Illustration of Harvard Solness perched at the top of a high church tower

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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Halvard Solness

Halvard Solness, the master builder. Although he is no longer young, he is evidently attractive to women: His wife, Aline, his bookkeeper, Kaia Fosli, and Hilda Wangel, a young woman from a nearby village who had seen him only once ten years earlier, are all in love with him. Solness became successful after a tragedy, the death of his infant twin sons, caused him to turn from building churches to building houses. He has achieved success through working for Knut Brovik, whom he surpassed, put down, and now employs. He has two fears: fear of the younger generation, which will treat him as he has treated Brovik, and fear of heights. The fear of heights interferes with his hanging a wreath on the tower of each new building, a task he now delegates to a workman. When vivacious Hilda Wangel appears to collect “the kingdom” that he promised her ten years earlier after he had hung his last wreath on the church tower in her village, Solness is at last overpowered by her stronger personality. Through Hilda’s influence, he approves plans designed by the young architect Ragnar Brovik and climbs a scaffolding to place a wreath on a new house. Both courses mean oblivion for him. He falls into a quarry and is crushed.

Hilda Wangel

Hilda Wangel, a fanciful young woman from the village of Lysanger. Little more than a child at the time, Hilda had fallen in love with Solness when he hung a wreath on the church tower in Lysanger. He has remained her hero. She is a charming young woman, filled with a quality the playwright calls “joy in life.” When Solness falls into the quarry, Hilda is exalted. She cries, “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air. . . . My—my Master Builder!”

Aline Solness

Aline Solness, Halvard’s wife, a quiet, hopeless woman, once beautiful. Aline’s life purpose ended because of a fire that destroyed her family home, in which she and Halvard lived, because her twin baby boys died soon afterward. Through a sense of duty, she insisted on nursing the babies when she was ill from the excitement of the fire, and they died as a result. Halvard says that Aline had a talent “for building up children’s souls in perfect balance, and in noble and beautiful forms.” She keeps three nurseries in their present house, and their new home is to contain three empty nurseries. Aline is naturally jealous of Kaia and Hilda, although she and Hilda come to like each other. Knowing her husband’s fear of heights, she tries to prevent his fatal climb. She faints when he falls at the conclusion of the play.

Knut Brovik

Knut Brovik, formerly an independent architect, now employed in Solness’ office. Old, ill, and dying, Brovik lives only for his son, an aspiring architect. His one wish is that he might see Ragnar a success. Because Solness never approves anything that Ragnar does, Brovik has come to doubt his son’s talent. He pleads with Solness to let Ragnar have the commission for a villa, plans for which he has already drawn. Although Brovik gave Solness his start in architecture, Solness, knowing Ragnar’s talent, will not give Brovik any encouragement. Brovik is dead when Hilda finally persuades Solness to approve Ragnar’s plans for the villa.

Kaia Fosli

Kaia Fosli, Knut Brovik’s niece, Solness’ bookkeeper, engaged to marry Ragnar. Kaia is a quiet girl in love with Solness. Solness employs her to keep Ragnar, who is very much in love with her, in his employ, and hence...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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in subjection.

Ragnar Brovik

Ragnar Brovik, a talented young man employed by Solness as a draftsman. Ragnar represents the younger generation that Solness fears will displace him. Ragnar does not realize his ability until he learns from Hilda that Solness employs Kaia not because he cares for her at all but because he fears Ragnar’s talent and wants to keep it hidden.

Dr. Herdal

Dr. Herdal, a physician concerned about Halvard and Aline. He serves as an audience for both Halvard and Aline and thus is a vehicle for expressing their personalities.


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Knut Brovik Formerly an architect, Knut Brovik is now an assistant to Solness. At the beginning of the play, his deteriorating health prompts him to confront Solness over the lack of support Solness has shown Ragnar. He admits that his confidence in his son has been shaken by the fact that Solness has never appreciated his son’s work. Calling on the little strength he has left, Knut demands that Solness evaluate and appreciate Ragnar’s drawings. Solness responds too late, however, and Knut falls into a coma before he reads his employer’s comments.

Ragnar Brovik Knut’s son Ragnar works as a draftsman for Solness. He appears stooped in the play, which reflects his inability to stand up to his boss and demand recognition. When his resentment over Solness’s refusal to recognize his talent prompts him to confront the older man, he quickly backs down when he is told his drawings are worthless. Yet, he becomes for Solness the symbol of youth— everything of which Solness is afraid.

Ragnar’s lack of perception surfaces when he determines that Solness has not allowed his father or himself any measure of independence because Solness wanted to keep Kaja close to him. His bitterness emerges in the final scene when he comes to the celebration of Solness’s new home so that he can see his employer fail in his attempt to climb the tower. Ragnar notes ‘‘how horrible’’ Solness’s fall is, yet his final words in the scene reinforce his employer’s failure.

Kaja Fosli Kaja works as Solness’s bookkeeper. She has fallen desperately in love with him, even though she is engaged to Ragnar. Ibsen never develops her character, using her, for the most part, as reinforcement of Solness’s power and status.

Dr. Herdal Dr. Herdal serves as the family doctor and advisor. He councils Solness about his wife’s condition and offers her comfort and support.

Aline Solness Aline Solness, Halvard’s wife, has become barren physically and emotionally, due to the tragedies that she has experienced. When her parents’ home and everything in it went up in flames, Aline could not get over the loss of her possessions and mementos. The mental and emotional strain that resulted prevented her from adequately nursing her babies, and her stubbornness caused her to refuse anyone’s help. She admits that she did not have the strength of character to endure the fire, and she determines that she was punished for this through the death of her children.

The sense of duty she displayed regarding the nursing of her children has been magnified during the ensuing years. Her daily activities center on her duties to others. When Hilda appears at the house with few possessions, Aline promptly buys her enough items to make her feel comfortable. Yet, when Hilda thanks her, Aline responds that it was her duty to take care of her guest, removing all sense of spontaneity or real connection. She treats her husband in the same manner. She tells Hilda that it is ‘‘her duty to give into him.’’ She reveals her estrangement from him when she leaves the room each time he walks in.

She appears to take no pleasure in her tasks or her interactions with others, especially her husband. Haggard and depressed, Aline dresses in black, as if she were in perpetual mourning. She does however, show openness to Hilda toward the end of the play, when the young woman takes the time to talk to her about the past. Halvard suggests that his wife had the potential for living a life of fulfillment, noting that she had a talent for ‘‘building up the small souls of children,’’ but that potential was destroyed by the death of their boys.

Halvard Solness Master builder Halvard Solness is a forceful, ambitious man, used to getting his own way. He has become successful through his drive to be the best in his field and through his ruthlessness. Knut Brovik insists that Solness’s ambition caused him to ‘‘cut himself admits that he beat Brovik down and broke his spirit. He refuses to let Ragnar become independent, claiming that he will ‘‘never give ground’’ over to the young. His determination to keep Ragnar from succeeding springs from his fear that if the younger man gets a chance, he will ‘‘hammer [him] to the ground’’ and break him the same way he broke Ragnar’s father.

Solness tries to justify his ambition in his explanation of his initial goals. He tells Hilda that his dream was to build churches as monuments to God, determining that this activity would be the noblest thing he could do with his life. Yet, somehow, his plans went awry. He explains, ‘‘I built those poor country churches in so honest and warm and fervent a spirit that . . He should have been pleased with me,’’ but for some reason, He was not. As a result, Solness insists, God ‘‘turned the troll in me loose to stuff its pockets, put devils in me,’’ which turned his ambition toward more selfish ends. Solness feels that the house burning is evidence of God’s displeasure, and that God took his children to prevent him from becoming attached to anything except his mission. He claims that his life has been ruined as a result. Yet, he also blames himself for his and his wife’s tragic fate. He feels that he owes a debt to Aline since his desire to parcel the land on which her parents’ home stood caused his ‘‘troll’’ to burn down the house and so ‘‘suck all the lifeblood out of her.’’

His spirit and confidence in himself returns, however, with Hilda’s arrival. She refocuses his attention on his craft when she begs him to build the two of them a ‘‘castle in the air.’’ She also reinvigorates him through her obvious sexual desire for him, which allows him to feel youthful and thus powerful again.

Hilda Wangel Hilda is a mysterious young woman who comes to stay with the Solnesses after Aline invites her for a visit. The two had met at a mountain lodge the previous summer. Hilda’s real motive for the visit, however, is to seduce Solness and to convince him to fulfill his promise to build a castle for her, which he had made ten years earlier when she was twelve. He made such an impression on the young Hilda that she has become obsessed with the man she envisions as a god.

In her middle-class Victorian world, Hilda tries to absolve herself of responsibility for her desires, which threaten to break up a marriage. She insists that like Solness, she too has a ‘‘troll’’ and ‘‘devils’’ inside of her that have driven her to him. Solness admits that when these internal forces gain strength, ‘‘we have to give in—whether we want to or not.’’ This sense of Hilda’s possession by uncontrollable forces is reinforced by Solness’s description of her as a ‘‘little devil in white,’’ screaming his name as he climbed up the tower in her hometown.

Periodically, though, Hilda’s concern for others overrides her obsession with Solness. She insists that Solness find some words of praise for Ragnar’s drawings to help ease his father’s mind as he approaches death. Also, she shows compassion for Aline as the older woman describes her tragic life. At one point, Hilda is so overcome with sympathy for her that she tells Solness that she plans to leave. However, when Solness admits that he no longer cares about his work, she becomes incensed at the thought that anything would interfere with his artistry, and so her passion for him reasserts itself. When he falls from the tower at the end of the play, she cannot accept his fate, refusing to take her eyes off the heights he has attained.




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