August Strindberg’s novels constitute a striking illustration of the dialectical relationship between life and art. Strindberg truly lived for his art; he consciously ordered his life in such a manner that he might obtain material for his fiction, much of which was narrated in the first person. This has led several critics to overemphasize the bizarre aspects of his books and to hold that he was mentally ill when in reality he was only experimenting with his sanity. Such is especially the case with two intensely autobiographical novels, The Confession of a Fool and Inferno. There can be no doubt, however, that Strindberg’s art also profoundly affected his life. Popular successes, such as The Red Room and The Natives of Hemsö, brought him considerable fame and enabled him to improve his standard of living, while The Confession of a Fool, which was a fictionalized account of his marriage to Siri von Essen, did much to seal the destruction of that marriage. In Inferno, Strindberg deliberately led the reading public to believe that he, the author, was identical with the novel’s vacillating and easily frightenedprotagonist, who with justice was considered mentally ill. Strindberg thus consciously injured his personal reputation for the sake of his art, for he knew that the aesthetic effect of the book would depend on the reader’s identification of author and narrator-protagonist during the reading process. Even the lighthearted The Natives of Hemsö, which Strindberg thought to be his sanest book, took its toll on the personal affairs of the author. Strindberg had used as models for some of his characters certain people then living on Kymmendö, an island near Stockholm where he had spent many happy summers. His models were offended, and Strindberg was never again welcome on the island.
An important question, therefore, is what it was that drove Strindberg to exploit so ruthlessly both his own life and the lives of those who were close to him. Part of the answer has been suggested by the American Strindberg scholar Eric O. Johannesson, who has proposed that the fundamental theme of Strindberg’s novels is the author’s quest for identity. This quest, according to Johannesson, takes the form of an exploration of both the author’s own self and the human psyche in general. There is little doubt that Strindberg’s desire for truth, along with his need for recognition as a man of letters, was a powerful motivating force behind his artistic activity.
Strindberg’s originality as a thinker did not, however, match his quality as an artist, and in his search for truth he relied heavily on ideas that had been generated by others. Constantly in step with the literary and intellectual avant-garde, he tested the validity of the various ideas and standpoints of his age as they became available to him. His development as a novelist thus closely parallels that of European intellectual history. He began as a realist and naturalist who in The Red Room criticized social conditions in Sweden. In the stylistically seminaturalistic The Natives of Hemsö, the social satire is absent; its humorous and detailed description of life in the skerries has made it one of Strindberg’s best-loved books. The Confession of a Fool is likewise heavy with naturalistic detail, but there is also a strong interest in individual psychology that manifests itself in the “battle of the brains” that is taking place between Axel, the book’s narrator, and his wife, Maria. The same emphasis on psychology is found in By the Open Sea, the protagonist of which is virtually a Nietzschean superman who succumbs only because he possesses the one fatal flaw of allowing himself to be influenced by a woman. The novel Inferno , with its interest in mysticism, religion, and other aspects of the supernatural, places Strindberg squarely within the neo-Romanticism...
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- Critical Essays