Rediscovering Wild Strawberries


Victor Sjostrom and Bibi Andersson in Wild Strawberries

My daughter-in-law’s recent blog post on children, discussed yesterday, has taken me back to a time when I myself wrestled with the question of whether we should bring children into an uncertain world.  A powerful work addressing this issue is Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a magnificent film that feels like literature.

The film is about a day in the life of an aging doctor who is on his way to receive an honorary degree.  He has been a cold man, the son of a cold mother and father to a cold son.  Yet in the course of the day he thinks back to a childhood summer of love and wild strawberries.  He has dreams that charge him with having been unkind, he sees a version of his youthful self and friends in the persons of three young hitchhikers, and he talks with Marianne, his daughter-in-law, who has always been afraid of him but who now shares a special confidence with him.

She tells him about a rift that has grown between her and his son Evald.  She has become pregnant, and her husband has told her that she will lose him if she goes through with the birth.  As Evald explains,

“It’s absurd to live in this world, but it’s even more ridiculous to populate it with new victims and it’s most absurd of all to believe that they will have it any better than us.”

Evald, she tells the old doctor, puts the blame for his coldness on his upbringing:

“I was an unwelcome child in a marriage which was a nice imitation of hell. Is the old man really sure that I’m his son? Indifference, fear, infidelity and guilt feelings—those were my nurses.”

And finally, “This life disgusts me and I don’t think that I need a responsibility which will force me to exist another day longer than I want to.”

The doctor acknowledges his responsibility for his son’s hatred of life and is touched by Marianne’s confidence.  In fact, he softens and, when he sees Evald later in the day again, he reaches out to him in a new way.  Something has shifted within him and perhaps within Evald and Marianne as well.  A soft breeze seems to blow through the film’s conclusion, as though lonely old age and the prospect of death has forced him to remember what is precious about the world.  Life is worth living and passing on, regardless of how much suffering lies in store.

It’s interesting to see this film now through older eyes.  I used to identify with the doctor’s intellect and cold reserve, seeing them as traits that I possessed and that were at war with an inner passion that I had difficulty expressing.  Now, although I am only 58 and have (I assume) many years to live, I identify with the doctor more literally—as a man who has discovered warmth and who can look at his son (sons in my case) and daughter-in-law with a new sense of understanding and compassion. 

I know they will thrash around as I did and that some of what they struggle with they inherited from me.  There were versions (milder than Bergman’s to be sure) of indifference, fear, infidelity and guilt in our home.  Like the old doctor, however, I am learning to forgive myself and therefore do not feel compelled to punish my children for my deficiencies. I can let them go and support them in whatever decisions they make.   I see my parents viewing me in the same way.  One cannot ask for much more from family.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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