Selma Lagerlöf was born into a once prosperous Varmland family that, like most families in the district, fell on bad times. Although circumstances were straitened and the fear of poverty was a constant presence, memories of better times in the recent past were still vivid and carefully preserved as part of the family lore that Lagerlöf absorbed in anecdotes as she was growing up. In many ways, The Story of Gösta Berling reflects this background. The novel’s characters and scenes, drawn from rural Swedish life, are reminiscent of Anton Chekhov’s treatment of similar material dealing with life in rural Russia. The loss of ancestral estates, for example, strongly affects the plot development in The Story of Gösta Berling as it does in Chekhov’s Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908) just as upper-middle-class decadence seems to direct the course of events both in Lagerlöf’s novel and in Chekhov’s Tri sestry (1901; The Three Sisters, 1920). Other parallels can be drawn with Lagerlöf’s depiction of the deterioration of a comfortable way of life and the generous hospitality that accompanies it. So, too, does the psychology of fear—suspicion of being exploited when the security of property is lost—find Chekhovian echoes. These factors most particularly shape Lagerlöf’s portrayal of the pensioners in her novel.
The Story of Gösta Berling was Lagerlöf’s first and most famous novel, but it is not unique in her output, for which she won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909—the first woman and the first Swede to be so honored. Her later novels and tales—including Antikrists mirakler (1897; The Miracles of Antichrist, 1899), Jerusalem I: I Dalarne (1901; Jerusalem, 1915), Jerusalem II: I det heliga landet (1902; The Holy City: Jerusalem II, 1918), and Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-1907; The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1907, and The Further Adventures of Nils, 1911)...
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