The central symbol of the story is also that which gives it its name: the rattrap (or rat trap). The peddler manages to survive by, among other things, selling rattraps, which he makes out of wire that he finds or steals. As he trudges along the road, he likes to think of the world as one big rattrap, offering the “bait” of luxury or pleasure to ensnare people. Because he’s had a hard lot in life, he finds this amusing, and he enjoys thinking of other people who have been caught and had their fortunes turn to the worse. When he goes on to steal the money from the crofter and then get lost in the woods, the peddler feels that he too has been caught in the world’s rattrap, having taken the bait of the money and become ensnared. He then feels this way again when he agrees to go to the ironmaster’s house with Edla, thinking that he has let himself be trapped with the stolen money. When the ironmaster realizes that the peddler is not his old comrade Captain von Stahle and threatens to call the sheriff on him, the peddler’s tirade about the world being one big rattrap actually amuses the ironmaster enough that he decides to let him go without consequences. Finally, after being transformed by Edla’s generosity and kindness, the peddler leaves her with the gift of a rattrap and a note saying how her compassion has helped him “get free” from the rattrap of life.
As a complex symbol in the work, the rattrap starts out as a straightforward representation of the peddler’s cynical worldview and harsh life, and ultimately shifts to symbolize the limitations of this ideology in the face of true human kindness and compassion. At first, the rattrap illustrates the world the peddler has always known—cruel, unforgiving, and constantly trying to ensnare someone in one way or another. Because the peddler himself has always been “trapped,” he can only find pleasure in contemplating the ways that others have been trapped as well. It is this cynical, self-interested mindset that leads the peddler to steal the crofter’s money and then distrust Edla’s motives when she invites him to stay for Christmas Eve, even once she recognizes that he is not actually Captain von Stahle. However, after he realizes that her generosity and kindness are pure, he leaves her a rattrap as a Christmas present, with the stolen money inside and a letter declaring that she has helped him escape the “rattrap” of his situation. In this way, the symbol of the rattrap comes to represent human kindness, as it is now a Christmas present from the newly changed peddler, and the vehicle bearing the money that he is returning to the crofter. At the same time, in its smallness and meanness, the rattrap shows the limitations of the peddler’s previous worldview. One could see the world as nothing but a rattrap, but there are also kind and loving people like Edla who are not trying to ensnare anyone, and life is a larger experience than just a game of entrapment.
Rattraps Quotes in The Rattrap
He had naturally been thinking of his rattraps when suddenly he was struck by the idea that the whole world about him […] was nothing but a big rattrap. It had never existed for any other purpose than to set baits for people. It offered riches and joys, shelter and food, heat and clothing, exactly as the rattrap offered cheese and pork, and as soon as anyone let himself be tempted to touch the bait, it closed in on him, and then everything came to an end.
The world had, of course, never been very kind to him, so it gave him unwonted joy to think ill of it in this way. It became a cherished pastime of his, during many dreary ploddings, to think of people he knew who had let themselves be caught in the dangerous snare, and of others who were still circling around the bait.
As he walked along with the money in his pocket he felt quite pleased with his smartness. He realized, of course, that at first he dared not continue on the public highway, but must turn off the road, into the woods. During the first hours this caused him no difficulty. Later in the day it became worse, for it was a big and confusing forest which he had gotten into […] He walked and walked without coming to the end of the wood, and finally he realized that he had only been walking around in the same part of the forest. All at once he recalled his thoughts about the world and the rattrap. Now his own turn had come. He had let himself be fooled by a bait and had been caught.
The ironmaster did not follow the example of the blacksmiths, who had hardly deigned to look at the stranger. He walked close up to him, looked him over carefully, then tore off his slouch hat to get a better view of his face.
“But of course it is you, Nils Olof!” he said. “How you do look!”
The man with the rattraps had never before seen the ironmaster at Ramsjö and did not even know what his name was. But it occurred to him that if the fine gentleman thought he was an old acquaintance, he might perhaps throw him a couple of kronor. Therefore he did not want to undeceive him all at once.
“Yes, God knows things have gone downhill with me”, he said.
She looked at him compassionately, with her heavy eyes, and then she noticed that the man was afraid. “Either he has stolen something or else he has escaped from jail”, she thought, and added quickly, “You may be sure, Captain, that you will be allowed to leave us just as freely as you came. Only please stay with us over Christmas Eve.”
She said this in such a friendly manner that the rattrap peddler must have felt confidence in her.
“It would never have occurred to me that you would bother with me yourself, miss,” he said. “I will come at once.”
As soon as they got up from the table he went around to each one present and said thank you and good night, but when he came to the young girl she gave him to understand that it was her father’s intention that the suit which he wore was to be a Christmas present—he did not have to return it; and if he wanted to spend next Christmas Eve in a place where he could rest in peace, and be sure that no evil would befall him, he would be welcomed back again.
The man with the rattraps did not answer anything to this. He only stared at the young girl in boundless amazement.
“Honoured and noble Miss,
“Since you have been so nice to me all day long, as if I was a captain, I want to be nice to you, in return, as if I was a real captain—for I do not want you to be embarrassed at this Christmas season by a thief; but you can give back the money to the old man on the roadside, who has the money pouch hanging on the window frame as a bait for poor wanderers.
“The rattrap is a Christmas 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.
“Written with friendship
And high regard,
“Captain von Stahle.”