The Story of Gösta Berling

by Selma Lagerlof

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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, which is the question of how to defeat evil and establish justice. The power of evil is represented by the character of Sintram, who is in league with the Devil or perhaps is even the Devil himself. He enters into a pact with the twelve cavaliers, who, at the invitation of the Major’s Wife, are living at Ekeby Manor. The cavaliers promise to refrain from any kind of useful labor for a period of one year, and in return they will be given control of Ekeby during that year. They reveal to Margareta’s husband, Major Samzelius, that Altringer, who willed Ekeby to the major, was the long-time lover of his wife. Consequently, Margareta is cast out of her home by her husband, after which he moves to another one of his farms, thus leaving the cavaliers in control of Ekeby. Yet Lagerlöf also shows that this unfair treatment of a woman by her husband becomes a blessing in disguise, as it gives Margareta an opportunity to expiate her sins, leave behind the undesirable personality traits that she had acquired in the course of many years, and return to her youthful state of innocence and gentleness.

Equally important to the development of the novel’s theme is the story of Gösta Berling’s love affairs. A handsome man much admired for his social graces but troubled by alcoholism, Gösta attracts the attention of several women, the most important of whom are Anna Stjärnhök, Marianne Sinclaire, and Elisabeth Dohna. All but one of these attractions are met with disappointment, but thereby the women learn the value of renunciation, as does Gösta himself. When he finally marries Elisabeth Dohna, the rejected wife of a local nobleman, he does so out of a sense of duty and not for love. The end of the book comes when the cavaliers’ year of reign at Ekeby is over and they return to useful labor. Work, the author seems to say, is a major component of virtue and a chief defense against evil.

(This entire section contains 601 words.)

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Places Discussed

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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 references identify the 1820’s as the time frame of the narrative, the novel’s temporal as well as spatial characteristics continually contract and expand to include a kaleidoscope of narrative worlds, including those of Icelandic sagas, myth and romance, local folk tales, legends, and superstitions. The result of this act of vivid imagination is a powerful recovery of a sense of place which defies both linear time and traditional notions of the animate and inanimate in nature.

Lake Löven

Lake Löven (lewh-ven). Lake around which most of the novel’s action concentrates. Modeled on Sweden’s Lake Frycken, Löven is introduced in the novel’s first chapter; the fairly detailed full-length portrait of the lake is painted by a striking combination of personification and realistic detail. The description of the adjoining landscape also proves significant as it underlines an organic merger between culture and wilderness: The cultivated fields on the lake’s shores and the deep forests assume in the distance the harsh, rocky features of mountainous semiwilderness. Human presence is a mere extension of the natural world without dominating it in any way. The lake and the surrounding flora and fauna thus possess a personality of their own and are capable of establishing and sustaining an intimate relationship with man.


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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 University of Uppsala and became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1914. Because of her position in the world of letters, Lagerlöf was able to serve as an effective role model for other Scandinavian woman writers.

A strong feminist thread runs through Lagerlöf’s work. This may be seen in some of the portraits of women in The Story of Gösta Berling, particularly in that of Margareta Celsing, who is thrown out of her home because she is legally prohibited from controlling property on her own. Lagerlöf also involved herself deeply in the struggle for women’s suffrage and made statements which anticipated some of the arguments during the women’s movement of the 1970’s.

Lagerlöf’s work has also meant much to feminist academic criticism. Because of her books, as well as those of other women writers in the Nordic countries, it has been possible to argue convincingly for the view that the Scandinavian novel is truly the creation of women: Lagerlöf stands as one of the mothers of the novel in Scandinavia.


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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.


Critical Essays