Set in a cold wintry climate, The Rattrap by Selma Lagerlöf has for its protagonist, a rather shady character – a peddler ( a petty thief) who goes about the country selling rat traps and also engages in ‘petty thievery’. He is of the view that the world, with its luxuries and temptations is very much like the rattrap he sells, a rattrap with tempts people with various offers and traps the person who takes the bait.
One dark evening, peddler is walking along a road. He sees a little grey cottage by the roadside and knocks at the door to seek shelter for the night. Surprisingly, he isn’t chased away as usual and is welcomed by an old man. The man treats him to porridge, a big slice of tobacco roll and then ends up playing mjölis ( a card game) until bedtime. The old man had been a crofter at Ramsjö Ironworks and was now supported by his cow which provided milk for the creamery everyday. In order to prove his point, the man actually goes on to take out three ten-kronor bill from the leather pouch he’d hung near the window pane. A terrible mistake.
The peddler steals the three ten-kronor bill from the leather pouch before running away. He thinks himself smart, avoids the highway so as not to get caught and enters the forest .
However, he soon realises the folly of it. He loses his way in the confusing forest and ends up getting utterly lost :
All at once he recalled his thoughts about the world and the rattrap. Now his own turn had come.
Soon, we find him struggling to survive. He lies on the ground, tired and hungry, waiting to die in the dark December night. Suddenly, he hears a sustained thumping. Recognising it to be the sound of hammer strokes of an iron mill nearby, he makes his way to the direction of the sound which finally leads him to Ramsjo Iron Works. The blacksmiths working there permit him to stay and he sleeps near the furnace, drawn towards its warmth.
After sometime, the owner of the mill enters Ramsjö and sees the tall vagabond. The ironmaster walks close to the vagabond and takes off his slouch hat to get a better view of the man’s face. What follows next is a great irony awaiting the ironmaster:
‘‘But of course it is you, Nils Olof!’’ he said. “How you do look!”
The ironmaster has mistaken the vagabond for one of his old friends ends up inviting the tramp to his house.
The tramp is now in a dilemma. He knows that he will get busted the moment his enters the ironmaster’s house. He pleads the ironmaster to let him be. The ironmaster exits the scene to the tramp’s relief. But he isn’t done yet.
The ironmaster sends his daughter along with the valet to persuade ‘Captain von Stahle’ to come home. She goes to the tramp who is still stretched near the furnace sleeping with his hat over his face. She lifts his hat to get a better view of the man. The peddler, evidently used to sleeping with one eye open, springs up and is terribly frightened.
Elda, the ironmaster’s daughter introduces herself and urges him to come home. Soon enough, she smells a rat:
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 invites him for the Christmas Eve dinner and is quick to add that the man will have the freedom to leave the house whenever he feels like.
This time, the tramp agrees. However when he is groomed and bathed the next day the ironmaster realizes his mistake and is very angry at the tramp who has entered his house pretending to be someone else .
The tramp defends by saying that he didn’t pretend to be a captain and that it was on the ironmaster’s insistence that he came to the house. When the ironmaster threatens to call the sheriff, the tramp thumps his fist on the table and eloquently states his philosophy:
The tramp took a step forward and struck the table with his fist.
“Now I am going to tell you, Mr Ironmaster, how things are,” he said. “This whole world is nothing but a big rattrap. All the good things that are offered to you are nothing but cheese rinds and bits of pork…Mr Ironmaster, must remember that a day may come when you yourself may want to get a big piece of pork, and then you will get caught in the trap.”
Quite impressed with the man’s defense, the ironmaster says that he won’t be calling the police provided the tramp gets out of the house as soon as he can. At this point, the daughter intercedes and requests her father to let him stay for a day.
The father finally relents. Elda makes the tramp sit on the table and dine with them. The rattrap seller is overwhelmed by such an act of compassion.
After the incident nothing untoward happens in the home. All the members eat and sleep. Later, when he tries to return the ironmaster’s coat, Elda informs him to keep it as a Christmas present. Furthermore, she invites him for the next Christmas Eve. The tramp doesn’t reply but is struck with boundless amazement.
The next morning, the ironmaster and his daughter get up early to go to the Christmas service and when they reach the church they hear the news that an old crofter had been robbed by a man who went on selling rattraps. The ironmaster chides his daughter over her decision and wonders how many silver spoons the tramp might’ve stolen.
As soon as they get home the ironmaster asks the valet whether the tramp has stolen anything from the house. The valet replies that he did not take anything. On the contrary, he left a packet for Miss Willmansson. Elda opens up the badly done package and gives a little cry of joy as she finds a little rattrap with three ten kronor notes inside it. The rattrap also has a letter which reads :
“Honoured and noble Miss,
“Since you have been so nice tome 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 …
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.”
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