Selma Lagerlöf Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The first novel published by Selma Lagerlöf (LAH-gur-lurv), Gösta Berling’s Saga, is a cycle of stories with a common setting and a shared cast of characters; short stories, particularly tales drawn from oral traditions of her native Värmland, are Lagerlöf’s most characteristic form. Lagerlöf published several volumes of stories, and two of her works, The Treasure and the trilogy The Ring of the Löwenskölds, could be classified as tales. Two of Lagerlöf’s major story collections, Osynliga länkar (1894; Invisible Links, 1899) and Drottningar i Kungahälla (1899; From a Swedish Homestead, 1901; also in The Queens of Kungahälla, and Other Sketches, 1917), followed the publication of her first novel. In Invisible Links, Lagerlöf relies on plots from Swedish folk legends. The Queens of Kungahälla is based on the Norwegian royal sagas—the Heimskringla (twelfth century) and others—that record the careers and legends of medieval Scandinavian kings. Lagerlöf has presented these well-known stories from the point of view of the women in them.

Lagerlöf is also the author of the classic of Swedish children’s literature, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-1907; The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1907; The Further Adventures of Nils, 1911). Commissioned by the National Teachers’ Association of Sweden,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Selma Lagerlöf spent years searching for the right poetic form in which to present the stories that became Gösta Berling’s Saga. In an age dominated by Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and other realists whose plays and novels were strongly naturalistic and often addressed current social issues, Lagerlöf found her own artistic energies frustrated. She did try writing for a time in a realistic style and, for many years, conceived of all of her works as poems. Her talent, however, was not to be realized as a debater of contemporary problems, nor was she to become an explorer of psychological consciousness. Rather, Lagerlöf yearned to express what she believed were the heroic, elemental, and spiritual strains running through daily life. Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) gave her a sense of what was to become the epic fairy-tale atmosphere so characteristic of her mature work. In contrast to her contemporaries, many of whom examined their characters’ psychological sensibilities in elaborate and often painful detail, Lagerlöf created characters marked by tragedy, sorrow, and joy, but who move through their lives with a stately dignity given to them by an author who, as a matter of decorum and aesthetic choice, does not violate a character’s privacy.

With the appearance of her first book, Lagerlöf’s distinctly unmodern aesthetic, perhaps more at home in the ninth century than the...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Has criticism of Selma Lagerlöf been influenced by antifeminism?

Consider the ways in which Lagerlöf’s difficult early life became a boon to her as a writer.

Contrast Lagerlöf’s stories of Nils with works recommended for American schoolchildren today.

What makes a work such as Mårbacka, much concerned with “place,” succeed as autobiography?

What are the roots of Lagerlöf’s optimism?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Berendsohn, Walter A. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work. London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1931. An early study still valuable for situating Lagerlöf in her homeland and ancestry. Berendsohn explains the development of Gösta Berling’s Saga and Lagerlöf’s handling of folklore and legend.

De Vrieze, F. S. Fact and Fiction in the Autobiographical Works of Selma Lagerlöf. Assen, the Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1958. Greatly illuminates Lagerlöf’s two volumes of autobiography.

Edstrom, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An introductory study offering chapters of “biographical perspective,” discussions of Lagerlöf’s stories and short novels, the novels of the 1910’s, the Löwensköld trilogy, and Lagerlöf and the role of the writer. Includes a chronology, notes, and a bibliography.

Gustafson, Alrik. Six Scandinavian Novelists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. Still cited as a classic introduction to Lagerlöf. A wide-ranging discussion.

Johannesson, Eric O. “Isak Dinesen and Selma Lagerlöf.” Scandinavian Studies 32 (1960): 18-26. A succinct comparison of two great novelists.

Lagerroth, Erland. “The Narrative Art of Selma Lagerlöf: Two Problems.” Scandinavian Studies 33 (1961): 10-17. One of the few discussions in English of Lagerlöf’s narrative technique.

Nylander, Lars T. “Psychologism and the Novel: The Case of Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berlings saga.” Scandinavian Studies 67 (Fall, 1995): 407-433. A more recent analysis.

Olson-Buckner, Elsa. The Epic Tradition in “Gösta Berling’s Saga.” New York: Theodore Gans, 1979. An in-depth study.

Popp, Danie, and E. C. Barksdale. “Selma Lagerlöf: The Taleteller’s Fugues.” Scandinavian Studies 53 (1981): 405-412. A good discussion of structural principles in Lagerlöf’s fiction.

Rahn, Suzanne. Rediscoveries in Children’s Literature. New York: Garland, 1995. A study of The Wonderful Adventure of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils.

St. Andrews, Bonnie. Forbidden Fruit: On the Relationship Between Women and Knowledge in Doris Lessing, Selma Lagerlöf, Kate Chopin, and Margaret Atwood. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986. An analysis of ethics in Lagerlöf’s work as well as in three later twentieth century female novelists.