Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Destructive Nature of Family Dysfunction
The idea of family dysfunction encompasses thematic elements in perhaps a majority of plays from Aeschylus up to the present day. Strindberg's focus, however, is on the perpetuation of dysfunction from one generation to the next and on the potential for total destruction that lies within the core of a family's "problems." Toward the end of the play, the mother, Elise, asks her daughter, Gerda, if she can possibly know how bad her own (Elise's) childhood was. The question is then posed whether each generation in succession should blame the previous one—their parents—ad infinitum. Though this question is an unsurprising one, given our thinking about how environment and upbringing shape our lives, it's surprising how seldom it is actually stated in literature as forcefully as Strindberg does here. Seldom, also, do we see an expression of hopelessness about a dysfunctional dynamic as intense as that shown in The Pelican.
The Dysfunction Caused by Self-Deception
Each of the characters in the play is deluding herself in one way or another. The worst case is that of Elise, who believes her son-in-law, Axel, loves her. She also believes she has treated her children properly when, in fact, she has been neglectful and selfish, depriving them of things and using the household money (her husband's income of "20,000 crowns" per year) for herself. She is thus an inverted form of the pelican of legend that feeds her children with her own blood. Her daughter, Gerda, must have initially deluded herself that her husband, Axel, loved her, when in reality he was interested chiefly in her money. Fredrik, Elise's son and Gerda's brother, is probably the least self-delusional character, but his apparent sickliness and self-imposed isolation cause him to appear at least as dysfunctional as the others.
The Destructive Nature of Guilt
As selfish and deceptive as the Elise is, her own sense of guilt is palpable and ultimately destroys her. Her inefficient attempt to destroy her late husband's letter to Fredrik could be seen as an unconscious sign of that guilt. She could easily have torn the letter into far more pieces before throwing it in the cold furnace, from which Fredrik retrieves it and rather easily pieces it together. Her too-frequent protests that she did the best she could for her children also show her barely suppressed awareness of all the wrong she has done.
The Complexity of Illicit Desire
Both Elise and Axel are consumed with guilt, but there also seems a genuine and, of course, guilt-ridden sexual passion between them. This brings out the idea of the attraction-repulsion of illicit desire. Though in The Pelican this theme takes its own particular form, it is related to a recurring motif in literature: that of incest, or relationships that verge on incest. In the Hippolytus of Euripides, it is a women's desire for her stepson that drives the plot, as in Racine's treatment of the same material in Phèdre, and in other plays such as Schiller's Don Carlos. In The Pelican, we see both a woman's desire for her son-in-law and her envy of her daughter—despite the constant references to Gerda's "not having sprouted yet" as a result, presumably, of a childhood of privation, which itself was caused by her mother.
Catharsis Through Destruction
In the burning house, we see the cleansing of the family's guilt. The only way the dynamic among the characters can be changed or negated is through destruction. It is as pessimistic an ending as one can find in theater but, perhaps, a realistic one.