Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
In the last phase of his career, Henrik Ibsen turned from the realistic social plays of his middle period toward a more psychological and, eventually, symbolic drama. He also shifted his emphasis from characters who are “normal,” if extreme, to those more obviously “abnormal.” He became fascinated by what he called the “trolls” or “demons” present in the back of the mind—that is, the irrational, subconscious side of the human personality that could erupt and dominate the actions of the most apparently stable individuals. Although there are important aspects of this transition in some of Ibsen’s earlier plays, such as Vildanden (pb. 1884; The Wild Duck, 1891) and Rosmersholm (pb. 1886; English translation, 1889), it was in The Lady from the Sea that he first overtly dramatized this new preoccupation with the “demonic.” The Lady from the Sea may lack the stature of Ibsen’s major plays, both in the level of its craftsmanship and in the depth of its perceptions, but it remains a pivotal play in his development and also offers one of the author’s most fascinating female characters.
Ellida Wangel, “the lady from the sea,” is an intelligent, sensitive, vivacious, sensuous woman. She is also, clearly, on the edge of an emotional breakdown. She feels oppressed by her domestic routine and alienated from her immediate surroundings. Her husband loves her but is unable either to understand her or to communicate with her. Ellida respects and feels gratitude toward him, but, because she feels her marriage to have been a “business arrangement,” she is unable to confide in him or to respond to him emotionally. She is even more isolated from his daughters, Boletta and Hilda, who treat Ellida as an intruder. They make this evident by celebrating their dead mother’s birthday behind her back.
Such a stifling environment is, of course, common to many of Ibsen’s great heroines—among them Nora Helmer, Mrs. Alving, Gina Ekdal, and Hedda Gabler—but only in The Lady from the Sea does it actually threaten to drive a woman to madness. Ellida’s grasp on reality is precarious. She cannot forget that her own mother died in an asylum, and she is irrationally drawn to the sea; she is obsessed with the memory of her dead son, whose eyes, she believes, “changed with the seas.” Her mood shifts are abrupt and erratic; she cannot even remember what people look like when they are out of her sight.
The focus of Ellida’s obsession is, of course, the mysterious sailor whom she met before meeting Wangel. Although the vow she made to him was unsanctioned by law, Ellida cannot disregard it. She has felt his presence ever since her marriage to Wangel, and especially since the death of her son. The final crisis is provoked by his return to claim her as his “bride.”
When he does appear, however, Ellida’s reaction is a curious one, for she does not recognize him until she looks him directly in the eyes. It is not the stranger for whom Ellida longs but what he has come to represent to her. The sea, not the sailor, is the primary symbol, and it suggests the life of the imagination, of daring (the stranger once killed a man), of experience, and of total personal and spiritual fulfillment. The risk, however, is self-destruction. The real contest, all three participants realize, lies not in any contention over the physical possession of Ellida but within the mind and heart of the woman herself. “The root of that fascination lies in my own mind,” she tells Wangel, “what can you do against that?”
Wangel finally realizes that even if he forces her to remain with him, he will lose her to insanity. As a trained and sensitive doctor, he also sees that she will be destroyed if she goes with the stranger. Caught on the horns of this dilemma, he makes a desperate and, for him, soul-wrenching decision: He gives her the absolute freedom to make her own choice and be responsible for the consequences of it.
Those two words, “freedom” and “responsibility,” give Ellida power over herself, and they resolve the play. Three factors free her from the stranger’s power: Hilda’s emotional reaction to the news that Ellida may be going away suggests to Ellida the real possibility of a relationship with the girls, Wangel’s obvious agonizing over his decision proves the depths of his devotion, and her own restored responsibility has given her the strength to look directly at the stranger. Once she sees things clearly, the choice is not difficult. Because Ellida is allowed—indeed, forced—to take control of her own life, she does so, thus not only resolving her marital difficulties but also, more important, regaining her mental and emotional stability.