Axel Borg, the brooding hero of "By the Open Sea" (1890), is a distinguished scientist. Appointed Inspector of Fisheries, his mission is to improve the lot of some rather backward islanders who have overfished the herring shallows off Stockholm's archipelago. His manifest superiority is despised by the locals who consider him haughty and effeminate. Even members of his own stratum find him eccentric. Inevitably, he becomes involved with a woman. Although Miss Maria at age 34 is only two years his junior, he constantly refers to her as "the girl":
"He wanted to be loved by a woman who would look up to him as the stronger; he wanted to be the adored, not the adorer . . . but he had been born in a period of spiritual pestilence when womankind was ravaged by epidemic megalomania. . . ."
Strindberg wrote the book as he was nearing the end of his tumultuous first marriage. Although he would marry again--twice--Strindberg, according to recent biographer Olof Lagercrantz, was obsessed by the dynamics of his relationship to his first wife, Siri von Essen. In her--and in the symbolic character of Nora, heroine of "A Doll's House" (1879) by his fellow Scandinavian and much resented rival Henrik Ibsen--Strindberg found focal points for his general hatred of women.
The author of plays like "Miss Julie," "The Father" and "Creditors," whose brutal realism and highly charged sexuality revolutionized modern drama, Strindberg, more reticent in real life, was attracted to precisely the kind of aggressive, "emancipated" women he routinely denounced. Ashamed of the pleasure he derived from the passive role, Lagercrantz speculates, Strindberg turned against the "witches" whom he believed to have stolen his manhood.
This same unpalatable though fascinating pathology repeated itself in many of his plays and novels. Strindberg even used the same pair of names, Axel and Maria, for the male and female antagonists of two other works.
But Axel's obsession with Maria is only one theme in "By the Open Sea." Nearly as misanthropic as misogynistic, Axel finds solace in the natural world. He refuses, however, to worship Nature, because he considers himself Nature's culmination, destined to search out her secrets and master her. He sees himself as a new type of man, a higher, more sensitive "modern" type in the process of evolving from the more brutish man of the past. He would, he claims, prefer to leave sexuality behind him (except as necessary for procreation).
The passages of natural description demonstrate Strindberg's remarkable ability to fuse the language of science into a precise yet fluid poetic medium. Even in translation (Sandbach's is the first in English since 1913), much of the original fire still burns. But in terms of intellectual content, Axel's views seem, at best, intriguing historical artifacts. Axel's--and Strindberg's--misogyny can be seen as part of a veritable cornucopia of late 19th-Century quasi-scientific thought, with its forays into eugenics and social Darwinism.
In her introduction, Mary Sandbach takes great pains to prove that Axel is not a "Nietzschean superman." (Strindberg and Nietzsche had corresponded in 1888 and 1889, just as the latter was descending into madness.) This is perhaps irrelevant, since Nietzsche scholars have already taken far greater pains to distinguish Nietzsche's "Ubermensch" from the popular misconception.
What makes Strindberg's portrait of Axel Borg so compelling is its blend of harshness and pathos. "By the Open Sea" remains an impressive attempt at objectifying inner turmoil and transmuting it into art.