The telephone in Strindberg’s time

It has long been accepted as a matter of course that we can talk to people who are not within hearing distance. This has been made possible by the telephone. Sweden’s first telephone network was taken into operation in September 1880. It was located in Stockholm, and Stockholm Bell Telefonaktiebolag was the company that introduced telephones to Sweden. Initially, the number of lines was 121.

In the beginning, the telephone was something exclusive, used primarily by government authorities, businessmen and the upper class. In addition, it was mostly men in the 1880s who availed themselves of the new method of “conversing at a distance by means of electricity,” as the technology was described in a text of the times.

The 121 telephone lines in Stockholm in 1880 were the beginning of the end of an era for Sweden, which in 1879 was still a face-to-face society in which people normally needed to meet in person to be able to exchange ideas, share secrets, discuss common interests and convey information. Anyone who wanted to contact another person and could not make a personal visit was forced to write a letter or employ a messenger, such as a servant who could deliver a written note.

This was the very different Swedish society which was the setting for August Strindberg’s debut novel “The Red Room” published in 1879. Today the book can be read as a literary portrayal and an ethnographic description of the conditions for social intercourse in a society and an era without telephones, meaning that conversations between friends and business associates could not take place without a meeting of the parties to the conversation.

“The Red Room” is characterized by many dialogues. These conversations were often charged and full of details, since much needed to be stated, discussed and concluded before the participants parted company. For the same reason, it appears that the pauses between conversations imposed by the technology of the times provided time for thought and reflection.

From the standpoint of cultural history, the breakthrough of the telephone in the 1880s and 1890s brought dramatic changes. This transformation of society is revealed in Strindberg’s last novel, “Black Banners”. It was published in 1907, a quarter of a century after “The Red Room”.

In this book, Strindberg once again sharpens his pen to portray people of different social classes in contemporary Stockholm. But unlike in “The Red Room” Stockholm in “Black Banners” is a city with telephones, whose signals interrupt people in their work, conversations and thoughts.

Towards the end of the novel, the author’s Zachris’ wife Jenny has fled from home and sought refuge with Hanna Paj. A few days later, Zachris wishes to find out if Jenny and Hanna Paj are getting along. He therefore goes to the phone “to make a daring attempt. He phoned Hanna Paj and said: – This is Zachris. Would you ask Jenny if she wants her fur coat. If so, I will send it”.

The call was very short, but Zachris was nonetheless satisfied with what he had been able to hear: “The attempt was successful. Jenny was there; Hanna had tired of her, and Jenny was remorseful. Now he only had to be patient, and Jenny would come crawling.”

Zachirs, who is the novel’s evil figure, generally used the telephone in a calculating manner. Often he would break off a discussion in which he was at a disadvantage with the excuse that he “had to go and telephone.”

The telephone contributed to changing the perception of time and space between the Sweden of “The Red Room” and that of “Black Banners” meaning from the old era of the 1800s, when conversation required a meeting of the parties, and the modern era of the 1900s, when telecommunications allowed conversations to be conducted between people in different places, independently of the physical limitations of space, using the voice as the mediator. August Strindberg was undoubtedly fascinated by this social and cultural transformation.

Author: Jan Garnert

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