The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.