Ove is obsessive about enforcing rules and creating a sense of order for himself. The narrator states that he "just had a sense of there needing to be a bit of order in the greater scheme of things." However, the novel offers several different ways to think about rules and order by offering three distinct systems for consideration: Ove's system, which is inflexible and often self-serving; the systems employed by government bureaucracy and the "white shirts," which is a similarly inflexible system but often seems to stand in direct opposition to Ove's system; and Sonja's system, which is flexible, adaptive, and works primarily to help others.
Ove creates systems for himself that make him feel safe and secure. He has the same meal for dinner every night and follows a daily routine that leaves little room for error, lateness, or surprises. This system first comes into conflict with bureaucracy when Ove's childhood home catches fire. Because it's on an unclear municipal boundary, the fire department needs permission and paperwork from various government entities to be able to save the burning structure, so instead they simply watch it burn—and prevent Ove himself from extinguishing it. Not long after, Ove is kicked out of the military for a congenital heart defect that makes him ineligible for service. In both situations, the “white shirts” explain their reasoning to Ove by stating simply that "rules are rules." Although Ove resents every person in a white shirt who tells him this, his own love of and respect for rules means that he sees and accepts the logic of this explanation. These experiences create in Ove an early distrust of bureaucracy, and of the people he deems "white shirts" who support it: government employees who insist on following rules to the letter, even when the rules don't help anyone.
The narrator says that Ove began to truly live when he met Sonja. Although Sonja respects Ove's love of rules and order, she loves things that don't follow clear guidelines. She adores the humanities (which Ove hates because there are no clear answers) and enjoys dancing, which Ove considers "haphazard and giddy." Sonja's entrance into Ove's life shows Ove that even though rules and systems can certainly bring comfort, there's also something to be said for being spontaneous and living life to the fullest rather than fixating on rules and regulations.
Despite Sonja's love of spontaneity and activities that Ove would deem foolish, their relationship also sees them both attempt to follow the "proper" structure as they start their family. When Sonja reveals that she's pregnant, she and Ove marry and decide to move into a row house because they believe that's simply where it's best for children to grow up. However, following the rules isn't enough to guard against the unpredictable nature of life: the bus accident that robs Sonja of the use of her legs and causes her to miscarry her unborn child drives home the fact that any order or sense of control humans create for themselves is fragile and illusory. Rather than using the accident to realize this, Ove compensates for and deals with his grief by writing letters of complaint in which he tries to get the white shirts to take responsibility for the bus accident and its consequences. When Ove writes these letters, however, they change nothing and only make him angrier. Finally, Sonja tells Ove to stop writing them. She understands that his reliance on the bureaucratic system to make things right isn't going to serve them and will only continue to make him feel angry.
Ove finally gets to put his love of rules and order to good use nearly 40 years after Sonja's accident when he learns that his long-time friend and rival, Rune, is going to be placed in an assisted living facility against his wife, Anita's, wishes. Ove uses his newfound community to enforce the rules of the neighborhood and keep Rune in his home: their neighbor Anders tows the illegally parked car of the man in the white shirt who is in charge of Rune’s medical care, while their journalist friend, Lena, digs up unsavory information on the man that could lead to a public investigation and ruin his reputation. The neighborhood's collective victory of keeping Rune in his home comes about because Ove decides to bend the rules and use them for good—exactly as Sonja encouraged Ove to do while she was alive.
Rules and Order ThemeTracker
Rules and Order Quotes in A Man Called Ove
Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as on any other morning, and then drank a cup with his wife.
He was a man of black and white.
And she was color. All the color he had.
Since his father's death he had begun more and more to differentiate between people who did what they should, and those who didn't. People who did and people who just talked. Ove talked less and less and did more and more.
He'd discovered that he liked houses. Maybe mostly because they were understandable... Houses were fair, they gave you what you deserved. Which, unfortunately, was more than one could say about people.
Straight lines, even edges. People don't shovel snow that way anymore. Nowadays they just clear a way, they use snow blowers and all sorts of things. Any old method will do, scattering snow all over the place. As if that were the only thing that mattered in life: pushing one's way forward.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. You work and pay off the mortgage and pay taxes and do what you should. You marry. For better or for worse until death do us part, wasn't that what they agreed? Ove remembers quite clearly that it was. And she wasn't supposed to be the first to die. Wasn't it bloody well understood that it was his death they were talking about? Well, wasn't it?
"And you can't let the girls freeze to death tonight, Ove, right? It's quite enough that they had to watch you assault a clown, no?"
And now she stood outside the station with his flowers pressed happily to her breast, in that red cardigan of hers, making the rest of the world look as if it were made in grayscale.
She wanted to get married, so Ove proposed. She wanted children, which was fine with him, said Ove. And their understanding was that children should live in row housing developments among other children.
As if the kitchen had been built for a child. Parvaneh stares at them the way people always do when they see it for the first time. Ove has got used to it. He rebuilt the kitchen himself after the accident. The council refused to help, of course.
But everywhere, sooner or later, he was stopped by men in white shirts with strict, smug expressions on their faces. And one couldn't fight them. Not only did they have the state on their side, they were the state.
After the accident Ove bought a Saab 95 so he'd have space for Sonja's wheelchair. That same year Rune bought a Volvo 245 to have space for a stroller. Three years later Sonja got a more modern wheelchair and Ove bought a hatchback, a Saab 900. Rune bought a Volvo 265 because Anita had started talking about having another child.
Rune and Anita's lad grew up and cleared out of home as soon as he got the chance. And Rune went and bought a sporty BMW, one of those cars that only has space for two people and a handbag. Because now it was only him and Anita, as he told Sonja when they met in the parking area. "And one can't drive a Volvo all of one's life," he said with an attempt at a halfhearted smile. She could hear that he was trying to swallow his tears. And that was the moment when Ove realized that a part of Rune had given up forever.