The Lady from the Sea

by Henrik Ibsen

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Lady from the Sea is a play written in 1888 by renowned Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. It tells the story of Ellida, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who needs to make a life altering decision: Remain with her current husband or explore the world with a seaman who has captured her heart in the past?
Ellida is a woman who grew up by the sea and loving everything about it—its smell, its horizon and its endless width, its freedom. This suggest that one of the themes of the play might be the never-ending yearning for freedom and adventure, metaphorically painted with the sea.

Ellida is married to Dr. Wangel, a widower with two daughters, but feels very distant to him, especially after the tragic death of their son who died as a baby. She often gets lost in her own thoughts and imagines a life outside her marriage. This is mainly because of her past love, a seaman to whom she promised her heart years before she married Dr. Wangel. The sailor promised her that he would return for her, and when he does, Ellida finds herself yearning for his affection, but at the same time hates being controlled by her inner desire. By the end of the play, Ellida must decide whether she will remain with her husband or go with her sailor. In other words, she must choose between her past and her present. By making this choice, Ellida will also consequentially decide whether she will follow her heart, or more accurately her desire, or will she respect her duty and her responsibility as a wife. Thus, the influence our past has on our future is also a recurring theme in the play, as it often is in many of Ibsen's works.

There are also some mythical elements in the play. Ibsen draws his inspiration from an old ballad called “Agnete og Havmanden," in which a merman falls in love with Agnete and asks her to abandon her children and come live with him in the sea, and she does exactly that. In the Lady from the Sea however, our protagonist Ellida chooses her husband and decides to spend her life with him and his daughters instead of leaving with her seaman. Ibsen makes a point of teaching us how humans are unpredictable beings. They evolve, they know how to rationalize and they are capable to adapt. Perhaps, in some romantic scenario, Ellida would have chosen to leave her husband and sail into the sunset with her former lover. But, would this have been the right choice? Is staying with her current husband a bad decision? Is it really, as many romantics would argue, an unhappy ending or merely an illusion of it? As with many of his works, Ibsen leaves the readers to determine the hero’s true feelings and how they may lead him/her into the future.

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