Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

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As the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to her in 1909, and as one of Sweden’s most respected and beloved writers, Selma Lagerlöf is a creative artist whose development merits intensive study. Although she did not write The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf when she was fourteen, in it Lagerlöf so completely recaptured the point of view of her past self that the book can well be studied as if it had actually been put on paper in 1873, when young Selma was already preoccupied with the relationship between the imagination and the real world, with the problem of evil, and with the necessity for making moral choices in life and reflecting them in art.

The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf has much in common with Selma Lagerlöf’s fiction. In her only children’s book, the delightful Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-1907; The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1907, and The Further Adventures of Nils, 1911), Lagerlöf entered the world of the innocents, children and animals, in order to tell a story whose simplicity conceals a profound theme. In this story, as in her “diary” and her adult novels, a major character, in this case the disobedient boy Nils Holgersson, must learn through experience to be both wise and good.

In the novels for adults which make up the bulk of her work are found the same themes and conflicts which have been pointed out in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. Typical of the novels is Gosta Berlings saga (1891; The Story of Gosta Berling, 1898), which appears to be little more than a loosely connected collection of stories. The setting is Ekeby Manor, which has been taken over by a group of vagabonds, led by an appealing defrocked pastor. At first the actions of this interesting set of individuals seem to be more high-spirited pranks than deliberate evil; their antagonist, the industrious mistress of the manor, seems to be more a spoilsport than a heroine; and the devilish character who joins the group seems more a folk hero than a sinister presence. It is obvious that Lagerlöf has begun this work with the same naive posture as in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, and as in that work, she gradually leads the reader to the realization that the imagination can lead to evil as well as to good, that it must be controlled by reason and conscience.

When, in the last decades of her life, Lagerlöf turned from fiction to reminiscence, it was natural that she should emphasize the innocence which she associated with her childhood at Mrbacka. Her first volumes were called Mrbacka (1922; English translation, 1924) and Ett barns memoarner (1930; Memories of My Childhood, 1934); however, their subject was more a place and a way of life than Selma Lagerlöf herself. Only in The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf did she recapture herself as she learned to think for herself, when during four months in Stockholm a young girl was making the discoveries which would be the basis of her life and work.