The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf

by Selma Lagerlof
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713

Wishing as she did to trace the process of her own adolescent discoveries, Lagerlöf undoubtedly chose the diary form for her autobiographical account so that she could speak with the voice of the young, innocent girl she had been at fourteen. That voice dictated the style, with its simple language, its sense of immediacy, its references to unexamined folk wisdom and parental warnings, and its bursts of emotion, expressed in half sentences and in exclamation marks. Although young Selma is inexperienced, she is intelligent, and therefore in the tradition of the naive observer, she relays impressions which the more experienced adult reader, like the writer herself, often finds more significant than the young girl had realized at the time.

When Selma boarded the train for Stockholm, she brought with her from Mrbacka much useful invisible baggage. As a child, she had always felt loved and secure. Furthermore, she had been reared in a devout atmosphere, with a clear sense of the reality of God and with a well-developed awareness of the difference between good and evil. Unlike most fourteen-year-olds, she already knew that she was to become a writer, and therefore she was intensely conscious of the operations of her own imagination, a faculty which enriched her everyday life but sometimes brought with it some confusion about the line between reality and illusion. Like all adolescents, Selma had begun to be uncertain about her real identity and even more uncertain regarding whether she was attractive to others; removed from the warmth of Mrbacka, she was even more nervous because of her physical handicap. As the book proceeds, however, it is clear that Selma has been well equipped to deal with the world. She reveals herself as a young girl with character, intelligence, and imagination, and even if the adult reader did not know of the honors which awaited her, he would be more confident of young Selma’s future than the unsure fourteen-year-old herself.

No account of adolescence would be complete without the story of the young person’s first infatuation, which the writer recalls tenderly but humorously in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. On the way to Stockholm, Selma meets a handsome student from the University of Uppsala, a young man who is particularly appealing to her because he seems to find her far more interesting than her older brother Daniel does. After the meeting, the student takes an important place in her imagination and even influences her behavior. When he catches a glimpse of her in Stockholm and blows her a kiss, Selma discards her grumpiness and assumes a new cheerful, kindly self. Later, seeing the portrait of a prince who resembles the student, she persuades herself that her student is really a prince. This invention delights her until she discovers that the student is engaged; at this point her unhappiness is intense, and only an imagined act of goodness toward the student makes it bearable.

By now, it is clear that through her infatuation Selma has been learning some truths about life—for example, that love, intensified by the imagination, can bring pain as well as pleasure. Clearly, she has assumed that her feeling for the student is like a childish game, which she could indulge or dismiss at will. Yet when she encounters the Ragtag-Froken, a real adult driven mad by love, Selma realizes that love is serious business and concludes that it may be just as well if the student does marry someone else. Still, Selma continues to think of him as a real prince and is somewhat cheered by his fiancee’s obvious unhappiness, which may forecast a breakup. Only at the end of The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, when Selma goes to Uppsala, does she face reality. Although the student and his fiancee have broken off their engagement, Selma is no closer to capturing a prince. She has seen the student with his parents, and now she realizes that they are quite ordinary people; furthermore, instead of finishing his law studies to begin a climb up the social ladder, the student has decided to become a poor rural pastor. Somehow he no longer seems so exciting, and the infatuation disappears. At this point, Selma realizes how easy it would be to let indulgent self-deception ruin one’s life. Through such minor incidents, young Selma is being taught major truths.

One of the most important of these truths involves the nature of evil. Coming out of a tradition of piety, Selma has been taught that the temptation to evil is omnipresent. In Stockholm, however, for the first time she finds herself responsible for resisting the evil in her own heart. To her surprise, she hears herself snap at her aunt; later, she reads a forbidden book and then tracks mud across the parlor. All these actions surprise Selma herself; it is as if the evil spirit of folklore, Marit of Sotbrten, has inhabited her. Selma notices, however, that the best cure for undesirable behavior is an event which produces happiness, such as the student’s throwing a kiss at her. This fact suggests that the source of evil is often an unhappy heart; unfortunately, one cannot depend on happy accidents to keep one in the paths of righteousness, and therefore Selma must think deeply about the choices that are within everyone’s power. She soon observes, for example, that when she tells stories to her young cousins, Elin and Allan Afzelius, both they and their parents are happier, and that by making others happier she herself becomes happier.

Much of Selma’s initial discontent arises from her insecurity. It was unfortunate that her old nurse, meaning to give Selma some good advice, had repeated a comment by her aunt Georgina to the effect that the girl was uninteresting. Perhaps this knowledge accounts for Selma’s mistakes when she first arrives at the Afzelius home. At any rate, between her awareness of her aunt’s impression of her and the consciousness of her own physical handicap, along with the frightening nightmares which suggest that she is being ruled by her evil nature, it is no wonder that Selma has no confidence in herself. Characteristically, instead of bemoaning her existence, she decides to take a practical approach. By observation, she will learn how to become well liked. On several occasions, Selma admiringly observes masterful manipulation and makes note of it for future reference. By praising a fishwife’s herring, the elderly servant Ully Myhrman persuades the other woman to let the children move in front of her at a procession; by stressing the importance of the Carolinian Institute, the family cook persuades the watchman’s wife to admit the children to forbidden areas.

Although Selma learns some helpful lessons in manipulation, she also learns that charm and humor alone will not capture people’s hearts, once they perceive that those qualities are allied to selfishness. In the fifth week of her stay in Stockholm, Selma encounters a seventeen-year-old girl named Signe W., who seems to be an appropriate model for her. Although Signe arrives late for the dinner to which she has been invited, she is so friendly that no one seems to mind; although she is catty and critical, she is so humorous that even her elders laugh. Recalling the comment about her own unresponsiveness and noticing the evident delight in Signe which Oriel and Georgina have displayed, Selma decides to choose the spoiled girl as a model for her own behavior. At this point, however, she learns another valuable lesson. Accidentally overhearing her aunt’s comments, Selma realizes that she herself is being praised at the expense of Signe. Clearly, someone who is amusing is not necessarily admired; Selma’s aunt is not impressed by Signe’s egotism, and she is convinced that a girl like Selma is much nicer to have around on a permanent basis. Again, Selma has come to understand that in the long run it is real worth— kindness and consideration—that will win the affection of other people.

For a born writer like Lagerlöf, who was constantly inspired to make up stories from fragments observed in everyday life, it was difficult to maintain the distinction between illusion and reality. Although her infatuation with the handsome student was harmless, Selma did discover that the combination of love and imagination could be tragic: It would be too easy to slip over into madness, like the Ragtag lady, or suicide, like the young woman whose body she observed at the Carolinian Institute.

If moral conduct could not be left to the imagination, which could change an interpretation of life because of a smile, a blown kiss, or a prince’s portrait, but must be habitual and consistent, whatever one’s mood, so also religious convictions must depend not on the mood of a moment but on the discipline of a lifetime. At one point in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, Selma confesses that she had omitted to stand up for her faith in a conversation with a friend of her brother. For some time, this cowardice torments her; in her imagination, she is on the way to damnation. Fortunately, in Uppsala, Selma is brought face to face with reality. Contrasting the magnificent perception of God by the builders of a cathedral with the petty God her own imagination has constructed, Selma realizes that once again she has let her imagination take her too far from reality.

Although the events described in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf are colorful, the real drama of the book is internal. By the end of her stay in Stockholm, Selma has discovered that the love of others can be won only by unselfish and virtuous behavior; that moral conduct and religious faith depend not upon grand gestures but upon daily decisions; and that the imagination should be used not to embellish the ordinary world and to deceive its inhabitants but to transform materials drawn from that world into art. The interest of The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf is twofold: The work is a summary of a great writer’s convictions, and it is also a record of the process by which she arrived at those convictions when she was only fourteen years old.

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