Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Viktor Rydberg has been translated into English more than any other Swedish novelist of the nineteenth century. In addition to this historical novel dealing with the early history of Christianity, he wrote several nonfictional volumes about the Church Fathers and the history of Christianity. The obvious doctrine of this novel is a strong plea for freedom of religious conscience and worship. While it is a glorification of the Greek ideals of reason, wisdom, truth, and harmony, it is not an anti-Christian novel directed against the principles and ideals of Christianity. It is really a thesis against bigotry, cruelty, and intolerance, as personified in the early leaders of the Church in Athens.

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THE LAST ATHENIAN presents an awesome analysis of a crumbling civilization heading precipitously into the Dark Ages; detailed descriptions of fourth century dress, customs, political conflicts, and beliefs fill out the narrative. There is much discussion of the changing philosophical attitudes and of the demise of the ancient gods, and the problem of the seeker after truth in an age of absolute belief is one of the central concerns of the novel.

Just as the great architecture of the Golden Age was dismantled to construct new Christian churches, so the great philosophies of the past were sacrificed to current prejudices. Many old customs were discontinued simply because they were associated with the old “heathen” ways; even the ancient custom of bathing fell into disrepute. Only a man of the sternest integrity could dare to stand against the blind will of the majority.

Deeply rooted in scholarship, THE LAST ATHENIAN is a well-written and often moving novel of people who search for truth according to their own hearts and minds, even when it is dangerous for them to do so. The moral choices of the individual form the real conflict in the book, aside from melodramatic turnings of the plot. As the narrator explains, all of life in the fourth century was colored by theology, from the emperor’s down to the slaves’. The full social spectrum is included in the novel, with lives and beliefs carefully presented.

Hermione is an unusual and exceptional heroine, intelligent as well as beautiful, a young woman brought up by her philosopher father to be true to her convictions. She comes to learn that there are more subtle evils than hypocrisy and deliberate cruelty; great crimes can be committed with complete sincerity when people believe they are doing God’s will. From the self-torture of a religious fanatic such as Simon of the Pillar, it is but a little distance to the torture of others. Hermione’s suicide is the final, futile act of an individual battling against social forces larger than she can comprehend.

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