Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Strindberg is universally recognized as one of the progenitors of modern drama, but outside Scandinavia, his reputation as a writer of fiction is scarcely known. He did write a dozen novels and many volumes of short stories and tales. This novel is one of his earliest, written during a stage in his career when he was concerned with realism, predating the other important stages marked by symbolism, myth, and experimental form. Strindberg called this novel an “intermezzo scherzando in between major engagements,” and in tone and subject matter, it is a literary respite between two more darkly profound works: Fadren (1887; The Father, 1899), a play that Strindberg labeled his tragedy, and Le laidoyer d’un fou (1893; The Confession of a Fool, 1912), an autobiographical novel about a bitter marital relationship which illustrates Strindberg’s concept of “psychic murder.” This work was therapy for its author and remains an anomaly among his other major works, which tend to be tense, introspective, and tortuous, depicting evil and a suffering humanity.

Strindberg’s interest in psychology led him to explore the self in depth in his drama, but here an unambiguous, one-dimensional hero is exploring instead how to have a good time and make some money. Here, the character is defeated not by subjective mental anguish but by a very objective physical storm. Although Strindberg used the setting of the outer Skerries in other works—notably the later novel I havsbandet (1890; By the Open Sea, 1913) and several tales—nowhere else is the treatment so picaresque and undidactic, the characters so realistic, and the philosophy so obviously un-Rousseauistic. This novel of local color is worlds removed from the “inferno” period of hallucinations, religious mysticism, and pseudoscientific experiments that darkened his life soon after.

Strindberg has called the novel his sanest book. It was written in typical Strindberg fashion—quickly, with little attention to revision. He characterized the book as art for art’s sake and, when he saw it in print, thought it was insignificant. It is his most objective novel and his most conventional work of fiction. It is also his most popular, hailed as a success when it was first published and seen today as a masterpiece of naturalistic fiction. The novel is uncluttered, unself-conscious, and joyful, showing off Strindberg’s knack for storytelling, his ear for dialogue, and his painter’s eye.