and its life-loving spirit. The landscape is the familiar cosy background of the author’s childhood, but the story extends beyond the confines of a summer’s day in Savo into a acutely sketched picture of mankind and the world. People and human relationships are the aspects of life which particularly intrigued Jotuni. She was content to leave descriptions of the environment to visual artists. Frequently, however, a passing visual or auditory effect would catch her imagination and would be woven together with fantasy and reality to form the basis of her material. For her, the human voice could reveal the inner soul of the speaker, even when the words themselves could not be distinguished.

Distinguished dramatist

This sort of concentration on detailed observation of the individual has a natural affinity with dramatic expression, and it was as a dramatist that Maria Jotuni achieved her greatest artistic successes. Her plays have continued to be performed successfully in the theatre and have stood up to many new interpretations. Maria Jotuni was an avid theatre-goer as a student. Almost all her own plays were first performed in the National Theatre of Finland. It is probable that the author wrote for specific members of the company, particularly the comic roles for women. However, her first play, Vanha koti (‘The old home’, 1910), is a serious family drama in which the conflicts between the generations, the contrast between material and spiritual traditions and ancient folk beliefs are part of the dramatic interactions of the characters.

The years before the First World War were active ones for Maria Jotuni in both her private and her professional life. She married Viljo Tarkiainen in 1911 and in 1912 she gave birth to two sons, one born early in the year, the other the following Christmas. The establishment of a family seemed to give her even more energy for her writing. For a short period she made regular contributions as a critic to one of the leading daily newspapers, Helsingin Sanomat, and in 1913 she published a collection of short stories Kun on tunteet (‘When you have feelings’, see the excerpts here and here). The National Theatre produced Miehen kylkiluu (‘The rib of man’) in 1914 and Savu-uhri (‘Burnt offering’) in 1915. That year also saw the birth of a family tragedy, Martinin rikos (‘Martin’s crime’), and a children’s book based on a folk tale, Musta härkä (‘The black bull’).

The market-place

As if this were not enough, Maria Jotuni also managed at this time to contribute a column to Helsingin Sanomat. Under the pseudonym Nix she wrote light topical commentaries on the morals and manners of the middle classes, and on women’s problems – such as the lack of a cloakroom for women in the University, which led to the girls sitting in lectures in rumpled clothes and with uncombed locks. ‘This is very distressing for the little scholars,’ she commented.

As the wife of a university teacher and literary critic, Maria Jotuni was able to follow developments in the academic and literary world, but she herself seldom took any active part in events and despised formal occasions. She never attended meetings of the Society of Authors. When asked for her views on the literary controversies of the time – was such and such a thing relevant to the Kalevala Day celebrations, what should the role of the National Theatre be, and so on – her responses were brusque and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, she was not able to remain untouched by the storms of literary life. The 1920s in particular were difficult times for the art world, and the literary ranks had rigidly divided against each other.

Jotuni had an effective medicine against all this: her sense of humour. It had already enriched her early short stories, and its significance as an internal source of inspiration and as an explanation of life grew stronger with time. The side effects of the First World War, speculation, financial insecurity, man’s sense of moral futility, his sorrows, all provided subjects out of which grew the comedy Kultainen vasikka (‘The golden calf’, 1917). The main character is the quintessential new man, fully representative of the ways and times. ‘Life is a commercial commodity, love is a commercial commodity’, a view common to many of Jotuni’s characters. The play ends, nevertheless, on a note of optimistic, although not blind faith in human development.

Deathly farce

The Civil War of 1918 and its aftermath gave Jotuni an even greater interest in human relationships and their interdependence. She did not relate these questions to monumental events; on the contrary, she narrowed her field of vision, concentrating on subjects already known to her, such as the mother and child relationship. In her works she describes many different mothers, some happy and conscientious, others lonely and unaided, optimistic and hopeless. But all her children are the same: blessed, the promise-bearers, the enactors of our destiny. And their pain and unhappiness are therefore twice as great. Olen syyllinen (‘I am guilty’, 1929) is a major statement on this subject. The play is an attempt to give form to the particular problems arising from the Civil War, in a biblical setting.

The events which caused the greatest stir in Finnish cultural life during the 1920s were the preparation and presentation of Jotuni’s comedy Tohvelisankarin rouva (‘The wife of the hen-pecked hero’). The discussion that followed its production had wide reverberations. Whilst writing this comedy, Jotuni was much oppressed by thoughts of death: her mother had died as the play was reaching completion.

But she triumphed even in the game of death and loneliness. It is difficult to joke about death, but Tohvelisankarin rouva illustrates, from a philosophical standpoint, how life triumphs over death. The play is at times boisterously farcical, at others genuinely moving. It is about people who are seeking their own happiness in an everyday world; alongside the pettiness and ridiculous greed of the characters we see the author’s idealization of humanity. The play appears to have opened up for Jotuni a new understanding of her own ability as a writer, as well as a productive connection with the most modern trends in art and theatre. The play glows with the colours of an expressionist painting and glitters with the dramatic and farcical techniques of, say, a Pirandello.

Maria Jotuni herself did not think the play would be understood by her contemporaries – and she was right. Outraged discussion of the play even went as far as Parliament, where it was proposed that the National Theatre’s state subsidy should be withdrawn as a punishment for presenting plays which could corrupt morals. The play was met by rigid moralizing, obsessive concern with trivial details and condemnation by those who had neither seen nor read it. In a letter to Yrjö Hirn, who had not joined in the campaign of derision, Jotuni referred, with good reason, to this period as the ‘Neo-Middle Ages’.

Tragedy and comedy

By the late 1920s Jotuni was moving towards a new phase in her writing. In 1927 she published Tyttö ruusutarhassa (‘Girl in a rose-garden’), a stylistically more polished collection of short stories in which her juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy becomes more markedly individual. The appearance in 1929 of Olen syyllinen reveals the strength of the author’s ability to reveal man’s inner feelings in a large-scale tragedy. We also begin to sense more clearly the author’s tendency to fall into aphorism with her publication in the early 1930s of two collections of stories: Avonainen lipas (‘The open casket’) and Vaeltaja (‘The wanderer’). A third collection Jäähyvaiset (‘Farewells’) appeared posthumously. Fantasy and reality, the aims of art and literature, the lives of women: Jotuni’s reflections extended keenly and fearlessly into many different areas. ‘Marriage can be a dreadful shackle; fortunately, we are unaware of the seriousness of the fetter when we are young, haven’t the time to suffer over the cruelty of it when we are middle-aged and don’t even feel sickened by its scars when we are old.’

‘It would be no offence against good manners and rectitude to speak openly to our daughters about our experiences, were we not forced by practical considerations to keep them blinkered and to teach them to deceive themselves and others so beautifully that neither they themselves nor others are aware of it.

‘Some create, some imitate. Some create well, some badly; some imitate well, some badly. The most successful are the good imitators, the most unsuccessful the good creators.’

‘Is there anything which makes it worthwhile to live in such a difficult world? Yes, there is, but to tell the truth I don’t yet know what it is.’


During the early 1930s Maria Jotuni’s name was much in evidence. Miehen kylkiluu was translated into German and published in Lübeck; Vanha koti was published in Tallinn. In 1930, she was invited to become an honorary member of the Finnish Society of Authors, and that same spring she won first prize in a major Scandinavian short-story competition. The winning work, Jouluyö korvessa (‘Christmas in the backwoods’), combines the best elements of her work in the 1920s and 1930s. The story is a ray of light cast on a dark Christmas morning, revealing the breadth of Jotuni’s vision of humanity and her belief in man’s ability to triumph over adversity. The writer herself explained the background in an interview: ‘We read in the papers about murders and all sorts of strange happenings which we do not understand. These stories are about people like us, about the same crises and defects of soul. But the convolutions of a man’s soul can be seen more clearly if he lives in simple surroundings. The backwoodsman’s emotions are different from those of the complicated city dweller.’

Towards the end of her career, Jotuni turned her attention to the analysis of the uncouth underbelly of civilized society. In the 1930s she took part in Otava’s novel competition with her work Huojuva talo (‘The shifting house’). The enormous scope of the book did not match the expectations of judges and they awarded the prize to Auni Nuolivaara’s naive work called Paimen, piika ja emantä (‘The shepherd, the maid and the farmer’s wife’). Huojuva talo was not published until 1963, twenty years after Jotuni’s death. It brought about a profound reappraisal of her writings. The novel itself was exceptional both in quantity and quality. It is a massive six-hundred-page family epic in which middle-class life and the institution of marriage are depicted as a plague or curse on the human race. In the novel, Jotuni’s familiar confrontations between men and women, the conflict between individuals who are prepared to sacrifice anything in order to have a free rein for their own ambitions, are revealed here, stripped to the bone in an uncompromising light. Jotuni spares only the children, whose contrasting innocence and honesty only serve to stress the sordidness of most forms of human life.

The moral triumph

Huojuva talo has much in common with Jotuni’s last play, Klaus, Louhikon herra (‘Klaus, Master of Louhikko’). The play foreshadows the family unit which we meet in the novel. In 1941 it won first prize in a competition sponsored by the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Society of Dramatists. The play also deals with themes which appear in the novel, human motives and freedom, retarded development and duty, responsibility and unscrupulous selfishness. A woman, a mother, emerges as a strong, straight-backed and powerful figure, caught in a slowly revolving circle. With suffering and patience, she wins a victory, or at least finds the road to it. The play is heavy with the atmosphere of war and rich with Shakespearean imagery. It also stresses, as demanded by the times, a belief in the triumph of a moral and ethical world system. Nevertheless, its basic concept, the author’s vision of the contradictions of the human spirit rings true. Maria Jotuni attempted throughout her life, to describe and unravel the contradictions of the human soul – this occupied her mind until the day she died.

Translated by Mary Lomas


1 comment:

  1. Liisa Malkki

    Thank you! This was really subtle, informative, and interesting. Kiitos!
    Ajattelin sanan “huojuva” kaannosta: en ole varma mika olisi parempi vaihtoehto kuin “shifting”, mutta tama termi saa minut ajattelemaan taloa joka istuu hiekalla (shifting sands). Pikkuruinen detalji, mutta ajattelinpa mainita. Jokatapauksessa: nyt aion etsia Jotunin kirjoja.

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