Laura Bosch

Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Award Date


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Ruth Alexander


Martha Ostenso’s career as a novelist can be summarized as one of overnight success, loss of reputation, and finally obscurity. Still, her life, coupled with her fiction, provides a paradoxical and fascinating story. It might even be viewed as representative of the emerging consciousness of the American woman during the early part of the twentieth century. In 1924, at the age of twenty-four, she was awarded the highest sum ever granted a North American author for a first novel; by the time of her death in 1963, she was virtually an unknown and unreputed as a serious author. The following analysis traces the life of Martha Ostenso from the mountains of Norway, the land of her birth, to the plains of the Midwest, to the wilderness of Manitoba, to New York City’s Greenwich Village, and back to the lake region of Minnesota. Throughout the analysis the emphasis shall be on various factors that formulated her philosophic outlook and thus her fiction. The analysis attempts to answer why Ostenso’s fame was so brief, what prompted her to formulate the ideas that she expresses in her fiction, and why she chooses to write popular fiction rather than a more serious genre. The analysis is divided into five chapters, each of which explores a given aspect of Osteno’s development as a woman and as an author. The first chapter deals with Osteno’s family history and her early childhood. Here one sees Martha as the alienated child of an indigent immigrant father, then as a courageous adolescent who took any type of employment she could to elevate herself, including teaching in the Canadian wilderness, and finally, one sees Martha as the lover as one of her first English professors, Douglas Durkin, whom she follows to Greenwich Village and into a lifestyle far more liberal than that of her upbringing. The second chapter discusses some of the possible influences that Village life had on Ostenso’s consciousness and speculates on the possibility that the Bohemian atmosphere os the Village was the source of many of the “pegan” sentiments that Ostenso refers to throughout her writings. The third chapter explores some of the internal and external factors that let to her decline in fame—family pressures, unsympathetic critics, and a hapless stagnation of her creative energy; but most devastating of all factors that let to her demise appears to be a conscious or unconscious “death wish” that she shared with several of her contemporaries. The fourth chapter, “Idols of Love”, discuss the female protagonists of Ostenso’s first novel, Wild Geese—Lind Archer and Judith Gare. They represent a compromise between the Genteel Tradition of the late nineteenth century and the emerging “flapper” of the early twentieth century. It contrasts the traditional role of woman as chattel to her husband with the image of woman as a sexual being that was becoming acceptable to the popular mind during the first few decades of this century. The final chapter deals with the composite image of the Ostenso heroine that one gathers from all fourteen novels, with the emphasis on the heroines of Wild Geese (1925), The Young May Moon (1929), The Waters Under the Earth (1930), The Stone Field (1937), and The Mandrake Root (1938). These novels were chosen by this writer s the most integral, imaginative and readable of all the Ostenso novels. The Ostenso heroine emerges as a feminine ideal that represents one woman’s return to the archetypal female in quest of her identity as a twentieth century woman. For this reason, the Ostenso quest for self-actualization, which was influenced by such diverse sources as Northern European paganism urban Bohemianism of he twenties, and her own personal dream-like fantasies, makes her story of interest to any woman who seeks the integrity of the “self”.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Ostenso, Martha, 1900-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation



Number of Pages



South Dakota State University