Last Updated on September 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
There is a bitter irony in the title of the chamber play The Pelican by August Strindberg. Identifying with the pelican (the mother-bird who, as a legend has it, sacrificially gives her own blood to her chicks), the mother of the bourgeois family, Elise, has doomed her children to starvation. As she responds to her guileful son-in-law, Axel, who refers to his poetic eulogy composed in her honor, she remembers the lines in which he named her the “pelican”:
The poem to me, do you mean? Ah, yes, never has a mother-in-law received such verses at her daughter’s wedding . . . Remember the lines about the pelican who gives her blood for her young, I cried, you know . . . I cried . . .
Elise has for many years deprived her son and daughter of necessities, buying herself luxuries, bringing her husband to the grave, desiring her son-in-law (Axel), and later marrying Axel to her daughter. It becomes obvious then that Axel has been only waiting for an opportune moment to get hold of what is left of Elise’s late husband’s estate. Elise’s children, Fredrik and Gerda, hate her and want to take revenge.
Elise, however, does not seem to be aware of her monstrous selfishness and cruelty, because she believes herself to be a caring mother. In this play, the concept of truth is central. The mother robs her children of food and care, but she also contributes to their deceitful perception of their late father. She holds the truth about him back from them. This atmosphere of deception, concealment, and suppression of truth causes the children to live in a state of half-dream and to lie to themselves. This particularly applies Gerda, as she herself testifies:
Let me sleep. I know I’ll wake up, but not yet, not for a long time. All this, so much I don’t really know, but can sense! Remember as children . . . people said you were bad if you told the truth . . . wicked little mind, they said, and all I did was tell the truth . . . so I learned to keep quiet . . . and everyone said, she’s so well behaved; and I learned to say things I didn’t mean, and then I was ready to go out into life.
Only death can solve such a conflict. The fire at the end of the play in which the whole family perishes grows to cosmic dimensions. Elise, who has dominated the scene, becomes her own opposite in the end—helpless and crushed. Fredrik and Gerda, who have been living in a lethargic state, come to their senses and become capable of taking most decisive steps. Their liberation comes through death. Strindberg creates the ultimate form of death’s materialization: Fredrik and Gerda burn themselves and the whole house, while Elise jumps down from the balcony and kills herself. But in this purifying fire, the children are relieved of their bitter remembrances, which makes way for a brighter vision—a hope dawning beyond the threshold of this world. As Gerda concludes,
Everything must burn. It’s the only way out. Hold me, Fredrik, hold me hard, little brother. I’m so happy, happier than I’ve ever been. It’s getting light.