The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Wishing as she did to trace the process of her own adolescent discoveries, Lagerlöf undoubtedly chose the diary form for her autobiographical account so that she could speak with the voice of the young, innocent girl she had been at fourteen. That voice dictated the style, with its simple language, its sense of immediacy, its references to unexamined folk wisdom and parental warnings, and its bursts of emotion, expressed in half sentences and in exclamation marks. Although young Selma is inexperienced, she is intelligent, and therefore in the tradition of the naive observer, she relays impressions which the more experienced adult reader, like the writer herself, often finds more significant than the young girl had realized at the time.

When Selma boarded the train for Stockholm, she brought with her from Mrbacka much useful invisible baggage. As a child, she had always felt loved and secure. Furthermore, she had been reared in a devout atmosphere, with a clear sense of the reality of God and with a well-developed awareness of the difference between good and evil. Unlike most fourteen-year-olds, she already knew that she was to become a writer, and therefore she was intensely conscious of the operations of her own imagination, a faculty which enriched her everyday life but sometimes brought with it some confusion about the line between reality and illusion. Like all adolescents, Selma had begun to be uncertain about her real identity and even more uncertain regarding whether she was attractive to others; removed from the warmth of Mrbacka, she was even more nervous because of her physical handicap. As the book proceeds, however, it is clear that Selma has been well equipped to deal with the world. She reveals herself as a young girl with character, intelligence, and imagination, and even if the adult reader did not know of the honors which awaited her, he would be more confident of young Selma’s future than the unsure fourteen-year-old herself.

No account of adolescence would be complete without the story of the young person’s first infatuation, which the writer recalls tenderly but humorously in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. On the way to Stockholm, Selma meets a handsome student from the University of Uppsala, a young man who is particularly appealing to her because he seems to find her far more interesting than her older brother Daniel does. After the meeting, the student takes an important place in her imagination and even influences her behavior. When he catches a glimpse of her in Stockholm and blows her a kiss, Selma discards her grumpiness and assumes a new cheerful, kindly self. Later, seeing the portrait of a prince who resembles the student, she persuades herself that her student is really a prince. This invention delights her until she discovers that the student is engaged; at this point her unhappiness is intense, and only an imagined act of goodness toward the student makes it bearable.

By now, it is clear that through her infatuation Selma has been learning some truths about life—for example, that love, intensified by the imagination, can bring pain as well as pleasure. Clearly, she has assumed that her feeling for the student is like a childish game, which she could indulge or dismiss at will. Yet when she encounters the Ragtag-Froken, a real adult driven mad by love, Selma realizes that love is serious business and concludes that it may be just as well if the student does marry someone else. Still, Selma continues to think of him as a real prince and is somewhat cheered by his fiancee’s obvious unhappiness, which may forecast a breakup. Only at the end of The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, when Selma goes to Uppsala, does she face reality. Although the student and his fiancee have broken off their engagement, Selma is no closer to capturing a prince. She has seen the student with his parents, and now she realizes that they are quite ordinary people; furthermore, instead of finishing his law studies to begin a climb up the social ladder, the student has decided to become a poor rural pastor. Somehow he no longer seems so exciting, and the infatuation disappears. At this point, Selma realizes how easy it would be to let...

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