Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The plays of August Strindberg have exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on modern drama in both Europe and America. His insights into naturalism, in such early plays as The Father and Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912), were central in the shaping of that dramatic movement, while his later experiments with expressionism, in such works as Spöksonaten (1907; The Ghost Sonata, 1916), Ett drömspel(1902; A Dream Play, 1912), and the Till Damaskus trilogy(1898-1904; To Damascus, 1913), have profoundly effected nonrealistic approaches to the modern stage. It is virtually impossible to separate Strindberg’s life from his works, and this is particularly true in the case of The Father. Even Strindberg recognized the close alliance between the two when on November 12, 1887, he wrote to Axel Lundegard: “It is to me as if I were walking in my sleep—as if creation and life were mingled. I do not know whether The Father is a creative work, or whether that was my real life.”

The relationship between Strindberg’s reality and his writing becomes apparent in an examination of Le Plaidoyer d’un fou(1893; A Madman’s Defense, 1912), an autobiographical novel that contains many references essential to an understanding of The Father. Written between 1887 and 1888, it chronicles fourteen years of Strindberg’s life, including his fateful meeting and marriage to Siri Von Essen. Strindberg intended the work as an exposé of Siri’s attempts to confine him for mental treatment, but in reality it presents a clear picture of developing paranoia and acute mental instability.

Strindberg’s first-person narrator names his wife Maria and portrays her as suspicious of her husband’s sanity from the beginning of their marriage. (Indeed, in 1886 Siri consulted a Swiss doctor about Strindberg’s instability, confirming his suspicion that she suspected mental imbalance in him all along and desired to obtain his insurance money or marry again.) Based on her conviction, Maria attempts to provoke behavior from the narrator that can be used as evidence to justify confinement. When she sides with the critics of her husband’s book, he calls her a traitor who is responsible for starting rumors about his sanity. When he escapes to Paris to seek comradeship with friends, she follows him and insists on a retreat in Switzerland. Once there, she convinces the doctor, guests, proprietor, and servants that he is, indeed, insane.

Beginning to doubt his own sanity and feeling a persecution mania, the narrator turns his suspicions and hostility on his wife. He studies her behavior and comes to believe that she is an adulteress trying to cover her wrongdoings and gain his insurance money and writings by proving him mentally incompetent. He looks for evidence to prove his theory by rifling through her letters and subjecting her to strenuous cross-examinations. Neither her denials nor the confessions he believes he extracts provide him with convincing answers, but they intensify his agitation and instability. The reader of A Madman’s Defense cannot help but see the parallels between this autobiographical account and the basic plot of The Father, as well as the similarity between the narrator in the novel and the captain in the play. The Father becomes almost an adaptation of A Madman’s Defense.

Along with the fictionalization of the growing paranoia in A Madman’s Defense, Strindberg’s account closely parallels the events that surrounded the publication and subsequent blasphemy trial of Giftas I (1884), the first volume of his Getting Married (1973). This collection of short stories deals with the relationship between husbands and wives, drawing for some of the material on Strindberg’s early married life and The Father. The most important contribution from that collection to The Father is in the portrayal of women. Strindberg is scornful toward the “emancipated” woman in marriage, feeling that such a woman wants not equality with her mate but domination over him. The ideal role for the woman, Strindberg believes, is that of wife and mother—anything else can only be destructive.

This view of women had its origins in Strindberg’s own background, for he had cause to believe in the evil nature of his mother. Having been unwanted at birth and rejected...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)