In the opening pages of his journal, Doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas declares that what he’s writing is not a confession, nor does it contain lies, although it may not contain the whole truth. And indeed, although the pages that follow do contain a confession, he doesn’t seem to be seeking absolution for wrong-doing. Instead, the words are, perhaps, a justification or even an attempt at self-knowledge.
In Hjalmar Söderberg’s 1905 novel, written in the form of a journal, Glas reveals himself to be a man in search of something he can never have. Lacking the desire to save the world or accumulate honors that he once thought led him into the medical profession, Glas latches on to one woman. That woman, the wife of a Reverend Gregorious, comes to Glas seeking help coping with her husband’s sexual advances and his insistence that she do her duty by him, whatever her own feelings may be. Glas tries to give advice, both to Mrs Gregorious and her husband, but her misery continues. What’s more, she falls in love with another man. Glas, then, starts to think that the only right course is to give her her freedom by murdering her husband.
Much of the journal is made up of Glas’s thoughts as he contemplates the murder. His thoughts alternate between rational argument about life and not-so-rational dreams and visions. Sometimes he argues with himself:
–I want to act. Life is action, When I see something that makes me indignant, I want to intervene. If I don’t intervene every time I see a fly in a spider’s web, this is because the world of flies and spiders is not mine, and I know one must limit oneself; and I don’t like flies. But if I see a beautiful little insect with shimmering golden wings caught in a web, then I tear the web to pieces and kill the spider, if need be, for I do not believe it is forbidden to kill spiders. I go walking in the forest; I hear a cry of distress; I run towards the cry and find a man about to rape a woman. Naturally I do what I can to free her, and, if need be, kill the man. The law does not give me the right to do so. The law only gives me the right to kill another in self-defence, and by self-defence, the law only means defence when in direct peril of my own life. The law does not let me kill someone else to save my father or my son or my best friend, or to protect my beloved from violence or rape. In a word, the law is absurd; and no self-respecting person allows his actions to be determined by it.
–But the unwritten law? Morality … ?–My good friend, the law, you know as well as I do is in a state of flux.
Every argument seems to point him in the same direction. Something must be done, and he’s the one to do it. But he noted earlier in the journal that he will only write what it pleases him to write, and these are the arguments that please him. He shares stories of other women who sought his help who he could not help because of the law, both written and unwritten. He says he no longer feels the need to help people, if he ever did, but I wonder if what he’s feeling is numbness from years of seeing that life simply isn’t fair and he, with his medical training, cannot do anything about the inexorable march of sickness and death.
I wonder about that, but I find I cannot give Glas that much credit. After all, he admits that he would only help the beautiful golden-winged insect, not the homely fly. Plus, the desire to control life and death in this way, while understandable in cases of extreme injustice, is also a sign of arrogance. Who is he to make these choices? He may see himself as an avenging angel, but who asked him to wreak that vengeance? He disliked the Reverend before he knew anything about him. Gregorious’s treatment of his wife could just be an excuse.
Glas himself admits that morality has come to feel like “a merry-go-round, a spinning top,” and phases in which it spins are only getting faster. Glas’s confusion here seems to reflect the time, when Darwinism has, as Glas believed in his younger days, “made everything seem meaningless, stupid, squalid.” With no external morality or God to guide him, Glas is a man unmoored, and his quest gives his life meaning. But ultimately it is a selfish quest. As much as he might claim to desire only to help, he’s seeking to satisfy himself. And his desire can never fully be satisfied.
I read Doctor Glas with the Slaves of Golconda. I’ve been wanting to join one of their discussions for ages, and this was a perfect choice because the book was already on my self, thus allowing me to stick with the TBR Double Dog Dare.