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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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1022 words.)

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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 darkness as the result of a connection with Jesus. The procurator, whose slaves they then become, orders Sahak to be crucified because he will not deny Jesus as his God. Barabbas readily does so, and is spared.

The procurator, taking Barabbas with him, retires to a luxurious estate in Rome. Barabbas gets to see the city during marketing errands. He explores the Catacombs, another realm of death, and emerges from them to the light of the city in flames. Lending his help to the arsonists, whom he mistakenly thinks to be Christians lighting the way for Jesus’ return, he is apprehended and, along with many Christians, including Peter, crucified. His arson is a would-be act of faith, as opposed to his acts of love in burying the harelip girl and sorrowfully witnessing Sahak’s execution. As the faith of the harelip girl and that of Sahak led to their deaths, so the momentary faith of Barabbas leads to his. As he dies, he commits his soul, ambiguously, either to Jesus or to the darkness.

The ambiguity of the commission owes to a complex of four words: som om (as if; as though), själ (soul), and andan (breath, spirit):

When he sensed the approach of death, that of which he hadalways been so afraid, he spoke out into the darkness, as [som]though [om] he were addressing it:  —To thee I surrender my soul [själ].  And then he gave up the ghost [andan].

The idiom andan may mean “gave up the spirit” or simply “expired.” Barabbas, thinking that he was surrendering his soul, merely died in the darkness. At the beginning of the novel, Jesus is shown to give up the ghost (andan) after crying out to the God who has forsaken him. If Lagerkvist emphasizes Jesus’ dying without his God and Barabbas’s dying without his Jesus the Light, then in his narrative, both Jesus and Barabbas may be seen to expire as humans and not as, respectively, divine savior and one who wishes to be divinely saved.


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Barabbas is the criminal whose release was contingent upon the death sentence of Jesus. In Lagerkvist’s novel Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and senses that his life and newly gained freedom are defined by a world of darkness and an impulse toward death. He is puzzled by the faith of Jesus’ followers and disturbed by their certainty that Jesus is the son of God. He tries to embrace and experience their faith but he cannot.

He detects a curious distance in three persons who were close to Jesus. Jesus’ mother does not weep at her son’s execution and seems to reproach him for dying in innocence. Peter, a big, red-haired, blue-eyed disciple, has denied Christ and needs reassurance. Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrected, is not happy in his resumed life; his gaze is empty, and in answer to Barabbas’s question about what death is like he replies: “The kingdom of death is nothing. But for those who have been there, everything else is also nothing.” Many years later, Barabbas envisages Lazarus dead for the second time, his skull grinning in the eternal darkness.

Two persons who are close to Barabbas, a harelipped young woman and a man named Sahak, have faith that Christ is their savior, and both die as martyrs. The harelipped woman was the mistress of Barabbas. Sahak was his fellow prisoner and slave in the Cyprian copper mines. Both loved Barabbas, and both appear to fulfill their lives, not so much in the secure anticipation of eternal life as in realizing Jesus’ doctrine of mutual love. Peter also seems to find his great peace more in his love of Christ and of his fellow Christians than in the prospect of eternal life.

Lagerkvist established his preference of love to eternity in “The Eternal Smile” and in his essay “Stridsland, Evighetsland” (1934; “Land of Conflict, Land of Eternity,” 1988). In the essay he says this explicitly. Like his Barabbas, he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus; like his Barabbas, he looks at the kingdom of the dead and finds that “there is nothing there” for him: “My inner being rises up in pain, because I am alive; my spirit tries to break its shackles, my thought to find an answer to something about which it can only ask questions, something which it is given the power to agonize and brood over.”

The brooding Lagerkvist has his Barabbas brood over the kingdom of death, first as Lazarus describes it and then as it appears to him in the copper mines of Cyprus and in the catacombs of Rome. On the point of entering death’s realm—Barabbas is crucified, along with Peter and other Christians—he makes his death his own, existentially, by making the only choice left to him. He identifies himself with his death. He exemplifies as well the authentic refusal to blame anyone but oneself for what befalls one, including one’s death.

Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is a recipient of love. That he himself has the capacity to love is shown in his respectful care for the corpse of the harelipped woman and in his vigil at the death of his crucified friend, Sahak. That he does not realize this capacity is clear in his failure to close the distance between himself and those who love him, until it is too late, and in his inability to understand the commandment, “Love one another.” It remains for Lagerkvist’s pilgrim, Tobias, to realize that love is the foundation of being human.

Lagerkvist followed Barabbas with his novel Sibyllan (1956; The Sibyl, 1958), in which the wandering Jew leaves the Crucifixion scene and seeks the meaning of life and death. The wandering Jew finds his great peace in Lagerkvist’s novel Ahasverus död (1960; The Death of Ahasuerus, 1962), the first novel in the Pilgrim Trilogy, also known as the Tobias Trilogy. The other novels in the trilogy are Pilgrim p havet (1962; Pilgrim at Sea, 1964) and Det heliga landet (1964; The Holy Land, 1966).