While it is primarily focused on the potential for goodness within people and the interactions between them, “The Rattrap” also concerns itself with issues of identity, especially the construction of identity through actions and choices, and the role that names can play in this process. Ultimately, the story suggests that identity is a fluid thing, and people can change or be changed to inhabit different identities based on their choices and the actions of others.
The story itself is told in a somewhat fairy-tale style, without a specific setting or even specific names for most of the characters. Even the protagonist is only referred to as “the rattrap peddler,” “the stranger,” or “the tramp.” Other principle characters are called “the old man” (also referred to as “the crofter”) and “the ironmaster.” This makes these characters seem almost like archetypes rather than specific people, and contributes to the story’s feeling of being a folk tale or myth. The only named characters (other than a brief mention of the master smith at Ramsjö Ironworks) are Edla Willmansson, who is the ironmaster’s daughter, and Captain von Stahle, who never actually appears in the story but is the man the ironmaster mistakes the peddler for, as an old army comrade of his.
It’s notable that Edla and von Stahle are the only two named characters. Edla is something of a hero in “The Rattrap,” if not the protagonist, for she shows the greatest compassion and understanding and helps reveal the core of goodness within the previously cynical, bitter peddler. She takes many specific positive actions in the story, such as persuading the peddler to come to the manor house, declaring her desire to provide him with a safe place to stay, and gifting the peddler with a suit and the offer of returning for Christmas Eve the next year. Actions and decisions like this give her a sense of identity within the story, one reflected by the fact that she is also given a name.
This idea then shows the importance of the peddler’s final letter, which he signs as “Captain von Stahle.” He is not really von Stahle, of course, but it’s suggested that in being transformed by Edla’s kindness and taking his own positive actions of returning the stolen money and leaving a rattrap as a Christmas present, the peddler has taken on a new identity and been given a name to go with it. He has been treated like a “real captain” and so wants to act like a captain in turn, even symbolically using the title and name he previously lied about. This doesn’t mean that he now is (or wants to be) an upper-class leader in the army, but rather someone others might treat with dignity and kindness, and who can treat others with dignity and kindness in turn.
The story thus suggests that identity is not necessarily fixed, and one’s situation and choices contribute to the identity a person inhabits at any given time. This then becomes part of Lagerlöf’s positive message in “The Rattrap”—that people can change, and that means they can change for the better.
Identity and Naming ThemeTracker
Identity and Naming Quotes in The Rattrap
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.
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.”