The Rattrap - Summary

Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940) was a Swedish writer whose stories have been translated into many languages. A universal theme runs through all of them — a belief that the essential goodness in a human being can be awakened through understanding and love. This story is set amidst the mines of Sweden, rich in iron ore, which figure large in the history and legends of that country. The story is told somewhat in the manner of a fairy tale.

This story by Selma Lagerlof is moralistic in nature and is a good study in human behaviour.
The story begins with description of the central character of the story, a man who went around selling rattraps made of wire. Since he did not earn enough selling those, he indulged in begging and stealing to make more money and still, he wore torn clothes and went hungry most of the times. Such people who have a lot of time on their hands think in various directions and one day, a new line of thought struck him that this whole world is nothing but a giant rattrap. It offers baits like riches, joys, food, shelter, among others just like food items for rats in a trap and as soon as anyone touched the bait, the whole world closed down on him.
Since he had not gotten anything from the world, he felt good in thinking ill about the world in that manner and spent most of his time thinking about the traps and the people who get caught in such traps.
One evening, he came across a little gray cottage and asked for shelter to stay during the night. The owner, a very old man, was more than happy to accommodate him as he stayed alone and liked company. He even offered him food and tobacco. The old man was a crofter in his good days and used to work on land too. But, due to old age, he no longer worked and was dependent on his cow for survival as he sold its milk for earnings. He even showed him the thirty kronor that he had hung in a leather pouch.
The next morning, he left the old man’s cottage and the old man too left to milk his cow and sell its milk. But, the rattrap peddler returned half – hour later, broke a window pane, and stole the thirty kronor from the leather pouch that hung on the wall near the window.
After stealing the money, he decided to travel through the forest instead of main roads to avoid being caught. But, he soon got lost in the confusing woods and realized that he himself has been caught in the same trap that he had been thinking about and the forest had become his prison. The darkness came soon and being tired of wandering around all day, he fell on the ground giving up all hope. As he lay on the ground, he heard a regular thumping sound, which he immediately recognized as the sound of hammer strokes from an iron mill. He got up with whatever strength left in him and went towards that sound.
He was correct as the sound was coming from Ramsjo Ironworks, the same mill that the old man used to work in when he was young. It used to be a large plant but has become smaller now but work was going on even in the night. Due to all the noise at the plant, the blacksmith did not notice when the rattrap peddler entered the plant and went up to the furnace. When they saw him they did not mind as they were habitual of poor guys coming there to warm themselves. He asked the blacksmith if he could stay and he nodded his consent.
The mill was owned by a very prominent person and he used to come there every night for an inspection. When he visited that night, the first thing he saw was the peddler. He went close to the peddler and removed his hat to look at him closely.
He confused the peddler with an old friend of his, Captain Nils Olof, who served with him in the army. The peddler thought the rich man might give him some money so he decided not to tell him the truth. The rich man, the ironmaster, invited the peddler to his home but he got worried that the truth might come out. But, the ironmaster thought he was just feeling embarrassed and insisted upon his company for Christmas. When he did not budge, the ironmaster left smiling and the blacksmith realized that he had a plan.
Half-an-hour later, ironmaster’s daughter arrived at the mill to persuade the peddler to go to their home. She introduced herself as Edla Willmanson and talked to the peddler in a compassionate and friendly manner due to which he relaxed a bit and accepted the invitation along with a fur coat she had brought.
On the way to the manor house, he grew worried that he was falling into another trap.
The next day was Christmas Eve. At the breakfast table, Edla expressed doubt that he was an educated man and was once a Captain. But, the ironmaster said that he would appear much different in proper clothes and after having some food. Indeed, when the peddler was given a hair-cut and shave, and was dressed in nice clothes after a bath, he looked absolutely different. But, it had another effect too. The ironmaster realized that he had mistaken him for his friend in the low light at the mill and due to his dirty looks.
The peddler said that he had tried to tell him in the night that he was just a poor trade but they had forced him to come to their house. But, the ironmaster threatened to call the sheriff and get him arrested. The peddler grew agitated and spoke to the ironmaster angrily saying the whole world is a rattrap and even though this time he might get locked up for not saying the truth and wanting to enjoy good things, a day might come when the ironmaster might get stuck in a trap due to his own want over something big.
The ironmaster forgave him but asked him to leave immediately. However, Edla stopped him and told her father that she would like him to stay for Christmas dinner. He father was surprised and she told him that she felt sorry for the poor man as he did not have a home and people always behave badly with such a person. She wanted to give him at least one good and peaceful day in his life where he could enjoy being at home and feel the goodness of Christmas. She said it was after all they who had invited him for Christmas and even though it was a mistake, it wasn’t good to send someone away on the best day of the year. The ironmaster agreed to it hesitatingly but warned her that she would regret it.
Edla brought the peddler to the table and he ate the breakfast thinking all the while about the reason behind Edla’s gesture.
Nothing eventful happened after that as the peddler just slept till lunch and went back to sleep after lunch. It was probably because he had not had such a comfortable and safe sleep for many years. He was woken up when the Christmas tree was lighted in the evening and again when dinner was served.
After dinner, he thanked everyone for treating him well. Edla told him that her father wanted him to keep the suit that was given to him as a Christmas present and if he wanted to spend the next Christmas with them again, he was welcome. The peddler was amazed beyond words for such kindness.
The next morning, the ironmaster and his daughter went to the church while the peddler was still sleeping. There they heard about a rattrap peddler who had robbed an old crofter of the ironworks. The ironmaster rebuked his daughter for letting such a fellow stay in their home and was worried about things he might have stolen. When they reached home, they found out that the man had already left by then but had not taken anything with him at all. Instead, he had left a small package for Miss Williamson as a Christmas present.
Edla opened the package to find a small rattrap in it with three ten kronor notes inside it along with a letter. In the letter,, the peddler had written that since she had treated him well as if he was a real Captain, he wanted to behave like a real Captain and did not want to embarrass her for being a thief. He said that the money belonged to an old man who lived on the roadside and requested her to return it to him. He, further, wrote that the rattrap is a present to her from a rat who would have been caught in the rattrap of this world had it not been for her who raised him to the level of a Captain and gave him the power to clean himself.
He signed off the letter as “Captain von Stahle.”


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