The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish Nobel laureate, reads like a folk tale but holds a very meaningful message for us. In the context of a man’s experience around Christmas time, the story explores the edge experience has over intelligence, knowledge and wisdom. It also highlights the importance compassion has in transforming a person.
The story features a vagabond who earned his living selling rattraps. He made rattraps using the scrap metal he found. When he couldn’t find the raw material, he begged or stole them. He always looked hungry and led a life of monotony and boredom.
Then, one day, a thought struck him. He found that the world was very much like a rattrap. The world offers wealth and other pleasures just the way a rattrap offers cheese and meat. Once we go in for them, we are imprisoned in it forever and it entails nothing but eternal misery. He went around telling this idea to everyone he met.
Though he tried to spread this great philosophy of life, a truth which is expounded by all religions, it only remained in his brain as a piece of information. He was intelligent enough to figure it out and talk about it. He was wise enough to understand its significance. But when it came to practising it, he failed miserably. He realized this only when it was spelled out to him by an incident.
One dark evening he was walking along the road and knocked at the door of a poor old man’s cottage. The old man let him in, served him food and gave him shelter for the night. They played cards and the old man told him his story. He used to work in Ramsjo Ironworks but now he was a small time crofter who had just one cow. He said that was good enough for him since it had even given him thirty kroners in a month. Like the Bishop did to Jean Val Jean, he even showed the vagabond the money kept in a cloth bag hung on the wall.
The next day both men left the hut at the same time but the peddler came back and stole the thirty kronor from the old man. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment he got hunted by his own conscience and he thought he was being followed. He left the highways and entered a forest, but as much as he walked, he was not able to come out of it. He realized that his own medicine had not worked for him and that he had been trapped by money and that the forest was his prison.
At some point later in the same night he heard sounds from the Ramsjo Ironworks and moved in that direction. He reached the factory and went in. Nobody asked any questions since it was normal for vagabonds like him to walk in and enjoy the warmth of the furnace in a chilly night like this.
Just then the owner of the mill walked in. He addressed the peddler as Captain Nils Olof mistaking him for an old friend. The peddler didn’t contradict him. The miller invited him home and this the peddler refused since he feared getting himself exposed in better lighting. Later the owner’s daughter Elda came to get him and forced him to go with her. She had even brought a wrap for him since it was too chilly outside. The peddler went with her. That night both the father and the daughter were so nice to him and made him wear good clothes. But seeing him in those clothes they found they had made a mistake and he too confessed that he was only a peddler. The father thought of calling the sheriff to arrest him. The vagabond told him that he was innocent and if he was dragged into trouble that would entail another cycle of misery through which the miller would also get caught in the trap. His words made the owner change his mind but he asked the peddler to leave. Now the daughter intervened saying that they couldn’t ask him to leave since they had invited him. Moreover, it is Christmas Eve and the man deserved a peaceful life at least once in a year. She served him a good supper. The next morning he slept on and was woken up only for lunch and dinner. He was even invited for the next Christmas.
That night at church, Elda heard that one of the old crofters of the ironworks had been robbed by a man who went around selling rattraps. The iron master now feared that the man might have stolen all their silver spoons. When they returned home the peddler had already left. He had left a tiny rattrap for Elda. There was a note attached to it. It was his confession. There were thirty kronor in the rattrap and he asked Elda to have the privilege of returning it to the old man. He thanked her and her father for the being compassionate to him and thereby transforming him. His intelligence, knowledge and wisdom only took him close to hell (symbolized by the hot burning furnace and the thirty kronor hinting at Judas’s reward for betraying Christ). His transformation came from his real life experience when he was shown compassion by two strangers even when they found him a sinner.