The Lady from the Sea

by Henrik Ibsen
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Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233

Wangel’s house

Wangel’s house. Home of the prominent Dr. Wangel. Stage directions introduce the house, which is situated in a sleepy Norwegian town that has been kept from the wilder sea by protective fjords. Almost all the action of the play takes place not in the house proper but in the various corners of the garden, from which one can see a road with trees on either side along the water’s edge. Between the trees can be seen the fjord and the high mountain peaks in the distance. The fact that the open sea can never be directly seen strongly affects Wangel’s wife Ellida, who cannot adjust to the domestic world represented by her husband’s garden.

*Fjords

*Fjords (fee-yohrds). Long, narrow inlets of the sea along Norway’s coast that can be seen from Dr. Wangel’s house. The stage directions constantly reinforce the fact that while the open sea itself cannot be seen, its proximity is indicated by the fjords. Ellida is only well and happy when she is bathing in the fjords’ waters, although she complains that they are brackish and tepid. Instead, she yearns for the greater sea, the reality of which is indicated by a shadowy figure known as Friman, who materializes in Wangel’s garden to tempt her to a new and dangerous life at sea, beyond the secure Norwegian villages and fjords.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241

Durbach, Errol. “Ibsen the Romantic”: Analogues of Paradise in the Later Plays. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. Durbach argues that the marriage depicted in The Lady from the Sea is a positive counterpart to those of A Doll’s House (1879) and Hedda Gabler (1890).

Haugen, Einar. Ibsen’s Drama: Author to Audience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Written by a master teacher and scholar, this is a superb general introduction to Ibsen’s works and their place in European cultural history. Comments on The Lady from the Sea are found throughout the book.

Holtan, Orley I. Mythic Patterns in Ibsen’s Last Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970. An overview of the mythic content in Ibsen’s later plays. Presents a thorough discussion of the psychological, philosophical, and mythic aspects of the drama, which Holtan argues ought to be regarded from the perspective of myth or allegory.

Jacobsen, Per Schelde, and Barbara Fass Leavy. Ibsen’s Forsaken Merman: Folklore in the Late Plays. New York: New York University Press, 1988. An overview of Ibsen’s use of folklore motifs. Discusses the similarities between Ellida and such mythological creatures as mermaids and seal maidens.

Weigand, Herman J. The Modern Ibsen: A Reconsideration. New York: Holt, 1925. An excellent introduction to Ibsen’s later plays. Contains a good discussion of The Lady from the Sea. Praises the subtlety of the psychological portrayal of the main character, but he lacks understanding of the importance of the subplots.

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