In 1870 the novel Seven Brothers by the Finnish writer Aleksis Kivi
was published. Over time Seven Brothers has become one of the most
significant works of Finnish literary history, equalled only by
Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, when it comes to having the
status of a national classic.
How did Seven Brothers become a part of the Finnish literary
canon? What is its status nowadays? Do young people still read the book,
140 years after its publication? This paper will seek answers to these
Aleksis Kivi: A Short Biography
The writer we now know as Aleksis Kivi was
born with the name Alexis Stenvall on the 10th of October in 1834. He was
born in the village of Palojoki, which is located in the municipality of
Nurmijärvi in Southern Finland. He learned to read at the age of six, and
he was taught by Malakias Costiander (who later became the model for the
sexton teaching the brothers to read in Seven Brothers). In 1846,
at the age of 12, Alexis Stenvall went to Helsinki to attend school1 (Sihvo). One reason for going to Helsinki to
attend a bigger school was that Alexis' brother worked there and could
help Alexis if he needed assistance (Tarkiainen 55). The main point in
studying in Helsinki was to learn the Swedish language2, in which he eventually became fluent. (At the
time of Aleksis Kivi's school career, literature was mainly written in
Swedish.) School was hard for him, and being very poor and often hungry
did not help. He quit school in 1853 at the age of 19 and continued his
studies privately (Sihvo). He finally graduated from upper secondary
school in 1857 and began studying at the university in 1859. His studies
there were not regular and lasted until the year 1865; he never graduated
Alexis Stenvall started to use the name Aleksis Kivi in 1860, when he
published his play Kullervo (Sihvo). The reason for this was
probably his enthusiasm for "Finnishness" (Tarkiainen 73). The Swedish
word stenvall means "stone bank", and kivi is "stone" in
Finnish. He did not acknowledge "Kivi" as his real last name, but used it
in published works and even in his letters (Perttula).
Aleksis Kivi first started writing in the 1840s; he
wrote poems and short stories while studying. It has been reckoned that he
was already writing his short story Koto ja kahleet [Home and
Shackles] (published in 1878) during the years 1852-1855. In 1860, Kivi's
first version of the play Kullervo was awarded a prize by the
Finnish Literature Society (Perttula). Kivi wrote mostly plays, of which
the most famous are Heath Cobblers (1865), Karkurit [The
Runaways] (1867), Eva (1868) and Lea (1871). He also
published a collection of poems called Kanervala in 1866; his only
novel, Seven Brothers, was published in 1870. Altogether he
published 14 books: 12 plays, one collection of poems and one novel. His
works were published between the years 1864-1871, so his publishing pace
was quite rapid. He wrote all of his works in Finnish, which was quite
hard because at that time there was no tradition for writing literary
works in the Finnish language3 (Laitinen
Throughout his studies and his life, Aleksis Kivi suffered from
poverty. Most of his correspondence that has been preserved is about
money, debts and payments. The father of Kivi's fellow student, Julius
Krohn, paid for Kivi's studies because Krohn asked his father to do so,
and Aleksis spent some of his student years in the countryside in his
brother's house because he could not afford to live on his own. In 1863 he
moved to Siuntio, near Helsinki in Southern Finland, and lived there almost
continuously with a caterer named Charlotta Lönnqvist, who was 20 years
older than him and eventually became his patron. They knew each other
through a family connection (Laitinen 211).
Kivi was in love several times, but none of these relationships led to
marriage. The most speculation has been aroused by his relationship with
Charlotta Lönnqvist. He lived with her for several years, and it has been
debated whether it was just a motherly relationship or a radical romance
in its time between a young man and a significantly older woman (Kivi ja
Aleksis Kivi became very sick during his last years, but there is no
clear information on what kind of condition he was suffering from. The
diagnoses were very different at the time, and researchers have not come
to an agreement about what Kivi's condition would be called nowadays.
There have been different theories, including migraine, alcoholism,
nervous conditions, malnutrition, venereal disease and mental conditions
ranging from depression to schizophrenia (Kiven sairaudet). Kivi's health
broke down completely in 1870. He was hospitalised in 1871, and in 1872
his brother Albert took Kivi into his home to take care of him. Kivi spent
his last months in his brother's cottage and died on the 31st of December
in 1872 at the age of 38 (Sihvo).
Aleksis Kivi has been greatly acknowledged after his death; he has
come to be known as the Finnish national writer. There is a statue of
Aleksis Kivi in front of The Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki, and
other statues of him in Nurmijärvi, in Tuusula and in Tampere. The Aleksis
Kivi Society was founded in 1941 to uphold interest and valuation for
Aleksis Kivi and his work. The 10th of October is Aleksis Kivi Day in
Finland, a day when the Finnish flag is displayed. Several city districts
and streets have been named after him and the seven brothers of his novel.
'Seven Brothers': The Plot
It is not quite clear in the novel which historical period Seven
Brothers is situated in, but Eero Kiviniemi, a former professor of
Finnish language in the University of Helsinki who specialised in research
on names, claims that the time period in the book is sometime in the
beginning of the 19th century — before the 1860s, that is clear. The
scenes of the book are located in the southern parts of the historical
province of Häme in Southern Finland (100).
In the novel, seven brothers — Juhani, Aapo, Tuomas, Simeoni,
Timo, Lauri and Eero — are living in their house, called Jukola.
Their father had died earlier, and now their mother had died, too; the
brothers have become orphans. Even though all of the brothers are between
the ages of 18 and 25, they do not have proper skills for living in
society. However, they realise that it is time for them to find a place in
society and grow up, so they all go to a neighbouring house called
Männistö to propose to the young girl living there, whose name is Venla.
She turns every one of the brothers down.
The brothers go to school because none of them know how to read, and
to become an honourable member of society at that time, one had to be able
to read The Bible. They have serious troubles with learning — Eero
is the only one who is succeeding — and so they run off and get into
a fight with boys from Toukola, a nearby village. As a result of this, the
brothers fall out with the local authorities.
The brothers then decide that they will rent their house to a tanner
for ten years, and the next spring they move with their animals to
Impivaara meadow, far from other people, where they build themselves a
house. The brothers want to live alone in the wild, free of society's
During Christmas, the brothers celebrate and drink too much, and as a
consequence their house burns down. In the harsh cold of winter, they walk
back to Jukola and stay there until the spring. In springtime they return
The brothers stay in Impivaara for years. They clear the forest for
fields and do hard work. The brothers also learn how to make booze, and
they drink a lot. One day Eero and Simeoni are sent to town to buy food
for a feast, but they do not return for weeks. Finally Eero returns, but
refuses to tell what has happened. Some time later Simeoni returns, too,
and tells that he has met the Devil. (It is not revealed whether his
vision is true or a drunken hallucination.) Simeoni's vision frightens the
brothers, and they decide to change their ways and turn into honourable
citizens. They all learn to read; Eero, the only one who learned to read
when they were taught by the sexton, teaches the other brothers. They
abandon Impivaara and return to their home village, settle their
differences with the people they had antagonized, and eventually all the
brothers get married and have children, except for Simeoni, the most
religious of the brothers, who also often resorts to drinking; he stays at
Juhani's house with his family (Kivi).
Basically, Seven Brothers is a story about people who feel that
society and its restrictions are too binding. They want to be free and do
things their own way. The moral of the story, however, is that even though
society does have its restrictions, it also offers things that freedom
cannot offer and is a good system for people to live in. It is a story
about the brothers' growth from disobedient young men to respectable
citizens. Laitinen remarks that one key message is also that a person
should be allowed to advance on his/her own terms (219).
Publication and Reception
Aleksis Kivi is known to have been constructing Seven Brothers
already at the end of the 1850s (Laitinen 218), and he must have been
writing it through all of the 1860s (Sihvo). He is also known to have
rewritten the book at least three times (Laitinen 220). According to
Laitinen, the subject of the book is very unusual, as is the narrative
technique. Kivi uses a lot of direct dialogue (like in a play), through
which the personalities of the brothers become visible. The characters are
not described much in the narrative (218).
Kivi submitted the manuscript of the book to the editors of the Poetry
Committee of the Finnish Literature Society in spring 1869. (The reason
why he had submitted it to the Poetry Committee could have been that
because there was no real Finnish literature before Seven Brothers,
there might not have been a committee for literature.) He was very
confident about his book and was aware of the originality of his work
(Laitinen 220). When the publication of the book was initially delayed, in
frustration he wrote a now-famous note to the editors: "Do whatever you
think is for the best; I myself will never abandon the brothers, even if
you find the book utterly insignificant. I will not remove one page from
it . . ." (Tarkiainen 371, translated by the author).
In October 1869, the Poetry Committee published a positive statement,
saying that it would be a great shame for Finnish literature if the book
was not published. However, they also said that the book contained grammar
mistakes. Aleksis Kivi was paid 700 Finnish marks for the book, but he had
to give 100 marks to a proofreader named Julius Krohn to correct the
manuscript. (However, Krohn eventually gave the money back to Kivi,
because he knew of his constant financial problems; after all, he had
helped Kivi already in school.) In 1870, Seven Brothers was
published as four booklets (Lehtonen 235-237). The reason for the
publication as four booklets is unknown.
After its publication in 1870, August Ahlqvist, a Finnish writer and
scholar and a very influential person in his time, wrote a review of
Kivi's book that severely criticised it. Ahlqvist wrote for example:
Ahlqvist also criticised Kivi's book because
it contained fighting, words of abuse, curses and brutality. The Finnish
Literary Society became alarmed at Ahlqvist's review, and immediately a
discussion started over whether the publication of Seven Brothers
had been a mistake and whether the single-volume version that was being
projected could be published without censoring. The Poetry Committee took
offense at the attitudes presented by the Society and gave a statement
where it spoke up for Kivi's book and said that the Finnish Literature
Society should not take part in the persecution of the book. They also
requested that if the Society decided not to publish the book as such, the
members of the Poetry Committee would resign. Despite this statement, the
release was delayed for three years; Seven Brothers was only
published as a single-volume book in 1873 (Lehtonen 248-255).
It was not a fortunate moment when the
Finnish Literature Society decided to publish this book, for it has
brought rebuke to the Society, pity and laughter to Mr Kivi, and rebuke,
pity and laughter upon Finnish literature (in Lehtonen 238,
translated by the author).
The book is unfortunately foolish and a disgrace to Finnish
literature. It also meanly dishonours the Finnish common people, for the
writer alleges that the portrayals are natural (in Lehtonen 248,
translated by the author).
Ahlqvist's review was not the only time that he attacked Kivi. He kept
criticising him even after Kivi had died, even though Ahlqvist relented as
he became older in his criticism of other writers of the time. Still he
wanted to make sure that Kivi's works would never become famous parts of
Finnish literature (Lauerma 140).
There were also positive reviews of the book. Elias
Lönnrot4, for example, when the Poetry
Committee asked for his opinion, said that he thought the book was an
accurate description of reality with all its coarseness.
Moreover, Eliel Aspelin, a young graduate, gave a lecture in 1872
about the life and production of Aleksis Kivi. His lecture was later
published and has since become famous. The lecture was welcoming; he
praised Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers, for example, for the way
nature is depicted and for Kivi's original humour. Aspelin became one of
Kivi's vigorous defenders (Lehtonen 256-273).
Because of the negative attention brought to Aleksis
Kivi by August Ahlqvist's review, which Lehtonen describes as a ruthless
and unreasonable denigration of Kivi's work without understanding or
sympathy (238), Kivi, already being weak and ill, became utterly
devastated5. He felt that people were
criticising his book because of Ahlqvist's review, even if they had not
read the book themselves. (Some had not even read the review; they had
just heard about it.) He felt that no one was buying his book and that
after this negative attention, no publisher would want to publish his
works in the future. Even though there were positive reviews, Kivi did not
think much of them. After this, his health deteriorated, and he died in
1872 — the year before Seven Brothers was finally published
as a single book in 1873 (Lehtonen 256- 257).
Even though there were people who valued Seven Brothers already
at the time of its publication, the main opinion then seemed to be that
the book had little significance. So how did it become one of the most
significant — if not the most significant — book in Finnish
The Merits of the Book and the Valuation
Viljo Tarkiainen's Work
Tarja-Liisa Hypén, a teacher of Finnish literature in the University
of Tampere, says that one of the most important factors behind the status
of Aleksis Kivi and Seven Brothers is the work of Viljo Tarkiainen.
Tarkiainen was a literary critic and a professor at the University of
Helsinki. He did extensive study on Aleksis Kivi and his works, which was
to launch the whole field of literary research in Finland. At the centre
of Tarkiainen's work was Aleksis Kivi and his works. Tarkiainen's research
included his doctoral thesis on Seven Brothers, published in 1910;
in 1915 he published a biography of Aleksis Kivi called Aleksis Kivi,
elämä ja teokset [Aleksis Kivi, life and writings], which Hypén claims
to be the most significant biography of an author ever published in
Finland. In this biography, Tarkiainen canonises Kivi's novel as one of
the most important books in Finnish literature.
Hypén claims that Seven Brothers is a highly multidimensional
book which touches on many themes. This makes it an ideal book for
literary research, because it can always be studied from a new angle as
the paradigm in the literary research changes (Interview).
First Novel in Finnish
Another very important reason for the
high status that Seven Brothers now enjoys is that it was the first
novel written in Finnish6. There had been
some attempts at writing a novel in Finnish before Kivi, but none had
borne fruit (Hypén, Interview). Kivi had practically no examples on which
to base his work; even as a poet he chose a very different kind of style
from his contemporaries, and as an author he had no tradition to guide
him, since there was yet no tradition for literature in Finnish (Laitinen
212). Furthermore, there was not only a lack of tradition in Finnish
literature, but also a lack of tradition in literary Finnish. Since
Finnish had not been used in literature before, there was incongruity
between the norms of dialects, Old Literary Finnish7 and the newer forms of literary expression
(Lauerma 134). Kivi had an enormous undertaking in front of him when he
began writing in Finnish.
Kivi's language was highly influenced by Biblical language and
Western-Finnish dialects. His writing contains many features from both
older and newer literary language of his time. Kivi's language was one of
the things that August Ahlqvist kept criticising; he found the
dialectic influence disagreeable and noted that Kivi's book contained a
lot of language mistakes (which it did). Ahlqvist wanted to make sure with
his criticism that Kivi's language did not become common as a means of
literary expression; according to Lauerma, he succeeded in this. Kivi did
not have influence in the development of literary Finnish, but he did turn
out to be unique linguistically (Lauerma 139-140).
The Linguistic Uniqueness of 'Seven Brothers'
Aleksis Kivi's language in Seven Brothers was considered unique
at the time, and it still is. What is this unique language like?
Aleksis Kivi uses a lot of ceremonious language in the speech of the
brothers. The brothers often refer to common, everyday things in a pompous
way, which often contains elements of church language or The Bible. For
example, when Aapo comes up with the idea that all of the brothers must go
and propose to Venla, he says: "If we do this, the bright spirits of our
mother and father will step through the radiant gates of heaven to stand
on the brink of a shining cloud and shout loudly: 'So Juhani, so Tuomas
and Aapo, so Simeoni, Timo and Lauri, just so, my little Eero! Now are you
sons dear to our hearts!'" (Translated by Richard A. Impola). This
flamboyance used in the wrong situation is often a source of humour in the
Kivi also uses a lot of humorous similes in Seven Brothers.
These similes often connect unexpected things together, but Kivi uses them
skilfully to illustrate the speaker's experiences. Good examples of this
are the following:
Kivi also twists words around a lot in
Seven Brothers. He often used humorous versions of words in the
speech of the brothers, like aapelus instead of aapinen
(primer) or napamuija (belly button lady) instead of kätilö
(midwife). He also uses alliteration, such as panis niin pitkin
pakaroja että pläikkyis. Further, he also uses a 'crooked' word order
(e.g. non-standard syntactical structures that helped him emphasize
different sentence parts that otherwise would not have had the emphasis he
desired), which often makes sentences musical and picturesque; the
language of Seven Brothers is highly poetic (Tarkiainen 440-445).
Unfortunately many of these unique features, like the alliteration and the
word twists, are not visible in the English translation, because they are
virtually impossible to translate.
Venla's spinning wheel is humming like a
happy dung-beetle on a summer evening, forecasting sunny weather (Kivi
Tell it to us, and I'll listen as still as a fish when a frog
is croaking (Kivi 88). [A literal translation of this would be "I will
listen silently as a roach listens to a frog nagging".]
A Highly Finnish Book
Seven Brothers is often considered to be a highly Finnish book
in the sense that it depicts Finnish people insightfully, even if it is
not quite clear whether the book is famous for being particularly Finnish
or whether it has started to be considered Finnish because of its success.
Either way, Finnish people often find the brothers to be extremely Finnish
in nature and tend to identify with them. However, Hypén speculates
whether Finns might have adopted much of this thought culturally, for
example through school teaching. She says that much of this attitude has
been created as the book was being transformed into a national classic; it
has subsequently become a certain myth that is not questioned, for how
could a book be a national classic if it did not describe the people of
that country? Hypén does not deny that the book is distinctively Finnish,
but she does doubt whether all of the Finnish attitude comes from the book
If a national classic should describe that nation's people, the
question does rise, however, how Finnish women identify with a book that
has seven male main characters and women only in minor parts? Hypén claims
that there is actually a feminine side to the brothers too. She finds
several turning points in the book to be emotionally touching, and these
emotions probably appeal to women. An example of this would be a scene at
the end of the book where Eero's wife sings a lullaby to their child, and
Eero is touched by her singing and shows unusual tenderness towards her.
Hypén also notes that in literary history everywhere, writers and main
characters have mainly been men. This is something that women have
accepted and adapted to (Interview).
A Unique Portrayer of Nature
Viljo Tarkiainen claims that Kivi was a master at depicting nature. He
even claims that there are not many authors on the world scale who were as
talented in this sense as Kivi. Kivi used both the Romantic and Realistic
style when depicting nature, but his style also includes Impressionistic
elements. Kivi does not use nature merely as a factor (like the cold
winter that makes life hard), but as a background for the atmosphere. As
an example of this, he uses thunder as a background when the brothers are
terrified of their superstitious illusions about the apocalypse.
Kivi also uses nature to depict moods. Joy is presented as morning
sun, longing as a languishing autumn night, hope as dawn and desperation
as a dark, eternal night.
Kivi was also very accurate when depicting nature. He was exact about
compass points and distances between places that actually exist. He also
described plants and animals with great precision. This precision also
applied to other elements, such as domestic animals and tools. However, he
did not just make lists of everything in the milieu, but brought details
up as the story progresses, giving a very realistic image of the scenes
The Beginning of Realism: Kivi Becomes a Model
Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers — being very different from
other literature of its time — started a new era in Finnish
literature. This book opened the doors for Realism to pervade Finnish
literature. Before this, the prevailing trend had been a certain Natural
Romanticism that had been sparked by Kalevala (Tarkiainen 469).
Hypén adds to this that Kivi became a model for future writers for a long
time. He was a model for Pentti Haanpää, for example, a famous Finnish
realist writer from the 1920s to the 1950s. Literary talents who had
something in common with Aleksis Kivi were supported because Kivi's style
was what people wanted. Hypén says that Kivi follows as a shadow
throughout Finnish literary history, which actually had begun with
Seven Brothers (Interview).
The Humour and the Appeal to People
Kivi uses a lot of comedy in Seven Brothers, but Tarkiainen
quickly points out that Kivi's humour is never bitter; it's benevolent. He
shows how the brothers, being peasants, do not understand the life of
townspeople and thus wonder "why they do not even know how to lick their
spoons after eating". Laughter is also constantly present in the book;
according to Tarkiainen, it is highly contagious to the reader. The book
is also very suitable for people of all ages because Seven Brothers
does not deal with themes that could offend someone, such as sexual
Pertti Lassila points out that even though Kivi portrays peasants in a
humoristic light, he does not ridicule them or portray the patronising
attitude of the upper class towards them. The book brought peasants into
literature as strong characters, and this elevated their self-respect
because peasants had not really been in main parts in Finnish literature
previously. Lassila adds that Seven Brothers has a rare status in
Finnish literature because it appealed to uneducated people, but also to
the most unprejudiced portion of the educated people. Thus literature
which was written in Finnish linked to the Finnish people from the very
start and it inspired subsequent authors who emerged from the lower
The Rich Folklore
Kivi uses a lot of oral folklore, a field he knew very well, in
Seven Brothers. In the book, one can find old beliefs, references
to stories about giants, fairy tales, dreams, hunting stories, a legend, a
mock sermon, rhyming folksongs, mocking songs, a lullaby and lots of folk
sayings. Järvinen also acknowledges that Kivi's fictional world in
Seven Brothers is very accurate and helps one to understand the
world of folklore. Järvinen even goes on to claim that Kivi has been able
to portray the meaning of oral folklore so aptly in Seven Brothers
that folkloristic studies which have appeared after Kivi's time have just
confirmed the facts that Kivi observed.
In Seven Brothers, the stories that the brothers tell are often
sparked by objects in nature — such as stones or trees — that
remind one of the brothers of a story that he then goes on to tell
(Järvinen 91-98). This includes such introductions as:
Tarkiainen also points out that the story of
the pale maiden that Aapo tells his brothers (a story of a maiden who is
captured by a monster who drinks all her blood, but in the end is saved by
her beloved one, who takes her to heaven) is probably the most thoughtful
story that has ever been written in Finland (405).
There's the pine stump where I once fell
asleep while tending the cattle and where I dreamed a wonderful dream…
It is that strange and frightening stone that gives such
a sad echo to the sound of the church bells… (Kivi 55)
National and International Success
In the 1910s, when Finnish literary research took off during the
nationalistic fervour which eventually led to Finnish independence a few
years later, Kivi was considered to be highly Finnish and a great example
of Finnishness, because there was a strong enthusiasm for all things
"Finnish" as a counterpart to the russification influences from Russia.
Hypén claims, similarly, that Kivi is also very international. He was
well aware of and influenced by the most recent Western literature of his
time. In the 1990s, internationality became an extremely important issue
for Finland, because after the Soviet Union fell, Finland no longer felt
pressured by its Eastern neighbour, and opened up more to Western
countries. Finland joined the European Union in 1995. To promote
Finland, Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers became a certain symbol of
Finnishness that was easily approachable also to non-Finns (Interview).
Indeed, Seven Brothers has been translated into 34 languages
(Käännökset: Seitsemän). The translations have been criticised, however.
The question has been raised about how much of the personal language of
Kivi can actually be translated, because of the playfulness of his
The Survey: Do Young People Know 'Seven Brothers'?
Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers has a well-deserved status of being a
Finnish literary classic, but often the case is that it is exactly the
classics that are not read.
Satu Grünthal, lecturer in the didactics of Finnish language and
literature in the University of Helsinki, has written that every Finnish
student who graduates from upper secondary school should have read
Seven Brothers, among other Finnish literary classics. Her opinion
is based on a German educational tradition according to which being a
citizen of a certain nation requires knowledge of that nation's cultural
heritage (126). But do younger Finnish people actually read Kivi's book?
Do today's Finnish upper secondary school graduates — 140 years
after the book's publication — know Seven Brothers?
Survey Methodology and Procedure
To gain an initial insight into this question, a small survey was
conducted among students on the campus of the University of Tampere. The
survey did not concentrate on how much people knew or remembered of the
book, but more on whether they had read the book at all, and if so, how
they had come to read it and whether the book holds any interest to them.
To make sure that all of the interviewees were upper secondary school
graduates, the survey was conducted among university students on the
university campus. As background information, the students were asked
their age and the city where they had completed upper secondary school.
The questionnaire then proceeded to the first question: whether the
student had read Seven Brothers. If the answer was "yes", questions
about how the interviewee came to read the book were asked. If the answer
was "no", the interviewee was asked whether the book was, however, part of
their curriculum at some point of their school career, and whether they
had become acquainted with the book through some other forum, such as a
theatre production or a movie. A copy of the survey sheet is included as
an Appendix to this paper.
A total of 50 people were interviewed for the survey. For gender
balance, an equal number of 25 women and 25 men were interviewed. Among
all interviewees, the average age was 23.7 years, the oldest interviewee
being 32 years old and the youngest being 19-year-olds. The average age
among women was 22.4 years, and among men it was 25.0 years. The
interviewees had completed their upper secondary school studies at
different locations around Finland, from Lapland to Southern Finland.
The first question, which was asked of all interviewees, was whether
the interviewee had read Seven Brothers. A total of 35 people (70%)
answered yes. Among women, the number was 20 (80% of all women), and among
men, 15 (60% of all men).
To those who answered "yes" to the first question, the second question
was whether they had read the book in school (comprehensive school or
upper secondary school) or on their own initiative. Of all of the 35
people who had read the book, 32 (91%) had read it in school. One person
(3%) had read it on a course in university. Only two people (6%) had read
it on their own initiative. Among women, 19 (95%) had read it at school
and one (5%) at the university. Among men, 13 (87%) had read the book in
school and 2 (13%) had read it on their own initiative.
The 33 people who had read the book in school or university were asked
whether they would consider reading the book, or whether they believed
that they would already have read the book if they had not had to read it
as a part of their curriculum. Of the 33 people, 31 (94%) answered "yes"
and 2 (6%) answered "no". Among the 20 women who had read the book in
school or at the university, 18 (90%) answered "yes". Among the 13 men,
the number was 13 (100%)
The people who answered "no" to the first question were naturally
asked a different set of questions. The first question in the set was
whether the book was a part of their curriculum even if they had not read
it. Of the total of 15 people who had not read the book, four (27%)
reported that the book was a part of their curriculum and six (40%)
reported that it was not. There were five people (33%) who were not sure.
The second question was whether the interviewees who had not read the
book had become acquainted with it through some other forum, such as a
theatre production or a movie. In total, eight people (53%) answered
"yes". These four women constituted 80% of the five women who had not read
the book, and the four men constituted 40% of the ten men who had not read
The last question was whether people who had not read Seven
Brothers would be interested in reading the book at some point in
their life. Out of the total of 15 people, five (33%) answered "yes",
eight (53%) answered "no" and two (13%) answered "maybe". Among the five
women who had not read the book, four (80%) answered "yes", and one (20%)
answered "no". Among the ten men, one (10%) answered "yes", seven (70%)
"no" and two (20%) answered "maybe".
Conclusions Drawn from the Survey
The fact that 70% of all interviewees had read the book clearly
demonstrates, by extrapolation, that most Finnish upper secondary school
graduates have indeed read Seven Brothers. The number of people
having read the book was higher among women alone (80%) than among men
alone (60%), but still the percentage is over 50% in both groups.
It is also clear from the results that the main reason
why people have read it is because of their school curriculum. The facts
that 91% of the people who had read the book had read it as a part of
their studies before they graduated from upper secondary school, and that
one further interviewee (3%) had read it as a part of her university
course, show that 94% had not read the book on their own initiative. Among
those who had not read the book, only 27% reported that the book was a
part of their curriculum even if they had not read it. Those who were not
sure of their curriculum comprised 33%, and those who did not have it as a
part of their curriculum comprised 40%.
Only 6% had read the book on their own initiative. These numbers
clearly show that the great majority read the book as a part of their
curriculum; only two people had read it by themselves8. Also a majority of those people who have
not read the book did not have to read it in school, and thus did not
read it on their own, either.
The results also indicate that the interest towards the book seems to
be considerably higher among the people who have already read the book.
When these people were asked whether they would be interested in reading
the book if they had not already read it in school, 94% answered "yes".
When people who had not read the book were asked whether they would be
interested in reading the book at some point in their life, only 33%
answered "yes"; 13% answered "maybe" and 53% answered "no".
Among those who had not read the book, over half (53%) had become
acquainted with the book through some other forum, such as a theatre
production or a movie. It would seem that people who had not read the book
still run into the story and may even know it fairly well even if they
have not read the original novel. It could also be that many have, instead
of reading the book for a school assignment, just watched the movie
version published in 1939. They might also have seen a theatre version of
the book, as Seven Brothers is a staple of summer theatre
repertoire throughout Finland.
'Seven Brothers': An Undeniable Finnish Classic
Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers has truly earned its place in the
Finnish canon. Even if August Ahlqvist's opinion initiallly slowed its
reception, Seven Brothers was eventually acclaimed to be a highly
distinguished novel, and for good reason. The book has many merits —
its original humour, its aptness in depicting the Finnish peasant life in
its time, the rich folklore and the wonderful way in which nature is
depicted. But even if the book had not been so distinguished in these
areas, it would still deserve attention for being the first novel ever
written in Finnish. Aleksis Kivi took on an immense endeavour when he
started writing his book without the benefit of any example or model; he
started the Finnish literary tradition from nothing.
Even though it has been 140 years since the book was published, young
people in Finland still know it relatively well. Most people have
reportedly read it, and even though it seems that the tradition of reading
the book is primarily maintained by the Finnish school system, most of the
respondents to the survey for this paper expressed a clear interest in the
book. They feel that it is a classic that "needs to be read". And, as the
survey suggests, even if a person had not read the book itself, it is
likely that he/she will still be familiar with the story. How could they
not be; Aleksis Kivi is, after all, the national author of Finland.
- It has often been dramatised that leaving for school was
quite bleak for Alexis Stenvall, but many boys from the countryside went
to study in the capital city of Helsinki, and there is no indication that
this had been any more traumatising for Stenvall (Sihvo). (back)
- Finland was a part of Sweden from the Middle Ages to the
year 1809, so Swedish culture has powerful roots in Finland; Swedish is
still one of Finland's two official languages. (back)
- Finnish culture had been strongly dominated by the Swedish
language up until the year 1809, when Finland became an autonomous Grand
Duchy of Russia. Furthermore, there was a censorship order from 1850 to
1860 that forbade everything except religious and economic literature
from being published in Finnish. (back)
- Elias Lönnrot was a very influential person at the time.
He collected the Finnish national epic, Kalevala, edited several
dictionaries, and was the publisher and writer of the first magazine
written in Finnish. (back)
- Ekelund reports that none of Aleksis Kivi's friends dared
to come forward and defend him, even though he wrote letters to them.
Conversely, many took Ahlqvist's side (102). This must have been another
reason for Kivi's final collapse. (back)
- The first novel published in Finland was a book in Swedish
called Murgrönan [The Ivy] (1840) that was written by Fredrika Wilhelmina
Carstens, a Finnish writer who wrote in Swedish. (back)
- "Old Literary Finnish is defined as the form of written
Finnish that was used in the period between the publication of the first
book printed in Finnish (Mikael Agricola's ABC produced in the 1540s) and
the year 1810, which marked the start of the battle between the Western
and Eastern Finnish dialects." (Old Literary Finnish) (back)
- The second person of the two people who had read the book
on their own initiative mentioned that the book was also a part of his
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Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1997.
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opettajankoulutukseen. Kirjan matka tekijöiltä lukijoille. Ed.
Tarja-Liisa Hypén. Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2007. 124-133.
- Hypén, Tarja-Liisa. [Ph.D. and teacher of Finnish literature in the
University of Tampere.] Personal interview. 20 April 2010.
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Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2009. 91-99.
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Viewed 17 March 2010.
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Viewed 19 May 2010.
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kulttuuripalvelut. Viewed 19 May 2010.
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sivistyneistö ja kirjallisuus 1800-luvulla. Helsinki: Gaudeamus
Helsinki University Press, 2008.
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rajalla. Tulinuija: Aleksis Kiven seuran albumi. Ed. Jaakko
Yli-Paavola and Pekka Laaksonen. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden
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Viewed 3 March 2010.
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