How does Selma Lagerlöf's short story "The Rat Trap" show the essential goodness of humanity?

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belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Rat Trap" concerns a beggar who sometimes sells rat traps, but more often is forced to beg or even steal to stay alive. The rat trap man believes that he is forced to do whatever it takes to survive because the world is like the rat traps he sells; it offers bait that only results in a man being beaten down by the system. However, he experiences goodwill from several people: first, an old man takes him in out of the cold and shares his supper, fire, and tobacco; the rat trap man responds by stealing the old man's money. Later, he is mistaken for an army friend by the Ironmaster of the large Ramsjö Ironworks, and despite his protestations (he wants to avoid being caught) he is convinced to come in for Christmas Eve by the Ironmaster's daughter, Edla. Although the Ironmaster soon realizes that the rat trap man is not his old friend, Edla insists on allowing him to stay. After discovering that he is a thief, the Ironmaster and Edla are surprised to find that the rat trap man has left behind the stolen money and a rat trap:

Honored and noble Miss:

Since you have been so nice to me all day long, as if I was a captain, I want to be nice to you, in return, as if I was a real captain: for I do not want you to be embarrassed at this Christmas season by a thief; but you can give back the money to the old man on the road-side, who has the money pouch hanging on the window frame as a bait for poor wanderers.

The rat trap is a Christmas present from a rat who would have been caught in this world’s rat trap if he had not been raised to captain, because in that way he got power to clear himself.

Written with friendship and high regard,

Captain von Ståhle
(Lagerlöf, "The Rat Trap,"

The rat trap man believes at first that all the world is against him, that he is unable to succeed because of inherent unfairness and the trickster nature of fate and bad luck. When he has a good experience, it is followed by a worse one, as if the first was intended to trick him into relaxing his guard. Even when people are nice to him, he takes advantage of them for personal gain. However, this outlook is shaken and then broken by the ceaseless altruism of Edla, who takes him in, allows him to bathe and dress in nice clothing, and to sleep and eat as much as he wants; this even after she discovers that he is not an old friend of her father. Her compassion changes his mind, and he leaves with the knowledge that not everyone demands something in return for favors or kindness; Edla treated him no differently than she would have treated "a captain," a respectable man fallen on hard times, and so the rat trap man became inspired to reflect her kindness by changing his ways. He signs the letter with the name of the Ironmaster's old army friend to show that he is trying to live up to the name of the man who, inadvertantly, allowed him the chance to change.

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