Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Werle house. Home of the wealthy industrialist Haakon Werle in which the play opens. Shaded lamps in its rich study cast a greenish glow, giving the illusion of a forest or seascape setting. Werle’s former partner, Old Ekdal, begs release from a locked office, symbolizing his earlier imprisonment. The dim study screens him and allows others to ignore him. A brilliant inner room and other chambers suggest depth of place and characters.
Ekdal house. Shabby home of the Ekdal family in which the play’s second act is set at night. A single lamp in the set suggests Old Ekdal’s poverty, stressing the contrast with Werle’s brilliantly lighted home.
Old Ekdal spends most of his time in a garret, in which he keeps a curious assortment of animals. He pretends that the garret with its old Christmas trees is a forest like the one in which he hunted as a young man. The ambiguous attic place suggests freedom but is actually a prison to the animals. Although the family bases its life primarily on self-deception and illusion, the Ekdal home is a happy one.
When Gregers visits the house to see his friend Hjalmar Ekdal, he is appalled by its condition and vows to reveal the truth to the Ekdals. To that end, he rents a room in the house. When he smokes up the house, pours water into the stove, and makes the floor a “wet pigsty,” the disaster symbolizes the family disruption...
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Union With Sweden and the Constitution
Since 1536, Norway had been a province of Denmark, but in the early 1800s, Sweden attacked Denmark. The resulting peace treaty transferred Norway to Sweden. Crown Prince Christian Frederik, the nephew of the Danish king, refused to accept this transfer. He initiated an uprising and called for the convention of a national assembly. The delegates wrote and signed a constitution, and elected Christian Frederik king of a free and independent Norway.
Norway received no support from Europe. Swedish troops attacked, and Christian Frederik resigned two weeks later. Sweden accepted Norway’s constitution, which was amended to reflect the union effective November 1814. A Norwegian government and the National Assembly, the Storting, would make national policy. Though Norway remained an independent nation, it shared Sweden’s king and foreign policy.
Norway Becomes a Parliament
Despite the popularity of King Charles John, the popularly elected Storting continued to struggle against the king and his cabinet. In 1833 representatives from the farming class formed a majority in the Storting. The so-called Farmer Storting advocated greater local control over local matters. The farmers also forged a relationship with radical urban intellectuals, which led to the formation of Norway’s first political party, the Liberal party, in 1869. The party’s major goal was to introduce a parliamentary...
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The wild duck is the foremost symbol Ibsen employs. The wild duck has come to live with the family after having been shot by Hakon, which in itself is symbolic. Hakon is the instrument of the duck’s downfall, just as he was the instrument of Gina’s downfall. Both duck and woman almost came to destruction. In the case of the duck, Hakon’s dog saved the creature; in the case of Gina, Hakon’s money saved her from disgrace. For Gregers, however, the duck, which became caught amidst the mire and rubbish at the lake bottom, comes to represent the Ekdal family: Gina; Old Ekdal, who according to Hakon is one of those people who ‘‘dive to the bottom the moment they get a couple of slugs in their body, and never come to the surface again’’; and Hjalmar, who according to Gregers has ‘‘something of the wild duck’’ in him, having mired himself in the dark ‘‘poisonous marsh.’’ According to some critics, when Gregers entreats Hedvig to sacrifice the duck, he is encouraging the symbolic destruction of the lie that has poisoned her whole family.
To further the symbolic relationship, Gregers sees himself as the ‘‘absurdly clever dog’’ that saves the duck—or the family, or Hjalmar’s life— from the swamp. He determines to save Hjalmar and bring him to a truer existence. In seeing himself as a savior, however, Gregers denies the possibility that the duck—or Hjalmar—might lead a worse existence as a...
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Compare and Contrast
1880: The second half of the 19th century is an age of literary greatness in Norway. Along with Ibsen, Bjornstjerne Bjornson was a major writer. By the 1890s, writers such as Gabriel Scot and Knut Hamson are introducing symbolism and neoromanticism into the Norwegian literary world.
1990s: Today, Norway supports its writers through tax exemptions, monetary grants, and government purchasing for libraries. Norway ranks among the world's leaders in books published per capita. About 5,000 new titles are published each year of which about two thirds are works by Norwegian authors.
1870s: Industrialization begins in Norway. This shift in production causes a national migration to urban areas.
1990s: In the 1990s, industry contributes about one quarter to the country's gross domestic product and employs about one third of the labor force. Important industries include petroleum and gas production, food products, metals and metal products, machinery, and transport equipment.
1880s: In 1889, Norwegian law changes to require children aged seven to fourteen to attend school. The first compulsory education law had been passed in 1860.
1990s: In the 1990s, the law requires nine years of basic schooling with a tenth optional year. Mandatory subjects include Norwegian, religion, math, music, physical education, science, and English.
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Topics for Further Study
Imagine that Hedvig had only injured herself, not killed herself. How do you think the family would react? Do you think Hjalmar would change at all? Would the play still be considered tragic?
Conduct research to find other dramas that are part comedy, part tragedy. What are some of these plays? What do they have in common with The Wild Duck?
Ibsen has raised feminist issues in plays such as A Doll's House, in which the heroine leaves her family for an independent life, and The Wild Duck, which touches upon issues of female sexuality. Do you think Ibsen could be considered a feminist writer? Explain your answer.
The symbolism of the wild duck is a muchdiscussed topic in the field of literature. What do you think the duck most symbolizes? The entry discusses ways in which the duck represents Hjalmar, Gina, and Gregers. Do you think the duck also represents Hedvig? Explain your answer.
Some critics have stated that there is no likable character in The Wild Duck. Do you agree with this assessment? Explain your answer.
Conduct research into societal values held by Norwegians toward the turn of the nineteenth century. Based on your findings, do you think the viewpoints and attitudes expressed by the characters are accurate? Why or why not?
Find out more about Ibsen's works. How would you categorize his body of work? What issues were of greatest concern to him? How do his early...
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What Do I Read Next?
Ibsen's A Doll's House was first published in 1879 and performed the same year. The play centers on the Helmer family. When an outsider threatens to expose one of Nora Helmer's past acts, Nora's illusions about marriage and loyalty are shattered. This play is an early work portraying female independence.
Swedish playwright August Strindberg was a contemporary of Ibsen. His play Miss Julie is one of his most outstanding works. It centers on Julie, an aristocrat young woman who has a brief affair with her father's valet. In it, Strindberg combines dramatic naturalism with his own conception of psychology. With such works, Strindberg helped develop Expressionist drama in Europe.
George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession (1898) centers on a young woman's discovery that her mother's rise from poverty was through prostitution, and that her mother still holds financial interests in several brothels. Learning these unpleasant truths forces the young woman to reevaluate her relationship with her mother and others.
Irish playwright John Millington Synge also dealt with unsentimental studies of the character of his people. His 1907 comedy, The Playboy of the Western World, like The Wild Duck, was initially unpopular with local audiences, but has since won widespread acceptance as a masterpiece. It centers of a young Irishman whose self-reported murder of his father earns him much admiration.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brustein, Robert, review of The Wild Duck, in The New Republic, April 14, 1986, p. 27.
Bull, Francis, Norsk Litteraturehistories, Volume IV, 1937, pp. 18–19.
Christiani, Dounia B., preface to The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.
Ellis, Havelock, ‘‘Ibsen,’’ in The New Spirit, 1890.
Howells, W. D., ‘‘Henrik Ibsen,’’ in The North American Review, Summer, 1906, pp. 1-14.
McCarthy, Mary, ‘‘The Will and Testament of Ibsen,’’ in Sights and Spectacles, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 182–189.
Peacock, D. Keith, ‘‘The Wild Duck: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2d ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.
Reinert, Otto, ‘‘Sight Imagery in The Wild Duck,’’ in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 55, July, 1956, pp. 457–462, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 177-82.
Rilke, Rainer Maria, review of The Wild Duck, in Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, Macmillan and Co., p. 95, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Caputi, Anthony, ed. Eight Modern Plays. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Dounia B. Christiani’s translation of The Wild Duck is supplemented with excerpts from Ibsen’s letters and speeches and two chapters from books by M. C. Bradbrook and Dorothea Krook. Bradbook’s contribution explains how the play works on different levels simultaneously, and Krook remarks on the subtlety of Ibsen’s theme of self-deception. Caputi’s foreword provides an excellent introduction to Ibsen and twentieth century drama.
Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. New York: Macmillan, 1977. An introductory study that provides the general reader with a good starting place for reading about Ibsen. Clurman, a renowned stage director, comments with sensitivity on the plays as both theater and literature. Includes an instructive discussion of The Wild Duck, which concludes that Gregers’ zealotry leads him to misjudge Hjalmar’s essentially mundane nature.
Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Sixteen essays cover, among other topics, Ibsen’s conception of truth, realism, and stage craftsmanship. Robert Raphael discusses the theme of self-deception in The Wild Duck and two other Ibsen plays.
Lyons, Charles R., ed. Critical Essays on Henrik...
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