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With Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist initiated a series of novels that illustrate his personal doctrine of religious atheism, a profound nurture, through human love, of the divinity that lies within individuals.

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The story has three geographical settings, each of which features a dramatic contrast of light and darkness and a graphically depicted crucifixion. In Jerusalem, Barabbas comes out of the darkness of prison into light to witness the crucifixion of Jesus; on the island of Cyprus, Barabbas and his fellow-prisoner Sahak come out of the darkness of a mine into sunlight, and Barabbas witnesses the crucifixion of Sahak; in Rome, Barabbas ascends from the darkness of the Catacombs into the firelight of Rome and is himself crucified.

Emerging from the darkness of prison, Barabbas sees Jesus in a blinding light. His eyes become accustomed to the light, and although he discerns a strangeness in Jesus, he sees him as only a man standing in the light: He will not come to see Jesus as the God who is the Light. Lagerkvist’s chiaroscuro plays on darkness as death and on light as both truth and falsity—the truth of love and the falsity, or delusion, of faith.

His life having been spared at the expense of the life of Jesus, Barabbas returns to his former habitat and to his coarse and rowdy companions, among them the fat woman, who, as his mistress, welcomes the heightened sensuality with which he tries to efface the memory of Jesus and to ignore the claims made by Jesus’ followers, including the big red-haired, blue-eyed man, that Jesus is the Son of God. His former mistress, the harelip girl, likewise claims that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah.

Uncertain and disturbed by their claims, Barabbas seeks from the disciples information about the nature of their faith, and they reluctantly attempt to instruct him. They send him to a man whom Jesus resurrected. The man, clearly the Lazarus of the Gospel according to John, assures Barabbas that Jesus has brought him back to life and explains that the realm of death exists but is, in fact, nothing. Barabbas had not believed that Jesus rose from the dead but instead assumed that Jesus’ followers had simply removed their master’s body from the tomb; he does not, however, dispute the reality of Lazarus’s resurrection. The reader is free to infer that Lazarus has been in a coma: The four days and four nights in the tomb are mentioned, but not the putrefaction (John 11:39). Barabbas accepts Lazarus’s return to life as a fact but is unsettled by the account of the nothingness of death and by Lazarus’s insistence that, for one who has been dead, everything else is also nothing. The episode may be interpreted as follows: Leaving a life not fully lived and being reborn into it is to exist in a void.

The harelip girl is stoned to death for her faith. Barabbas buries her and returns to a life of brigandage in the hills. It is revealed that he, when young, had killed his own father, whose name, Eliahu, contains the element Eli-, meaning “God.” Barabbas, whose name means “son of the father,” may be seen, figuratively, as a patricidal son of a father/God, reversing, in a kind of balance, the figure of Jesus as a son of a father/God who has abandoned him to death.

In his apathy and alienation from his former associates, Barabbas himself becomes a kind of Lazarus, for whom nothing is anything any more. They are relieved when he leaves them.

The narrative then jumps to the later life of Barabbas. On Cyprus, he is condemned to work in the perpetual darkness of a copper mine, chained to an Armenian Christian named Sahak, the name being a variation of Isaac and recalling another significant father-son relationship. Sahak’s prayerful Christianity wins the interest of a replacement supervisor, who brings him, along with Barabbas, up to the light to work in a flour mill. Once again, Barabbas is spared death’s...

(The entire section contains 1680 words.)

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