Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
Lars Lennart Westin
Lars Lennart Westin, a retired elementary school teacher living in virtual isolation in the Swedish province of Västmanland. A lean, spent man, he is thirty-nine years old but looks much older. Intensely self-absorbed, he keeps a series of notebooks that record the mundane facts of his life, his imaginative explorations of past and present, and the course of his fatal disease, cancer of the spleen. As the novel begins, he has received a letter from a local hospital, probably containing test results and the diagnosis of his ailment. He burns the letter, unopened. As his story unfolds, he reveals his obsession with pain, the deception and lack of communi-cation that have marked most of his relationships, his desire to understand himself, his resolution never to give up in his various struggles, and his terrible conclusion that his life was real only during his last few months of terminal suffering.
Margaret, Westin’s wife for ten years until their divorce, around 1970. The pale and thin daughter of an intensely bourgeois family dominated by a tyrannical father, Margaret initially shared with Westin an aversion to a hypocritical and uncaring society and a desire for independence. As he reviews their uneventful, unsuccessful marriage, Westin discovers that deception, guilt, and Margaret’s need to control him were the foundations of their relationship. He refuses to notify her of his disease.
Ann, a large blond doctor in her late thirties or early forties. She radiates motherliness, a quality that Westin craves and that forms the basis of their love affair in the last year of his marriage. When Margaret learns of the affair, the two women become allies and give Westin a strange, yet real, sense of peace.
Jonny, two young boys who meet Westin during the course of his illness. He treats them with affectionate warmth and writes for them the first episode of a science-fiction adventure story, in which the hero must locate and destroy a source of great pain created by the evil Emperor Ming.
Sune Jannson, Westin’s uncle, a clever storekeeper and operator in the black market during World War II. Westin admires him as a cunning and persistent individualist and recounts a wartime incident in which Uncle Sune outwitted a contingent of local bureaucrats.
God, who is imagined by Westin—during a temporary cessation of his pain—as a mother who awakes after twenty million years and begins to answer the prayers of human beings. At first, the answers seem wonderful, but because the motherly God grants all wishes indiscriminately, the process soon leads to the dissolution of all human relationships and institutions, and of language itself.
Nicke, a boyhood friend of Westin who died in 1952, after a short life of reckless yet successful adventures. Nicke is the last significant character to appear in the novel, in a flashback that reminds Westin to begin again and never to give up. In Westin’s flashback, the fearless young Nicke dives deep into the whirlpool of a dangerous canal lock to retrieve a golden fishing lure. He emerges from the water with a different treasure from the bottom: a unique gold coin.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302
The only main character in the novel is Lars Lennart Westin; his wife, Margareth, and his onetime lover, Ann, are characters about whom he writes but who do not actually appear in the novel. Westin and his wife have had an agreement “not to see” each other. For both of them, Ann is a possibility of liberation from a sterile relationship. Margareth is as repressed as her husband; Ann is described as warm and maternal. She is someone who is able to “see” Westin, but when she forges a bond with his wife, he loses her and the possibility of her liberating influence, which he considers his last chance to understand and define himself.
The two boys who come visiting appear within the time frame of the novel, but they are minor characters, an occasion for Westin to write science-fiction fantasies. The book is Westin’s, and the people in his life, past or present, are interesting to the reader only in their relationship to the narrator. Some visiting relatives are never even individualized by names; others, who are named and characterized, are people in Westin’s stories. The narrator is someone who has avoided personal relationships as much as possible. He believes that his one chance, Ann, was taken away from him by Margareth. It is in character for him to keep his illness to himself, to retreat to the solitary existence of a beekeeper, to decide not to let society get hold of him in his weakened condition. Westin’s remark that he has wanted too little all of his life, especially wanted too little from, and too little to do with, other people, shows his increasing self-awareness. Now, when the events of his last few months make him feel real, he cannot accept the change and considers it terrible.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Antioch Review. Review. XL (Summer, 1982), p. 374.
Best Sellers. Review. XLI (February, 1982), p. 409.
Mortensson, J. “Gustafsson’s The Bee Keeper,” in Swedish Books. II (1979), pp. 6-7.
Updike, John. “The Death of a Beekeeper,” in The New Yorker. LVII (January 11, 1982), p. 92.
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