Love, Sex and Gender: Estonian Decadence and Modernism in Nordic and International Contexts


This session underlines the dialogue between Estonian literature of first half of the 20th century and Nordic and International decadence and modernism. It consists of four papers, focusing both on iconic and marginal authors of the period: Marie Under, Leida Kibuvits, A.H. Tammsaare and Johannes Semper. Our aim is to open a possibility for a more nuanced discussion of gender in Estonian literary studies by shedding light on the historical and cultural contexts of the early gender narratives.

Finding inspiration from recent innovations in decadence and modernist studies (Mao 2021; Lyytikäinen et al 2020) that seek to re-discover the so-called peripheral cultures, including

Baltic and Nordic regions, we offer a fresh perspective on Estonian modern literatures and its interconnectedness with other Nordic and International cultures. Having in mind that Western-oriented audiences still lack a nuanced overview of minor literatures, we stimulate curiosity in the historical ideologies of gender and sexuality which shaped Nordic and Estonian decadent and modernist literature.

Nordic countries were seen, especially from the perspective of women’s emancipation, as the bearers of an egalitarian spirit. Such a view was also cultivated by the first Estonian cultural modernisers, who depicted Nordic women as progressive Women. Although Strindbergian “sex wars” proliferate in their works, Estonian decadents and modernists also allude to Ibsen’s “new women” and Ellen Key’s ideas about love, marriage and motherhood.

By engaging with this context, we ask how Estonian literary texts developed decadent and modernist styles to address the-then-sensitive questions of shifting sex and gender relations, and discourses on masculinity and femininity, and how this use of literary aesthetics and poetics can reveal something about the gender discourses in the Nordic region a hundred years ago and also today.


Mirjam Hinrikus is a Senior Researcher at the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and was Associate Professor of Estonian literature (2012-2017) in Tallinn University. She has been a co-editor of the only Estonian peer-reviewed gender studies journal Ariadne Lõng (2001-2006). She recently co-edited two books. Together with Pirjo Lyytikäinen, Riikka Rossi and Viola Parente-Čapková she edited a monography "Nordic Literature of Decadence" (Routledge 2020) and together with Jaan Undusk a monography in Estonian: “Armastus ja melanhoolia. Friedebert Tuglas´ ”Felix Ormusson”, 1915”, in the series “Seminars on Modern Estonian Literature”  (UTKK 2021). Hinrikus´ research interests include literary decadence and modernism, feminist and gender studies, cultural studies, theories of modernity and modernism, transnational theory, discourse analyses, cultural transfer (especially between Estonian and Finnish culture during the first half of the 20th century). 

Leena Kurvet-Käosaar is Associate Professor of Cultural Theory and the Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu. Her research interests include women’s engagement with different life writing genres and practices (the diary, correspondence, biofiction), the tradition of Estonian life writing, the culture and literature of the period of modernity. With Lea Rojola, she is the editor of Aino Kallas, Negotiations with Modernity (SKS, 2010).   

Eret Talviste is a part-time postdoctoral researcher at Tartu University and does equality work for Tallinn University in Estonia. She works with modernist writers, primarily with Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys whom she also studied in her doctoral thesis which she completed in Northumbria University in 2020. She has written various essays and reviews about intimacy, feminism, and literature for Estonian cultural magazines. Her academic articles have appeared or are about to be published in CAPACIOUS, English: Journal of the English Association, and The Journal of Baltic Studies. She currently works on turning her PhD thesis into a monograph for Edinburgh UP. Her new research focuses on Estonian female novelists in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Merlin Kirikal is currently a PhD-student in cultural studies at Tallinn University. In her doctoral project she analyses the oeuvre and reception of the Estonian writer Johannes Semper (1892–1970) and through that the gendered genealogy of Estonian modern literary culture. She is interested in feminist literary studies and the ways gender was historically constructed in European culture at the beginning of the 20th century.  She is working with various examples of Estonian literary decadence and modernism and also takes pleasure in writing literary criticism. 

Published Sep. 20, 2021 2:13 PM - Last modified Sep. 21, 2021 12:54 PM