Pär Lagerkvist Short Fiction Analysis
Pär Lagerkvist is the preeminent Swedish literary figure of the mid-twentieth century. He employed elements of myth and fable, combined with simple language and direct storytelling to explore the internal struggle between modern humankind and God. The quest to answer life’s eternal questions permeates his writings as he explores the relationship between good and evil, faith and despair, the purpose of life and the meaning of death. The strength of Lagerkvist’s storytelling lies in the dichotomy of yearning for the conservative religion of his youth and finding that religion has forsaken humanity in its blind struggle to find meaning in a scientific age. He described himself as a “religious atheist,” believing in a deity that is obscured by religion.
As a young writer, Lagerkvist repudiated the decadence of late nineteenth literature and the naturalism of nineteenth century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in favor of the radical French artistic aesthetic and the “dream plays” of August Strindberg. Lagerkvist’s pessimistic early works are colored by the cruelty of World War I and are critically linked to German expressionists. Following the war, Lagerkvist grappled with the reasons for mortal existence in both allegorical and autobiographical short stories, novellas, and plays. As Europe once again became a battleground, Lagerkvist became an outspoken critic of totalitarianism and strong supporter of “heroic humanitarian idealism.” Following World War II he created a cycle of short novels wherein he demonstrates a more optimistic belief that good can ultimately conquer evil and that love can prevail. A major achievement is Lagerkvist’s ability to grapple with philosophical issues without resorting to sermonizing or moralizing. He clearly depicts characters struggling with the contradictory ambiguities of life but allows his readers to draw their own conclusions.
The Eternal Smile
In the novella The Eternal Smile, the dead pass the eternities discussing the meaning of life. Ordinary people fondly remember the simple pleasures derived from living ordinary lives while others tell of their misfortunes or untimely deaths. Lagerkvist’s search for spiritual meaning is explored through the voices of three “saviors.” The first savior claims to be the Son of God who gave his life for the world. In death, however, he became disillusioned, a man like everyone else. The second savior recalls that life meant helpless confusion and that it did not afford peace even to those who were happy. He concludes that the meaning of life is so simple, nothing can be said about it. The third savior decries their current monotonous existence, in which there is no joy because there is no confusion or...
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