Saturday, 22 August 2015

The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof contains many important metaphors

The short story, the Rat Trap by Selma Lagerlof has a few rather distinct metaphors used by the protagonist, the pedlar, to describe the world in which he lives. He uses these metaphors to describe the world he lives in; situations he falls into from time to time. The most important metaphor is the metaphor of the rattrap, which incidentally also forms the title of the lesson. Another powerful metaphor is the forest in which he loses himself.The third metaphor is the metaphor of the ‘lion’s den’ while the fourth metaphor is the letter that the pedlar addresses to Edla at the end.

It is interesting to see how Selma Lagerlof uses  metaphors in this story to create interest in the reader and to help convey the message that the essential goodness in a human being can be awakened through understanding and love. These metaphors are integral to the allegorical genre, fables and fairytales such as which this lesson happens to be. The author begins the story like a fairytale, and like a fairy tale, the lesson delivers a specific message. The metaphors used by Selma are like cues and symbols that deliver a message in the form of images, whether it is the image of the rattrap, the dense forest or even the lion’s den! Metaphors are images that structure our thinking.Metaphorical thinking underlies the way we make sense of the world conceptually. It governs how we think and how we talk about our day-to-day lives. (Libby Brooks, 2015). So then, it is important that we go deeper into the lesson and pick up each metaphor to analyse the meanings and how it impacts the message of the story.

1.The Rat trap: It shouldn’t be surprising that even a peddler can fall into a philosophical line of thought when it comes to thinking of the world in terms of images. He had naturally been thinking of  his rattraps when suddenly he was struck by the idea that the whole world…was nothing but a rattrap. It had never existed for any other purpose than to set baits for people. (The Rattrap) This is an extreme view of the world, rather pessimistic, negative, and vitiated in nature. Moreover, even ordinary things like joys, shelter and food, heat and clothing are baits to tempt hapless victims into the rattrap. Apparently everything that belongs to the material world,  even basic necessities are baits! All the successful people he has known are victims of the rattrap! The author, however explains that this extreme view of the world was in fact his way of getting back at a world that had never been good to him. It was his way of taking revenge on a world that had slighted him, it was his way of passing time while plodding along. That the peddler should see the world as a rattrap shows how vitiated, revengeful, and vindictive the peddler is, and it is in this area that Selma Lagerlof wants to show a transformation taking place in him. In the allegory of the rattrap, Selma wants to show how good people like the old crofter, the ironmaster and Edla, all agents change, are able to bring about a change in the peddler.

2. The Woods: The peddler dares not  walk on the public highways after stealing the thirty Kroner lest he should be arrested for the crime, so he takes to the woods. In the beginning he had no problems, but then later in the day, things became worse, for it was a big and confusing forest which he had gotten into. He tried, to be sure, to walk in a definite direction, but the paths twisted back and forth (The Rattrap) and it was then that he realised that he had become trapped in a forest which was an impenetrable prison from which he could never escape.(The Rattrap) The woods too can be seen as a metaphor for the circumstances that the peddler has fallen into, all because of stealing the thirty Kroner from the old crofter. The irony of the situation is that in the forest, the peddler gets a taste of his own medicine! Why on earth did he think so poorly of the world, even if he was not that successful as an entrepreneur?  One could end the lesson at this point with the peddler dying because of his crime - he is a recipient of “Divine Justice, or Divine Retribution”. This ending however, would defeat the very purpose of the allegory - for more is yet to come, and it is the sound of the hammer strokes of the Ramsjo Ironworks that give him hope and draws him to the relative warmth of the factory. The moral ? Well, I guess it would be that there is always a way out of thick soup, and that one should not lose hope.

3. The Lion’s Den: Later when accosted by the Ironmaster as Nils Olof and not denying that he has made a mistake, believing that he would get a few Kroner, the peddler gets more than he had bargained for when the former invites him to the manor. No, I couldn’t think of it! … To go up to the manor house would be like throwing himself voluntarily into the lion’s den.(The Rattrap) The vagabond dimply does not want to go to the manor. What if someone recognises him for what he is - the petty thief who stole the thirty kroner?What if the Ironmaster sent for the sheriff to arrest him? No, the manor would be like a lion’s den! The metaphor of the Lion’s Den is however, at a slight variation from the metaphor of the rattrap because in the latter, you don’t have lions prowling in search of easy prey. The lion’s den is a den with a hungry lion waiting to tear you up!

4. The letter: The letter that the peddler addresses to Edla is a metaphor, a symbol that represents the transformation that has taken place in the peddler. He is no longer a tramp with 'tramp manners', he has become a man with the dignity and respect of a captain in the army. He is now 'Captain Von Stahle' and he makes it clear that the reason for this transformation is none other than Edla Wilmansson, a woman who gave him the respect accorded to a Captain in the Army. She treated him with dignity and as a result, he wants to reciprocate her kindness by redeeming himself. He would have been trapped in a rattrap with no hope of escape if Edla had not intervened on his behalf! It is a gift from rattrap who has escaped from a rattrap and he wants to say 'Thank you' to his rescuer!

It is clear from the above analysis that the metaphors employed by Selma Lagerlof vary from circumstance to circumstance. However, the metaphors are all a slight variation of the central metaphor in the lesson. The choice of metaphors made by the peddler represent his mindset before the process of transformation was complete. The images and the metaphors that one creates about the world are highly dependent on one’s experiences. The peddler could think of the world as  a rattrap because he was closely associated with rattraps and could not think of anything else. Perhaps if he had been a seller of oranges, then he might have thought of the world as an orange!

1. Liibby Brooks. Metaphor map charts the images that structure our thinking. 30 June,2015,30 June 2015
2.Lagerlof, Selma et al. Flamingo text book for class XII (Core Course). New Delhi: NCERT, 2007

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