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 year, when he sees the results of his actions, Gösta Berling has a change of heart. The Mistress comes home to die in peace, and Gösta devotes the rest of his life to others.
In this book, one can see the pattern that Lagerlöf followed throughout her career: the rural setting, the use of folklore, and the revelation of character, from both a psychological and a moral perspective. While it is evident that Lagerlöf has no doubt about the existence of God and Satan, good and evil, as an artist she understands that human beings have a need to express themselves freely and to enjoy life’s pleasures, even though they must also discipline themselves and submit to rules in order to lead meaningful Christian lives. She could empathize with her cavaliers and with Gösta Berling himself; in fact, at the end of her novel Lagerlöf leaves him at the beginning of his quest. She suggests that it make take him the rest of his life to discover how one can be both happy and good.
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...
(The entire section is 1,616 words.)