Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Pär Lagerkvist confronts paganism with theism, as well as an Old Testament concept of God with the Christian gospel of love, to produce an ironic and extremely complex vision of man’s condition. The Sibyl assumes a role that obviously parallels that of the Virgin Mary. Her ecstatic surrender to God fails, however, to provide a realization of her humanity; that comes to her only through the human love she finds with the one-armed man. Then, by drowning her lover, God seems to emphasize man’s insufficiency (the man has only one hand with which to grasp for safety, and the branch from the laurel that is sacred to the god snaps as if to scorn his effort) and to punish her for daring to believe in her happiness.

She continues to cling to an earthly answer to life’s pain by looking upon the child in her womb as a kind of resurrection for her lover. That hope, too, seems mocked when it becomes clear that the god has fathered her son. The boy’s idiocy might make sense if she could interpret it as punishment, but she is denied even that consolation—that God’s son should be so horribly flawed appears to be utterly meaningless.

Yet the grief she feels when her son disappears and, in his disappearance, reveals his divinity finally discloses the lesson in life’s paradox. In a curious way, it is the same lesson she presents to the stranger who has come to her seeking a solution to the riddle of the human relationship to God. Ahasuerus is a Job without faith, a Job who despairs, but even that despair is better than nothingness. God manifests Himself in man’s pain and hatred as well as in his love. Even the attempt to reject Him is an acknowledgment that His mysterious power cannot be escaped.