- Per Hansa – The male protagonist of this novel is the true pioneer, the man of action. To him, the prairie is something to be conquered by work, and more work. While he loves his wife and children, he is fundamentally interested in what he can do with the virgin soil of this new land, for the land-hunger of the European peasant is strong in him.
He is a strong man, and he is above all an optimist who believes that so long as he labors hard enough in this new world, all things will come to his beloved family. He is also an inventive man — -the duck nets and the sod-house-barn combination are notable examples of his inventiveness. He is also a shrewd man, well suited to the frontier life, and except for the setbacks from nature, one who loves the life.
We are not told too much about his past in Norway, but it is clear that at one time he was a fisherman in the Lofoten Islands. This fishing area, where cod and herring abound, is located above the Arctic Circle, and the fishermen must perforce be a very hardy lot. Per Hansa and his best friend, Hans Olsa, are just that. And yet both of them are finally destroyed by the elements. The irony of his end is that he takes off on his last journey against his best judgment only to please his wife and best friend, and we can deduce that he feels the undertaking is hopeless.
Per Hansa is overall an admirable character, although perhaps not one that a sensitive person would like; his final act is one of the highest heroism-and it is as always a physical one.
- Beret Hansa – Per Hansa's wife is the complete antithesis of her husband. She feels that she has sinned through her love of Per Hansa, and in the long brooding hours on the Dakota plains her mind gives way. She cannot share in Per Hansa's delight in the newborn son, Peder Victorious — symbol of Per Hansa's faith in his new environment. Beret sees nothing but devils and trolls around her, and every minute on the frontier is an ordeal.
True, the lot of a frontier life was a hard one, but Beret makes it harder by her brooding introspective nature, her sense of sin, and her hunger for the Norway that she had left to follow her husband to a new land. Rölvaag's portrayal of this tortured woman is a masterful study into the deep recesses of the soul. The reader at first glance will not find Beret a sympathetic character, but a further study will reveal that she is truly a tragic character and more to be sympathized with than castigated. In the end, she destroys unknowingly the one thing she loves dearly — her husband. We are not told what happens after Per Hansa's death, but one can only imagine that Beret will again descend into her dark world of despair.
- Hans Olsa – The giant that is Per Hansa's best friend is also a true pioneer, but lacking the imagination and incentive of his comrade. He has also been a Lofoten Islands fisherman, and physically he is every bit a match for Per Hansa, and yet, we gather that he lacks the drive of the latter. Materially, he is the best off of the settlers, and this is possibly one reason why he does not try as hard. Also, towards the end of the book, he loses his pragmatic outlook and longs for spiritual comfort, to a point where he is willing to sacrifice his best friend in order to try and find it. There is nothing weak about Hans Olsa, and he is a true pioneer, but he is not in a class with Per Hansa.
- Tonseten – Syvert is a rather complicated character. While on the surface he is a weakling, clinging to his wife Kjersti for comfort, and on his friends Per Hansa and Hans Olsa for physical help, he is nonetheless a man of some conviction and courage. The very fact that he is on the prairie is proof of this. He is also a man of considerable ingenuity and knowledge, as attested to by his ability to reap and to brew beer. Tönseten seems to realize his own weaknesses, but tries to bluff his way through life.
- Sorine – Hans Olsa's wife, differing from Beret, is the kindly type that can take any way of life so long as she is with her husband. While she may not be happy in the wilderness, it is enough for her that she is maintaining a household.
- The Minister – A wandering Norwegian minister, who is apparently a Calvinist, he is never identified by name. Rölvaag depicts him as a rather complex character, who on one hand is a fundamentalist out to save souls, and on the other a very human and sympathetic character. His understanding of Beret's problem, and of the deep sorrow this brings to Per Hansa, is a very touching thing. The minister is a real man of God, in the best sense of the word.
- False Perceptions of American Frontier– The main action of Giants in the Earth centers of the conflict between Per and Beret Hansa. While Per dreams of building success for his family in America, Beret cannot adapt to the new environment. One of Rölvaag's primary goals in the novel is to realistically portray the struggles and hardships of the pioneering immigrants in America. This exploration offers Rölvaag an opportunity to rethink the frontier myth of nineteenth-century America. In the spirit of manifest destiny America, the pioneer settlers saw the frontier West as the embodiment of opportunity, possibility, and optimism. The frontier myth celebrated the American West as a "promised land" where the settlers could live happily ever after.
- Rölvaag overturns this myth, detailing the daily life of the settlers in order to debunk the fairy tale of the frontier as a land of instant prosperity. Early in the novel, as the characters build sod homes and toil the land, Rölvaag shows that the prairie is a brutally real place, not a mere mythical conception. As an immigrant himself who knew first-hand the difficulty of building a new life on the prairie, he realistically chronicles many of the hardships that the pioneers face. Throughout the novel, the characters battle the elements of nature (storms and a plague of locusts), their own psychological demons (Beret's depression), and each other—conflicts that represent the lengthy catalog of challenges that many immigrants faced.
- Giants in the Earth is not a celebration of American manifest destiny; instead, it is a tragedy that reveals the human cost of the immigrant experience. Beret, who embodies this cost, represents the antithesis of the frontier myth; she is unable adapt to life in the New World and longs to return to her native Norway. She feels homesick throughout the novel, as she does not enjoy living in America and fears the unknown perils lurking on the prairie. Beret's depression and mental illness and Per's death represent the sacrifices the immigrants made to achieve their dream in America.
- Costs of Immigration– In his novels, Rölvaag is primarily concerned with immigration. In Giants in the Earth he explores the cost of this immigration, showing that success in America does not always compensate for the loss of a homeland. Indeed, loneliness, displacement, and alienation were sober realities in the experience of millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century. The Norwegian immigrants in Rölvaag's novel feel displaced in America because they do not know the native language or possess any filial ties to the land. Some of the immigrants, such as Beret, are simply unable to adapt to their new land because, in their strange new land, they feel uprooted from everything once dear to them. Beret's homesickness, depression, and mental illness represent the psychological toil many immigrants suffered. Her psychological conflict appears to its full extent in the chapter "The Heart That Dared Not Let in the Sun," in which she remembers her home and family back in Norway.
- Rölvaag himself deeply believed in the sacredness of one's heritage, and in his own life he taught Norwegian language, literature, and history as a professor in Minnesota. He appears to sympathize with Beret and her resistance to the increasing Americanization of her friends. When the Norwegian settlers learn English and decide to adopt more pleasing American last names, only Beret objects. The minister serves as another spokesman for Rölvaag's beliefs, preaching to the settlers that they should not forsake their past.
- Per and Beret represent two opposing aspects of immigration. Per represents the hopes and optimism of the immigrants who dream of achieving success in America, the land of opportunity. Beret, on the other hand, embodies the cost of immigration in that she represents everything the immigrants lose coming to America. Through Beret, Rölvaag depicts the angst of uprootedness, the sense of loss and alienation immigrants suffer when they surrender themselves to a new culture.
- Man vs. Nature – The land is an important element in Rölvaag's novel, and therefore it is no surprise that the relationship between humans and the environment is a major topic of exploration. Throughout the novel, especially in the first pages of Book I and Book II, Rölvaag portrays the prairie as an important character and a powerful force—in fact, we may even argue that the prairie is the most important character in the novel. In narrative asides, Rölvaag frequently describes the landscape, emphasizing its vastness and desolation. The emptiness of the land haunts Beret the most she cannot bear the fact that on the empty prairie "there isn't even a thing that one can hide behind."
"Tish-ah!" said the grass. "Tish-ah, tish-ah!" Never had it said anything else—never would it say anything else. It bent resiliently under the trampling feet; it did not break, but it complained aloud every time—for nothing like this had ever happened to it before. ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 1
“When the quarrel had finally worn itself out they had found themselves at opposite ends of the earth, though lying side by side in the same bed.” ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 144
“Here was the endless prairie, so rich in its blessings of fertility, but also full of great loneliness–a form of freedom which curiously affected the minds of strangers, especially those to whom the Lord had given a sad heart.” ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 43
Life [the prairie] held not; a magic ring lay on the horizon, extending upward into the sky; within this circle no living form could enter; it was like the chain enclosing the king's garden, that prevented it from bearing fruit. How could human beings continue to live here while that magic ring encompassed them? And those who were strong enough to break through were only being enticed still farther to their destruction.. ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 47
Per Hansa to Hans Olsa:
For you and me, life out here is nothing; but there may be others so constructed that they don't fit into this life at all; and yet they are finer and better souls than either one of us. She is a better soul than any I've ever met. It's only lately that I have begun to realize all she suffered since we came out here. ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 189
His face was ashen and drawn. His eyes were set toward the west. ― Giants in the Earth, pg. 203
Gregory Zankowsky ’19