Drawn almost against his will to the Crucifixion, Barabbas tries to view it as an ordinary execution. When darkness descends, he concludes that his eyes have gone strange from prison. Afterward, he goes to a tavern run by a fat woman, who, like most of the characters, is never given a name, emphasizing Barabbas’ isolation from others.
Barabbas’ acquaintances expect him to be jubilant upon his release but find him moody and withdrawn. He lives briefly with the fat woman, while seeking the followers of the crucified rabbi. When they learn who he is, they shun him. Preoccupied with and afraid of death, Barabbas feels threatened when the rabbi’s followers tell him he died for their sins. Taken to a man raised from the dead, Barabbas is disconcerted by his corpselike appearance and manner.
Unable to maintain his leadership of the thieves, Barabbas disappears, becoming a slave in the mines, chained to Sahak, a Christian. In this subterranean hell, Barabbas wants desperately to believe and briefly converts. A new overseer, interested in Sahak’s odd religion, arranges for them to work aboveground. Finding they are Christians, the master summons them. Barabbas denies being a Christian; Sahak affirms his faith and is crucified, with Barabbas watching unseen.
Taken to Rome, Barabbas seeks the Christians but becomes lost in the tomblike catacombs. Emerging to the light of fire and hearing that the Christians are burning the city, he zealously joins the arsonists. Imprisoned with Christians, he learns his mistake. Crucified, he commits his spirit to ambiguous darkness.
Comparable in tone to the films of his compatriot Ingmar Bergman rather than to Hollywood’s biblical epics, Lagerkvist’s is a brief, highly condensed novel. Told from Barabbas’ limited perspective, the narrative is both a compelling story and an unusual and provocative view of the earliest Christians.
Gustafson, Alrik. A History of Swedish Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. Traces the evolution of Lagerkvist’s prose style to its maturity in Barabbas. Examines the novel in terms of its author’s search for expressive form and his grappling with the problem of evil.
Sjoberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Argues that Barabbas is a modern rather than a historical novel. Relates the controversial ending to Lagerkvist’s stated religious views.
Spector, Robert Donald. “Barabbas: The Bible as Modern Literature.” In Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973. Convincingly demonstrates how the novel reflects the dualism Lager-kvist saw in life. Spector’s is the first full-length book in English devoted to Lagerkvist’s work.
Swanson, Roy A. “Evil and Love in Lagerkvist’s Crucifixion Cycle.” Scandinavian Studies 38 (November, 1966): 302-317. Considers the novel’s place in a series focusing on the event and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Determines myth to be Lagerkvist’s point of departure.
Weathers, Winston. “Death and Transfiguration: The Lagerkvist Pentalogy.” In The Shapeless God: Essays on Modern Fiction, edited by Harry J. Mooney, Jr., and Thomas F. Staley. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968. Assesses the novel as one of five by Lagerkvist that explore the meaning of death and the escape from death. Writing from a Christian perspective, he appraises the novel as a portrait of the secular person.