Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

Early in his life, Pär Lagerkvist became aware of his incapacity for upholding and adhering to the stern and uncompromising religion of his forebears and of his consequent exclusion from the security and meaning that their religion provided. His estrangement from religious faith engendered his humanism, and his need for...

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Early in his life, Pär Lagerkvist became aware of his incapacity for upholding and adhering to the stern and uncompromising religion of his forebears and of his consequent exclusion from the security and meaning that their religion provided. His estrangement from religious faith engendered his humanism, and his need for the security and meaning denied him produced his anguish (ångest) and his longing (längtan). His humanistic inclination and his experience of ångest constitute the theme of “Father and I.”

The nature of Lagerkvist’s humanism, with its development of an emphasis on alienation and authentic individualism, already much in evidence in “Father and I,” came to coincide with existentialism, not so much in the character of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy as in the intonations of Albert Camus’s fiction and lyrical essays. Like Camus, Lagerkvist was tormented by the essential unhappiness of human life and sought, not to escape it through rational philosophy or self-deception but to nurture, as the nucleus of human unhappiness, that longing that—because it cannot be satisfied—becomes its own meaning and, as such, the fulfillment of the life of one who confronts it with the same constancy as Camus would have one confront the absurd. Where wisdom for Socrates consisted in knowing that he did not know, happiness for Lagerkvist, as for Camus, consisted in pursuing it while remaining unflinchingly aware of its untenability. The awareness entails ångest, which in turn intensifies life, which is its own value.

The religion of the father in “Father and I” is, like philosophical formulas for the achievement of happiness, a form of self-deception, so far as Lagerkvist is concerned. The father sees neither the glowworm nor the significance of the baleful glow of the black train’s fire, the one representative of life, the other intensified life. The son, who is conscious of both, experiences the anguish (the existentialists’ Angst) that informs such consciousness.

Lagerkvist presented “anguish” as his inheritance (arvedel) in Ångest, a work that he published in 1916. His inheritance was not a spiritual tradition but the anguish of life itself. To him, life is not inherently good in the moral sense. In its meaninglessness and in the competitive struggle to survive, it is a form of evil, of original sin without a redeemer. It is like that fiery black train with its diabolical engineer. In Ångest he describes his life struggle: “I tear my sore and wounded hands/ against the hill and darkened woods/ against the black iron of the sky.” He selected “Father and I” to be the first in his collection of stories entitled Evil Tales (Onda sagor, 1924; English translation, 1955). Without a god of light or a savior to atone for the evil of life, Lagerkvist saw only endless darkness and the responsibility of an individual to save his own or her own self, not as an immortal soul but as a vitally mortal self. “Father and I” presents a nine-year-old boy’s initial awareness of this lonely and fearful struggle.

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