The Lady from the Sea

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

The Lady from the Sea is an 1888 play by Henrik Ibsen written in five acts. The action takes place in a small fjord town in Northern Norway and depicts the life of Ellida Wangel, a woman in love with the sea, who must choose to either stay on land with her husband or sail the seas with her former lover.

The play opens in the house of Doctor Edvard Wangel and his two daughters, Bolette and Hilde, who decorate the garden with flowers to commemorate their mother’s birthday who died several year ago. They await for the arrival of Dr. Arnholm who was once infatuated with the main protagonist of the story—Ellida Wangel. She is the second wife of Dr. Wangel, and she has a rather strained relationship with him and his daughters, as their marriage is more out of kindness and convenience than love. They also had a son together, but he died when he was a baby.
We first learn about the state of their relationship when Ellida and Dr. Arnholm greet each other and he expresses his surprise at her marriage, as he was the first to propose to her ten years ago. She tells him that she rejected him because she was in love with someone else at the time. However, she is interrupted before she can say his name by Lyngstrand—a deathly ill patient of Dr. Wangel who tells them that he wants to make a sculpture of a sleeping woman and her lost love who drowned at sea.

This reminds Ellida of her past lover, and she tells her story to her husband. She says that she was engaged to a sailor who murdered his captain and in his escape told Ellida to wait for him as he will return for her. She wrote to him but he never responded, and so she assumed that he is dead. But, he appears later on and tells Ellida that she is bound to him and forces her to make a choice between him and her husband. He tells her that he will come back the next day, before his ship takes off.

Ellida is conflicted, as her love for the sea, for freedom, for adventure and for a passionate life tells her to go with the Stranger. She believes that there is nothing that makes her happy in her current life. Because of this, she has a small argument with her husband and he tells her that he can stop her from leaving but cannot stop her from choosing on her own will. The Strangers decides the same thing and tells her that he cannot take her with him by force. Ellida must now decide between her past lover and her current husband.

Meanwhile, Dr. Arnholm proposes to Bolette inviting her to travel the world with him, having previously known that this is her greatest wish. At first she refuses, but after realizing that this is her only chance to leave her home, she accepts his proposal. Dr. Arnholm promises her that he will respect her and maybe even love her.

The play ends when the Stranger comes back for Ellida and she announces her decision – she has chosen to stay with her husband and tells the sailor to leave. She and Dr. Wangel reconcile and promise to work on their marriage, to try and be happier together and to learn to love one another and their children.

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