Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Story of Gösta Berling consists of thirty-six chapters, each of which can be regarded as one complete episode. Taken together, however, the various tales constitute a unified plot. This plot is centered on one year in the life of Gösta Berling, although information about his life prior to that year is also presented. Gösta’s life is portrayed as dynamic and even dramatic, with a large number of important events, and extends from the moment when he loses his position as a minister in the Swedish church to some time after his marriage to Elizabeth Dohna.

While a number of dramatic events in the life of Gösta Berling provide the backbone of the novel’s plot, it is, however, the life history of its female protagonist, Margareta Celsing, which provides the most engaging part of the story. She, and such other female characters as Anna Stjärnhök, Marianne Sinclaire, and Elisabeth Dohna, stand at the center of the author’s interest and the novel’s meaning. Lagerlöf’s concern is primarily ethical and philosophical, and it is the actions of Margareta Celsing, who is also known as the Major’s Wife, which are placed in the reader’s focus. Through her portrayal of Margareta and the other women in the novel, Lagerlöf created one of the earliest examples of high-quality women’s fiction in Swedish literature.

The role of love in human life is the novel’s most important motif, and it connects with the book’s central theme,...

(The entire section is 601 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Ekeby (EH-keh-BIH). Swedish estate around which the novel is centered. Initially a prosperous estate, it declines nearly to the point of ruin because of neglect after Margareta Samzelius, its capable and resourceful owner, is expelled by her husband when she is exposed as an adulteress. The chaos in the human world finds its manifestation in nature, and an overpowering storm brings near destruction to the whole province. However, rather symbolically, it is the constructive work ethic and love of another woman, Elisabet Dohna, that save both Gösta Berling and Ekeby by restoring communal morality and natural order. The fate of Ekeby gives an unambiguous expression of Lagerlöf’s Christian ethics, which seek a balance between joy and work, romantic adventure and doing good.

Ekeby’s prototype is Rottneros, situated near the Swedish town of Sunne, at the heart of the province of Värmland. Critics and biographers see in Ekeby an idealized portrayal of Mårbacka, Lagerlöf’s place of birth in Värmland. Geographically and culturally, Lagerlöf perceived her native province as a border territory: between Norway and Sweden, man and nature, culture and wilderness, the visible and the invisible, the real and the imaginary.

The world Lagerhof created in The Story of Gösta Berling emphasizes the constantly shifting and often indistinguishable boundaries separating the past from the present. Although textual...

(The entire section is 442 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Story of Gösta Berling is regarded as one of the most important novels in Swedish literature; indeed, some critics consider it the most significant one. Serving as a bridge between the naturalistic and the symbolist movements in Scandinavia, it contains elements of both. One of its important characteristics is the faithful depiction of social and historical reality that was common in the literature of the 1880’s, while its emphasis on folk belief and legend ties it to the aesthetic concerns of the 1890’s.

Upon its publication, the book was not immediately hailed as a masterwork even though it had been eagerly anticipated, as five chapters from it had received an award the previous year. It was judged on narrow realistic criteria, and the critics did not understand the significance of the author’s use of myth. A review by the respected Danish critic George Brandes (1842-1927) two years later, however, launched Lagerlöf on her career as one of Sweden’s most important writers. The recognition that she received encouraged Lagerlöf greatly, and the financial rewards from her writing enabled her to quit her job as a teacher and to travel widely. Later she was able to purchase her childhood home, which became an anchor for both her life and her activity as an artist.

Lagerlöf went on to receive several important honors, chief among which is the 1909 Nobel Prize in Literature. She also received an honorary doctorate from the...

(The entire section is 424 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Berendsohn, Walter A. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work. Translated by George F. Timpson. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. First published in German in 1927, the volume by Berendsohn discusses the relationship between Lagerlöf’s life and her books. Emphasizes her connection with Värmland, where The Story of Gösta Berling takes place.

Edström, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf. Translated by Barbara Lide. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An accessible study by a recognized authority on Lagerlöf. Contains an overview of Lagerlöf’s biography and separate chapters on her most important works, including The Story of Gösta Berling. Edström discusses the form of the novel, its elements of historical reality and folklore, and its place in Swedish literary history.

Gustafson, Alrik. A History of Swedish Literature. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1961. In this overview of the literature of Sweden from the beginning to the post-war era, Gustafson places Lagerlöf’s works in historical context and discusses the place of the novel within her own oeuvre.

Gustafson, Alrik. Six Scandinavian Novelists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940. A comprehensive overview of Lagerlöf’s work, including a discussion of The Story of Gösta Berling.

Olson-Buckner, Elsa. The Epic Tradition in Gösta Berling’s Saga. New York: Theo Gaus, 1978. In an extended analysis, Olson-Buckner points out the many points of contact between The Story of Gösta Berling and the conventional epic. Also notes that there are structural similarities to the traditional heroic saga.

Wivel, Henrik. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Works of Life. Minneapolis: The Center for Nordic Studies, University of Minnesota, 1991. Contains a brief discussion of the idea of love as it is presented throughout Lagerlöf’s works, including The Story of Gösta Berling.