Johan August Strindberg was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 22, 1849. His father’s background was in the middle class, while his mother was of working-class origin. Although Strindberg later romantically referred to himself as “the son of the maidservant”; he was, in fact, clearly reared in a middle-class environment.
Strindberg was reared around the business of his father, a steamship agent, and early developed an appreciation for the sea, especially the Stockholm archipelago, which was to become the setting for two of his most important novels, The Natives of Hemsö (1887) and By the Open Sea (1890). Not intended by his father to become a businessman, however, the young man received his matriculation certificate in 1867 and soon thereafter settled in as a student at the Uppsala Universitet.
Academic life was not entirely to Strindberg’s liking. He was only intermittently a full-time student and for a time earned his living as a tutor and as an elementary schoolteacher. During this time, he wrote some minor plays. In 1872, he abandoned his university studies and became increasingly serious about his writing. A prose drama titled Master Olof (1872) was the first evidence of this new literary seriousness, but as the play was not performed for some time, Strindberg had to make ends meet by working as a journalist and assistant at Stockholm’s Royal Library. In 1875, Strindberg met Siri von Essen, then married to Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel, and the two fell in love. Siri obtained a divorce, and they were married in 1877.
Strindberg’s breakthrough as a writer came in 1879 when he published The Red Room, which is considered to be the first truly modern novel written in Swedish. The book’s protagonist is the young writer and journalist Arvid Falk, who, as he attempts to come to terms with society, experiences the hollowness and deceit of a variety of institutions: the government, the Church, banking, charitable organizations, higher education, the arts, book publishing, and the insurance industry. Falk, whose experiences in many respects parallel Strindberg’s own, is an idealist who gradually loses his illusions.
After the success of The Red Room, Strindberg was able to move his family to France, where he would spend a considerable portion of his life. In 1884, he published the first of two volumes of short stories entitled Married (1884, 1886). Provocative even today and extremely offensive to many at the time of their publication, all of these stories deal with the relationship between the sexes and the position of women in the home and in society. One of the stories was found by the Swedish authorities to be disrespectful of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and Strindberg had to return to Sweden to stand trial on a charge of blasphemy. He was acquitted.
Strindberg returned to Scandinavia and settled in Copenhagen in 1887, where his Naturalistic drama The Father (1887) was soon to be performed. The conflict in this play is between a man, a Captain, and his wife, Laura, regarding the upbringing of their daughter. The conflict becomes extremely bitter, and Laura finally gains the upper hand by causing her husband to doubt that he is the father of the child and by making it appear that he is insane. The Father is Strindberg’s most poignant dramatic treatment of what he viewed as the irreconcilable differences between the sexes.
In the same year, Strindberg published his most popular novel, The Natives of Hemsö, in which he utilized memories from an island in the Stockholm archipelago where he had spent several summers. Regarded by Strindberg as an “intermezzo scherzando,” it is a well-told story with colorful and uncomplicated characters.
Before returning to Sweden in 1889, Strindberg had finished one of his best-known plays, Miss Julie (1888), and had completed the manuscript, written in French, of his novel The Confessions of a Fool (1888), for which his marriage to Siri had furnished the raw material. The theme of Miss Julie is the breaking down of old class distinctions, as the hereditary nobility is in both physical and social decline, while the lower classes are beginning to assert themselves. Miss Julie, the daughter of a count who owns an estate and the main female character in the play, is seduced by her father’s valet Jean, a scheming rascal. As Julie is too delicate to be able to integrate her instincts into her self-image, her only option is suicide.
The Confessions of a Fool is not considered one of Strindberg’s finest literary works of art, but it is nevertheless one of his most interesting books. It shows clearly both what the author’s larger project was all about and to what length he was willing to go in order to achieve his...
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