Henrik Ibsen Henrik Ibsen World Literature Analysis

Henrik Ibsen book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Henrik Ibsen Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Henrik Ibsen World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 4,071 words.)