Pär Lagerkvist Lagerkvist, Pär - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Pär Lagerkvist 1891-1974

(Full name Pär Fabian Lagerkvist; also published under the pseudonym Stig Stigson) Swedish short story writer, playwright, novelist, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Lagerkvist's works from 1974 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1974, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, 13, and 54.

Recipient of the 1951 Nobel Prize in literature, Lagerkvist is one of the foremost Swedish literary figures of the twentieth century. Throughout his career he displayed a concern with conflict between good and evil, faith and nihilism, and the mundane and the spiritual. Proficient in many genres, Lagerkvist garnered an international appeal based largely on his short stories and allegorical novellas, which often incorporated elements of folklore and mythology.

Biographical Information

Lagerkvist was born on May 23, 1891, in the town of Växjö in Småland province. He grew up in a religiously conservative household where such customs as daily readings from the Old Testament were strictly observed. Following a year of study at the University of Uppsala, Lagerkvist traveled to Paris in 1913. There he became acquainted with the Fauvist, Cubist, and “naivist” movements in the visual arts. He lived in Denmark during most of World War I and spent much of the 1920s in France and Italy writing plays and poetry. In 1930 he settled with his family in Lidingö, an island community near Stockholm. Lagerkvist continued to write, and he steadily rose to prominence in the Swedish literary world: in 1940 he was elected to the Swedish Academy (the body which awards the Nobel Prizes) and in 1941 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Göteborg. However, Lagerkvist remained virtually unknown outside of Sweden until he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote his most famous works, a cycle of six novellas, in the 1950s and 1960s. Lagerkvist died on July 11, 1974.

Major Works

Impressed with both the intellectual discipline and aesthetic innovations of Fauvist, Cubist, and “naivist” movements, Lagerkvist issued the pamphlet Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913; Literary Art and Pictorial Art), in which he contrasted what he considered the “decadence” of modern fiction with the “vitality” of modern art. Calling for a renunciation of the documentary methods of nineteenth-century Naturalism, Lagerkvist endorsed an approach that employed the epic style and symbolic narratives of classic Greek tragedy, Icelandic sagas, and the Bible. Lagerkvist first incorporated these principles in his novella Människor (1912), his collection of short stories Järn och människor (1915; Iron and Men in Five Early Works), and Ångest (1916), a volume of poetry often considered the first expressionist work in Swedish literature. In his essays and criticism, Lagerkvist delineated his own artistic principles. In his controversial 1918 essay, Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp (Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack), Lagerkvist denounced the Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen and naturalism and embraced the playwright August Strindberg as his literary mentor. From the 1920s onward, Lagerkvist's works consistently exhibit his preoccupation with spiritual questions. In the autobiographical novella Gäst hos verkligheten (1925; Guest of Reality), Lagerkvist chronicled a child's growing awareness of his own mortality. Dvärgen (1944; The Dwarf) is an allegorical novel set in Renaissance Italy and narrated by a court dwarf who functions as a symbol of the malevolent forces within all people. Beginning with Barabbas (1950), and including Sibyllan (1956; The Sibyl), Ahasverus död (1960; The Death of Ahasuerus), Pilgrim på havet (1962; Pilgrim at Sea), Det heliga landet (1964; The Holy Land), and Mariamne (1967; Herod and Mariamne), Lagerkvist assembled a cycle of narratives that continue his examination of humanity's unending quest for meaning. Barabbas recounts the spiritual tribulations of a condemned thief in whose place Jesus of Nazareth is crucified. The title character remains a restless and loveless man despite his reprieve, although he dies possibly having found the spiritual truth and peace he sought. Aftonland (1953; Eveningland), Lagerkvist's final collection of verse, is a poetic masterpiece and an undisputed high point in Lagerkvist's poetry. Characterized by a greater degree of experimentation with form than his earlier collections, Eveningland includes many poems that are rhymeless or have free rhythm and highlights man's relationship to the God who may not exist, the nature of human existence in the vastness of the universe, and the poet's continued transcendental longing.

Critical Reception

Lagerkvist is recognized as one of Sweden's most important literary figures. Critical analysis of his short stories, novels, and plays usually focus on religious and existential issues and his use of events, characters, and imagery from the Bible, folklore, and mythology. It is noted that Lagerkvist's novels and novellas, as well as his short stories, persistently relate the search for the meaning of existence. Because of this, he has been compared with such writers as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Albert Camus. Critics have traced Lagerkvist's literary development from his dark, pessimistic work early in his career to his later, more accessible work. Stylistically, reviewers praised his spare, poetic prose and the clarity of his message. The influence of such artists as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg on his work has been investigated, and commentators have traced his impact on later writers.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Människor (novella) 1912

Ordkonst och bildkonst [Literary Art and Pictorial Art] (criticism) 1913

Motiv (poetry) 1914

Järn och människor [Iron and Men in Five Early Works] (short stories) 1915

Ångest (poetry) 1916

Sista mänskan (play) 1917

Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp [Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack] (essay) 1918

Kaos (short stories, poetry, and play) 1919

Det eviga leendet [The Eternal Smile] (novella) 1920

Den lyckligas väg (poetry) 1921

Den osynlige (play) 1923

Onda sagor (novella) 1924

Gäst hos verkligheten [Guest of Reality] (novella) 1925

Hjärtats sånger (poetry) 1926

Han som fick leva om sitt liv [The Man Who Lived His Life Over] (play) 1928

Kämpande ande (short stories) 1930

Konungen [The King] (play) 1932

Vid lägereld (poetry) 1932

Bödeln [The Hangman] (novella) 1933

Den knutna näven [The Clenched Fist] (essays) 1934

Mannen utan själ [The Man without a Soul] (play) 1936

Genius (poetry) 1937

Seger i mörker (play) 1939

Midsommardröm i fattighuset [Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse] (play) 1941

Dvärgen [The Dwarf] (novel) 1944

De vises sten [The Philosopher's Stone] (play) 1947

Låt människan leva [Let Man Live] (play) 1949

Barabbas [Barabbas] (novella) 1950

Aftonland [Eveningland] (poetry) 1953

The Eternal Smile and Other Stories (short stories) 1954

The Marriage Feast and Other Stories (short stories) 1955

Sibyllan [The Sibyl] (novella) 1956

Ahasverus död [The Death of Ahasuerus] (novella) 1960

Pilgrim på havet [Pilgrim at Sea] (novella) 1962

Det heliga landet [The Holy Land] (novella) 1964

Mariamne [Herod and Mariamne] (novella) 1967

Antecknat: Ur efterlämnede dagböcker och anteckningar (notes and journals) 1977

Den svåra resan [The Difficult Journey] (novella) 1985

Adèle Bloch (essay date January 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloch, Adèle. “The Mythical Female in the Fictional Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” International Fiction Review 1, no. 1 (January 1974): 48-53.

[In the following essay, Bloch investigates the role of the mythical female in Lagerkvist's fictional works.]

Lagerkvist may be viewed from many angles. Labelled an “existentialist” by some critics,1 he can be compared to his hero Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew who revolts against the injustice of fate, the opacity of the world, the silence of nature and of the divine. For him the Schopenhauer-Freudian concept is valid: man is the author of his own fate, since whatever happens to the individual comes from within. Yet man needs a sense of purpose. Even if there is no real proof of the existence of an external God or Ideal Love or of any ultimate truth, man will create a pattern, or reinterpret his life according to a superior order, for he cannot tolerate the utter nihilism of the arbitrary absurdity inherent in his condition. Existence may precede essence, but Lagerkvist's heroes unconsciously live their lives according to some mythological image or archetype. They all pattern their personalities and follow the paths indicated to them by buried biblical or heathen traditions. Some are more aware than others. They come to understand these mythical forces at maturity. Others garner this understanding only on the verge of death. Others yet, such as Barabbas,2 die in the maternal darkness of the unconscious.

Lagerkvist uses the theory of mythological archetype projection very much in the manner of Thomas Mann whose heroes fashion their natures and destinies according to certain legendary prototypes.3 Fuller recognition of identification with mythical figures is slowly attained by certain individuals, as the generations move towards more civilized levels of conscience. In the case of Lagerkvist's fictional characters, complete self-realization can be gained only after a lifetime of guilt, struggles and re-enactment of some original sins. His heroes descend into hell several times and undergo several partial epiphanies while groping for final answers which cannot be definitely stated. They also change identities along the way. One thing, however, remains a leitmotiv: their pilgrimage is always placed under the aegis of the Magna Mater. She may assume many masks: the sea of oblivion, the hounding witch, the virgin saint of Christianity, the pagan huntress, to name but a few, but she is the feminine dark side of the earth, as conceived by the male spirit.4 Her modifications are due to the state of mind of man, who projects his own emotions and symbolism upon the female, according to his age, his upbringing and his times. She is present in all of Lagerkvist's works and completely engulfs his later novels.

Lagerkvist's heroes, females as well as males, spend their lives in the search for a God or Ideal which would give them a sense of purpose, of peace and of value. In their peregrinations, they must confront their shadow side, namely the Great Mother, upon which they project their own desires, fears and guilt. Basically, the Mythical Mother is neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad. In the circle of life, vice and virtue, moral criteria, are relative. The unconscious may well assume a threatening face, especially to the uninitiated: “Lagerkvist is a very dwelling place of dualisms, of contending opposites, darkness and light, good and evil, the cosmic and the familiar, life and death, comfort and despair.”5

In order to experience a rebirth, it is necessary that these characters come in contact with the divine under its manifold guises. Such a spiritual epiphany requires one or many descents into hell, often expressed as the mines, the bowels of the ship, or the Delphic wombpit.6 It entails one or several attempts to realize the presence of a soul or “anima,” as translated by a variety of symbols.

It is a matter of scant importance whether Lagerkvist is actually a literary exponent of Freudian or Jungian theories. Both interpretations are equally valid in his case. From a Freudian angle, his heroes, when they refer to their childhood at all, were often brought up under abnormal conditions. The Dwarf and Barabbas were warped by parental rejection; Giovanni, the Pilgrim at Sea, was brought up in an atmosphere of hypocrisy by a puritanical mother within the confines of a “stifling, narrow little home.”7 This mother is a typical castrating woman, and her son is overly attached to her. He later becomes a priest to suit her possessive schemes, but falls subsequently into the clutches of an exploiting older mistress, and is finally destroyed by both women. Barabbas, scarred by his father, unwanted by his mother, finds his father in Oedipal fashion and kills him without recognizing his identity, thus enacting an age-old myth, redolent also of the ritual father sacrifice of Chronos by his sons. The Dwarf, less titanic in proportions, has been stunted by maternal rejection: “Thus did my mother sell me, turning from me in disgust when she saw what she had borne and not understanding that I was of an ancient race. She was paid twenty scudi for me and with them she bought three cubits of cloth and a watchdog for her sheep.”8 The Sybil, although brought up by loving parents, grows up without siblings and day-dreams her adolescence away, rejecting the joys of normal life, only to crave them later in almost hysterical fashion, like so many of Thomas Mann's heroes and heroines.9

But although formative trauma may explain some of these characters whose dreams also elicit a strongly sexual content, they are too deeply rooted on common ground and extra-individual symbolism to account for mere infantile repression and adult compensation. The archetypes after which they pattern themselves transcend their own Vita, have resonances in the outside world and in the consciousness of their whole species. Actually Freud himself postulated in Totem and Taboo, written in 1913, the existence of a collective mind, while acknowledging his debt to the sociologist Wundt and to C. J. Jung with whom he did not yet disagree.10 Lagerkvist's fictional heroes are seldom personal; often they are so archetypal in nature as to remain nameless or designated by such vague mythological appellations as “the woman he called Diana,” “the Sybil,” “the Babe.” They represent a whole race or group of kindred men. Some are reprobates such as the Dwarf, Barabbas or King Herod, who belong to the ancient red-haired progeny of Cain, Esau and Judas, sinners and sinned against, firebrands endowed with Promethean traits. On the other hand there is a constant reappearance of minor Cabiric characters, lavatory keepers, pagan temple servants or Christian lay brothers who lead the weary soul to rest, thus mirroring the role of Hermes Psychopompos. It is significant that Tom-Thumb chthonic deities have the soles of their feet black, while their heads are bathed in radiance.11 All are shrouded in hermetic ambiguity which stems from their dual role: service of Apollo, the paternal god of light, and yet devotion to the dark goddess of the underworld.

Lagerkvist rarely elaborates, he suggests in streamlined fashion. Yet every word is pregnant with symbolic meaning. He usually avoids dating the stage on which he places his works, so as to endow them with a cyclical sweep. Some of the locales are loosely set in early Christianity (although he never refers to Christ by name, but by circumlocution so as to emphasize the archetypal nature of the Messianic prototype), others are placed in Apocalyptic days. Still others take place in a prehistorical setting with futuristic overtones. Lagerkvist will not pinpoint his tales in a given span. He presents us with the wheel of time, the returning aeons, blending the ancient with the modern, while the subterranean roots push their ramifications far into the archaic matriarchal antiquity. The past resonates in the present, as the circle revolves from cradle to grave. Meanwhile the locket, which for him symbolizes life and the womb, typical aspects of the Great Mother, gets handed from one person to the next.12 Characters fade and reappear from one work to the next.

One feature, though, remains constant, despite its many guises: that is the Anima Figure of feminine visage of the collective mind. It provides not only a poetic pattern, a meaning which has to be discovered by the writer, his heroes and his readers, to gain more insight into an opaque and seemingly senseless universe, but it lends cohesion to the entire work....

(The entire section is 3582 words.)

Robert T. Rovinsky (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rovinsky, Robert T. “Ibsen and Lagerkvist Revisited.” Scandinavian Studies 50, no. 1 (1978): 39-49.

[In the following essay, Rovinsky determines Henrik Ibsen's influence on Lagerkvist.]

If scholars had accepted without contest Ibsen's words on Kierkegaardian impulses in his plays, this important question would most likely have died in a cul-de-sac.1 Similarly, if present day research continues on its long established tack and follows Pär Lagerkvist's pronouncements on, or rather, against Henrik Ibsen, the study which elucidates the artistic debt he owed his predecessor will never surface.

Ibsen är...

(The entire section is 4318 words.)

Sven Linnér (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Linnér, Sven. “Literary Symbols and Religious Belief.” In Religious Symbols and Their Functions, edited by Haralds Biezais, pp. 117-25. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1978.

[In the following essay, Linnér notes the religious language and imagery in Lagerkvist's work.]

Of all the world's religions, I shall here only be dealing with Christianity; this is the religion I know something about. I also impose strict limitations in the matter of literary examples, which are taken predominantly from modern Swedish literature. But I naturally hope that the views presented here will also prove applicable to other religions and literatures.


(The entire section is 4286 words.)

Gweneth B. Schwab (essay date May 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwab, Gweneth B. “Herod and Barabbas: Lagerkvist and the Long Search.” Scandinavica 20, no. 1 (May 1981): 75-85.

[In the following essay, Schwab asserts that in his novels Barabbas and Herod and Mariamne Lagerkvist “depicts mankind with reference to one of the most significant events in religious history and reveals the same turmoil, confusion, and incompleteness that has always defined man.”]

The world recoiled from World War I only to instigate the forces which would produce World War II. The pattern of crisis of the twentieth century is well known: the crisis of faith in God, of faith in science, of faith in history, and of faith even...

(The entire section is 6008 words.)

Adèle Bloch (essay date summer 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloch, Adèle. “Mythological Syncretism in the Works of Four Modern Novelists.” International Fiction Review 8, no. 2 (summer 1981): 114-18.

[In the following essay, Bloch finds similarities between the main influences on and themes found in the work of Lagerkvist, Thomas Mann, Nikos Kazantsakis, and Jacques Roumain.]

In the nineteen forties and fifties while the world was still in the throes of war and social upheaval, four novelists wrote fictional works with similar archetypal themes. Thomas Mann is the senior author as his Joseph Cycle1 most directly influenced the work of his younger colleagues. The Scandinavian Pär Lagerkvist so...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)

Susan Brantly (essay date May 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brantly, Susan. “The Stylistic Legacy of Religious Literature in Pär Lagerkvist's Poetry.” Scandinavica 22, no. 1 (May 1983): 47-68.

[In the following essay, Brantly explores the religious influences on Lagerkvist's poetry.]

The question of literary influence is a popular but problematic topic within literary studies. Any given literary work is the product of numerous outside influences, the tracing of which is an impossible task of questionable utility. Frederik Böök has described these outside influences upon a poet's labours as, ‘Råmaterialet, hvilket af diktaren präglas med hans egna upplefvelser och formas efter hans eget väsen; en lyrisk dikt...

(The entire section is 10165 words.)

Irene Scobbie (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scobbie, Irene. “The Origins and Development of Lagerkvist's Barabbas.Scandinavian Studies 55, no. 1 (1983): 55-66.

[In the following essay, Scobbie traces Lagerkvist's creative process through an examination of Barabbas.]

During his lifetime Pär Lagerkvist was extremely reticent about his work and about how he experienced the creative process. One gains the impression that he was inspired in the old-fashioned sense of that word, wrote when in an almost visionary state and that he then divorced himself from what he had created. On his death in 1974 when it was revealed that he had kept diaries, correspondence, drafts, manuscripts, typescripts, and...

(The entire section is 5145 words.)

Steven P. Sondrup (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sondrup, Steven P. “Terms of Divergence: The Vocabularies of Pär Lagerkvist's Ångest and Artur Lundkvist's Glöd.Scandinavian Studies 58, no. 1 (1986): 25-36.

[In the following essay, Sondrup considers the influence of Lagerkvist on the poetry of Artur Lundkvist.]

Ich weiß nicht, ob Ihnen unter all dem ermüdenden Geschwätz von Individualität, Stil, Gesinnung, Stimmung und so fort nicht das Bewußtsein dafür abhanden gekommenist, daß das Material der Poesie die Worte sind. …

(Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Poesie und Leben, 1896)

The publication in 1916 of Pär...

(The entire section is 4855 words.)

Hanna Kalter Weiss (essay date May 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Weiss, Hanna Kalter. “‘Myten om Människorna’: The Myth of Modern Man in Pär Lagerkvist's Novels.” Scandinavica 26, no. 1 (May 1987): 13-29.

[In the following essay, Weiss traces Lagerkvist's use of mythology in his work.]

Pär Lagerkvist can rightly be called a maker of modern myth. Drawing from ancient and medieval sources, he recreates these into his own myth of modern man and his dilemma. Lagerkvist's hero is the unbeliever on a constant search for the meaning of life. He is the ugly ‘dwarf’ on Odysseys to the ‘Holy Land’ of forgiveness which, he feels, he does not deserve, but which may eventually come to him through the selfless love of...

(The entire section is 8896 words.)

Ingemar Algulin (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Algulin, Ingemar. “Pär Lagerkvist: Modernist of Timelessness.” In A History of Swedish Literature, pp. 183-91. Sweden: The Swedish Institute, 1989.

[In the following essay, Algulin offers an overview on Lagerkvist's life and career.]

With Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951, Swedish literature got its first modernist, i.e. the first writer to link up more directly with the international movements. He was, however, only to a limited extent a pioneer and leading figure of the new artistic ideas. He went his own way, and the great existential questions always interested him more than contemporary literary life. When he...

(The entire section is 2576 words.)

Roy Arthur Swanson (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Swanson, Roy Arthur. Introduction to Pär Lagerkvist: Five Early Works, translated by Roy Arthur Swanson, pp. 1-61. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Swanson traces Lagerkvist's literary development and delineates the defining characteristics of his work.]


Pär Fabian Lagerkvist was born on May 23, 1891, in Växjö, a southern Swedish town in the Kronoberg district of Småland province; his early writings are cast in the orthography and dialect of this region. His maternal grandparents were farm folk, severely uncompromising in their fundamentalist religion. In their presence Lagerkvist learned the...

(The entire section is 14489 words.)

Nils Åke Nilsson (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nilsson, Nils Åke. “Poetic Naivism: Czeslaw Milosz and Pär Lagerkvist.” Scando-Slavica 36 (1990): 41-53.

[In the following essay, Nilsson finds historical, biographical, and religious similarities between Czeslaw Milosz's poem “Father in the Library” and Lagerkvist's untitled poem from his collection The Road of the Happy Man.]

In 1943 Czesław Miłosz wrote a cycle of poems entitled Świat (The World; there are two English translations, Miłosz 1984 and Miłosz 1988).

The theme of the cycle—a world of childhood and innocence—returns in Miłosz's later prose and poetry. But the form of poetic discourse—indicated...

(The entire section is 5168 words.)

Jeff Polet (essay date fall 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Work of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (fall 2001): 47-63.

[In the following essay, Polet discusses how Lagerkvist's characters mirror his own search for eternal peace and the Kingdom of God, by exploring the connection between social order and freedom and the deepest questions of what he called “human destiny.”]

A variety of literary figures have been highly regarded as critics of totalitarianism: Camus, Kundera, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn among them. Generally absent from this list is Swedish Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist. This is an unfortunate omission, and in the English speaking world...

(The entire section is 8805 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


White, Ray. Pär Lagerkvist in America. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979, 149 p.

Indexes reviews of Lagerkvist's works published in the United States.


Sjoberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 52 p.

Summary of Lagerkvist's life and early works.


Ahnebrink, Lars. “Pär Lagerkvist: A Seeker and a Humanist.” Pacific Spectator 6, no. 4 (autumn 1952): 400-12.

Traces Lagerkvist's development as a writer.

Benson, Adolph...

(The entire section is 643 words.)