(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

There is no real affection between Ellida Wangel and her two stepdaughters, Boletta and Hilda. Ellida married their father, Doctor Wangel, several years before, soon after the death of his first wife. She met him in the seacoast town that was her home, which she loved because it was near the sea. In fact, the sea had always dominated her life, and she feels stifled in her new home, which is surrounded by mountains.

Arnholm, Boletta’s former tutor, pays a visit to the Wangel home. He had known and loved Ellida before her marriage to Doctor Wangel, but she had refused his suit because she was already betrothed to another. As the two old friends talk, a traveling sculptor, Lyngstrand, stops to tell them of a group he hopes to model. Lyngstrand has been at sea, where he met a sailor who told him a strange story. The sailor had married a woman who had promised to wait for him, but three years earlier he had read that his wife had married another man. The sailor told Lyngstrand that his wife was still his, that he would have her even though she had broken her vows.

This strange tale moves Ellida, seems even to frighten her. She is moody after hearing it, which makes her husband think she is unhappy because she is away from the sea. He offers to move his family to the seashore so that Ellida can regain her peace of mind, but Ellida knows that a move will not bring her happiness, whereas it certainly would make him and the girls unhappy to leave their home. She tells him the real cause of her misery. Some years before, she had come under the spell of a sailor whose ship was in port for only a few days. He, too, loved the sea and seemed to be part of it. Indeed, he and Ellida seemed to be animals or birds of the sea, so closely did they identify themselves with the vast waters. When the sailor murdered his captain, he was forced to flee. Before he left, he took a ring from his hand and one from hers, joined them together, and threw them into the sea. He told her that this act joined them in marriage and that she was to wait for him. At the time, she seemed to have no will of her own and to be completely under his spell. Later, she regained her senses and wrote to tell him that she did not consider the joining of the rings a lasting bond. He ignored her letters, however, and continued to tell her that he would come back to her.

Ellida tells her husband that she had forgotten the sailor until three years ago, when she was carrying the doctor’s child. Then, suddenly, the sailor seemed very close to her. Her child, who lived only a few months, was born—or so she believed—with the eyes of the sailor. She has felt such guilt that from that time on she has not lived with her husband as his wife. The anguish she has suffered is affecting her mind, and she fears that she will go mad. She loves her husband, but she is drawn to the man of the sea whom she has not seen in ten years.

Doctor Wangel tries to comfort his wife, but he is also worried about her sanity. One day, a...

(The entire section is 1232 words.)