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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1908

First published: Roda rummet, 1879 (English translation, 1913)

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realistic satire

Time of work: 1870’s

Locale: Stockholm and X-koping, a provincial town in Sweden

Principal Characters:

Arvid Falk, a writer

Charles Nicholas Falk, his brother and a businessman

Mrs. Charles Nicholas Falk

Olle Sellen, a painter

Lundell, a practical painter

Montanus, a philosopher and sculptor

Ygberg, a philosopher

Rehnhjelm, a would-be actor

Levin, a post-office clerk

Nystrom, a schoolmaster

Smith, a publisher

Falander, an actor

Agnes (Beda Petterson), a young actress

Struve, a journalist

Borg, a young doctor

The Story:

Arvid Falk, a young government worker who wanted to be a poet, told Struve, a journalist, some facts concerning the waste and inadequacy of a government department where he, Arvid, had worked. Struve worked this material into an expose for a newspaper that was looking for sensational stories. Arvid was discharged for giving out the information.

Arvid’s brother, Charles Nicholas, was a flax merchant. He liked to feel that he was supporting Arvid by lending him money, offering him cigars, and inviting him to dinner. He could not believe that Arvid, despite certain unconventional opinions, would give out such information for publication. Charles Nicholas was a rising merchant, but his favorite cronies were a beaten clerk named Levin and an apathetic schoolmaster named Nystrom. Levin and Nystrom would flatter Charles Nicholas and write him fulsome verses of appreciation for the small sums of money he lent them. Charles Nicholas had a young wife who slept until noon every day and aspired to become a social and civic leader.

Arvid visited his friends: Sellen and Lundell, who were painters; Rehnhjelm, who ardently desired to be an actor; and Olle Montanus and Ygberg, who spent all day arguing the fine points of philosophy. All were serious about their art or their arguments, and all were poor. Although the practical Lundell made a living by doing magazine illustrations, the group had little money; frequently they were forced to combine their credit or pawn some of their clothes in order to scrape together enough money for dinner.

Out of a job, Arvid brought some of his verses to Smith, a successful publisher who offered Arvid the job of writing about Ulrica Eleonora, a Swedish historical personage, and doing hack work on other trite and uninteresting subjects. Arvid tried to do the work, in which he had no interest at all, but he was unable to complete his dull assignments. He joined his friends in the Red Room, a cafe where they gathered, argued, and spent as little money as possible.

Arvid finally got a job on a newspaper. As a reporter on the affairs of Parliament, he did his work successfully, although he was privately outraged at the time wasted in interminable and senseless discussions. Most of the Swedes, however, were proud of their new, more democratic Parliament.

About this time Sellen had succeeded in getting a picture hung in the Academy show. At first it was pointed out as an example of the new decadent, Bohemian art, and as such he was criticized by one of the papers. For reasons having nothing to do with art, another paper defended Sellen’s painting, and he became a hotly debated and highly successful young man. For the moment all the members of this Bohemian group were working; they were able to pay for their drinks at the Red Room and recover the overcoats they had pawned.

When a group of unscrupulous men organized a marine insurance company called Triton, Charles Nicholas Falk was pleased and flattered to be a member of their board. At the same time his wife was pleased to be on a committee organized to erect a large creche for a church. Charles Nicholas helped to forward his wife’s social ambitions by making a large donation for the creche, but he made the donation with shares of the marine insurance company. When Mrs. Falk was accepted by society, she made visits to the homes of poor people and tried to convert them to believing in her church. She had little success and assumed that the poor people were simply ignorant and uncouth. Later, when the marine insurance company was proved to be a hoax and collapsed, the project for the creche, along with Mrs. Falk’s social aspirations, had to be abandoned.

In the meantime, Rehnhjelm had gone to the town of X-koping and joined a theatrical company. He played only minor parts and the theater manager took advantage of him, but he felt that he was learning the profession. He was impressed by Falander, a suave older actor, and he fell in love with Agnes, a sixteen-year-old ingenue. His love for Agnes was pure and idealistic; and he did not know that she had long been Falander’s mistress. When he finally and belatedly discovered this fact, he thought he would commit suicide in his despair at the wickedness in the world. Instead, he returned to Stockholm and the security offered by his wealthy family.

Arvid became a successful journalist, and his poems were published at last. He occasionally moved from paper to paper in the hope that each would offer him the opportunity to report the news as honestly as he saw it, but the papers were interested only in versions of news or scandal that would fit their particular needs. Frustrated in his efforts, Arvid became friendly with Borg, a cynical and iconoclastic doctor, and he fell in love with Beda Petterson, a young girl who worked in a Stockholm cafe. The vogue for Sellen’s work had ended, and he was again poor. In the meantime Lundell had become a society portrait painter. One night Borg found Arvid in a low dive with two representatives of a paper even lower than the conventional papers Arvid had found so unprincipled. Arvid had gone raving mad. Borg took him on a ship voyage under treatment for his nervous breakdown.

When Arvid recovered and returned to Stockholm, he found that the old group at the Red Room had broken up. Olle Montanus, unable to work except as a stonemason, had finally committed suicide. Sellen’s painting had again become fashionable. Charles Nicholas had, strangely enough, emerged unscathed from the Triton disaster and was about to establish a bank. Arvid discovered that Beda Petterson and Rehnhjelm’s Agnes were really the same woman, a kind of symbol for the faithless woman whose only allegiance is a physical connection to some man. None of his living friends or associates retained any semblance of the idealism and honesty that had once motivated all of their actions and conversations. Arvid himself became a conventional schoolmaster, married a schoolmistress, and studied numismatics in his spare time. Only Borg, the skeptic who expected nothing, remained unchanged.

Critical Evaluation:

August Strindberg’s status as a giant of the modern theater has greatly overshadowed the fact that he was also a prolific novelist. To most non-Scandinavians, Strindberg’s fiction is remembered as quasi-autobiographical adjuncts to such dramatic masterpieces as THE FATHER (1887), MISS JULIE (1888), THE DANCE OF DEATH (1901), A DREAM PLAY (1902), and THE GHOST SONATA (1907). To Scandinavian readers, however, Strindberg’s reputation as a novelist almost equals his status as a playwright, and his first published novel, THE RED ROOM, is frequently considered to be the first modern Swedish novel.

As in all of Strindberg’s writings, there is a strong autobiographical flavor to THE RED ROOM. The protagonist, Arvid Falk, in many ways resembles the young Strindberg and reflects his brief foray into journalism (1872-1874). Most of the characters who gather in the “red room” are modeled on artistic comrades acquired during those newspaper years. The financial manipulations and disasters, particularly the “Triton Insurance” affair, were suggested by Strindberg’s own bankruptcy in the wake of the financial crisis of 1878.

It is a mistake, however, to read THE RED ROOM as straight autobiography. Strindberg’s tone throughout the novel is detached, ironic, and, although bitter at times, essentially comic. While Arvid Falk’s experiences parallel many of Strindberg’s own, the character is too naive, foolish, and frivolous to be accepted as self-portraiture. The novel can be more easily understood as a skillful blending of comic BILDUNGSROMAN, social satire, and “idea” novel.

Like all of Strindberg’s novels, and, in a different way, his plays, THE RED ROOM is basically a quest for identity. As the typical hero of a BILDUNGSROMAN, or novel of education, initiation, and development, Arvid is personally bland and learns through the examples and advice of “mentors” who surround him. Each mentor represents a particular social role and/or philosophical viewpoint. At the same time, these figures are used by Strindberg as satirical targets, enabling him to vent his anger on any and all social abuses in view—official indolence, creative exploitation, religious fakery, insurance swindle, feminine hypocrisy, journalistic distortion, parliamentary duplicity, and dishonest reformism. Thus, Strindberg is able to brilliantly combine his quest for identity theme with a satirical portrait of nineteenth century middle-class Swedish society.

Instead of equipping him to find psychological equilibrium and socially meaningful work, Arvid’s search only confuses and demoralizes him. Each new mentor and every new learning experience only serve to further disillusion and depress him. His employers and business associates all exploit or disappoint him. His bohemian friends, who have committed their lives to art, all either starve, sell out, or commit suicide. Thus, Arvid’s education brings him to the edge of madness, and only the intervention of Borg, the cynical doctor, saves his sanity. In the end Arvid’s only survival is in total conformity, suppression of all creative impulses, and escape into conventional marriage and esoteric scholarship.

Behind the personal psychology and social satire of THE RED ROOM, Strindberg makes a number of philosophical speculations. Three attitudes toward life are offered: idealism, realism, and nihilism. Arvid is the idealist, first described as “a child; he still believed in everything, truth and fairy tales alike,” and his is the one philosophy that is quickly and thoroughly discredited. Realism in this book means to accept the corruption of the system and attempt to turn it to personal advantage. The only characters in the novel who thrive are those realists—and they are also the most despicable.

Strindberg seems to side philosophically with the nihilists—Falander, the actor, and Olle Montanus, the sculptor. Both characters articulate their philosophies at length but find them difficult to live with. Although externally successful, Falander is deeply disturbed by his painful vision and drowns his nihilism in absinthe. Montanus acts out the implications of the philosophy. Discouraged by his inability to make his contemporaries aware of the state of art and society in Sweden, as well as by his own limits as an artist—and the limitations of art itself—Olle commits suicide. Only Borg, whose cynicism is very close to nihilistic, but who emotionally detaches himself from the implications of his ideas, is able to survive both the corrupt materialism of his society and the metaphysical pointlessness of his own existence.

Strindberg, however, does not rest easily with pessimism. There is too much energy and humor in his characterizations and too much lyrical beauty in his natural descriptions to support a completely bleak view. What remains is not a neat psychological, social, or philosophical statement, but a provocative and powerful vision of man in conflict with himself, his society, and his cosmos.

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