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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, 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...

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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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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232

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 stranger appears in their garden. He is the sailor, come to claim Ellida. He tells her that he has come to hold her to the vow she had taken years before. Ellida says that she could never leave her husband, but the stranger will not listen. The doctor tells the man that he will never allow his wife to leave him and that the stranger cannot force her to go against her will. The stranger responds that he would never force her but that she will come to him of her own free will. Those words, “of her own free will,” seem to fascinate Ellida. She repeats them over and over and gains strength from them. The stranger leaves, saying that he will return for her answer the next night; if she refuses to join him then, she will never see him again.

Ellida begs her husband to save her from the stranger. He tries to persuade her that her mind has been conditioned by Lyngstrand’s story of the sailor and his unfaithful wife, and he also reminds her that the sailor does not even look as she had remembered him. Ellida will not be comforted, however. She concludes that there is only one way she can make the right decision and save her sanity: The doctor must release her from her marriage vows, not by divorce but verbally. Then she will be free to choose between her husband and the stranger. She says that she has never been free, for first she was under the will of the stranger and then she has been under the will of her husband.

The doctor refuses her request because he thinks he must save her from the stranger and from herself. He feels that the stranger exerts an evil influence over her, and he wants to save her from disaster. He promises her, however, that after the stranger leaves, he will release her from her vow to him and give her the freedom she wishes.

The next night, the stranger comes again as promised, and Ellida and her husband meet him in the garden. When the stranger asks Ellida to come with him of her own free will, the doctor orders the stranger to leave the country or be exposed as a murderer. The stranger shows them a pistol and says that he will use it to take his own life rather than give up his freedom.

Ellida again tells her husband that he must release her from her marriage vows; although he can keep her body tied down, he cannot fetter her soul and her desires. Seeing that she is right and that his refusal will drive his wife out of her mind, the doctor tells her that he will release her from her commitment to him. When she sees that he loves her enough to put her happiness above his own, she turns to the stranger, who is pleading with her to leave with him on the ship standing offshore, and tells him that now she can never go with him. The stranger, realizing that there is something between these two that is stronger than his will, leaves them, promising never to return.

Ellida assures her husband that her mind is whole once more and that she will never again long for the stranger or the sea. The unknown no longer has any power over her, for at last she has made a decision of her own free will. Because she has been free to choose or reject the stranger, his fascination is gone. Now she can go with her husband and live with him again as his wife. She knows too that she can now win the affection of his daughters and come to think of them as her own. Ellida will never again feel like the wild, eager birds of the sea. In binding herself forever to the land, she will find freedom.

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