The Lady from the Sea

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Lady from the Sea is an 1888 play written in five acts by one of the most famous playwrights in literature—Henrik Ibsen. In it, Ellida Wangel, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, must decide whether she will stay by her husband’s side or whether she will follow her heart and leave her life behind for her former lover—a handsome sailor who promises freedom and adventure.

Ibsen based his play on an old ballad called “Agnete og Havmanden” and maybe even The Little Mermaid by H.C. Andersen. Mythical and folklore elements about mermaids and sea tales are noticeable in the play and some of the dialogues describe how life would be much better if people lived in the sea. Ellida tells her step-daughters that human beings would have been much happier if they were sea-people. This is symbolic of humans’ deep longing, even need, for freedom.

Although not as famous as some of Ibsen’s more iconic works such as A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler, The Lady from the Sea is considered to be one of the most psychologically structured plays he has written. Through the protagonist, Ellida, we are given a glimpse into human’s psyche and emotions. We learn how people determine their happiness, whether they follow their instincts or they let rationality take over. To put it plainly, whether they listen to their heart or their mind.

In The Lady from the Sea, the mind wins. Ellida is a woman who, even though is in love with the sea, decides to stay by her husband’s side and maybe sacrifice her chance of happiness, love, and adventure. It is important, however, to ask ourselves the following question: Has she truly sacrificed her happiness or merely chosen another way to find it? Some would argue that she should have chosen the Stranger. After all, he would have given her the life she has always wanted. But other would say that by choosing to stay with her husband, she has shown what it really means to be brave and rational. Her decision is a symbol of women’s determination, courage, sense and sensibility. Is it necessarily a tragic ending? No. Ellida simply sacrificed her past in order to save her future.

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