(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The eternal smile is the smile of the skull, or the grin of the death’s head, as well as the expression of deity in its indifference to the living humankind from which it always distances itself. It is, in other words, something that in divinely preceding or physically surviving human life has nothing to do with actual human life. Life is its own unsmiling conception of itself. It encompasses human beings within its conceivability; the intensity of an individual human life is directly proportional to the individual’s experience of this conceivability.

As the dead in the story compare their previous existences, twenty-six brief biographies unfold. One of the dead who had been quite satisfied with earthly life is an old man, who took a menial job, handing out paper in a subterranean restroom, as a stopgap until he could find his real vocation. He discovered with the passage of years that the menial job was in fact his real vocation, so he determined to perform his task with perfection, and this resulted in his finding happiness in life. Collectively, the biographies invite the inference that life is its own, and the only, value.

The twenty-first tale is the most significant. A man relates his love for a woman who learned that her destiny was to die after she had borne a child. After she gave birth to his child and died, the man held the newborn infant to his breast, and as he did so he gained a sense of meaning—the realization that life...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

The Eternal Smile Bibliography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Linnér, Sven. “Pär Lagerkvist’s The Eternal Smile and The Sibyl.” Scandinavian Studies 37 (May, 1965): 160-167.

Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Work of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (Fall, 2001): 47-65.

Scobbie, Irene. Pär Lagerkvist: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1963.

Sjöberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Spector, Robert Donald. “Lagerkvist and Existentialism.” Scandinavian Studies 32 (November, 1960): 203-211.

Spector, Robert Donald. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973.

Swanson, Roy Arthur. “Lagerkvist’s Dwarf and the Redemption of Evil.”Discourse 13, no. 2 (Spring, 1970): 192-211.