The Story of Gösta Berling

by Selma Lagerlof

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Gösta Berling stands in the pulpit on what for him is a critical Sunday. The congregation complains of his conduct to the bishop, who thereupon comes to investigate his ministry. Gösta drinks far too much and too often. With his crony, Christian Bergh, he begins to spend more and more time in tavern taprooms, and brandy becomes a necessity for him.

That morning, he preaches his sermon as if inspired. At the end of the service, the bishop stands up and asks for complaints against the minister, but no one says a word. In his heart, Gösta feels love for his flock. As he sits up that night, thinking of the wonder that happened, Bergh comes to his window to assure him that the bishop will never trouble him again. With the intention of helping his drinking crony, Bergh drove the bishop and his attendant priests in his carriage, taking them on a wild ride, up and down hill and over plowed fields at top speed. Drawing up at their destination, he warned the bishop not to bother Gösta again. As a result, Gösta is dismissed from the church.

He becomes a beggar. In the winter he has only rags on his feet. He meets the twelve-year-old daughter of the wicked clergyman of Bro. Neglected by her father, she is hauling a heavy sled with a sack of meal for her own food. Gösta takes hold of the rope with her. When she leaves him in charge of the sled, he promptly barters both sled and meal for brandy.

Awaking from a drunken sleep, Gösta sees Margareta Samzelius, the major’s wife, looking at him with compassion. Margareta, strong and rough, rules Ekeby and six estates. She was betrothed to a young man named Altringer, but her parents did not allow her to wait five years for Altringer to make his fortune, instead forcing her to marry Major Samzelius. When Altringer comes back rich and famous, Margareta becomes his mistress. At his death, he leaves his lands ostensibly to the major, but in reality to Margareta.

After great urging, Gösta becomes a pensioner, one of the group of merry wastrels who exist handsomely on Margareta’s bounty. On Christmas Eve, the pensioners have a grand party, at which there is much to drink. Sintram, who is so evil that he thinks himself the chosen of Satan, comes in dressed as the devil. He says he is going to renew his pact with Margareta. The half-drunk pensioners think uneasily of Margareta’s great wealth and power. Surely something supernatural helped her. It is said that she holds her power by sacrificing the soul of one pensioner to the devil each year.

In a frightening bit of nonsense, the pensioners make a pact with the devil; no one of their number is to die that year. Once in charge of Ekeby and the six estates, the pensioners agree to conduct themselves as masters in a manner pleasing to Satan himself.

The next day, when the grouse is passed at the Christmas feast, Bergh says they are just crows, and he throws them one by one against the wall. When Margareta orders him out of the house, Bergh in revenge accuses her of being Altringer’s mistress with the compliance of her husband. Margareta proudly confesses the truth of what he says. Then, to save his honor, the major disowns his wife. All the pensioners, who owe her so much, turn their faces when she asks for help. Margareta leaves her home to become a beggar.

That year, the pensioners are in charge at Ekeby. The major,...

(This entire section contains 1173 words.)

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indifferent to the estates, returns to his own farm. Gösta learns that Anna Stjarnhök, the rich and beautiful belle of the district, broke her engagement to a timid man named Ferdinand to become engaged to a rich old man with a bald head.

Determined to bring Anna back to Ferdinand, Gösta harries her so much at a ball that she slaps his face. That slap reveals that Anna really loves Gösta. Forgetting his duty to Ferdinand, Gösta sets out with Anna for Ekeby. On the way, however, their sleigh is followed by wolves, and they are forced to stop at Ferdinand’s home for protection. Thus Gösta involuntarily brings Anna back to Ferdinand and is saved from committing a sin. Ferdinand soon dies, however, and Anna goes through a marriage ceremony with his corpse. Ever after she conceals her love for Gösta.

At a ball at Ekeby, Gösta and Marianne Sinclair take part in a tableau that presents them as lovers. Marianne, succumbing to Gösta’s charm, kisses him after the tableau. Later, at the gaming table, Gösta wins all the money Marianne’s father has; then, in jest, Gösta wins his consent to a betrothal with Marianne. When the father discovers that Gösta, a drunkard and an unfrocked minister, is in earnest, he is furious with his daughter.

After the ball, the pensioners find Marianne locked out by her father and half-frozen. Supposedly asleep in the guest room at Ekeby that night, the girl heard Margareta, full of wrath against her pensioners, plan a riot to drive the wastrels out. Marianne runs to a bear hunter, enlists his aid, and succeeds in breaking up the riot.

Marianne contracts smallpox on her errand, and the scars greatly mar her beauty. Not wishing Gösta to see her, she returns to her father. Gösta, thinking she jilted him and too proud to go after her, soon forgets her.

At the age of twenty, Countess Elizabeth Dohna is a carefree, sympathetic young woman married to a stupid husband. At a dance, Gösta asks her for a polka. She refuses because she heard that Gösta caused the death of Ebba, her husband’s sister, who died in sorrow after hearing the story of Gösta’s life. Angry at her refusal, Gösta and his friends abduct the countess and take her home. There the stupid husband sides with Gösta. The poor girl leads a miserable life. When she finally runs away to live as a peasant, the count has the marriage annulled. After she is legally a single woman again, she has a child. Not wishing to have an unnamed baby, she asks Gösta to marry her. Gösta, awed and grateful, accepts, for he loves her.

Helped by his wife, Gösta turns over a new leaf, and all the pensioners follow his lead. Ekeby rings with the smith’s hammer; walls and docks are repaired. When Margareta comes back after the death of the major, she reenters Ekeby as mistress of a prosperous estate. Gösta and his wife retire to a modest cottage where Gösta earns his living as a carpenter and helps those who are in trouble; the countess serves the sick. Gösta becomes, after many years, a good man.