Selma Lagerlöf World Literature Analysis
When Selma Lagerlöf accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1909, she surprised the audience of notables by responding not with the lecture they expected, but with a story. In an imagined encounter with her dead father, which she related with great charm, Lagerlöf was able not only to thank everyone who had made her success possible but also to sum up the essence of her work. When she expressed her indebtedness to those who had filled her youth with folktales and legends, Lagerlöf was suggesting the extent to which her realistic writing is colored by fantasy. Like the peasants at Mårbacka, Lagerlöf’s characters are unworldly people, living close to nature and to natural creatures; at the same time, however, they dwell on another level, in a world of gentle saints and beguiling devils, ghosts and trolls, visions and dreams, human passion and divine judgment. What skeptics might call the world of the imagination is very real to them, and it becomes just as real to Lagerlöf’s readers.
For example, in Jerusalem, Lagerlöf shows how certain some Dalecarlian peasants were that they had been called by God to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She does not mock their spiritual experience; indeed, by revealing her characters’ inner conflicts, the anguish they feel as they tear themselves away from their homes and their fields to set out for an alien land, she gives them heroic stature. Although the pilgrims prove to have been misled by their voices, and though in the Holy Land they become less than holy, this does not diminish the importance of what Lagerlöf sees as an eternal struggle: To be human, one must live in two worlds, the natural and the supernatural, even though in the process one may well be destroyed.
The tension between the natural and the supernatural is also illustrated in The Miracles of Antichrist. While the novel is set in Sicily, rather than in Sweden, Lagerlöf describes the natural surroundings with the same loving detail that in other novels she devotes to her native landscape. Similarly, though her own people are Lutherans, she treats the Catholic beliefs of Sicilian peasants with obvious respect. At the same time, just as in Jerusalem, Lagerlöf tells a story of faith gone wrong. The more accustomed people are to believing in the unseen, the more likely they are to follow false gods. In this case, the new faith is socialism, which, ironically, destroys the very spiritual sensitivity that enabled it to win converts.
If receptivity to the supernatural can bring human beings to destruction, it can also save them. For example, in Liliecrona’s Home, evil, in the form of the wicked stepmother, is defeated only when she is exposed; once she is known to be a troll, she must disappear. Similarly, Lagerlöf’s one story for children shows how the magical transformation of Nils Holgersson into a nonhuman creature results in his becoming a better human being.
The complexity of Lagerlöf’s fiction is clearly illustrated by the work which has been called Lagerlöf’s finest novella. Herr Arnes penningar (1904; The Treasure, 1925), is a fictional retelling of a real event. In the sixteenth century, Scottish raiders attacked a Swedish coastal settlement and massacred the residents, except for a single witness. In Lagerlöf’s story, this witness, a young girl, later encounters a handsome Scot and falls as desperately in love with him as he insists he is with her. If she will go with him to Scotland, he says, he can give her high rank and immense wealth. Then, typically, Lagerlöf introduces the supernatural. The protagonist is visited by the ghost of her foster sister, who identifies the Scottish lover as one of the murderers. When the young girl accuses her lover, he decides to escape by using her as a shield. She thwarts him by killing herself. In what must be interpreted as divine intervention, the harbor then freezes, holding the ships in place until the murderers can be removed and punished.
In The Treasure can be found all the elements of Lagerlöf’s works: a realistic setting; an exciting plot, often, as here, inspired by a historical incident; psychological veracity, in the description of her characters’ inner conflicts; the presence of the supernatural; and an ending in which good triumphs over evil. This final characteristic of her work must be seen in the context of Lagerlöf’s own subscription to the Christian faith. For her, a happy ending is one in which a human being becomes more nearly what God expects him or her to be. This may result in a better life, as in the case of Nils, or in a triumphant death, as in The Treasure, in which the unhappy girl gives up her love and her life for the sake of justice and, presumably, goes to her reward in a world as perfect as this one is imperfect.
Interestingly, the fusion of the real and the magical, which from the publication of her first novel so enchanted Lagerlöf’s readers, aroused the anger of critics. They approved of her believable peasants and her vivid descriptions of country life, which were consistent with the tenets of realism, the literary movement to which most writers and critics were then fully committed. When she introduced fantastic or supernatural characters and episodes into her fiction, however, these literary critics believed that she was attempting to bring back the earlier Romanticism, which they believed had been discredited and which they hoped was extinct. Only when the insightful Danish critic Georg Brandes defended her work as something original and new rather than as a return to an earlier convention did she receive general acceptance from the literary establishment. By insisting on being herself, rather than writing in a predetermined formula, Lagerlöf performed one of her greatest services to her art. Undoubtedly she cleared the way for...
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