Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
Axel, the narrator of the novel and its protagonist. At the book’s outset, he is in his late twenties, and his narrative, an autobiographical account of his first marriage, follows him through his early forties. Axel is a librarian at the Royal Stockholm Library, as well as an aspiring, and eventually successful, playwright. A small but intense man, he is interested primarily in scientific and aesthetic pursuits. He also may suffer from acute paranoia, and thus his chronicle forces the reader to question whether the novel is an accurate presentation of the facts or the lunatic ravings of a man who is, or is going, insane. Axel’s problems begin when he is introduced to Marie, a baroness with whom he immediately becomes obsessed. At first he idealizes her, imagining her to be a chaste, Madonna-like figure, and he shuns the thought of any romantic inclinations toward her. As it becomes clear that the baroness is unhappy in her marriage to Baron Gustav—even so far as to condone the baron’s illicit affair with her young cousin, Matilda—Axel finds himself sexually attracted to her. He becomes so infatuated with her that the thought of living without her drives him to attempt suicide. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the attempt fails, the baroness’s marriage collapses, and she and Axel become lovers and marry. Axel idealizes the beginning of their marriage just as he initially idealized the baroness herself. His romantic bliss is soon shattered, however, when he begins to suspect that Marie had ulterior motives for marrying him. She has ambitions of becoming an actress, and because Axel has had some success as a playwright, he wonders if she married him simply to further her career. Furthermore, he imagines that she may have married him for what little money he has, because the baron, despite his noble title, is in fact broke. These suspicions lead Axel to believe that Marie does not love him and that, therefore, she must be unfaithful. He becomes jealous of anyone or anything to which she devotes her time, even her dog. Axel is able, for very brief intervals, to cast aside his suspicions and to picture Marie as a loving and devoted wife. His doubts finally become so intense that he suspects Marie, who is conscious of his passionate love for her as well as his pathological jealousy, of trying to drive him mad with her constant flirtations. By the novel’s conclusion, Axel’s paranoia reaches such a crescendo that his marriage dissolves, and he resolves upon completion of his memoir to commit suicide.
Marie, a baroness who leaves her husband to marry Axel. She is a petite, beautiful woman in her early thirties. If Axel’s early narrative is to be trusted, she has an angelic quality. She is unhappy with her marriage to Baron Gustav because he is both poor and unfaithful but especially because she wishes to pursue her consuming passion to be an actress. Her marriage to Axel allows her to pursue this career, which falters either because she cannot act or because Axel, afraid of losing her and resentful of her success, does not offer sufficient help. If Axel’s narrative is to be trusted, and this is doubtful, she is an adulteress, fickle to the extreme, a spendthrift, an unfit mother, and a bisexual. Moreover, he claims that she is intent on driving him insane with her flirtations. It appears that she really does care very little about motherhood and that she may have had one affair (among the hundreds of which she is accused), but given Axel’s state of mind, it is impossible to be certain.
Gustav, a baron, Marie’s first husband. At thirty years of age, he is disappointed with his life and seems intent on dissipating in drinking, gambling, and womanizing. A baron in title only, he has lost his fortune. He maintains his marriage to Marie merely for the sake of appearances; he is having an affair with Matilda, Marie’s eighteen-year-old cousin. Marie eventually divorces him and marries Axel.
Matilda, Marie’s pretty but empty-headed young cousin. When Axel is first invited to the home of the baron and baroness, he supposes that Matilda is Marie’s companion. He eventually learns, however, that Matilda is invited there to continue her affair with the baron, who has lost interest in his wife.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
Axel is an undisguised August Strindberg; the Baroness is an equally undisguised portrait of Strindberg’s first wife, Siri von Essen, the Baroness Wrangel at the time that he met her; and the Baron is Baron Carl Gustaf Wrangel. Even the Baron’s mistress, Matilda, has a real-life counterpart in Sofia In de Betou, Siri’s cousin.
The extent to which The Confession of a Fool may be read as a reliable account of Strindberg’s relationship with Siri von Essen is a matter of continuing controversy. Some have argued that Strindberg, in writing, gives free rein to his imagination, his fancies, and his speculations; thus, the story is fiction or at least semifiction. One critic suggests that Strindberg the dramatist has created in Axel a fictional character who behaves not as Strindberg behaved, but as he would have behaved if he had been insane. What is beyond doubt, however, is the number of striking correspondences between the novel and the well-documented fourteen years of Strindberg’s life from his first meeting with Siri von Essen in 1875 to the final separation in 1889.
Axel, like Strindberg, is an employee of the Royal Library, a contributor to newspapers and magazines, author of several published plays, and a member of a society to promote free love. Like Strindberg, he attributes his nervous excitability and oversensitivity to being born prematurely. Axel also relentlessly denounces feminism, proclaims male superiority, and alternates between misogyny and deification of women—all traits of Strindberg. Axel is always looking for a mother in the women he meets and believes that motherhood is a woman’s highest achievement. He is easily made jealous, is aware of his susceptibilities to mental delusions, and is inclined to a defensive paranoia. Like Strindberg, the son of a servant, Axel is painfully conscious of class; he is as obsessed with orderliness and cleanliness and as convinced of his own inherent superiority as was his creator.
The degree to which Marie is an accurate portrait of Siri von Essen is more difficult to ascertain because of doubts about the reliability of the narrator. According to some, the book is wholly vindictive; it has been called published malice. Others believe that it gives a substantially truthful, if not complete, account of their marriage. Ironically, despite Axel’s intention to present himself as a victim of his wife’s “brutality, inconstancy, and dishonesty,” the novel’s first readers regarded Marie as a heroine—to Strindberg’s everlasting chagrin. Trying to account for this reaction, Strindberg argued that it was the depth of his love for her which allowed readers to sympathize with her, a love so great that it not only survived the brutality described in the novel but also effectively communicated itself to the reader. Like Axel in the epilogue, Strindberg continued to think of himself as an innocent victim, a Sampson whose vicious wife had shorn his lion’s mane and, hence, his powers.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29
Johannesson, Eric O. The Novels of August Strindberg, 1968.
Johnson, Walter. August Strindberg, 1976.
Lagercrantz, Olof. August Strindberg, 1983.
Lamm, Martin. August Strindberg, 1971.
Reinert, Otto, ed. Strindberg: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1971.
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