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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

The complexity of the central character in The Natives of Hemso

After Carlsson is humiliated when he stumbles around on the pier - unlike the natives of Hemso, he's not adept around boats - and his summer crush, Ida, brusquely dismisses him, Carlsson heads back to his attic room in the farmhouse and composes a ridiculous, grammatically inept letter to Ida - a broad stroke of humor, slightly cruel. Then Carlsson angles to take a boat to Stockholm to negotiate fish prices but obviously his goal is to visit Ida and try to rekindle whatever they - or at lest he - felt they had going on during the summer on the island. Strindberg never says so but it would appear that they had nothing going on at all except in Carlsson's mind - he crudely kept her from other men, but there was never the slightest sense that she cared for him at all, and maybe was just content to be involved with nobody on the island - her life is in Stockholm. Strindberg very wisely lets Carlsson's visit to Stockholm and his final rebuff from Ida happen "off stage" - we learn about this later and indirectly, mostly by inference. Part of the genius and the strong effect of his The Natives of Hemso is that the novel takes place entirely on the island (first chapter is the arrival on the island by boat), which gives us a deeper sense of the island's pastoral remove from modern life. In a somewhat surprising twist, at the mid-point of the book Carlsson, aware that a woman like Ida is beyond his reach, far too sophisticated (even though she is a house servant, in a class sense perhaps of lower status than he is, a hired farm manager) for him - he recognizes that his employer, the widow Flod, is interested in him and he agrees to marry her - in a naked attempt to get the farm into his name. Though on one level he's a bumbling fool, he's also a schemer and conniver - at one time worked as a traveling Bible salesman, so we know the sort - a descendent of a Twain character and an antecedent of a Flannery O'Connor type. I think we have a pretty good sense of how well the marriage will work - but the question is who will be hurt the more. Carlsson is an unsympathetic character - but not a two-dimensional character, either. He's a bully and a prideful fool, but we feel for him in his awkwardness and we have to admire his skill at his work.

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