Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 Sept 2011

(Short Story) The Lift That Went Down into Hell by: Par Lagerkvist

(Reaction) Personal Horrors by: Antonio Conejos

Lagerkvist's short story is a neat parable about how we make our lives a sort of hell through our callousness and self centeredness. The couple who goes down to hell is unremarkable in their wants, banal in their petty needs.

There is the man who is interested in his companion only as a plaything, Leaning over her he fondled her; she blushed. He is repeatedly asked by the woman if he loves her and he evades the question every time. For her part, the woman is the preening sort of creature who projects the dramatic and clings to any man who will listen to her tales of woe. She is, in her eyes, the most sorry of souls, No one has suffered as I have.

This complimenting pair of lovers enter an elevator and step off into hell.

The crux of the story though is nothing really awful happens to them in hell. Indeed, hell's staff is pleasant and efficient, even offering the couple a room for their tryst. As the devil proudly tells them, Hell is nothing to complain of now. We do all we can not to make it too obvious, on the contrary to make it enjoyable.

If this isn't hell in the traditional sense it is a place where the man and the woman can reflect on their most serious of misdeeds. With them is the woman's husband, Arvid, who has just killed himself in remorse over his cheating wife.

Faced with the victim of their affair, the man and woman act with characteristic denial and self absorption. They are not to blame for the husband's death. It was his fault for feeling so strongly about the whole affair! The man's reaction: It's absurd. The woman's: He's [Arvid] never been able to take things simply and naturally, as they are

The man and woman have driven Arvid to despair and suicide and they see first hand the product of their handiwork, There was nothing special about him except that he was deathly pale and had a bullet wound in his temple. Yet so strong is their conception of their place in the universe (ie. their needs come before anyone elses) that they wash their hands of the result and blame it as Arvid's fault. The devil points out that it's only the soul that suffers nowadays. The woman, who has no need for her soul, replies, Thank God for that.

In short the discussion above has attempted to demonstrate that the man and woman are quite simply despicable human beings. Even the devil agrees, so much so that the characters make their own hell without the assistance of any supernatural being. This is seen in the devil's last words of the short story. As the couple re-enters the lift to go back to the real world, the devil greets them, Good evening... welcome back.

This is a fabulous parting shot from the devil and implies that the couple is stepping back into hell (ie. their normal lives are the real hell). Where they have been has just been a (wasted) way station where they could see up close the damage they wrought and perhaps feel some remorse for it. Of course the couple is oblivious to this subtle clue. Perhaps this is the worst hell of all, to be ignorant and blind to the suffering of those around you. Because for the man and the woman in this short story the only person in the world is themselves.


Entertaining read with a twist. What I liked most was the studied nonchalance of the short story, as if these stepping off a lift into hell happens all the time. It's this combination of deliberate breeziness coupled with the fantastic that makes this allegorical short story a reflection on how our banal selfishness is our own little hell.

Lastly I enjoyed that Lagerkvist's story has a moral without being preachy or being blatant about the lesson of it all. The story presents things as it is and it's up to the reader to pass judgment on the man, the woman and the cuckold suicide.

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