“The Rattrap” is a short, almost fairy-tale story that centers around the transforming power of human kindness. An unnamed peddler of rattraps goes from seeing the world as “one big rattrap” and engaging in robbery to returning his stolen money and proclaiming himself free—all as a result of experiencing true kindness and generosity from Edla Willmansson on Christmas Eve. By showing the peddler’s potential for positive change, Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf expresses a belief that there is a core of goodness in all people, and that this goodness can be unlocked through compassion and kindness.
When the story opens, the homeless peddler lives a hard and opportunistic life in rural Sweden—he has never known kindness, and so he himself is unkind. As he wanders the road begging and peddling his rattraps, the only pleasure he can find is in thinking “ill” of the world by imagining it as one big rattrap, and by ruminating on other people he knows who have been “trapped.” He finds joy in other people’s misfortunes, having only known misfortune himself.
The clearest example of the peddler’s initial lack of kindness comes when he takes the decidedly immoral action of stealing the crofter’s money. The crofter, an old man who lives alone, welcomes the peddler in to stay with him for the night, generously offering him food, shelter, and companionship. Over the course of the evening, the crofter boasts about having earned thirty kronor by selling his cow’s milk, and he pointedly shows the peddler where he keeps the money. The next day, after bidding the crofter farewell, the peddler returns and steals the thirty kronor. The old man offered him nothing but generosity and friendship, but the peddler returned this generosity by stealing all of the crofter’s meager savings. The peddler even feels pleased with himself because of this—he doesn’t even think in terms of compassion or generosity, but only opportunism and what he can do to survive in a cruel world.
Eventually the peddler has his “rattrap” worldview overturned by experiencing further kindness. This comes primarily from Edla Willmansson, the daughter of the Ramsjö Ironworks’ ironmaster. The ironmaster initially mistakes the peddler for his old regimental comrade, Captain von Stahle, and invites the peddler back to his manor house for Christmas Eve. When the ironmaster later realizes that the peddler is not von Stahle, he wants to kick him out of the house or even arrest him. Edla protests, though, and declares that she wants the peddler to stay. She reminds her father of the peddler’s hard, harsh life, where he never knows kindness or companionship, and declares that she would like to offer him a safe and comfortable place for at least one day a year. The peddler is amazed by this, and thinks, “What could the crazy idea be?” He still assumes that this must be some new “trap,” and that Edla is trying to get something out of him.
Over the course of the next day and night, the peddler’s amazement only grows, and he seems to recognize that Edla is simply a kind and compassionate person. She gifts him the suit he is wearing as a Christmas present, and then offers that he would be welcome back at the manor house next Christmas Eve if he should again want a safe and warm place to stay. While the narrative doesn’t describe the peddler’s thoughts at this point, it’s clear that he experiences a fundamental change as a result of Edla’s compassion. This is shown the next day, when the ironmaster and Edla return from church, where they learned that the peddler is actually a thief. Upon getting back to the house and expecting the peddler to have stolen from them as well, they instead find that the peddler has left behind the crofter’s stolen money, a rattrap as a Christmas present, and a letter for Edla. In the letter, he explains how her kindness has helped him to “clear himself” of the rattrap of life, and says that because she was so “nice” to him and treated him like a real captain, he wants to be nice to her in return.
This significant turn exhibits Lagerlöf’s point about the power of human kindness. The peddler always had the latent potential for goodness within him, but because he experienced only hardship and unkindness in life, he thought of the world as an antagonistic place and was antagonistic to others in turn. When he experiences true understanding and compassion from Edla Willmansson, however, he is able to adjust his “rattrap” philosophy and find the goodness within himself, even being kind to Edla by not only giving back the stolen money but also offering a rattrap as a Christmas present. He then goes back to his difficult life of wandering and peddling rattraps, but it’s assumed that the peddler has been fundamentally changed for the better by his experience of Edla’s kindness. While “The Rattrap” doesn’t shy away from the reality that the world can be a harsh and unkind place, it ultimately takes an optimistic view of human nature, and advocates for the power of the virtues of kindness and compassion.
Human Kindness ThemeTracker
Human Kindness 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.
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.”
“I am thinking of this stranger here,” said the young girl. “He walks and walks the whole year long, and there is probably not a single place in the whole country where he is welcome and can feel at home. Wherever he turns he is chased away. Always he is afraid of being arrested and cross-examined. I should like to have him enjoy a day of peace with us here—just one in the whole year.”
The ironmaster mumbled something in his beard. He could not bring himself to oppose her.
“It was all a mistake, of course,” she continued. “But anyway I don’t think we ought to chase away a human being whom we have asked to come here, and to whom we have promised Christmas cheer.”
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.”