Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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.