(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Barabbas Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Barabbas Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At Golgotha, Barabbas, watching the Crucifixion from which he was suddenly saved, is startled by the words uttered by the figure on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Even stranger to him is the darkness that seems to come over the world. As he is leaving the scene, he is also disturbed by the look of silent reproach directed at him by the dead man’s mother.

Back in Jerusalem, he meets and walks with a young girl, whom he knew before. The girl, who has a harelip, goes with him to a dive where some of his low companions are gathered. Barabbas and the people there discuss Barabbas’s rescue and the strange rabbi who made such extreme claims and yet permitted himself to be crucified like a criminal. Barabbas is considerably relieved that the people in the café do not believe in the rabbi’s divinity, although he is troubled that they did not notice the darkness that for a while hung over the land. After the young girl leaves the dive, Barabbas indulges, as a kind of escape from his worries, in a drunken debauch with one of the patrons of the café—a fat, crude woman.

Later, Barabbas meets a red-bearded follower of Christ who expects Christ to rise from the dead the next day. He explains some of Christ’s teachings to Barabbas but shamefacedly admits that before the end he denied Christ. The girl with the harelip, to whom Barabbas also talks about Christ, says that she met him. She is wilder in her predictions than is the red-bearded man; she expects the millennium and divine miracles at any moment. Superstition does not blur everything, however, for she tells Barabbas that Christ’s message is one of love. Barabbas thereupon goes to the grave; he watches all night but sees nothing. The next day, however, the stone is gone from the entrance. He believes that the followers of Christ have taken the body; the girl thinks he had risen.

Barabbas asks the followers of Christ about these events but finds little satisfaction in their answers. He cannot understand one who uses his power by refraining from using it. Barabbas is later taken to a man who was dead four days and was raised again by this rabbi. This man tells Barabbas that death is nothing; it is there, but it signifies nothing. He adds that after one experiences death, life also is as nothing. As Barabbas further questions the followers of Christ, it becomes clear that although they are believers, they are quite confused as to the meaning of all of these happenings. When the followers learn Barabbas’s identity, they naturally hate him.

About this time, Barabbas becomes estranged from his fellows in the low life of Jerusalem—so much so that he resigns himself from sensual life. The fat woman, his sometime lover, thinks that Christ’s soul has possessed Barabbas. One day, by accident, Barabbas is present at a church meeting and hears a rather disappointing sermon by the red-bearded man who denied Christ. He finds the snuffling testimony of witness given by the harelipped girl even more distasteful. Later, when a blind man denounces the girl as a Christian, Barabbas nevertheless knifes the first person who stones her. She dies a humble martyr, but one who...

(The entire section is 1301 words.)