Selma Lagerlöf Essay - Critical Essays

Selma Lagerlöf Long Fiction Analysis

Although Selma Lagerlöf wrote many distinguished novels, her countrymen have always considered the first to be her masterpiece. Whatever other merits later novels have—and they are more sophisticated in plot construction and theme—none compares to Gösta Berling’s Saga for sheer concentration of vitality and idealism. The paeans of praise to Värmland’s landscape and the detailed knowledge of Sweden’s natural history, hallmarks of Lagerlöf’s prose style, first appear here.

Gösta Berling’s Saga

As in later novels, the narrative voice in Gösta Berling’s Saga is more prominent than those of the characters. The narrator is a storyteller; the raconteur never fades unobtrusively into the background. A reader knows that he or she is but a listener: The teller will make the story and say what it signifies. Characters do not, as in more realistic fiction, resemble living persons with lives of their own; rather, they are like marionettes, pulled up to their feet to dance only when the storyteller commands. One would never speculate about what a Lagerlöf character might be thinking when that character is not in the immediate scene. Characters, because they are so fully bound to the scenes in which they appear, simply do not exist when they are not “onstage.” In Lagerlöf’s novels, an air of reality surrounds the story but not the individual characters in it. In turn, the reader must listen, accept as final what information the narrator provides, and, above all, agree to be entertained.

The opening scene of Gösta Berling’s Saga is characteristic of Lagerlöf’s epic sweep, her comic tone, and, particularly, her eccentric character portraits. Gösta Berling, a young pastor, mounts the pulpit and pauses momentarily for inspiration, giving his congregation time to notice his exquisite features. His voice grows rich and strong as his images of God’s glories ring through the chancel. At sermon’s end, he has convinced the visiting bishop of his extraordinary merit; Gösta’s triumph is particularly notable because on the previous Sunday he was not in church, nor was he there for many Sundays before that—each time he had been too drunk to preach. This day appears to be his redemption. One of Gösta’s overzealous drinking companions, however—fearing that the bishop might still dismiss GöstA&Mdash;takes the bishop on a carriage ride over ditches and half-plowed fields, counting on physical coercion to accomplish what the brilliant sermon may have fallen short of accomplishing. Hearing of his friend’s misplaced loyalty, Gösta despairs of his future as a preacher and runs away. When next seen, he is stealing a sled loaded with grain from a child in another village.

In Lagerlöf’s novels, human destiny is prey to violent turns of the sort Gösta’s takes; the sheer speed with which a woman loses her beauty or a pastor becomes a derelict gives the work the flavor of fairy tale or allegory. This is particularly true in this first novel, in which Lagerlöf was finding a style suitable to her Carlylean vision. Her later novels possess a greater aura of realism but operate essentially on the same premises.

Gösta is rescued by the Mistress of Ekeby, the pipe-smoking, gracious, and powerful owner of seven mines and hostess to a group of pensioners. She makes Gösta one of her cavaliers. (This situation is based on an actual custom prevalent in Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars, when families on the great estates often did take in war veterans who had little to do. They were given room and board in exchange for their appearance at social functions in the district. A cavalier was expected to sing, dance, or be socially charming in some other way.)

Although the novel does have a plot of sorts, the power of the story is primarily its ability to render the life at the manor houses of a Sweden that was vanishing during Lagerlöf’s childhood. The beautifully embellished descriptions of great balls and sleigh rides suggest a nostalgic longing for a life more elegant in manner and more mythic in perception than that of later eras.

The main body of Gösta Berling’s Saga loosely centers on Gösta’s reformation as he endures his humbled station as a pensioner. Gösta, “the strongest and weakest of men,” is the center of provincial society, winning the affection of four of the district’s loveliest women. The gentle influence of these good women and the subtler chastening of the Almighty lead Gösta from his impetuous youth to the verge of maturity.

The bildungsroman begins on Christmas Eve, when the cavaliers—Gösta signing for them—make a pact with Sintram, a jealous blacksmith who comes to the cavaliers disguised as the Devil. Sintram’s predictions of doom are realized when the cavaliers take over the estate, bringing it to the brink of ruin through their wild dissipations and neglect of the industries. In turn, the district is blighted; unemployment, drunkenness, and general stagnation reign. In the novel’s terms, God’s Storm Year breaks over the countryside.

Nearly every main character—most are treated in separate vignettes—suffers a life-changing tragedy or loss, and these events represent a kind of spiritual cleansing. In the end, Sintram is arrested, and the Mistress of Ekeby returns home to die.

The thirty-six chapters of the book divide roughly into three sections. The first is dominated by Gösta’s love affairs and the prosperous days the cavaliers enjoy before Ekeby slides toward destruction. The second section, centered on the sorrowful fate of the Countess Elizabeth, records the ongoing brilliant exploits of the cavaliers against scenes of impending doom. The cavaliers are in the background in the third section, which features great crowd scenes, emphasizing the desperate plight of the people during the year of devastation. This desolate course is altered at last by the noble Lennaert, who gives his life to defend a group of children and women. In the end, the chastened Mistress of Ekeby dies peacefully, and Gösta sets forth with his new wife to rebuild the district’s fortunes.

In Gösta Berling’s Saga, as in all of Selma Lagerlöf’s novels, dramatic scenes of daily life give way to mythical, epic moments or insights. Neither mode prevails for long, and it is the tension between them that is the hallmark of Lagerlöf’s style in this early novel. No event, however small, is conceived apart from the metaphysical claim that God’s Storm Year has broken over the land. The morality implicit in such an idea emanates with epic force from natural causes—wind, storms, ice, and blizzard—and from the lake, invoked by the narrator as the district’s guardian muse. Handsome Gösta is little more than a human embodiment of the same idea.


In the two-part novel Jerusalem, Lagerlöf employs another native Swedish setting but peoples it with sober, pious Dalecarlian peasants, profoundly unlike their lighthearted counterparts from Värmland. In their ability to see visions and interpret dreams, and in their earnest regard for life, the Dalecarlians resemble Old Testament Hebrews. While it is the narrator in Gösta Berling’s Saga who gives voice to mythical and epic components at work, in Jerusalem it is the characters themselves. Many have the power to see from one world into the other, and they pass easily between the two. The point of view in this novel is more specifically religious but is as undoctrinaire and humane as the one in Gösta Berling’s Saga.

The first book opens as Ingmar Ingarsson is plowing his fields, engaged in contemplation. His farm is prosperous and the activity salutary, but Ingmar has much on his mind. Several years before, Ingmar’s fiancé, Brita, troubled because the wedding she never wanted had been postponed until “after the christening,” ran away, gave birth to a child, and strangled it. After years in prison, she is due to be released, and Ingmar must decide if he will meet her. After “deliberating” with his dead father and making a conscious decision not to meet her, Ingmar nevertheless brings Brita home, and the two share a long, happy life. Ingmar and Brita’s children become the central subjects of the second half of the first volume.

Even while Ingmar is still living, various fundamentalist religious sects spring up within the district. Efforts are made to counteract the movement, but to little avail. Hellgum, the husband of one of the Ingarsson daughters, forms one communal society. Another daughter is convinced to join when a paralysis she has suffered is miraculously cured as her little daughter is about to wander into a fire. In a scene reminiscent of the God’s Storm Year motif from Gösta Berling’s Saga, a cataclysmic storm, known as the Wild Hunt, breaks over the district one night, convincing many doubters to join the sect.

The group of believers, to the great sorrow of their families, decides to go to Jerusalem to live in closer concord with their beliefs. The departure of the group breaks up the community, splits homes, and parts lovers. One of the most powerful scenes is the final one in the first volume, in which the train of pilgrims sets forth, leaving their ancestral homes. Lagerlöf said she modeled this portion of the story on the Scandinavian sagas; the profound attachment to the soil and the determination visible in the lives of the simple farmers are depicted in heroic terms.

The Holy City

Volume 2, The Holy City, is set primarily in Jerusalem. It opens with an imaginary dialogue between the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that summarizes the long history of the country, which once was fertile and flowering and now is barren, once was a center for many religions and now is cruelly divided between competing religious factions. Much of this book is devoted to a history of the colonists, who eventually reach a deeper understanding of their purpose in Jerusalem when young Ingmar arrives and encourages them to...

(The entire section is 4156 words.)