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Last Updated on September 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

The first of Strindberg’s so-called “chamber plays,” The Pelican uses a series of props and dramatic devices to parody the institution of the traditional family. The play opens on what seems to be a wholesome, if mournful, setting: a parlor decorated as if for a recent funeral. The flowers, intended to bring a sense of life and vibrancy to the mournful atmosphere, repulse Elise, who interprets their aroma as a reminder of her husband’s death. As a family environment, the house is shown as having everything and yet nothing. The rocking chair, a symbol of maternity where infants are traditionally rocked to sleep, rocks grotesquely for most of the play with no one sitting in it. This prop represents the lack of maternal care experienced by Gerda and Fredrik.

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Food also plays an important role in this play, metaphorically representing emotional nourishment. Margret, the cook—given that her province is the family’s food—is therefore in an authoritative position to lecture Elise on how she has left her children emotionally starved. Alcohol is, for Fredrik as for his father, a means of physical and emotional sustenance that keeps him from suicide and gives him the courage to confront his mother about her abusive treatment of him in the past. Alcohol also likely plays a role in inspiring him to light the fire that destroys the house, a fire that, due to its beginning in the kitchen—a place of physical starvation for Fredrik—is metaphorically shown to stem from a place of emotional starvation within him.

In this play, the reader can also observe the thematic elements relating to the occult and to the wildness of natural elements that are characteristic of Strindberg’s earliest works. The occasional and sudden gusts of wind that intrude into the house represent the otherworldly presence of the father, eager to take revenge on the woman who tormented him. At one point the wind is shown to scatter papers, here symbolic of modernity and civilization, and so to create room for the primal and horrific way in which the play ends. Fire, too, plays a key symbolic role as a purifying force in the play. Elise and Axel initially use fire in an attempt to hide the father’s letter from Fredrik, though this attempt fails, almost as if their crimes are too horrible to be burned away. Fredrik’s ultimate decision to start a fire, on the other hand, stems from years of frustration, wherein his mother had constantly forbidden him from doing so. The fire that destroys the house with all its bitter memories finally provides the young man with the warmth he had longed for during his childhood, and his sister with a relief from her knowledge of what life truly is—a truth which she had previously stated she could never come to terms with.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

The Pelican opens in a living room with a chiffonier, a writing table, a chaise lounge with a purple-red lap rug, and a rocking chair. Mother, dressed in mourning clothes, listens to the music of Frédéric Chopin. She is bothered by the smell of funeral flowers and the sight of the chaise lounge, Father’s deathbed, but she cannot get rid of the furniture until the estate has been settled. Harboring a guilty conscience, she is bothered by a mysterious presence lingering outside the house and always wants the door shut. Although she believes that she has sacrificed for her children, she has needlessly scrimped on food and has refused to light fires, despite the fact that her husband earned a considerable sum of money. As a result, her children are weak and sickly, and Margaret, her cook, tired of ill treatment, threatens to leave. Mother, however, will not be needing Margaret, because Mother is going to live with her newly married daughter, Gerda, and her son-in-law, Axel, whom she likes. Margaret intimates that Mother’s devotion to Axel is more than platonic.

When Margaret has left, the son, Frederick, cold and drunk, comes in coughing. Mother accuses Frederick of being callous because he is concerned about his inheritance, yet she herself cannot understand why there is no will. She even tries to pry information out of Frederick. Frederick is an impoverished law student, but Mother will give him no money for warm clothes. Frederick, who has no love for his mother, accuses her of spending money on trips abroad and eating at fancy restaurants while depriving her family of necessities and feeding them food that either lacks nutritional value or is overseasoned. Throughout her argument with Frederick, Mother is still bothered by a presence outside the house, and she tells Frederick to take down his father’s portrait because it has evil eyes.

After Frederick leaves, Axel enters and is greeted warmly by Mother. Axel has been bored on his honeymoon with Gerda and remembers that at his wedding he danced with Mother and wrote her a poem, calling her a pelican. Most of all, however, Axel wants to know what has happened to the estate. They search the chiffonier and pull out a hidden document just when Gerda is knocking on the door. Gerda voices suspicions about the locked door, but Mother changes the subject. Axel and Gerda decide to live in the house with Mother. As they exit, the wind blows, papers fly, and a picture falls off the wall.

Mother returns. Startled by the swaying rocker, she recovers, but she will continue to be bothered by the rocker throughout the play. The hidden document turns out to be a letter from Father, accusing Mother of ruining and murdering him. Appalled, Mother wants to leave, but Axel, who has married Gerda for the inheritance, sees no other option but to stay and live on Mother’s money. Mother and Axel had murdered Father legally by driving him to despair; when Mother left Father to spend the night with Axel, Father howled outside their window like a madman. Axel and Mother, compatriots in crime, are doomed. As Axel abandons both Gerda and Mother to go to a meeting, Mother realizes his hypocrisy.

In scene 2, Gerda and Frederick become closer and start to wake up to Mother’s deceitfulness. Unwilling in the past to face the truth, Gerda has always defended Mother. The two siblings realize that their parents’ marriage was deeply unhappy, despite hypocritical displays of affection such as they performed at their silver anniversary celebration. When Gerda continues to defend Mother, Frederick accuses all the women of being conspirators, a secret Mafia. As he goes to light the fire, Frederick discovers his father’s letter, pieces it together, and becomes distraught when he reads it. The letter reveals how Mother stole money from the household budget while she deprived her family and how Axel borrowed money from Mother, then married Gerda for mercenary reasons. Gerda suspected this ruse, but did not want to believe it. Frederick reminds her that Axel slapped her on their wedding night. Knowing they are doomed, the two siblings vow to avenge their father. They taunt Axel with innuendos, and when Mother comes in with pudding, Gerda deliberately takes the group out to eat steak and sandwiches; now Axel and Mother know something has happened.

In scene 3, the group turns against Mother. Gerda accuses Mother of cooking tasteless meals and hoarding the best food for herself. Axel orders Mother to light the fire and to eat weak porridge, ignoring Mother’s threats to throw herself out the window. Next, Frederick reminds Mother that she gave him over to nursemaids, who took him to prostitutes who abused him. Even when confronted with such charges, Frederick realizes, she will remain blind to her complicity in murdering her husband and destroying her children’s lives. Panic-stricken, Mother finds that Frederick’s rocking sounds like knives being whetted. Finding her so evil that he pities her, Frederick leaves as Mother opens the window and sees Father’s ghost. Frightened by the blast of wind, Mother turns on all the electric lights, but Gerda turns them off and tries to feed Mother oatmeal. She accuses her deluded mother of teaching her how to torment Father and steal from him.

Defending herself, Mother claims that she also had an unhappy childhood and learned her wiles from her family; all families are guilty of treachery. If life is so dismal, Gerda does not want to live. Suddenly, they smell smoke: Frederick has set the house on fire. Mother jumps out the window as Frederick and Gerda hug each other. The ugly memories of the house go up in flames as Gerda remembers a happy Christmas and Frederick recalls a boating trip when Mother joined them on the boat. They huddle close to the floor consumed in flames as the stage is bathed in red light.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

August Strindberg makes use of many dramatic devices in The Pelican. Food becomes a symbol for emotional nourishment. The absence of this emotional nourishment is seen in the food that provides no sustenance. Food in Mother’s house is light as air, overseasoned, and overcooked. The milk is skimmed; the tea, weak; and the fish, rancid. People are fed porridge, oatmeal, rye bread, and vinegar. Thus, the children are weak and undernourished, both physically and emotionally. The physical coldness in the house represents the emotional coldness brought on by a lack of love. Frederick is always coughing because he is freezing, and Mother will not give him the money to buy warm clothes. Even the maids are freezing, but Mother refuses to light the fire and hides the firewood. Also, the house is dark, without the light of human joy, for Mother will not let anyone turn on more than a few electric lights.

The most effective dramatic device is the symbolic presence of the dead father, who is a focal character. The odor of his death is still in the house, forcing Mother to open windows. His presence is felt stalking the garden and haunting Mother. His portrait stares at Mother with “evil” eyes. Frederick’s howls of agony echo Father’s fiendish cries the night he found Mother unfaithful. Moreover, Father’s rocker keeps rocking, sounding like knives being sharpened. The chaise lounge where he died looks like a “bloody butcher’s block.” Even the letter his son finds is a sign of Father’s voice speaking from the grave and condemning Mother. Like a vengeful god, he is embodied in the storm raging outside the house.

In the end, the tide turns: Mother must eat mush, feel the freezing cold, and have the electric lights turned off against her wishes. She falls down in panic on the death-couch of her husband. And when she jumps out the window, she falls toward Father’s ghost, which haunts the garden.

In this play, Strindberg employs two literary motifs: the Orestes theme and the Hamlet theme. In the myth of Orestes, Orestes and Electra plot the death of their mother Clytemnestra, who has killed their father Agamemnon. The purple-red covering on the chaise lounge could allude to the red carpet used to trap Agamemnon, and the image of the bloody butcher’s block might serve for the bloody bath where he was stabbed. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet to avenge his murder, which was plotted by his wife’s lover. Like Hamlet, Frederick has a disdain for life and its falsehoods, avoids marriage, broods over his father, hears the voice of his dead father proclaiming a foul murder, and dies in the process of avenging his father’s murder. Through the use of these scenic effects and dramatic devices, including the musical pieces that open each scene and the red lighting at the end, Strindberg creates compelling theater.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

Sources for Further Study

Carlson, Harry G. Out of the Inferno: Strindberg’s Reawakening as an Artist. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Dahlström, Carl E. W. L. “The Pelican.” In Strindberg’s Dramatic Expressionism. 1930. 2d ed. New York: B. Blom, 1965.

Johnson, Walter. Introduction to The Pelican. In A Dream Play and Four Chamber Plays. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Lamm, Martin. “The Pelican.” In August Strindberg. Translated and edited by Harry G. Carlson. New York: B. Blom, 1971.

Marker, F. J., and Christopher Innes, eds. Modernism in European Drama. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Robinson, Michael, ed. and trans. Strindberg and Genre. Chester Spring, Pa.: Dufour-Novik, 1991.

Sprinchorn, Evert. “The Chamber Plays.” In Strindberg as Dramatist. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Törnqvist, Egil. “The Pelican.” In Strindbergian Drama. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982.

Ward, John. “The Pelican.” In The Social and Religious Plays of Strindberg. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980.

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