Pär Lagerkvist

From New World Encyclopedia

Pär Lagerkvist.

Pär Fabian Lagerkvist (May 23, 1891 – July 11, 1974) was a Swedish author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951. Lagerkvist wrote poems, plays, novels, stories, and essays of considerable expressive power and influence from his early 20s to his late 70s. Among his central themes was the fundamental question of good and evil, which he examined through such figures as the man who was freed instead of Jesus, Barabbas, and the wandering Jew Ahasuerus. As a moralist, he used religious motifs and figures from the Christian tradition without following the doctrines of the Church. His most popular work, Barabbas, follows the life of the convicted killer after he is released in favor of Jesus of Nazareth, who is crucified in his place. Barabbas is unable to understand neither Jesus nor his disciples as Lagerkvist was unable to reconcile his knowledge of human nature, depicted in Barabbas, with the explanations and theories of the Church.

Biography and works

Lagerkvist was born in Växjö (Småland). He received a traditional religious education which strongly influenced all his works, although his passion for religion waned in his later years under the influence of modern scientific ideas, which eventually led him to break with the religion of his forefathers.

In his early years Lagerkvist supported modernist and radicalist views, as shown by his manifesto Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913) and the plays Den Svåre Stunden ("The Difficult Hour"). He was also influenced by socialism.

One of the author's earliest works is Ångest (Anguish, 1916), a violent and disillusioned collection of poems. His anguish was derived from his fear of death, which was exacerbated by the World War, and led to a personal crisis. Like many of the authors of his generation, he tried to come to grips with how to find a meaningful life in a world where a war can senselessly kill millions for very little reason.

"Anguish, anguish is my heritage / the wound of my throat / the cry of my heart in the world." ("Anguish," 1916.) "Love is nothing. Anguish is everything / the anguish of living." ("Love is nothing," 1916.) Over time, this pessimism slowly faded, as testified by his subsequent works, Det eviga leendet (The Eternal Smile, 1920), the autobiographical novel Gäst hos verkligheten (Guest of Reality, 1925) and the prose monologue Det besegrade livet ("The triumph of Life," 1927), in which faith plays a major role.

Ten years later Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) (1926) appeared. This collection of poems is slightly less desperate in its tone, displaying the strive to come to peace with life itself that was to become so prominent in his later works. In Hjärtats sånger he wrote: "Only you, my bosom, is left, / you who can suffer, / you who can feel the depth of pain / but not complain." His prose novella Bödeln, later adapted for the stage, (The Hangman, 1933; play, 1934) shows his growing concern with the totalitarianism and brutality that began to sweep across Europe in the years prior to World War II. Criticism against Fascism is also present in the play Mannen utan själ (The Man Without a Soul, 1936).

Lagerkvist's 1944 novel Dvärgen (The Dwarf), a cautionary tale about evil, was the first to bring him international attention. This was followed in 1949 by the unusual Låt människan leva (Let Man Live).

Barabbas (1950), which was immediately hailed as a masterwork (by among others fellow Nobel laureate André Gide). It is without question Lagerkvist's most famous work. The novel is based on a minor episode in the Passion narrative of the Biblical story. Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to die by the Roman authorities immediately before the Jewish Passover, when, according to the Biblical narrative, it was customary for the Romans to release someone convicted of a capital offense. When the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate offers to free Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted thief and murderer, a Jerusalem mob, encouraged on by the Jewish leaders, demands the release of Barabbas. The novel investigates how Barabbas spends the rest of his life trying to come to terms with why he was chosen to live.

Lagerkvist died in Stockholm.

Literary Works


Lagerkvist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951 after the publication of Barabbas.

Plot summary

Jesus of Nazareth is crucified on Mount Golgotha. To the side of the crowd stands Barabbas. A violent man, a brigand and a rebel, he cannot muster much respect for the resignation of the man who died in his place. He is skeptical about the holiness of Jesus, too. Yet, he is also fascinated by the sacrifice. After his release and Jesus' crucifixion, he seeks out different followers of Jesus in an effort to understand the meaning of his act, but finds that their exalted views of Jesus do not match his own down to earth personal observation of the man.

After many trials and tribulations he ends up in Rome where he mistakes the Great Fire of Rome as the start of the new Kingdom of Heaven, enthusiastically helping to spread the conflagration. Consequently, he is arrested and crucified along with the hapless Christian scapegoats as a martyr for a faith he does not understand.

Main themes

During his life Pär Lagerkvist struggled with his lack of faith. In the novel he used Barabbas to explore questions of faith for the uncomprehending man who believes only in what he can see and experience. While Barabbas is a simple man, his approach is a metaphor for the modern scientific age based on empiricism, which believes only in the data available to sense perception. The attitudes of Jesus' disciples mirror those of the institutional church moreso than those of simple first century C.E. fishermen. Through his encounters with Jesus' disciples, Barabbas underscores how far the church is from the common man and from the essential truth of Jesus' life. For Lagerkvist, the novel serves as a rationalization for his own unbelief.

Awards and nominations

Author awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1951

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

  • The novel was turned into a major motion picture by Dino de Laurentiis in 1962, starring Anthony Quinn.
  • Made into a theatrical play in 1953

The Dwarf

The Dwarf (Swedish language original: Dvärgen) was published in 1944. It is considered his most important novel and the most artistically innovative. It was translated into English by Alexandra Dick in 1945.


The main character of this story is a Dwarf, 26 inches high, at the court of an Italian City-state in the Renaissance. The exact locations are unclear, even somewhat confused. The character Bernardo is unmistakably modeled on Leonardo da Vinci, which suggests that the novel takes place in a fictional version of Milan around the time of Leonardo's stay at the court of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, from 1482 to 1499. However, a reference to Santa Croce suggests Florence. It is unclear whether this is deliberate or an inadvertent mix up with the Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze. Also, Lagerkvist includes Bernardo/Leonardo's creation of The Last Supper and Mona Lisa into the plot, one of them created in Milan, the other presumably in Florence. Further, the Prince that inspired Niccolò Machiavelli to write The Prince has been assumed to be Cesare Borgia, who also employed Leonardo da Vinci as a military architect, a role Bernardo plays in the novel alongside his painting. In this way aspects of all these historical places and people are mixed into the background of the novel to give it an historical if fictionalized feel.

The Dwarf narrates the events through the technique of writing down his experiences in a form of diary. This first person narrative is done mostly in retrospective, ranging from a few hours or minutes to several weeks or months after the actual events.

The Dwarf is a profound misanthropist, generally expressing a profound ressentiment. He hates almost every person at the court except for the Prince (who is the ruler of the city-state, more King than Prince), or rather aspects of him. He loves war, brutality and fixed positions. While almost all other characters of the novel develop during the chain of events, the Dwarf does not change. He is still exactly the same character from the first to the last page. He is deeply religious, but his take on Christianity seems closer to the wrathful, judgmental God of the Old Testament. He is impressed with Bernardo's science but soon repelled by its relentless search for truth.

When the Dwarf is ordered to assassinate a number of enemies of the Prince using poisonous wine, he takes this opportunity to also assassinate one of the Prince's rivals, simply because he dislikes him.

The novel ends with the Dwarf strapped in chains at the bottom of the royal castle, never to be released again. He is seemingly convicted for flogging the Prince's wife to death in anger over her sins, which include an affair. However he takes this sentence lightly, since, as he says, "soon the Prince will need his Dwarf again."


The Dwarf has both political and psychological ramifications. At some points in the novel, especially towards the end, it appears that the Dwarf is actually the embodiment of the dark sides of the Prince himself, not a separately existing person. The term for the Prince in Lagerkvist's Swedish original Fursten also happens to be the Swedish title of the translation of Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince. The Dwarf not only represents Machiavelli's Prince, but undoubtedly the evils of the Second World War greatly influenced the prose, and Adolf Hitler may have also served as a model for the personality of the Dwarf.

The Dwarf also operates on a psychological level. In the wake of the dynamic psychology of Sigmund Freud, the dwarf also operates as an expression of the power of the id.


  • Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913)
  • Motiv (1914)
  • Järn och människor (1915)
  • Ångest (1916)
  • Teater (1918)
  • Kaos (1919)
  • Det eviga leendet (1920)
  • Onda sagor (1924)
  • Gäst hos verkligheten (1925)
  • Den lyckliges väg (1921)
  • Hjärtats sånger (1926)
  • Han som fick leva om sitt liv (1928)
  • Bödeln (1933)
  • Den knutna näven (1934)
  • Seger i mörker (1939)
  • Sång och strid (1940)
  • Dvärgen (1944)
  • Barabbas (1950)
  • Aftonland (1953)
  • Sibyllan (1956)
  • Det heliga landet (1964)
  • Mariamne (1967)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lagerkvist, Par. Barabbas Vintage. 1st Vintage International Edition. November 20, 1989. ISBN 067972544X
  • Lagerkvist, Par. The Dwarf. ISBN 0-374-52135-2.
  • Spector, Robert Donald. Par Lagerkvist. Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1973. ISBN 0805725091.
  • White, Ray Lewis. Par Lagerkvist in America. Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1980. ISBN 9122003622
Preceded by:
Verner von Heidenstam
Swedish Academy,
Seat No.8

Succeeded by:
Östen Sjöstrand


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