Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1467
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 because of a bank failure, and life becomes a dreary round of legal bickering. When Marie leaves to establish residence in Copenhagen for purposes of divorce and also to pursue a theatrical career, she demands that Axel accompany her. Despite his belief in free love, he refuses, fearing that all Stockholm would see it as an elopement. Professing concern for Marie’s reputation, Axel also has an inordinate fear of scandal and a fierce need to maintain his honor. Marie’s letters from Copenhagen distress him, because he fears she is flirting again and spending her time among second-rate people. When she returns, a divorced woman, he finds her coarsened. They do not marry because of Marie’s disdain for marriage and motherhood and Axel’s fears that the responsibilities of marriage would distract him from his writing career. All Axel’s and Marie’s friends drop them. This is a society that winks at adultery but severely censures divorce (especially divorce involving a woman who abandons her child). Ironically, Marie has not even legitimately gained her freedom. For propriety and out of financial necessity, she lives with her mother and an aunt, who closely oversee her every move; this makes Axel and Marie’s illicit relationship even more difficult. Finally, through Axel’s efforts, Marie launches a theatrical career in Stockholm. The course of their disastrous relationship is set.
Axel becomes jealous of Marie’s newfound success and is emotionally wounded by her patronizing attitude toward him. Marie has maintained friendly relations with Gustav and now prefers his advice on theatrical matters to Axel’s. In Marie, Axel sees a shallow, egotistical woman and a mediocre actress. Bitter fights ensue, and love grows cold. Loathing what Marie has become, he leaves for Paris, uncertain of when or if he will ever see her again.
When Axel receives Marie’s letter telling him she is pregnant and asking him to save her from dishonor, he rushes joyously back to Stockholm. They marry, determined that theirs will be a model marriage: Expenses will be equally divided, cooking and housework will be done by a servant, and each of them will have autonomy, privacy, and freedom. Axel is once again in love with Marie. Throughout their marriage, he is happiest when she is pregnant, fulfilling what he regards as the highest ideal for a woman: motherhood.Marie gives birth to a premature baby who soon dies, a baby whom Axel later becomes convinced was fathered by Gustav. Their marriage begins to degenerate into a marital inferno. Axel becomes fiercely jealous of a pet dog which Marie acquires; he is also jealous of her friends, particularly a woman who Marie invites to stay in their country cottage. Increasingly, Axel is convinced that Marie is perverse and faithless, flirts with men and women, and has affairs with both sexes. With him, she is cold. Marie returns from a theatrical tour in Finland and is uncharacteristically passionate with him. Much later, he decides that she became pregnant in Iceland and wanted him to believe that the child was his. He begins to think that she hates him and would like to get rid of him.
Axel’s satirical, eccentric writings and relentless denunciations of feminism give rise to attacks on him in the press. The rumor that he is insane eventually leads to a court trial for blasphemy. Feeling surrounded by enemies, he moves his family to Paris, where there are friends who can reassure him that he is not insane. Axel believes that Marie plans to have him committed to an insane asylum and that she would welcome his death. (He suspects her of putting cyanide in his tea.) In Paris, he believes that his wife’s infidelity has become common knowledge, that Henrik Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck is about him and his marriage. He opens Marie’s mail and spies on her, obsessed with finding the truth. During the next years, he moves his family to Switzerland and Germany, but he becomes ever more isolated and suicidal, tortured by the questionable paternity of his children. When at last they return to Sweden, people treat him as if he were mad and treat Marie as a holy martyr. Axel decides it is time “to write the story of this woman, the true representative of the age of the unsexed.”
In an epilogue to the novel, Axel reviews the charges which have been made against him: the selfish sacrifice of his wife’s theatrical career for his own ambition and the squandering of his wife’s fortune. He finds himself innocent on both counts. He rejects the idea that he was ever ill or insane. His only crimes are having allowed himself to be seduced by a married woman and having consented to a financial arrangement which allowed Marie continually to cheat him. In short, he is guilty of being a fool. He renounces revenge, instead vowing to discover the truth about his wife’s constancy, his children’s paternity, and his own sanity. He appeals to the reader’s judgment for a verdict.
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