The narrator describes the peddler, a vagabond who wanders the road making and selling rattraps. He doesn’t make enough money from this to survive, though, so he also has to “resort to both begging and petty thievery to keep body and soul together.”
The story opens by introducing its fairy-tale style, with its protagonist going unnamed and seeming like an archetypal struggling vagabond. This also presents the idea that this society is economically unfair and isolating—though he tries to make a living making and selling things, the peddler is also forced to beg and steal just to survive.
The peddler’s life is “sad and monotonous” as he walks the roads, but one day he has an idea that he finds entertaining. He imagines the world as one big rattrap, and thinks of all the people being trapped inside, caught by the “baits” of wealth, food, luxury, and pleasure. Because the world has been cruel to him in life, it amuses the peddler to “think ill” of the world in turn, and to think of people he knows who have been “caught.”
The peddler has had a hard lot in life, and so he thinks of the world at large as antagonistic. Because of this, it gives him pleasure to think negative thoughts about the world, and even about other individual people. Here he is showing his cynical worldview by indulging in schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune.
One evening, the peddler comes to a cottage and decides to ask for shelter. He is greeted by an old man, who welcomes him in and is happy to have someone to talk to. The old man gives the peddler food and tobacco, and they play cards together. The old man says he used to be a crofter at the nearby Ramsjö Ironworks, but that now he makes money selling his “extraordinary” cow’s milk. He boasts that last month he received thirty kronor in payment for the milk. The peddler seems incredulous, so the old man shows him the money—he keeps it in a leather pouch hanging in the window frame.
A crofter is someone who rents and works a small farm, and kronor is the plural of the monetary unit of Sweden. This passage sets the story’s scene as a rural area near to an iron-processing factory. This is also the first example of the peddler, despite his cynical worldview, receiving total generosity without strings attached. The old man even seems to be purposefully tempting the peddler to steal by showing him exactly where he keeps his money (and by keeping it right next to the window in the first place). He is exceptionally open and trusting, whereas the peddler is neither of these things. It’s also clear that the old man is lonely, and much of his openness comes from his delight at having companionship for a night.
The next morning, both men wake up, say goodbye, and go their separate ways. Half an hour later, however, the rattrap peddler returns to the crofter’s cabin. He breaks the window and takes the thirty kronor from the pouch, stuffing it into his pocket.
The peddler is still stuck in his cynical, selfish mindset as a result of his harsh life, and so he takes his advantages where he can get them—even at the expense of others. He has repaid the crofter’s generosity by robbing him of his meager savings.
The peddler feels pleased with himself, but knows he now must stay off the road for a while. He goes into the woods, but after a few hours of traveling he finds himself lost. The peddler then thinks back to his notion of the world as a rattrap, and realizes that now he himself has been caught. The forest comes to seem like an “impenetrable prison” to him.
It starts to get dark, and as it is late December the forest grows cold and gloomy. The peddler lies down on the ground and despairs, thinking that “his last moment had come”—but then he hears the sound of hammering nearby, and he gets up. The noise comes from the Ramsjö Ironworks, which the narrator says “are now closed down,” but in those days were busy and productive.
Lagerlöf here introduces the month, setting things up for the introduction of Christmastime as a motif. She also places the story in a vague timeframe, when the iron-processing industry was still booming in western Sweden. Upon becoming lost, the peddler almost immediately despairs and feels like he has learned his lesson—the world is antagonistic, and all who attempt to improve their positions within it will be “trapped” and punished.
At the ironworks, the master smith and his young apprentice are working hard at the forge. Outside, it starts to storm, and the forge and bellows are very loud, so at first the two don’t notice the peddler enter. He goes to stand near the furnace and warm himself, and the workers barely spare him a glance, but they note the rattraps hanging on his chest. The peddler asks permission to stay, and the master smith just nods without saying a word.
The narrative perspective briefly moves to follow the workers at Ramsjö Ironworks, as they witness the peddler’s entrance. The master smith and his apprentice just see him as a nameless tramp, and don’t even spare him a word. It’s clear that this is not the first time a homeless person has sought shelter by the warm furnace—a sign of the isolating poverty in this society.
The Ramsjö Ironworks are owned by a “very prominent” ironmaster, who comes to his forge every day and night to check on how the work is going. That night as he makes his rounds, the ironmaster notices the ragged stranger warming himself by the furnace. The ironmaster is curious, and approaches the man. He pulls off the peddler’s hat and cries out in recognition—the ironmaster thinks the peddler is an old friend, whom he calls “Nils Olof.”
The ironmaster is the first truly wealthy man introduced into the story. It’s later revealed that “Nils Olof” was a captain and companion of the ironmaster during his days in the army. It’s also notable that this case of mistaken identity is one of the few names given in the story, as an identity for the nameless peddler to grow into.
The peddler knows that the ironmaster is mistaken, but thinks that he might be able to get some money out of this misunderstanding, so he goes along with it. He says that “things have gone downhill” for him, and the ironmaster says he never should have resigned from their regiment. He then invites the peddler to have a meal at his manor house.
The peddler is still being cynical and opportunistic, and so goes along with the ironmaster’s mistake in the hopes of earning a few extra coins. The ironmaster extends his generosity, but it’s also suggested that he wouldn’t have invited just any homeless stranger to his manor house—only someone he assumes to be upper-class (if fallen on hard times) like himself.
The peddler thinks that going up to the house with his stolen money would be like “throwing himself voluntarily into the lion’s den,” so he refuses the ironmaster’s offer. The ironmaster insists, saying that only his daughter is at home, and they would love to have company for Christmas Eve. The peddler declines over and over, and finally the ironmaster relents. He leaves, referring to the peddler as “Captain von Stahle” as he goes.
It’s implied to be Christmas Eve the next day, as Lagerlöf more explicitly brings the holiday into the plot of the story. The ironmaster is trusting and generous (because he assumes the peddler is a former upper-class man like himself), while the peddler is still suspicious and wants to isolate himself and avoid being “trapped.”
Half an hour later, a carriage arrives at the forge and a woman enters—the ironmaster has sent his daughter to persuade the peddler to come stay with them. The young woman, who is “not at all pretty, but […] modest and quite shy,” wakes the sleeping stranger and introduces herself as Edla Willmansson.
Notably, Edla is only the second character given a full name, after the peddler’s mistaken identity of Captain von Stahle. This introduces her as a unique entity, with her character built up through her specific positive actions.
Edla speaks kindly to the peddler, saying she is sorry that he has fallen on such hard times. She notices that the man is afraid, and thinks “either he has stolen something or else he has escaped from jail.” With this in mind, she assures the man that he “will be allowed to leave just as freely” as he comes. The peddler is won over by the woman’s friendliness, and he agrees to join her and the ironmaster.
Edla is shown to be not only kind but also perceptive. Though she seems to suspect that her father was mistaken about the peddler (or recognizes that just because he is a captain doesn’t mean he isn’t also a criminal), she still warmly invites him to their home, and provides him with a way out to soothe his fears. It is this kind of gentle understanding that persuades the peddler.
Edla offers the peddler a fur coat, which he puts on over his rags, and he gets into the carriage with her. As they ride up to the manor house, however, the peddler starts to regret his decision. He also regrets stealing the crofter’s money, and thinks that he is now “sitting in the trap and will never get out of it.”
The peddler was briefly swayed by Edla’s kindness, but he is still firmly entrenched in his mindset of the world as a rattrap, with everything always out to get him. In donning the fur coat, however, he is already assuming the trappings of a new identity.
The next morning, which is Christmas Eve, the ironmaster comes into the dining room and discusses the peddler with his daughter. Edla says that the peddler doesn’t seem like an educated man, but the ironmaster assures her that when he is clean and fed, “the tramp manners will fall away from him with the tramp clothes.” Just then the peddler enters—he has been bathed, given a shave and haircut, and dressed in the ironmaster’s fine clothes. He looks much better, but now the ironmaster realizes that he made a mistake—the stranger is not his old regimental comrade.
It is now Christmas Eve, and the idea of the holiday as a time of generosity and goodwill comes fully into play. By being bathed, shaved, and dressed, the peddler has externally assumed the identity of a former captain, but these physical changes also cause the ironmaster to realize he made a mistake (even though it seems that Edla knew this all along). Because the ironmaster no longer sees the peddler as a former captain and upper-class man, he will also no longer be kind to him.
The ironmaster is angry, and the peddler makes no attempt to prolong his charade. He reminds the ironmaster that he begged to be left alone at the forge, and offers to put on his rags and leave, saying “no harm has been done.” The ironmaster says he “was not quite honest,” though, and threatens to call the sheriff. This angers the peddler, who strikes the table with his fist and goes on a rant about how “the world is nothing but a big rattrap.” He warns the ironmaster that he too might get “caught in the trap” one day, and so he shouldn’t have the peddler locked up.
The ironmaster’s generosity depended on the peddler’s supposed status as a former army comrade and fellow member of the upper class. This sudden withdrawal of generosity—and its replacement with suspicion and the threat of arrest—only serves to reinforce the peddler’s idea of the world as a fundamentally antagonistic place, where one must be selfish and opportunistic to survive. At the same time, the bitterness in his speech moves the ironmaster.
This amuses the ironmaster and defuses his anger, but he still tells the peddler to leave immediately. Edla stops him, however, and says that she wants the stranger to stay with them. The ironmaster is incredulous and demands to know why. Edla, who had been thinking of “how homelike and Christmassy she was going to make things for the poor hungry wretch,” explains that the poor peddler walks all year long and has no home of his own, and so she would like him to “enjoy a day of peace” with them—“just one in the whole year.”
This is one of the fundamental turns of the story. The ironmaster’s generosity was reserved only for his friends, and his mercy only for those able to persuade him, but Edla offers her kindness freely, even after knowing that the peddler was dishonest about his identity. Her speech also ties this kind of freely given generosity to the Christmas holiday specifically.
The ironmaster grumbles to himself, and Edla continues, saying she doesn’t think it’s right to “chase away a human […] to whom we have promised Christmas cheer.” The ironmaster is displeased but relents, and Edla leads the peddler to the table to eat. The peddler eats, but keeps looking at Edla, wondering why she interceded on his behalf. He thinks, “What could the crazy idea be?”
In this passage, the peddler starts to be truly affected by Edla’s kindness. He is still thinking opportunistically, assuming she must be trying to “trap” him in some new way by offering even more generosity, but he has also had his expectations upset in a personal way.
The rest of Christmas Eve passes normally, with the stranger sleeping all day and only waking up for meals, and once to see the lighted Christmas tree. At dinner, Edla tells the peddler that it is her father’s intention that he keep the suit he is wearing as a Christmas present. She also tells him that he will be welcome back next Christmas Eve if he once more wants a place to sleep in peace and safety. The peddler has no answer to this, and only stares at Edla in “boundless amazement.”
The Christmas holiday is again associated with the story’s themes of kindness and companionship. Edla continues to extend her generosity and understanding, slowly overturning the peddler’s worldview and making him reconsider the world as a cynical, opportunistic rattrap. The gift of the suit also represents the peddler growing into a new identity. He is not Captain von Stahle, but he could still be someone who is treated kindly by others and treats them kindly in return.
The next morning, Edla and the ironmaster wake up early and go to the Christmas service at church, leaving the peddler still sleeping. They return at around ten o’clock, and on the way back Edla is upset—at church they learned that one of the ironworks’ old crofters was robbed by a man peddling rattraps. The ironmaster chastises Edla for letting a thief into their house, and suggests that they won’t have much silver left when they get back home.
This revelation seems to confirm the ironmaster’s more suspicious, selfish mindset and criticize Edla’s freely offered kindness. At the same time, it sets up expectations that the story can soon overturn, if the peddler has indeed changed his ways.
When Edla and the ironmaster return to their house, they learn that the peddler has left, but he didn’t take anything with him—in fact, he left something behind as a Christmas present for Edla. Edla opens the badly wrapped package and inside finds a rattrap, a letter, and the thirty kronor stolen from the crofter.
In this final reveal, it’s made clear that the peddler has been changed by the experience of Edla’s unconditional kindness, and the ironmaster was wrong to assume that just because the peddler stole once, he was immoral at heart.
The letter is addressed to Edla, written in the peddler’s “large, jagged” handwriting. In it, he thanks her for being so kind to him and treating him like a “real captain,” and so declares that he wants to be kind to her in return and save her from being “embarrassed at this Christmas season by a thief.” For this reason, he is leaving the money to return to the crofter, and also a rattrap as a present “from a rat who would have been caught in this world’s rattrap if he had not been raised to captain, because in that way he got power to clear himself.” He signs the letter as “Captain von Stahle.”
The peddler’s note shows that Edla has helped him recognize the limitations of his rattrap vision of the world. While life can be harsh and unforgiving, the rattrap mentality does not take true kindness into account, and doesn’t allow for the latent potential for goodness within all people. Notably, the peddler does more than just return the stolen money—he also tries to be “nice” to Edla in return, and so leaves her the only the thing he has to offer: a Christmas present of a rattrap. This shows the peddler doing more than just making amends for his wrongdoing, but also acting kind and generous in his own way, having had these virtues awakened within himself. Finally, the fact that the peddler describes himself as having been “raised to captain” and actually signs the letter as “Captain von Stahle” means that he has assumed a new identity as another aspect of his transformation. He is not really Captain von Stahle, but he can be someone who conducts himself like a man whom others could be kind to, and who can be kind to others in return. It is this act of kindness that gives him a real identity, as he symbolically joins Edla in the story’s short list of named characters.