Volume 30, Number 2, (Winter 2012)

Kallocain—Karin Boye’s dark dystopia

Reviewed by Richard B. Vowles

(This essay originally appeared as the introduction to Karin Boye’s novel, Kallocain, published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1966. Nominated for the LFS Hall of Fame Award, Kallocain is a Swedish dystopian novel about a totalitarian world state. Originally published in 1940, the book tells the story about a truth drug used to suppress any thoughts of rebellion.)

Karin Boye’s literary successes lie at opposite ends of a spectrum reaching from the private to the public and, in another sense, from a mythical past to a hypothetical future. Hers is the victory of extremity. She will be remembered for two books, the collected poetry, numbering some three hundred pages, and Kallocain (1940), which deserves to take a secure place in the literature of dystopia, among such novels as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Her works reflect, on the one hand, a lyrical inwardness and, on the other, an oracular sense of public responsibility. It was Karin Boye’s tragedy that the two fields lay hopelessly apart. There was, to return to the original image, no sure continuity of the spectrum.

Though rarely time-bound, Karin Boye belongs to the literary twenties and thirties. To American readers, she will seem most easily associated with Pär Lagerkvist, who made his debut in 1912, and Harry Martinson, who appeared on the scene in 1929. All three are melodic poets making sacrament of simple things, though Boye’s yearning for the ideal sets her somewhat apart. All three, interestingly enough, ventured into the chill realms of dystopia. “The Children’s Campaign,” which Lagerkvist published in 1935, studies the grim mechanism and bloody combat of a totalitarian youth corps in a fashion that obviously had a partial influence on Kallocain. Martinson ultimately came to create a significant merger of poetry and science fiction in Aniara, the symbolic story of a wayward space ship, now widely known as an opera by Carl-Birger Blomdahl. But both Lagerkvist and Martinson are more robust, more resilient. They were able to mend cleavages of the soul and lesions of the heart. They have survived, and they continue to write. Still, Karin Boye will live as a poignancy and an intensity of some moment in Swedish letters.


Karin Boye was born in 1900 in the shipping and industrial city of Göteborg [Sweden]. The daughter of a civil engineer of German descent, she grew up in a home environment that was both religious and intellectual. Her early ecstasies over now Christ now Nietzsche might not have been brought into dangerous conflict had she not been sent at the age of twenty to a seminary where she encountered a hardened, institutionalized Christianity that seemed to efface her life impulses, her real identity. The resultant emotional upheaval is documented in the series of Socratic dialogues published under the title of Crisis (Kris, 1934), a book in which the two sides of her personality are represented by Malin Forst I and Malin Forst II, and sometimes further abstracted into the chess pieces Black and White—standing for the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the instinct and the intellect.

When Karin Boye went to Uppsala University in 1922 to continue her studies, her first volume of poetry, Clouds (Moln), had just appeared. Her life continued to be a series of crises. She joined the international worker movement Clarté, which enjoyed a more sustained dedication in Sweden than in any other European country except France, the native country of its founder, Henri Barbusse. It would be difficult to locate Karin Boye’s precise ideological position between social democracy and communism, but suffice it to say that she was actively engaged in Clarté until a 1928 trip to Russia brought disillusionment. Then and in the early thirties she wrote extensively for the liberal journals and the little magazines, chiefly Spektrum, which did so much to acquaint Sweden with the surrealists and T. S. Eliot. She and the critic-librarian Erik Mesterton, then a fellow writer for Spektrum, made the very fine Swedish translation of The Waste Land.

An early, unsuccessful marriage to an Uppsala Clartéist was the first of several emotional defeats that finally led Karin Boye to seek psychoanalytic help in Berlin. She continually sought therapy there and in Sweden and, while the experience fructified her prose works and to some degree colored her poetry, it accomplished nothing for her permanent peace of mind. In 1941, in a land strangely sequestered from the hates of Europe, she walked out into the night and took her own life.

Two volumes of poetry, Hidden Country (Gömda land, 1924), and Hearths (Härdarna, 1927), followed Clouds and established Boye’s reputation as a poet before the end of the twenties. But her full and exciting maturity came only with the volume For Love of the Tree (För trädets skull), which appeared in 1935. It is customary to see new promise in “The Seven Deadly Sins” (“De sju dödsynderna”), a fragment of a cantata, and other posthumously published poems; but it strikes me that resignation and defeat had begun to damp the vitality of her poetic impulse. Nevertheless, the poetry has the flexibility and assurance of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, from which it clearly derived a measure of inspiration.

In 1931, as if to meet the social demands of a new decade, Karin Boye made her debut in prose. To the surprise of the critics who had pigeon-holed her as a poet, she won a major Scandinavian book award with Astarte, a book impressive for its “living, natural, and infallibly sure prose,”[1] but somewhat removed from novelistic orthodoxy. It is, by virtue of an irony which Boye seems to have reserved for her prose, an expressionistic portrayal of city mores, presided over after a fashion by the goddess Astarte, who has been metamorphosed from her Asiatic splendor into a gilded, smirking window mannequin.

In Merit Wakens (Merit vaknar, 1933) Boye accomplishes a fractional distillation of love. A widow discovers that her husband was far from the man she thought him to be, that he had in fact embezzled and was being blackmailed at one time. The spectacle of a young couple whose relationship is about to collapse convinces the disillusioned widow that sacrifices have to be made for love and that she must cherish her husband’s memory for what it was. Love has to be accepted conditionally, as it were. Too Little (För lite, 1936) is Karin Boye’s version of the poet trapped in a prosaic marriage, unable to realize himself in poetry or in love. Undoubtedly these two realistic novels come close to the problems of Boye’s own life.

Kallocain, which appeared in the fall of 1940, was immediately greeted as the finest of Karin Boye’s novels. “Of international class,” wrote Artur Lundkvist; and Karl Ragnar Gierow did not hesitate to call it “a significant and lasting work of art.”[2] This sinister vision of a world state might well be described as a montage of what Karin Boye had seen or surmised in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. In it she absolves herself of any lingering stigma of political naïveté.

It is possible to admire Karin Boye’s prose for its color, texture, and precision, but by and large fiction was not her medium. The truth is that she did not know people well enough to have any real gift for characterization. The figures in her novels are either extensions of herself, fragments from a mirror that was never one whole, placid surface; or they are abstract poles sparking her troubled, tortured dialectic. She could not project her emotions so well into people as into things; and the investing of object and form with emotional content is much more the concern of poetry.



The lyricism of Karin Boye is so intensely personal that it seems neither very Swedish nor very modern. Except for the images of ice and cold, a fleeting preoccupation with the Uppsala plains, and the rare appearance of the mythical Æsir (gods) and the álfar (elves), Scandinavian scenes and personages are notably absent from her poetry. The world of Boye’s poetry is the world of self; it subsists on its own almost confessional vibrancy. The lyric strain may be narrow, but it has depth and a kind of liquid purity. To read much modern poetry is to go by train, absorbing all the shocks, glimpsing the sordid and the lovely alike, the billboards, the festoons of laundry, the ideographs of smoke besmirching the sky, the sweet and desperate faces, the rich, colliding color. To read the poetry of Karin Boye is to force oneself Alastor-like up the river of the soul, where a torment of vegetation thrusts back a somber sky, where all nature is reflection of the poet’s mind, a vista of the poet’s anguish.

Or, the poetry of Karin Boye might be described as an ascent to symbolic fulfillment, through anguish and pain:


I am sick from poison. I am sick from a thirst
for which nature has provided no healing drink.
Rivulets and springs flow everywhere;
I kneel to take the sacrament of the earth’s veins.


And holy rivers inundate the heavens. I lean back,
feel my lips wet with white ecstasies.
But nowhere, nowhere . . .
I am sick from poison. I am sick from a thirst
for which nature has provided no healing drink.


Karin Boye is something of the saint thirsting in the desert; she is, in fact, drabbad av renhed (beset by, scourged by purity), in the phrase from the poem “Cherubim” which Margit Abenius chose as the trenchant title of her Karin Boye biography. In that poem, the image of “beast-angels . . . with lion feet and sun wings” is expressive of the struggle between body and soul that plagued her from early seminary days.

Boye’s rejection of reality is Platonic with mystical overtones. In the early poem “Idea” she sees herself as a “lying mirror image”; later her vision has a kind of Blakean ecstasy:


The world is dreamed by a sleeping god,
and the quivering dawn waters his soul.
Memories of things that happened yesterday,
before the world was;
ghosts, glimpses.


In the search for adequate defense against the world of actuality, Karin Boye musters images of cleansing, excision, hardness, and armored protection. Truth, for her, must be cold steel, the surgeon’s knife. She would don a coat of mail, very like that of the Christian crusader. But finally her militancy dissolves into images of softness and sensitivity as more suitable to a philosophy of love. Hers is a pagan variant of Eliot’s “Teach me to care and not to care, / Teach me to sit still.”

The wonderfully expansive, luminous symbols of For Love of the Tree make it the pinnacle of Karin Boye’s achievement. “The deep violoncello of night casts its dark rejoicing over the expanses,” she sings, and of another hour, “Blond morning lay your lambent hair against my cheek.” The poet is both mother and microcosm:


Ripe as a fruit the world lies in my bosom
it has ripened overnight and the rind is the thin blue film
that tightens bubble-round
and the juice is the sweet and fragrant,
running, burning
flood of sunlight.


“Ripeness is all,” the poet might say in the words of Shakespeare’s Edgar.

Indeed a kind of vegetant harmony informs the best of Boye’s poetry and the tree is her most expressive symbol. Growth is for her both cruel and wonderful. “Of course it hurts when buds are bursting,” she confesses, but she will pray for a rooted existence, for hands that burst open like flowers. She would be Yeats’s “great rooted blossomer,” not “bruising body to pleasure soul.” Karin Boye and Virginia Woolf have often been called kindred spirits, for scarcely more reason than that their deaths were similar immolations; but Boye is closer to Katherine Mansfield in pathos and symbolic statement. One thinks of the pear tree in “Bliss” and Mansfield’s outburst in a letter of May 1919: “O this spring—it makes me long for happiness... Why are human beings the only ones who do not put forth fresh buds—exquisite flowers and leaves? I cannot bear to go among them.”[3]

The tree comprehends all; Boye loves its organic assurance, its oneness—and its magic possibility as symbol:


A tree grows beneath the earth;
an hallucination haunts me,
a song of living glass, of burning silver.
Like darkness before light
all weight must melt
and only one drop of song fall from the leaves.


An anguish consumes me.
It seeps from the earth.
A tree writhes in the heavy layers of earth.
O wind! Sunlight!
Feel this agony:
the promise of a breath of paradise below.


Here and elsewhere the tree takes on mythic identity; it is Ygdrasil, the tree of life, as well as the tree of the poet’s life. It is, however, no intellectual totem, consciously adopted because of its ubiquity as a cultural symbol. Rather, it seems to spring from the “collective unconscious”; it is the poet’s bond with the fecund earth, with the racial past, present, and future.

It might even be said that Karin Boye’s lyric development describes a vegetative cycle. Her early poetry is a sapling: lean, sinuous, and possessed of a hymnlike simplicity (one thinks of such lines as “Unlocked the copper portal of the world,” “I know a path that takes me home,” “Your every word is like a seed,” “The onetime said is forever said,” and “I am a priest of poverty”); then comes efflorescence and a rich harvest of symbols. Finally the tree has gained in strength and dignity but lost its former glow; the later poetry is firmly rooted, its limbs are raised in the posture of supplication so typical of Boye, but one senses inevitably the “drift toward death.”

And so life ends in a quasi-mystic resignation. Karin Boye might recognize the possibility of two gods, “the god we create, and the god who creates us—the one within us and in the world’s will”; but she would have only the latter god, a god who was “a dark, shaping power, behind and beyond the visible, always in flux and animation . . . a just, inspiriting star glance,” as Margit Abenius has put it.[4] It was a god who brought Boye’s poetry to the kind of symbolic fruition I have attempted to describe, but gave spiritual solace in no sufficient measure. Karin Boye’s final vision is concentrated in the brief, but lovely, “Dark Angels,” one of her last poems:

The dark angels with blue flames
like flowers of fire in their black hair
know the answers to strange, blasphemous questions—
and perhaps they know where the bridge is
from the depths of night to the light of day—
and perhaps they know the guise of all unity—
and there may be in our final home
a bright dwelling that bears their name.[5]



Kallocain was written during the summer of 1940, less than a year before Karin Boye’s suicide. The task was pure torture partly because she had never attempted to hold together so large a book “without an ounce of autobiography” and partly because the very subject filled her with increasing terror. When she submitted the finished manuscript to her publisher on 21 August, she wrote: “I know well enough that the novel has its failings, but at least it is exciting, and, if it’s any consolation, I promise that I shall never write anything so macabre again.” And she added: “In any case, it was something I had to do.” Though she readily admitted the influence of her recent reading in Kafka, she seemed, perhaps in whimsy, to imply some outside instrumentality. To the compliments of her mother, she replied: “Do you really think it was I who did it?”[6]

Kallocain is the first-person account of Leo Kall, a scientist in the totalitarian Worldstate, who has discovered a truth serum of disarmingly pale green color, which, when injected into the bloodstream, reduces the inhibition threshold and compels the patient to blurt out the whole truth. His drug is of inestimable value to the police state because it eliminates the last vestige of privacy. It fulfills the prognostication of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the patron saint of all dystopias:

And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives or mistresses, to have or not to have children—according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient—and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.[7]

In the world of 1984, “nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull,” but that too must become a property of the Worldstate. Karin Boye probably knew very little about pentothal and sodium amytal, though she might have heard of them through her friend, Ebbe Linde, the chemist turned poet and critic. Rumors of truth drugs and various forms of chemical persuasion were already current in the 1940’s.

Kallocain, named after the drug, is the confession of a dedicated party member turned deviationist. “Confession” is perhaps too strong a word, because the narrative is notably matter-of-fact and emotionless (kall means both “cold” and “profession” in Swedish). The style reflects the imprint of a society reduced to austerity and routine. But when Kall experiences conversion, the style gains resonance as the lost values reassert themselves.

Dr. Kall’s chief wish, so he believes, is to be a “good fellow-soldier, a happy, healthy cell in the state organism.” “From individualism to collectivism,” he says, “from aloneness to communion, such had been the course of this giant, holy organism in which the individual was only a cell... Kallocain was a necessary stage in this whole development, since it widened the communion to encompass the inner self, which had been kept private before.” Kall moves up the power ladder by testing the drug on many human guinea pigs and then persuading the police that Kallocain might be of use to them.

Kall is, however, troubled by memories of another communion than that of the State. He remarks, “One might speak of ‘love’ as an obsolete, romantic concept, but I am afraid it exists anyway, and from its very inception it contains an indescribably painful element.” He has these vestigial feelings for his wife Linda—beautiful, strong, uncommunicative—and desperately unhappy. To him she has become a frightening and almost hateful enigma.

But even more disturbing to Leo Kall’s peace of mind is his immediate superior in the laboratory, Edo Rissen. It is not simply that Leo Kall, a petty Othello of the test-tube kind, suspects his wife of previous infidelities with Rissen. It is that they have something in common that he has not, something that perhaps he once had. Rissen is too casual, too lax, too permissive—in short, too humane. He has an inner core of security that protects him from the multiple terrors in the power struggle of the State. He is, in other words, suspect as a fellow-soldier and a throw-back to the “Civilian Era.” In the thought-controlled society of the Worldstate, Rissen observes sagely but without a trace of smug phrase-making: “No fellow-soldier over forty can have a clear conscience.”

This is, of course, why citizens over the age of ten had to be deported from Plato’s Republic and the past had to be systematically eradicated in the society of 1984. History is heresy.

Leo Kall, approaching forty, caught up in the State’s network of mutual suspicion, and running short on tranquilizers, strikes out at his imagined adversaries. He performs a kind of mental rape on Linda, with some Kallocain smuggled out of the laboratory. Disappointed in the results, he brings about the arrest and subsequent trial of Rissen.

As for Linda, after the shock of the Kallocain injection, she decides she has a choice, either to kill Leo or to make a gift of her complete confidence, to open her heart and mind to him altogether. She chooses the latter course, and he is transfigured by the discovery that there is a higher communion and a stronger attachment possible than that of individual and State. Liberated from fear, he tries to save Rissen, recognizing that his strong feeling toward that strange man is closer to love than to hate.

But there is no turning back. Others were bound to inform on a man like Rissen, and they have. Indeed, Leo sees neither wife nor rival again. Nor his three children, who in any case belonged more to the state than to him. Kall’s role in the Worldstate ends abruptly when he is captured by a raiding party from the enemy Universal State. It is only after twenty years of captivity (a life not very different, as he remarks, from his erstwhile “freedom”) that he undertakes to write down his “memories of a certain eventful time” in his life.

The usual dystopian conditions prevail in the Worldstate. The state is everything, the individual is nothing, regulation prevails, and that which cannot be regulated is outlawed or extirpated. The focal character occupies a position of ambiguity and indecision between the old and new. He is sufficiently sensitive to observe and report change, but he is numb and impotent. Ultimately he is assimilated or destroyed by the new order of society. On the other hand, this is not to say that Kallocain is like all other dystopian fiction.

In Brave New World, written some nine years before, the race of man has been conditioned by prenatal treatment and postnatal suggestion into a vacuous euphoria which is maintained by booster doses of soma. Huxley’s novel, with its Social Predestination Room, its feelies, its songs (“Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun”), and characters like Helmholtz Watson, Bernard Marx, and Mustapha Mond, displays all the comic inventiveness of the musical revue. If Huxley chose to laugh a technological world out of countenance, Karin Boye found the strangulation of all individuality too devastating to laugh at. Kallocain is not satire, although the flat understatement of Leo Kall’s chronicle may constitute a minor irony of method. The names sound like the coinages of science fiction. While some are identifiably Greek (Kalipso Lavris), Japanese (Kakumita), and Hamitic (Tuareg), most of them are vaguely Baltic in sound. At any rate, they are not chosen for their comic possibility.

George Orwell’s 1984, which appeared eight years after Kallocain, is at the same time both more sophisticated and less sophisticated than Karin Boye’s dystopia. It documents the philosophy of the world state in far more detail, but it keeps physical torture as an instrumentality of the state, when subtler methods of persuasion are available. So 1984 is both novel-of-idea and melodrama, and it may be argued whether the two are entirely compatible. Karin Boye, on the other hand, is concerned with one man’s mind, a scientific mind, and perhaps therefore a politically naïve mind, as it documents its past life in the hallucinatory horror of the Worldstate. Ideology and police violence, while they exist, fall outside the perimeter of her fiction.

The closest relative and very likely the progenitor of Kallocain was yet another and earlier fantasy, We (1920), by Eugene Zamiatin, the self-styled “devil of Soviet literature.”[8] In this case the hero-narrator D-503 is a mathematician who designed the Integral, a space ship which, “like a flaming Tamerlane of happiness,” will visit other planets and bring all beings into the fold of the United State. It will unbend the last wild curve, “integrate the colossal universal equation.”

Like Leo Kall, D-503 is caught between two worlds. Although a zealot of the new life of reason, he conducts an old-style clandestine love affair, no easy feat in his glass city, and as a result he is caught up in a revolutionary movement. Finally he submits to official lobotomy and, already depersonalized, he now joins the happy deactivated masses of the state. Always there is some inner cancer to be excised. In We it is fancy, or imagination; in 1984, it is memory; in Kallocain it is the élan vital, the hidden well-spring of love.[9] For love is the stubborn center of man and the most difficult to remove.

The symbolic use of green is important to both novels. Defying the United State means penetrating the Green Wall that surrounds it. Moving to a secret rendezvous, D-503 writes:

From beyond the Wall, from the infinite ocean of green, there arose toward me an immense wave of roots, branches, flowers, leaves. It rose higher and higher and higher; it seemed as though it would splash over me and that from a man, from the finest and most precise mechanism which I am, I would be transposed into . . . [10]

D-503 does not dare finish the sentence; but Edo Rissen, under the influence of the truth serum, expresses his faith in somewhat similar terms of color:

I wanted so to believe there was a green depth in the human being, a sea of undefiled growth-power that melted all dead remnants in its crucible and healed and created in eternity . . .

Typically Karin Boye, in moments of intensity, resorts to the symbols of her poetry. Beneath the concrete expanses of the Worldstate lies the source spring of her lyricism. “The objective world-image, the logical-scientific, is a gridwork we stretch over our personal experiences,” she wrote in the essay “Language Beyond Logic.”[11] If Karin Boye subjugates or sublimates the poet in herself in Kallocain, it is to demonstrate that much more dramatically how the gridwork of reason can become a world prison and how it can bring about the death of the self.

December, 1965


[1] Sten Selander, quoted in the introduction to Astarte (Bonnier, 1949), p. 42.

[2] Quoted in the introduction to Kallocain (Bonnier, 1949), pp. xiv-xv.

[3] Letters, ed. J. M. Murry (Albatross, 1938), p. 164.

[4] Introduction to Dikter (Bonnier, 1942), p. 8.

[5] Translated by Alan Blair, Life and Letters, 63 (October 1949), 21. All other translations are my own.

[6] Quoted in Margit Abenius, Karin Boye (Aldus, 1965), pp. 296-97.

[7] The Brothers Karamazov (Everyman, 1950), p. 265. See D. Richards, “Four Utopias,” The Slavonic and East European Review, 40 (1961), 220.

[8] Peter Rudy, “Introduction,” We (Dutton paperback, 1952), p. vi.

[9] Cf. D. Richards, p. 226.

[10] We, p.88.

[11] “Språket bortom logiken,” Spektrum (1932), reprinted in Tendens och verkan (Bonnier, 1949), p. 42.




Boye, Karin. Kallocain © 1966 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.



Karin Boye (1900—1941) was a Swedish poet and novelist whose suicide in 1941 amid the shambles of a war-racked Europe reflects the fate of a whole generation of writers. Her first novel, Astarte, appeared in 1931.

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