Lucky Per

Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943)
1898-1904 Se tidslinje

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006


Novels are about many things, but almost always they are also about love, and this is certainly true of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per. The principal character, Per, is the type who quickly puts his childhood, family and provincial home town behind him, because he thinks he has the potential to conquer the world. When he leaves home, all he takes with him is a great big engineering project that is going to transform Denmark once and for all from a sleepy peasant country into a fine-tuned industrial machine. 

Good-looking country boy 

Women don’t hold much interest for him, however. Except if they stand in the way of his project or if they may be able to promote it, and in that case by how many million. In a way this becomes Per’s destiny, for he is very good-looking.

The girl in the window across the street blushes, the maid cuddles his pillow and a merchant’s wife yanks down the V of her dress. But it is only when two sisters from a wealthy Jewish family start fighting over him that the erotic game really begins. For example, the following sentence portends the younger sister’s attack: “Catching sight of Per she stopped and with calculating slowness let her white fur cape slip down to expose her shoulders”. 

War and love 

Strictly speaking both sisters find Per both boorish, embarrassing and his clothes anything but elegant, but when after a strenuous run he stands sweat- drenched in front of the elder sister, she falls for him so hard that it echoes through Copenhagen. This means war! Per is both fascinated and repelled and the same goes for the two sisters who also do what they can to attract and reject other men in their mutual power game.
It takes Henrik Pontoppidan more than 600 pages to decide which girl is to take Per home as her prize, but Per is as stubborn as a mule and wants to make up his own mind. Whether this is good or bad is for the reader to decide. 

Science practitioners such as the engineer became the new heroes of literature. The Limfjord Bridge on the opening day of July 8, 1879. From Illustreret Tidende. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Den faste Bro over Limfjorden paa Indvielsesdagen den 8de juli 1879
Henrik Pontoppidan as an engineering soldier. 1890. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.

Did you know?

Source: Henrikpontoppidan.dk.

Today, one is still searching for new energy sources, as the present is most likely to be running out. In the 1970s, by the North Sea, a number of experiments were made, which were supposed to result in a so-called river power plant that uses the wave impact from the sea as an energy source. The author of this idea? Lucky Per, who in the novel describes a similar project quite extensively, a long time before any living person had come to the idea.

The Committee's justification

By the committee for Literature, 2006

“For he now understood that he was indeed born to be the trailblazer who would rouse this slothful nation with its progeny of clerics and sacristans.”

Lucky Per is a novel about a young man who travels out into the world to fulfil his personal objective: to be a “conqueror”. The period is the late 19th century, a time when industrialisation was on the march in Denmark and traditional but powerful nationalist romantic and Christian viewpoints struggled against the revolutionary advance of science. In protest against the constraints of his religious family home, Per chooses to study to be an engineer, and for many years lobbies for his major project: a series of canals and harbour systems connected to a new port on the west coast, which will compete with Hamburg. He also has plans to exploit the ocean’s wave energy.

His engagement to the daughter of a rich family offers him the opportunity to travel abroad to study. It seems that Per will exploit any means possible. Even love itself becomes a means to an end. Later Per begins to doubt himself, as if what he has inherited from his childhood past, something he left behind, still holds truths of his existence that cannot be avoided.
Through the life of Per, Henrik Pontoppidan paints a comprehensive picture of Denmark and its people in a time of upheaval. He also questions personal identity and the very foundation of an individual’s existence. He does so with psychological insight, on a canvas of nuanced characters and sharp irony. In the history of European literary realism, Lucky Per is a milestone.


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