None of Sonja's friends understood why she married Ove. They called him antisocial and bitter and complained that he didn't see the point in small talk. Ove thinks that now, people are proud of the fact that they don't know how to build or fix things, because everything can be bought. Ove wonders what the value in something is if you can just buy it.
The narrator says that Ove is a man in black and white, while Sonja was color. Before meeting her, the only thing Ove loved was math and numbers. When he was seven years old, his mother died, though he remembers little about her except for her hoarse singing at the kitchen window. Ove's father worked for the railways and was exceptionally strong. He told Ove once that size and strength are entirely different things, and Ove never forgot that lesson. His father was never violent and was well liked at work, though some people thought he was too kind.
Ove and Sonja are described as being almost polar opposites. This implies that Sonja didn't follow Ove's strict rules and principles to the letter, but also implies that Ove was generally okay with that. Ove's early experiences of loss likely contribute to his desire for structure and principles, as it allows him control over a world that's often unpredictable and cruel.
After Ove's mother died, Ove and his father didn't speak much except for about engines. Ove's father said that a respected engine will give someone freedom, while an abused engine will take freedom away. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the directors at the railway learned that Ove's father had a knack for working on engines. He was called on once to fix the car of the director's daughter, which had broken down on the way to her wedding. The director sent Ove's father home with food in thanks.
Engines are for Ove's father what (we'll learn later) houses are for Ove: predictable and fair. This shows how both men formulate their beliefs about the world in terms of the things they work on. Engines and houses then become metaphors for the way they'd like the world to be, though both are given ample evidence that the real world is neither predictable nor fair.
Several months later, the director sent for Ove's father and showed him an old Saab that had been in an accident. Ove's father deemed it fixable, and the director handed him the keys and gifted him the car. That evening Ove’s father explained to an awestruck Ove as much as he could about cars. At that point, Ove decided he'd never drive anything but Saabs.
The director is a key figure because he stands out from all other authority figures Ove encounters. He seems genuinely kind and to truly appreciate what Ove's father does for him. He provides early evidence for Ove that powerful men can also be kind.
On Saturdays, Ove's father would teach Ove how to work on the Saab, and on Sundays they went to church as a way of missing Ove's mother. Soon, Ove began working on the railway with his father after school. When Ove was nine, his father sent him with Tom, the only person that Ove didn't like, to clean out a broken-down train car. Tom found an abandoned briefcase and began snatching up the contents. Ove turned to leave the car and noticed a wallet. When he picked it up, there was a huge sum of money inside. Tom saw and tried to take the wallet from Ove. He made to punch Ove, but Ove's father appeared and Tom backed off. Ove's father said that Ove needed to decide what to do with the wallet. Tom looked murderous.
Even as a child, Ove and his father follow a very prescribed routine for their week, which presumably instills in Ove an early love of routines. Even though Tom is angry about it, he agrees to follow along with Ove's father's sense of right, wrong, and the rules governing how found items are dealt with. This shows both the power and respect that people give to Ove's father, as well as the power of generally accepted rules themselves. Ove is faced with a dilemma, as he has to decide whether to act like Tom or act like his father.
Ove quietly said that they should take the wallet to the lost property office. Ove's father took Ove's hand and they walked together to the office, listening to Tom shouting angrily behind them. At the office, Ove's father refused to tell the receptionist if there was a bag with the wallet. When Ove asked him about it later, Ove's father said that they don't tell tales about other people. Ove whispers that he thought about keeping the money and that he decided to turn it in because he knew his father would hand it in. The narrator says that Ove learned that day that right had to be right, and decided to be as much like his father as possible.
Ove's principles came directly from his father. Notice, though, that Ove's father taught these principles to Ove as they strengthened their familial relationship, yet in the present, Ove is using his principles to distance himself from anyone who might fill a familial role in Sonja's absence. Ove has essentially taken his belief in principles to the extreme in the 50 years between this incident and the present.
When Ove was 16, his father died and Ove stopped being happy. Ove made it clear to the church that he wouldn't accept charity from them and certainly wouldn't be returning to church for services. The next day, he went to the wage office at the railway and tried to return his father's wages, which were paid in advance. When the director realized that Ove wasn't going to agree to keep the money, he suggested that Ove work to earn the money. Ove never returned to school and worked for the railway for the next five years. He met Sonja on a train, and she was all the color he had.
Again, the railway director is willing to work with this obstinate young man and offer him a future. When Ove tries to return his father's wages, he operates under the belief that it's better to be right and honorable than it is to accept something kind and “unearned.” Though at this point it has no negative effects on Ove, Ove later uses this principle to create distance between himself and his neighbors.