Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

The transformation of a soul is the subject of Barabbas. Pär Lagerkvist’s novel has the tone and manner of an ancient, oft-told story, recounted simply but with feeling. The tale is told with an austerity that renders it all the more moving for being pared down to essentials. The poetic prose is precise and vivid, despite its leanness; at the end of the book, the reader realizes with amazement how clearly the author has pictured by means of a word here and a phrase there the ancient, biblical world. Barabbas is a superbly written, enigmatic novel, open to many possible interpretations. If it possesses any fault, it is only that occasionally the prose is almost self-consciously understated, that the sophistication underlying the simplicity of the narration seems to peek through. This is a minor flaw and in no way detracts from the power of the book.

The question raised by Barabbas is that which haunts humanity, the question of what lies beyond life. Barabbas is compelled by his fate to question the universe in a manner that he does not understand or desire. Ordinarily such an uneducated thief would not have concerned himself with philosophical and moral issues, but the fact that he is acquitted and Jesus is crucified in his stead turns his world upside down. The book traces his wandering, both physically and spiritually, until his own end, also upon a cross. It is not the end that is important in this novel but rather the struggle. Lagerkvist leaves the ending ambiguous when he states that Barabbas’s words were “as though” spoken to the darkness. The stages of this struggle are poignantly portrayed, from the initial confusion and wonderment through the denial to the final reassessment. Barabbas wants to believe, as so many human beings hunger for belief, but he cannot deceive himself; his belief must be hard-won, or it is meaningless and false.

The novel is rich with symbols, but the symbols never intrude; rather, they enrich the tale and serve to give it an added resonance. Most of the men and women who pass through the story are scarred, including Barabbas himself, who was at an early age scarred by his own father (whom he later unwittingly kills). These marked and deformed human beings seem to represent all of humanity, the battered multitudes who stare into the darkness, as does Barabbas, and wonder what is out there waiting for them. Love is the answer, Barabbas is told, but he finds it hard to believe. However, the fat woman and the girl with the harelip both find momentary happiness because he seems briefly to love them. The slave’s badge that he wears around his neck becomes a double symbol, representing both the bondage of humanity to the earth and its powers and, after it is engraved with the name of the Savior, possibilities of freedom and happiness. Christian symbols are woven into the narrative, but they seem to arise naturally from the gradually developing Christian religion, to appear as they are needed, to help the followers keep faith.

Although the short novel seems simple, it is amazingly intricate, probing the human mind and the human spirit. Like so much of the best literature, Barabbas can be read and appreciated on several different levels and reread from time to time with pleasure and profit. In 1951, shortly after the appearance of this novel, Lagerkvist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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