What is the importance of the forest as a space in Peer Gynt?

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Peer Gynt is a five-act play by Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. To understand the importance of the forest, you must understand the 19th century shift in the arts, from the Romantic movement to the Realistic movement. The Romantic movement dominated the arts in Europe for the first half of the 1800s and one of its tenets was a belief that a close connection with nature was mentally and morally healthy and that one could grow morally stronger when in nature, preferably alone. The later half of the 1800s saw a shift in sensibilities, particularly in northern Europe, where Ibsen lived. Realism took hold and satire--which Ibsen uses in Peer Gynt--was no longer avoided.

In Act III, Peer flees to build a hut in the forest. Peer's solitary communion with nature never takes place because Solveig turns up and insists on staying with him. A Romantic writer would have sent him to the forest alone to grow morally stronger, but instead he is confronted by the green-clad woman and reminded of his shortcomings. He makes excuses and departs.

Returning to nature was an artistic and literary trend in the 19th century and Ibsen satirizes it in the trolls as well. Their food, which tastes terrible, is natural. Their clothes are natural. The trolls believe their "natural" lifestyle to be superior, no matter how insensible it may be.

In Act II, the Troll King asks Peer a question that is central to the play: "What is the difference between troll and man?" It could be rephrased as what is the difference between morality and humanity. Peer goes to the forest--to nature--but rather than enhancing his morality, it ends up reinforcing his imperfect humanity as his past mistakes come back to haunt him.

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