Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The Confession of a Fool gives powerful expression to many of Strindberg’s obsessive themes: love as a struggle for power and dominance; sex as a cruel battle between blind desire and hatred; marriage as warfare; and women as Madonnas who are actually predators—“treacherous, faithless, with sharp claws.” Fatherhood was important to Strindberg; he believed that a man’s children are his immortality; thus, the matter of paternity is crucial. Like Axel, Strindberg was tortured by the thought that, once he no longer trusts his wife, a man is unable to know for certain that he is father of his child. This dilemma was the subject of one of Strindberg’s best-known plays, Fadren (1887; The Father, 1899). What is only a possibility in The Confession of a Fool is there fully expressed: A cruel woman systematically drives her husband insane by raising doubts about the paternity of their daughter. Provoked into throwing a burning lamp at his wife, he is pronounced insane, and a motherly nurse tenderly helps him into a straitjacket. Strindberg, an astonishingly prolific writer (with fifty-eight plays; fifteen novels; more than one hundred short stories; and numerous poems, historical works, and essays to his name) returns again and again to the subject which obsessed him: warfare between the sexes.

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Beyond its plot and characterization, The Confession of a Fool conveys a sinister image of woman through its language. Woman is a temptress, a vampire who sucks Axel’s brain dry and consumes his heart, a sorceress, a despot, a witch, a she-devil, and a devouring spider. Strindberg could, however, occasionally even appall himself by the vehemence of his hatred. He once explained his misogyny as “only the reverse side of my fearful attraction towards the other sex.” Like Axel, Strindberg needed to deify woman, to worship her as a Madonna, a pure woman who is paradoxically both virgin and mother. He desperately needed to fill the void left by his failed religious faith with her image. Not surprisingly, no woman could ever fill this role for him. He required a nurturing, motherly woman but was attracted to emancipated, career-minded women. At the same time, he was terrified by the feminine side of his own nature and insecure about his masculinity. Strindberg continued to swing between veneration and vilification, desire and disgust, idealism and cynicism, trust and paranoia, and love and hate. All these tortuous contradictions threaten to drive Axel insane and make The Confession of a Fool a painful book. The only respite from human anguish is found in nature. Axel’s occasional solitary sojourns into the mountains and forests renew not only him but also the reader. Such scenes, minutely and lovingly described, bring a bit of light into a dark novel.

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