Pär Lagerkvist
(1891 - 1974)

Perhaps one of the most influential Swedish writers of the first half of the 20th century, Pär Lagerkvist helped to smash down traditional forms of writing and introduce poetic modernism into Sweden. With his writing he often explored the question of good and evil, partly through using figures of Christianity without necessarily following the doctrines of the Church. He also explored deeply philosophical themes, including the meaning of life and man's purpose on the Earth. His later works would openly criticize the totalitarian dictatorship, and war as a whole.

Pär Lagerkvist was inducted into the Swedish Academy in 1940, and later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951.

Early Life

Pär Fabian Lagerkvist was born in 1891 in a small town in Småland, in southern Sweden. His family lived at a railroad station, where his father worked. His family was also deeply into religion, as they were devout Lutherans and read the Bible daily. Lagerkvist did not share in his family religious fanaticism, as he would later become a Darwinian during his university years. This early period of his childhood is documented in the semi-autobiographical Gäst Hos Verkligheten, which was published in 1925.

While attending the University of Uppsala in 1910 Lagerkvist broke out of the social and religious restrictions imposed on him by his family. While at the University he studied art and literature for two years, but ended up dropping out before he earned his degree. The time spent in the University wasn’t a waste, however, because it was there that he began to write poetry, mostly revolving around philosophical themes.

In 1913, at the age of twenty-two, Lagerkvist made his first trip to Paris, where he was introduced to even more new ideas, including cubist painting. While in Paris he published an article relating cubism and the poor state of the contemporary literature. He would later write a book on the subject, Ordkonst Och Bildkonst, which gained much critical acclaim in Scandinavia for rejecting literary naturalism in favor for the simplicity and depth of Greek tragedy, the Old Testament, and the Icelandic sagas.

World War I Years

World War I broke out and Pär Lagerkvist moved from Sweden to Denmark, where he immersed himself in writing poetry and plays. His first published collections of poems, Ångest, entered the world in 1916, and had a direct relationship with the war. Ångest explored Lagerkvist’s personal fear of death from the war, as well as asking questions about how a person can find a meaningful life in a world where a war was killing millions for very little reason. Ångest was also very important for the state of contemporary literature in Sweden, as it smashed down traditional romantic expression and introduced modernism with its disillusioned poems.

Coupled with the collections of poems came Lagerkvist’s introduction into the world of theater. In 1917 Lagerkvist published his first original play, titled Den Sista Människan. He also published a book called Modern Theater, which defended August Strinberg's late plays and his opposition to naturalism.

During this time period Lagerkvist dove even deeper into his philosophical writings with Himlets Hemlighet. A basic question was asked within this one act drama, "What is the meaning of life?", to which Lagerkvist gave his answer: although this question haunts all human beings, it matters little to God Himself.

When World War I came to an end Lagerkvist traveled to France and Italy, where he continued to write. With his new pieces of drama he was moving towards more realistic stage art, and with his new novels he was moving towards more socialistic and radical views. Lagerkvist was also beginning to use more religious and moral themes, especially in his novella Det Eviga Leendet, which once again questioned the meaning of life. in this work the characters banned together in a search for God, and when they found Him He told them that He had not meant anything in particular while creating life, but merely had done the best that He could.

World War II Years

As Hitler rose to power during 1933 Lagerkvist saw the immediate threat of totalitarianism and was quick to act. He published his anti-Nazi novel, Bödeln: a story about timeless evil and the threat of dictators and fascism. Within the novel the reader follows around the hangman, who is the embodiment of evil, and is condemned for eternity for the sins of human beings.

During the early years of World War II Lagerkvist published two patriotic novels for the Swedish people: Sång Och Strid in 1940 and Hemmet Och Stjärnan in 1942. Also during World War II Lagerkvist published one of his most well-known novels, Dvärgen.

Dvärgen, or The Dwarf, which was published in 1944, followed a self-destructive protagonist who doesn’t mind the idea of death or pain. The story has a main theme dealing with the struggle between creative forces and absolute destruction. Drawing heavily from the dark Middle Ages and the modern gangster world, the novel gained critical acclaim for its stylistic unity.


In 1950 Pär Lagerkvist came out with this best and most famous piece of literature, Barabbas, which brought him world recognition and would eventually win him the 1951 Nobel Prize In Literature. The novel would be translated into 9 different languages and adapted for both film and theater.

Once again Lagerkvist searches for the meaning of life within this novel. Barabbas, the criminal in the New Testament, is incapable of feeling love, as he is pardoned instead of Christ, and is sentenced to the copper mines. As he becomes gradually aware of greater forces guiding his life, he turns Christian, and becomes a gladiator. However, Barabbas continues to deny his faith, and finally dies on a cross outside of Rome.

Barabbas is also the first novel is a six part series, a series which continues to mover deeper and deeper into the mysteries of God. The other five works which make up the series include: Sibyllan (1956), Ahasverus Död (1960), Pilgrim På Havet (1962), Det Heliga Landet (1964), and a collection of poems, Aftonland, from 1953.

The 1951 Nobel Prize in Literature

In 1951 Pär Lagerkvist was awarded with the Nobel Prize In Literature for "the artistic vigour and true independence of mind with which he endeavours in his poetry to find answers to the eternal questions confronting mankind."

During the time allotted for his banquet speech Lagerkvist did not give the normal acceptance speech that is usually given: instead he opened with doubting he really deserved such a prize and then read from an unpublished book he had written in 1922. What he read was titled "The Myth Of Man" and worked extremely well as a summary of his beliefs and ideology.

Selected Works



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