(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Story of Gösta Berling, Selma Lagerlöf’s first published novel, has been the subject of more scholarly articles than any of her other works. Despite its defects, such as the looseness and the episodic nature of the plot, this book continues to be much admired by critics, many of whom consider it Lagerlöf’s masterpiece.

The novel is set in a fictional area resembling Värmland. The time is the 1820’s, in a country manor house where life is at its most luxurious. So wealthy are the upper classes that someone like the Mistress of Ekeby, who in addition to her estate owns seven foundries, can support a dozen hedonistic, penniless cavaliers. These men acquire a leader when their patroness takes in the title character, a drunken and now defrocked priest, who himself is easily charmed by the rich ironmaster Sintram. This malevolent figure appears sometimes to be either a devil or a human being who has sold his soul to the devil and at other times a madman who is acting out his satanic fantasies.

In any case, the cavaliers make a pact with Sintram. He will enable them to take over the Mistress of Ekeby’s property if during their year in power they manage to do nothing worthwhile. The results are catastrophic not only for the Mistress of Ekeby, who is driven from her property, but for all of those in any way associated with the cavaliers and for the entire area, which succumbs to moral and economic collapse. At the end of the...

(The entire section is 443 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1173 words.)