Doctor Glas

Well I’ve been working, sorting out our new flat and wearing my new rain clothes and all of a sudden the week has flown by. On Friday evening I braved the rain for the Critical Mass but sadly the rain had put everyone else off and it was a no-show, no-go sort of event.

I have finished reading Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Șderberg for the bookclub Рwhich I think counts as my first Swedish book excepting Pippi Longstocking.
It’s an interesting read because Söderberg invites us to question the morality of anti-abortion legislation, martial rape, divorce, eugenics, the concept of duty, and the hypocrisy of 19th Century Western laws, social norms and expectations.
The main character is deeply conventional until he lets his feelings for another human being control his actions. The main story is about about love/lust/passion and the emotions and actions attendant to it. But I think it is also about feeling an affinity with someone in a society where the norm is a feeling of isolation and disconnection.
The Doctor who has spent his life ostensibly in the service of people, feels that he has never had the chance to ‘act’, that society forces him to stick to a code of behaviour that he feels no ownership of. He has no particular interest in helping people and has always refused to perform illegal abortions, although he often feels he should. This reluctance to act outside of the law changes when he meets the wife of a clergy man. Mr Gregorius is popular with his congregation but disliked by his young and recently unfaithful wife. To Doctor Glass, Mrs Gregorius is a ‘beautiful little insect with shimmering golden wings caught in a web’ in a ‘world of flies and spiders’ and she alone has made him want to ‘tear the web to pieces and kill the spider, if need be, for I do not believe it is forbidden to kill spiders’. The book asks us to question whether murder can be considered ethical or the lesser of two evils. It questions whether morality exists in an objective sense.And if it is in fact purely subjective and tied to time and place how excusable is breaking the code. The Doctor fears that guilt or discovery will ruin his life but feels the pressure to act to save his love is more pressing.
It was written in a time when abortion was illegal. Șderberg allows us to feel dislike and yet understanding towards the Doctor who refuses to perform abortions not because of a belief that it is morally wrong but rather that breaking the law could jeopardize his comfortable middle class life. The debate broadens into a brief discussion on eugenics which when it was written in 1905 was one of the main topics linked to and discussed with abortion Рsomething that has not been true post World War Two.
It’s an easy read (in translation) and a bit like Ibsen in it’s exploration of norms and morality. Although it is almost impossible to empathize with Doctor Glass, the story is nonetheless a compelling read. And even thought it is sad and somewhat hopeless in it’s outlook – it is interesting historically for the issues it raises and explores.

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