The Story of Gösta Berling is, above all, an ethical novel, as it takes as its theme how justice and goodness can be established in the face of evil. This theme is made manifest both on the level of individuals, particularly in the lives of Gösta Berling and Margareta Celsing, and on the level of society as a whole.
The male protagonist, Gösta Berling, is a minister who becomes defrocked because of drunkenness. Alcohol is the chief evil in his life, and it destroys not only his personal happiness but also his ability to provide leadership for the people whom he has been called to serve. The chief moral question in Gösta’s life is how he can regain his sense of responsibility for service to other human beings.
While Gösta has sinned against his parishioners, against the community as a whole, Margareta Celsing has transgressed primarily against her husband and her mother. Originally a sweet and innocent girl, Margareta has become the coarse wife of Major Samzelius, in which role she does the work of men and is known as the most powerful woman in Värmland. Her negative feelings toward her husband, coupled with her love for the rich man Altringer, have led to an adulterous relationship of long standing. Margareta profited financially from this relationship: Prior to his death, Altringer willed his substantial holdings to her and her husband, as Swedish law at the time prohibited women from controlling property on their own. Margareta’s sin against her mother consisted in not listening to her advice. According to the doctrine of the Swedish church, children were to obey their parents, and they never outgrew this obligation.
At the point in time when The Story of Gösta Berling begins, Margareta is at the height of her power. Her estate, Ekeby, is highly profitable, as are several other farms and iron...
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