As “The Rattrap” begins, the homeless peddler is defined by his “rattrap” philosophy of life: that the world is nothing but a big rattrap that offers “bait” in the form of luxuries and pleasures, and then ensnares and ruins anyone who reaches for this bait. This is a fundamentally cynical worldview, and one that the story ultimately undercuts by showing its limitations and offering an alternate philosophy. Though life can be harsh and cruel at times, Selma Lagerlöf suggests that being wholly cynical only leads one to isolation, immorality, and unhappiness. Instead, the story advocates for a more trusting worldview, one that takes human kindness into account and can build community between people.
At the story’s beginning, the peddler is cynical and opportunistic, assuming that the world is out to get him and that he can’t trust anyone. He has lived a difficult life, and so has learned this cynicism through hard experience. The old man who lets him stay the night, however, is exceedingly trusting, welcoming the peddler into his home (whereas the peddler is used to seeing “sour faces” when he asks for shelter) and even showing him where he keeps his savings of thirty kronor. The peddler then steals the money, and feels no remorse for what he’s done—in fact, he feels “pleased with his smartness.” He assumes that the old man was foolish, and never even considers why he might have trusted the peddler, whose company the old man clearly enjoyed.
Edla Willmansson is the second person to offer the peddler her trust. While her father, the ironmaster, welcomes the peddler into his home only because he thinks the peddler is his old regimental comrade, Edla decides to trust him to stay even after learning his true identity. She and her father go to church the next day, where they learn that the peddler recently robbed the old man (who used to be a crofter at Ramsjö Ironworks). This sets up the expectation that the peddler might have robbed them as well—and this is what the cynical ironmaster believes, as he criticizes his daughter for trusting the stranger and letting him into their home.
The story ultimately comes down on Edla’s side, however. The peddler does not steal from the wealthy ironmaster, and even leaves them with the money he stole from the old crofter. Edla’s kindness and trust apparently showed him an alternate way of dealing with people, one that is about more than just taking advantage of each other to get ahead in the “rattrap” of life. This then illustrates Lagerlöf’s moral point: that even though the world can be an unkind place, people should be willing to trust each other (within reason) and not give in wholly to cynicism and opportunism. To be cynical like the peddler at the story’s start is to be alone and unhappy, and to take advantage of others’ trust, acting immorally in the assumption that morality is meaningless. The old man seemed to find genuine pleasure in spending an evening with the peddler, playing cards and talking about his life, and this brief community was only possible because of the old man’s decision to trust the peddler. To be trusting like Edla or the old crofter is to put oneself at risk, but also to truly enjoy the company and friendship of others.
Trust vs. Cynicism ThemeTracker
Trust vs. Cynicism 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.”
“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.”