(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Confession of a Fool is its first-person narrator’s account of painful and scandalous events during a thirteen-year period of his life. Axel, the twenty-seven-year-old narrator and protagonist, is a librarian at the Royal Stockholm Library and a writer. Seeking a patron for one of his plays, he calls on the Baron, Gustav, and the Baroness, Marie. Axel is immediately drawn to the Baroness. She is attractive, aristocratic, and passionately interested in the theater. He becomes a frequent visitor to Marie and Gustav’s home and is soon the couple’s intimate and constant companion. Axel worships Marie as a Madonna, despite the fact that the Baron and Baroness have been married for three years and have a daughter. He does not think of Marie as a sexual being, but he becomes aware that Gustav is having an affair with his wife’s eighteen-year-old cousin, Matilda, and moreover, that Marie knows of and consents to her husband’s unfaithfulness. Axel believes that Gustav’s neglect of Marie is shameful and that Marie’s lack of jealousy is further proof of her sainthood. When Marie finally does mildly criticize her husband’s behavior to Axel, however, Axel’s feelings of male solidarity with Gustav cause him to insult her and to accuse her of being a disloyal wife. Somewhat irrationally, Axel believes that she is trying to make a confidant of him, that she has insulted the man in him, and that “she was taking the first step toward breaking her marriage vows.” Significantly, he adds, “[A]t that moment the hatred of her sex was born in me.” His image of chaste perfection shattered, he can no longer sublimate his sexual feelings for her. She has become a mere woman and, even worse, a woman he desires. Through profane revels with bohemian friends and visits to brothels, he desecrates his sacred image of her and vows never to see her again.

Axel finds it impossible to break off his close friendship with Gustav, however, and soon the three of them have resumed their old relationship. Finally, desperate to tear this tormenting love for Marie from his heart, he decides to leave Stockholm. Axel stages a tearful, dramatic farewell dinner in his artist’s garret for Marie and Gustav and takes a ship to France. After only a few hours on board, he suffers a hysterical attack and is put ashore. He exhausts himself swimming in the sea and then sits naked for hours in the chill October winds, attempting to catch pneumonia. He then goes to a hotel ready to die—but only after telegraphing Gustav that he is ill. In a matter of hours, Gustav and Marie arrive. Axel is not physically ill, although he pretends to be so that Marie will be his nurse.

Back in Stockholm, Axel notes that Marie is increasingly bored and restless. She complains of having no purpose in life and talks of going onstage. (This seems impossible for her because of her husband’s social position; in that era, actresses were regarded with contempt.) She ignites Axel’s jealousy by flirting with young men at parties. Gustav’s behavior with Matilda, their frequent houseguest, becomes ever more outrageous. Finally, the growing emotional pressure culminates in Marie and Axel’s confessing their true feelings for each other. Theirs will be a love without passion: It is “beautiful, new, almost unique—to love, to tell one another of it.... Nothing else!” Yet their resolve to be as brother and sister soon collapses, and they become lovers.

Marie’s frequent visits to Axel’s garret occasion many rumors, so Gustav and Marie decide to divorce. Gustav is threatened with financial ruin...

(The entire section is 1467 words.)