Places: Barabbas

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1950 (English translation, 1951)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Moral

Time of work: First century c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Jerusalem

*Jerusalem. BarabbasLeading city of Judaea and its environs, during the tenure of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judaea in the first century c.e., that is the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and the activities of Barabbas, in whose stead Jesus was crucified. Jesus is introduced in a brilliance of light, Barabbas in darkness; and darkness follows the crucifixion of Jesus. The contrast of light and darkness is extended as a contrast of positive and negative, with the Mount of Olives, for example, opposed to the valley of Ge-hinnom (Hinnom), the wretched repository of the corpses of vanquished enemies. The Gate of David exists in contrast to the Dung Gate. The topographical polarities are consistent with the moral polarities of Jesus and Barabbas–and with the spiritual polarities of the two: Jesus is the Son of the Father, who causes him to die on the cross; Barabbas (the name means “son of the father”) is shown to have killed his father, Eliahu (Elihu). The site of the crucifixion, the hill of Golgotha, stands in ugly contrast to the pleasant Vale of Kedron (Kidron). The contrast is furthered by the persons of the Fat Woman, Barabbas’s immoral consort, and the Woman with the Harelip (a Mary Magdalene figure). Barabbas rejoins his outlaw companions in the hills outside Jerusalem. Estranged from his cohorts, he leaves Palestine altogether.

*Cyprus

*Cyprus. Large island off the coast of Asia Minor in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The account of Barabbas, after a lacuna of uncertainty about his post-Palestine activities, resumes with the elderly Barabbas chained to a fellow prisoner, the Christian Sahak, in the copper mines of Cyprus. Prisoners remain permanently underground in these mines and are not released until death. After Barabbas’s indication that he wants to believe in Christ, he and Sahak are, almost miraculously, released from the mines to serve as farmworkers. With the mines as a virtual world of the dead, Barabbas is, as it were, resurrected therefrom, only to be subsequently crucified in Rome. His Cyprian resurrection followed by his crucifixion near Rome reverses the sequence of Christ’s crucifixion followed by resurrection. Sahak and Barabbas had become, when released from the copper mines, the slaves of the Roman governor of Cyprus. By Roman decree, Sahak, who would not recant his Christian faith, was crucified. Barabbas, who recanted the faith he did not have, witnessed the crucifixion of Sahak as he had witnessed that of Jesus. When the governor returns to Rome, he takes Barabbas with him.

*Rome

*Rome. Capital and leading city of the ancient Roman Empire, which was to become the focal city of Christianity, is the scene of Barabbas’s last days as a would-be Christian who cannot believe in Christ. Here he mingles with Christians in the catacombs, finding himself once again in the subterranean darkness of a world of the dead. Later, under the misapprehension that Christians are setting fire to Rome, Barabbas joins in the arson, is arrested, and is crucified, commending his spirit, as he dies, either to the darkness that he seems to be addressing or to the Messiah in whom he has been unable to believe. Rome, in completing the east-to-west sequence, completes also the movement from light (the radiance in which Barabbas first glimpses Jesus) to darkness, as from dawn to night. The geographical movement is enhanced by its own consonance with the human movement of life to death. Jesus remains in the region to the east (life), where his death by crucifixion is succeeded by a return to life. Barabbas moves to the western region, where his various returns to life (his own crucifixion in Jerusalem having been assigned to Jesus; his death in the Cyprian mines having been averted by his attachment to the Christian Sahak) are now concluded by his death through crucifixion.

Sources for Further StudyBarnett, Anthony, trans. “Evening Land” by Pär Lagerkvist. East Sussex, England: Allardyce, Barnett, 2001. Poetic complement (1953) to Barabbas and the pentalogy. Repeats themes of darkness.Gustafson, Alrik. A History of Swedish Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. Traces the evolution of Lagerkvist’s prose style to its maturity in Barabbas. Examines the novel in terms of its author’s search for expressive form and his grappling with the problem of evil.Lagerkvist, Pär. “The Clenched Fist.” In Pär Lagerkvist: Five Early Works, translated by Roy Arthur Swanson. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1988. Lagerkvist states his positions on belief, faith, and Christianity as they will come to be presented in his pentalogy.Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Work of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (Fall, 2001): 47-65. Places Barabbas’s expression of “the ambiguous ’No’ to faith” within the developmental context of the pentalogy and shows Lagerkvist to be suspicious of any claim to having solved the mystery of existence.Scobbie, Irene. “Contrasting Characters in Barabbas.” Scandinavian Studies 32, no. 4 (November, 1960): 212-229. Explicates the physical and psychological contrasts of Barabbas with the other characters in the novel.Sjoberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Argues that Barabbas is a modern rather than a historical novel. Relates the controversial ending to Lagerkvist’s stated religious views.Spector, Robert Donald. “Barabbas: The Bible as Modern Literature.” In Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973. Convincingly demonstrates how the novel reflects the dualism Lager-kvist saw in life. Spector’s is the first full-length book in English devoted to Lagerkvist’s work.Swanson, Roy A. “Evil and Love in Lagerkvist’s Crucifixion Cycle.” Scandinavian Studies 38 (November, 1966): 302-317. Considers the novel’s place in a series focusing on the event and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Determines myth to be Lagerkvist’s point of departure.Weathers, Winston. “Death and Transfiguration: The Lagerkvist Pentalogy.” In The Shapeless God: Essays on Modern Fiction, edited by Harry J. Mooney, Jr., and Thomas F. Staley. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968. Assesses the novel as one of five by Lagerkvist that explore the meaning of death and the escape from death. Writing from a Christian perspective, he appraises the novel as a portrait of the secular person.Weathers, Winston. Pär Lagerkvist: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960. Concise introduction to Lagerkvist’s works; shows Lagerkvist anticipating “radical Christians . . . by envisioning a human Christ” and opposing institutional religion.
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