illustrated portrait of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen

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Henrik Ibsen World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4071

Ibsen’s protagonists generally have great difficulty in coming to terms with the ideas, institutions, and laws that direct their lives. For that reason, they battle for freedom and truth, though their efforts are frequently undermined by the fact that their own past misdeeds threaten to destroy them. This pattern is already evident in Cataline, the protagonist of Ibsen’s first play. An ardent idealist, Cataline is powerless to reform a corrupt society because he is haunted by the ghosts of his own past. The two women in his life, his gentle wife Aurelia and the avenging Furia, represent the opposing forces at war within him. The alternative to active engagement with the forces that limit freedom is aesthetic withdrawal. The conflict between Ibsen’s own desire to retreat into aesthetic contemplation and his need to act is clearly expressed in “On the Fells,” a poem about a hunter who contemplates life from the heights. Ascent to the mountain top, a common Romantic symbol of artistic detachment, is nearly always connected with the aesthetic view of life in Ibsen’s plays.

Many of the concerns of Ibsen’s early plays come into sharp focus in the two verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt, both of which raise the question of how one can be true to one’s self. Loosely based on some of the ideas of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Brand, with its insistence on total commitment (“all or nothing”), is an existentialist tragedy. Brand is a fiery young pastor who carries Romantic individualism to the extreme. After an unrelenting struggle against “the spirit of compromise,” a struggle that costs the lives of his infant son and his wife, he is swallowed up by an avalanche, which reproves him with the words, “He is the God of love.” If Brand represents commitment to duty and to a high-minded way of life that kills joy and denies love, Peer Gynt, the hero of Ibsen’s next play, learns—almost too late—that only by rejecting the self-sufficiency of the romantic individualist and committing oneself to love can one transcend the limits of the self.

The opposition between Brand’s self-denial and Peer’s self-indulgence is restated in Emperor and Galilean as the conflicting claims of Christian asceticism (the Tree of the Cross) and pagan hedonism (the Tree of Knowledge). In this play, the Emperor Julian dreams of effecting a synthesis between these two views of life by establishing a mysterious “third empire.” The hope that some such synthesis will open a new path for happiness and self-fulfillment recurs in many of Ibsen’s subsequent dramas. Emperor and Galilean was Ibsen’s last historical play; Peer Gynt was his last verse drama. After The Pillars of Society, all of Ibsen’s plays deal with contemporary life. The Pillars of Society is a thesis play designed to show that society is built on rotten foundations. Following the pattern of the popular French “well-made play,” Ibsen makes the gradual unveiling of past misdeeds the source of dramatic tension in this play, but instead of trivializing and resolving all conflicts in the last act, he adds psychological depth and social significance to this technique by pressing forward to an unmasking and a confession. A similar pattern underlies all of his subsequent dramas: The protagonist is forced to confront a problem from the past.

In most of these plays, personal conflict is rooted in ideological differences. Ultraconservative characters, usually businessmen or lawyers, oppose any sort of social change that will jeopardize their wealth or their authority. Their outmoded ideas are challenged by rebellious, idealistic individualists who may be political reformers, artists, or women. The truth-seeking idealists in The Pillars of Society, A Doll’s House, and An Enemy of the People believe that it is their duty to identify and label “life-lies,” that is, the evasions and distortions of the truth in the light of which most people lead their lives. Serving as foils to Ibsen’s female rebels are a number of female figures for whom ideas or moral issues are less important than security and the opportunity to be devoted wives and mothers. Many of Ibsen’s important characters have lost their chance for happiness by marrying for money rather than for love. Others have an unfortunate tendency to misjudge or overestimate the people whom they are trying to reform or to dominate.

Ibsen first began to question the power of the truth to make humanity free in The Wild Duck, where he seems to conclude that most people have a very limited capacity for facing the truth and that harmless illusions are much less dangerous than full-blown ideals. In his next three plays, Rosmersholm, The Lady from the Sea, and Hedda Gabler, he offers psychological portraits of women whose inner struggles threaten to destroy them. Isolated male figures tend to dominate the plays that he wrote after his return to Norway—The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken—all of which deal with impotence, old age, and the lack of love. In one way or another, all four of these plays raise once again the question of aesthetic withdrawal, only to show that love, not art, is the only means of self-fulfillment.

More a gadfly than a preacher, Ibsen frequently poses problems without attempting to solve them. The master of the strong curtain, he favors contrapuntal endings: Two opposing views of life collide, leaving motivations and outcomes in doubt. Ibsen believed that the playwright’s task was to raise questions, not answer them.

Peer Gynt

First produced: 1876 (first published, 1867; English translation, 1892)

Type of work: Play

A romantic dreamer tries to find an empire within himself but finally discovers that his empire really lies in the love of Solveig, the woman who loves him.

Peer Gynt, the title character, is a man in search of himself. His problem is that he misunderstands “self-realization” and seeks fulfillment in his poetic dreams because he fears life and love. In order to show the full range of his negative development, Ibsen shows Peer first as a feckless young man of twenty, then as a middle-aged tycoon, and finally as a broken old man returning to his native Norway.

As a youth, Peer lives fictional adventures so vividly in his imagination that they almost become his own life experiences. He dreams of being an emperor but is never ready when opportunity knocks. While he has been playing hooky in the uplands, Ingrid of Hegstad, an heiress whom he might have married, has been betrothed to another young man. Looking for trouble, Peer sets off for Hegstad to engage in belated courtship. Among the wedding guests is Solveig, a pure young woman whom Peer instantly loves. When Solveig refuses to dance with him, he gets drunk and steals the bride. Abducting Ingrid makes Peer an outlaw. Though Ingrid is quite willing to marry Peer, he sends her back to her father because he loves Solveig. In what may be a dream sequence, he encounters a woman in green, the daughter of the Troll King, who takes him to her father’s kingdom, where everything is reversed: Black seems white and foul looks pure. Peer is a candidate for the hand of this troll princess, a negative counterpart of Solveig, but in order to win her father’s full approval he must wear a tail and accept selfishness as a way of life. Peer is quite willing to accept these conditions, until he learns that in doing so he can never return to humanity.

After his narrow escape from the trolls, Peer’s path is blocked by a languid monster called the Boyg, who tells him to “go roundabout.” The Boyg seems to be a portmanteau symbol for everything that prevents Peer from being himself. By having church bells rung, his mother Åse and Solveig—the women who love Peer—manage to save him both from the trolls and the Boyg, yet they cannot save him from himself. What little remains of Åse’s property is seized to compensate Ingrid’s father; yet she gladly suffers for her son. Solveig makes an even bigger sacrifice for Peer: She leaves her beloved family and searches for Peer in his mountain hut. When the troll princess arrives accompanied by their troll son, however, Peer realizes how unworthy he is of Solveig’s love and “goes roundabout,” abandoning her there.

Many years later in North Africa, Peer is a middle-aged millionaire who owes his fortune to all sorts of unprincipled enterprises. Though still apparently human, he has espoused the troll way of life, which he now defines as “the Gyntian self.” Most of the fourth act takes place in a symbolic desert that represents the aridity of this “Gyntian self.” Riding a stolen horse, he encounters a group of Bedouins who take him for a prophet. He falls in love with the exotic dancer Anitra and believes that he is emperor of her thoughts, but she strips him of his rings and clothes and rides off on his horse, abandoning him as he once abandoned Ingrid. While contemplating the Great Sphinx, Peer meets Begriffenfeldt, the mad director of an insane asylum in Cairo. At the asylum, the only place where illusion truly triumphs over reality, the inmates hail Peer as one of them, and Begriffenfeldt crowns him the Emperor of Self.

One brief scene in act 4 shows the faithful Solveig still waiting for Peer’s return. In act 5, the aged and embittered Peer does return to Norway, where everything that he encounters reminds him of his wasted life and points to his impending death. Near his old mountain hut, he hears Solveig singing and realizes that this was where his true empire lay. Yet he is still afraid to face her. Haunted by the emptiness of his stillborn visions, he next encounters the eerie Button Moulder, a mysterious figure who has been sent to dissolve him, since he has never become the self that he was intended to be. During the final scenes in the play, Ibsen illustrates what “being oneself” really means. Only in the loving arms of Solveig does the dying Peer discover that he has always been himself in her faith, her hope, and her love.

A Doll’s House

First produced: Et dukkehjem, 1879 (first published, 1879; English translation, 1880)

Type of work: Play

After eight years of marriage, a woman discovers that her husband has never understood her and that marriage has prevented her from becoming herself.

In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer returns home on Christmas Eve with a Christmas tree that must be hidden from the children until it is trimmed. Indeed, hiding is a major theme in this play. Later in the first act, Nora plays hide-and-seek with her children, and she hides the macaroons that her husband, Torvald, has forbidden her to eat. A more dangerous secret is the fact that, years earlier, she had borrowed a large amount of money to pay for the sojourn in Italy that enabled Torvald to recover from a serious illness. She had borrowed the money illegally from a usurer named Krogstad, and she has secretly been repaying the loan out of the small sums that she is able to earn by copying documents or to save from her household budget. To spare her dying father, who was to have been her cosigner, she even forged his signature on the contract.

That something is wrong with the Helmers’ marriage quickly becomes evident in the first scene: Torvald treats Nora more like a favorite child than a wife, and to please him she seems perfectly willing to pretend to be his little “skylark” or his “squirrel.” In other words, she is content to live in a dollhouse. Nora’s old school friend, Mrs. Linde, is one of those Ibsen characters who has married for money, not for love. The man she did love—and jilted—was Krogstad. Now a penniless and childless widow, she would be very happy to settle down in a dollhouse, but necessity forces her to beg Nora to help her get a job in Torvald’s bank.

The plot hinges upon Nora’s ignorance of three important facts: Krogstad holds a minor position in the bank of which Torvald is shortly to become manager; Torvald is so embarrassed by Krogstad’s presumptuous familiarity that he plans to fire him; and forgery, no matter what the motivation, is a serious crime. Ironically, Torvald fires Krogstad and promises his position to Mrs. Linde. This act prompts Krogstad, who is trying to regain his respectability, to use his knowledge of Nora’s forgery to blackmail her: If he loses his job, he will expose her and ruin Torvald. Nora’s attempt to persuade Torvald to retain Krogstad precipitates the crisis: Torvald angrily dispatches the letter of dismissal. Her situation worsens when Krogstad delivers an ultimatum and leaves a letter exposing her crime. In desperation, Nora tells Mrs. Linde about the incriminating letter now locked in the mailbox and urges her to use whatever power that she may still have over Krogstad to persuade him to ask for it back unread. By the end of the second act, Nora sees only two possible ways out of her dilemma: Either she will save her beloved husband’s reputation by committing suicide, or what she calls “the miracle” will happen, and he will magnanimously assume full responsibility for her crime. In an interview with Krogstad, Mrs. Linde succeeds in reviving his love for her, but she precipitates the final crisis by forbidding him to retract his letter.

Torvald’s explosive reaction to Krogstad’s letter shows Nora that the man for whom she was willing to sacrifice her life, the man capable of “the miracle,” is a fiction. Discovering that he is self-centered, petty, and unfeeling, she can no longer love him. To challenge his outmoded ideas about marriage, she becomes a rebel and informs him that she is leaving him and the children. When he admonishes her that she is duty bound to remain, she says that she has discovered a higher duty: her duty to herself. She exits, slamming the door on a bewildered Torvald.

Part of the play’s effectiveness on stage depends on Ibsen’s suggestive use of props, costumes, and activities (for example, the Christmas tree, the macaroons, the game of hide-and-seek) to illustrate psychological states or to underscore symbolic meanings. In its day, A Doll’s House was extremely controversial. While many applauded Nora’s determination to “be herself,” many more condemned her as “unnatural” for deserting her children. More than a century later, the play still raises questions that stimulate readers and spectators.

An Enemy of the People

First produced: En folkefiende, 1883 (first published, 1882; English translation, 1890)

Type of work: Play

When a doctor tries to reveal that the water supply for a planned health resort is infected, he is discredited and ostracized because the truth threatens the economic stability of the community.

In An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockmann is chief medical officer at The Baths, a health resort that is soon to open. Though he first conceived the idea of developing this resort, his older brother, Peter, the mayor of the town, had the business sense and political connections to put it into effect. Ibsen uses the contrast between the two brothers to establish the ideological framework of the play: Thomas is a liberal but impractical idealist; the ultraconservative Peter is motivated chiefly by self-interest and what he calls “the good of the community.” Dr. Stockmann’s home is a haven for people with liberal ideas: Billing and Hovstad, who edit the town’s liberal newspaper; Horster, an open-minded sea captain; and Thomas Stockmann’s freethinking daughter, Petra, a schoolteacher. Petra is the first character to raise what is to become the major theme in the play, the “life-lie.” When she complains that, at school, she is forced to teach children to believe in lies, Captain Horster encourages her to found a school where children will learn the truth.

The crucial issue in the play emerges when Dr. Stockmann receives a laboratory report confirming his suspicions that the water supply for The Baths is polluted. Jubilant that he has detected the contamination in time to prevent a disastrous epidemic, all the liberals offer their support and declare him a public hero. Peter Stockmann, however, intends to discredit his brother, because the enormous costs of reconstructing the water system spells financial ruin for the investors and, ultimately, for the whole town. Because he has the liberal press and the majority on his side, and, above all, because he is right, Thomas is confident of victory. The battle lines are quickly drawn, but the motives on both sides are mixed. Thomas Stockmann’s wife, Katherine, sees the impending fight as a threat to the security of her family. The mayor fears financial ruin and the erosion of his political power. Hovstad is a spineless political opportunist who will espouse any cause that promises to increase his power. Katherine’s surrogate father, Morten Kiil, wants revenge for having been voted off the town council. Because Thomas Stockmann and Petra are the only combatants free of self-interest, it proves easy for the mayor to swing the entire community to his side.

Unable to get his message across through the press, Thomas Stockmann calls a public meeting in Captain Horster’s house, where he intends to expose the fact that the whole town’s prosperity is rooted in a lie. His opponents take charge of the meeting, however, and rule all discussion of The Baths out of order. Goaded to fury, he abandons his intended subject and develops the symbolic significance of the situation: The town’s spiritual sources are polluted, and the whole civic community is built over a cesspool of lies. The authorities may be stupid and inflexible, but the worst enemy of truth and freedom is the majority. He launches into a diatribe against the whole notion of a democratic society. The majority is always wrong, he claims, because most people are fools, too lazy to think for themselves and therefore easily led by demagogues. Truth is relative and always changing; by the time that truths filter down to the majority, they are so outdated that they can hardly be distinguished from lies. One such lie is that the common herd has the same right to criticize, govern, and counsel as the few intellectuals. The elitism and incipient racism of his remarks about the relation between class and intelligence so incense the crowd that he is voted “an enemy of the people.”

The hostility of the mob does not stop with a vote of censure; the Stockmann family is assaulted on every front. The mayor and his supporters visit Thomas Stockmann and try to appeal to his self-interest in the hope of getting him to retract his report on the pollution at The Baths. The final test comes when old Morten Kiil informs him that all the money that he would have left to Katherine’s children is invested in The Baths and will be lost unless he says he was mistaken about the contamination. All these threats to his integrity convince Thomas Stockmann to abandon his plan to take his family to the United States. He realizes that he must stay in Norway and fight. He and Petra vow to open a school in Horster’s house, where they will try to train the “mongrels” to become decent and independent-minded people.

One problem that arises in interpreting this play stems from the disparity between Thomas Stockmann’s facts, which are correct, and his opinions, some of which are indeed questionable. He is frequently ridiculous, and his elitism (his talk of “mongrel” people) clashes sharply with the progressive views that he claims to cherish. Ibsen apparently undermines his protagonist in this manner because there is no reasonable spokesman for the other points of view. In adapting this play for the American stage, American playwright Arthur Miller eliminated Thomas Stockmann’s disagreeable or ridiculous traits, as well as his “fascistic” opinions.

Hedda Gabler

First produced: 1891 (first published, 1890; English translation, 1891)

Type of work: Play

An unsuccessful attempt to shape the destiny of the man whom she once loved deprives a bored aristocratic lady of her last remaining sense of freedom.

While the familiar Ibsenian patterns remain intact in Hedda Gabler, the conflict is no longer rooted in ideology. Though she loved the glamorous and dissolute Eilert Løvborg, fear of scandal and of her own repressed sexuality prevented Hedda Gabler from giving her love free rein. As a last resort, she has married George Tesman, a humdrum, middle-class historian, whom she does not love. While George is astonished that he has had the good fortune to marry the daughter of the late General Gabler, Hedda is despondent to find herself trapped in the hopelessly bourgeois Tesman family. George and Hedda both have returned from their long wedding trip with expectations: George fully expects to be appointed to a professorship, and Hedda, much to her dismay, is expecting Tesman’s child. George has assumed that the appointment will automatically be his, because Eilert Løvborg, his only serious rival, has long suffered from acute alcoholism. He soon learns, however, that Eilert has stopped drinking and has published a very successful book. He is not aware, however, that Eilert is still deeply in love with Hedda.

Eilert has recently completed another book, which promises to be his masterpiece. When Thea Elvsted, the wife of Eilert’s former employer, beseeches Tesman to keep an eye on Eilert because she fears that he may start drinking again, Hedda is intrigued. Without difficulty, she gets Thea to admit that, though she has managed to reform Eilert, she has never been able to win his love because he is still haunted by the shadow of another woman. Thea is unaware that Hedda is that woman, and Hedda is extremely gratified to learn that she may still exercise great power over Eilert. She puts this power to the test when she successfully tempts him to take a drink and then to accompany George to a party. Hedda wants to shape Eilert’s destiny by freeing him from fear of alcoholism. Though she assures Thea that he will return “with vine leaves in his hair,” by which she means that his debauchery will have been translated into Dionysian creativity, she is also aware that he may instead succumb to his weakness. Either way, she will have gained control over him.

Unable to control himself, Eilert becomes so drunk at the party that he loses the manuscript of his new book. Tesman, who finds it, entrusts it to Hedda for safekeeping. When the distraught Eilert enters near the end of act 3, he tells Hedda and Thea that he has destroyed the manuscript. Thea, who regards this book as her and Eilert’s “spiritual child,” is crushed. After Thea’s departure, Eilert confesses to Hedda that he dared not tell her that he had simply lost “their child,” and he intimates that he intends to “end it all” as soon as possible. Firmly believing that his sense of honor will not allow him to live with his failure to master his weakness, Hedda gives him one of her father’s dueling pistols and tells him to “do it beautifully.” After he leaves, she gleefully burns Eilert’s and Thea’s “child.”

Though the first account of Eilert’s death suggests that he has fulfilled Hedda’s expectations, the audience subsequently learns that he has not committed suicide at all. In fact, he has been fatally shot by accident in a brothel, where he was raving about “a lost child.” Hedda’s failure to shape his destiny brings her face-to-face with her own failure to achieve selfhood. The final degradation occurs when Judge Brack, who recognized the gun that killed Eilert as one of General Gabler’s pistols, intimates that the price of his silence is Hedda’s agreement to become his mistress. This final loss of freedom seems to motivate her to shape her own destiny. While Thea and George are patiently working at the task of reconstructing Eilert’s lost book from notes that Thea has kept, Hedda goes into the adjacent room and shoots herself in the temple.

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Henrik Ibsen Drama Analysis