Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although he is best known outside Sweden for his parable-like novels, Lagerkvist was also a poet, dramatist, and essayist who, throughout his career, adopted radical positions. Like Fyodor Dostoevski, whose views bear some resemblance to his own, Lagerkvist demonstrated an early interest in socialism, but his deepest motivations stemmed from his striving to understand man’s relationship to God, primarily as expressed symbolically through the Crucifixion.

His first novel, Dvargen (1944; The Dwarf, 1945), which was a great popular as well as artistic success, treated intertwined themes that recur in all his mature work: the elusiveness of truth, the unfathomability of life’s ends, and man’s irreconcilability to the reality of his condition. Barabbas (1950; English translation, 1951), his second novel, focused that inquiry in a retelling of the Crucifixion from the point of view of the thief who was spared and who then spent his life trying to deny that Christ’s death had transformed his life. The Sibyl, published several years later, returns to that obsession. Lagerkvist’s most ambitious work up to that time, it confirmed his place among the giants of twentieth century literature; shortly after it appeared, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Subsequently, he extended his narratives dealing with the Crucifixion in the Tobias trilogy, a series built around the emblematic figure of Ahasuerus.