Connected to the themes of kindness and trust, “The Rattrap” also explores the basic human need for companionship and community, and shows the negative effects of loneliness, whether as a result of poverty, cynicism, or unkindness. At the start of the story, the peddler leads an incredibly lonely existence, and this affects him in extremely negative ways, causing him unhappiness and bitterness, and driving him to steal from and lie to others. Through the peddler’s transformative interactions with the old man, the ironmaster, and Edla Willmansson, however, the story shows the importance of human companionship, and suggests that a society should bring people together rather than isolating them or turning them against each other.
The peddler’s loneliness is largely a result of his poverty and difficult lifestyle. He wanders the roads by himself, peddling his rattraps, begging for food and shelter, and sometimes even stealing to survive. Despite all this, he still can barely “keep body and soul together,” and in general leads a “sad and monotonous life,” finding pleasure only in thinking negative thoughts about others and the world in general. This initial portrayal emphasizes the fact that the peddler is driven to loneliness because he has no other option. He cannot build any kind of friendships or community as he must always keep moving, and he is even forced into the opposite of community (stealing from others and then fleeing) because of his extreme poverty. An unfair society keeps him poor and isolated, despite the fact that he tries to make a living through work. The story doesn’t offer much specific social critique, but it does suggest that this is a sorry state of affairs. Someone like the peddler should not be forced to live such a sad and lonely life while someone like the wealthy ironmaster enjoys stability and luxury, and the opportunity to enjoy a community of family and friends.
The old crofter is not as desperately poor as the peddler, but he does still lead a meager, lonely existence. It’s stated directly that this is the reason he takes in the peddler so willingly, as he is “happy to get someone to talk to in his loneliness.” The old man is able to find some brief companionship with the peddler as they talk, play cards, and smoke together, and it’s clear that this gives him great pleasure. The story doesn’t state the peddler’s reaction to this evening, as he mostly seems focused on the money that the crofter later reveals, but it’s likely that he also enjoys a night of warmth and community, no matter his cynicism, as he too is obviously lonely.
When Edla Willmansson decides that she wants to the peddler to stay with her and her father for Christmas Eve, it is largely because she recognizes the man’s loneliness and wants to give him a brief respite from his isolated existence. In her speech to the ironmaster she emphasizes this fact, saying that the poor peddler is not usually “welcome” anywhere, and “wherever he turns he is chased away.” She knows that people need companionship and pities the peddler for his lonely life. This pity then leads to her many compassionate acts, which in themselves start to build a new kind of companionship between her and the peddler. This is shown in the peddler’s final act of the story, as he leaves a Christmas present—a sign of friendship—for Edla, and even signs his letter to her as “written with friendship.” He has been transformed by her kindness and trust, but also simply by the fact of being around another human being and having positive interactions together.
Loneliness and Companionship ThemeTracker
Loneliness and Companionship 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.”