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

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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Critical Evaluation

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The Master Builder belongs to a series of dramas that depart from the earlier types written by Henrik Ibsen. In this play the bitter satire of the social dramas is not present; instead, the play is mysterious, symbolic, lyrical. Ibsen here deals with the human soul and its struggle to rise above its own desires. The idea had been in Ibsen’s mind for many years before he actually wrote the play, which is one of the most original of his works.

Ibsen completed The Master Builder in 1892, two years after the stormy but mostly favorable reception of Hedda Gabler (pb. 1890, pr. 1891; English translation, 1891). Whereas he had labored slowly and revised with care the earlier play, his work on The Master Builder proceeded smoothly, requiring few major changes from the first draft to the finished manuscript. One year before, Ibsen had left Munich to return to Norway, where he resided in Oslo until his death in 1906. His return to his native land, an event marked by great professional success and personal satisfaction, corresponded with a significant change in his dramatic style. His early romantic plays in verse are generally lofty, treating historical or epical subjects. The second period of his creative work, including Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), consists of social dramas, written in conversational, realistic prose. The last period, beginning with The Master Builder and including Naar vi døde vaagner (pb. 1899, pr. 1900; When We Dead Awaken, 1900), is noted for qualities often described as metaphysical or spiritual. Confessional plays with a clear autobiographical impulse and written in a style that moves easily from prose to prose-poetry, they break new ground in the history of the late nineteenth century European theater.

Although Ibsen never denied the subjective character of The Master Builder, the play should not be studied merely as a symbolic summary of the writer’s life. Instead, it is a great work of dramatic art and, judged solely on the basis of its structural values, one of Ibsen’s most finely crafted pieces. Nevertheless, as a confessional drama, The Master Builder certainly presents some of Ibsen’s important ideas and obsessions. For example, like Halvard Solness, Ibsen was impressed with (although not neurotically dismayed by) the success of younger writers. Ibsen himself wrote of Camilla Collett that “A new generation is now ready to welcome and understand you.” Also like Solness, Ibsen was attracted to youthful women. Critics generally believe that Hilda Wangel is modeled upon Emilie Bardach, who was also a part-prototype for Hedda Gabler. At any rate, shortly after the production of The Master Builder, Emilie sent the author a photograph signed “Princess of Orangia,” which apparently annoyed him. If Emilie was not the single inspiration for Hilda, then surely another of Ibsen’s young friends might have been part of the composite picture, beginning with Engelcke Friis and continuing with Helene Raff, Hilda Andersen, or the youngest, Edith Brandes.

In many other ways, the career of the Master Builder parallels Ibsen’s own. Solness began by building churches. Later he decided to design “only houses for people to live in.” Finally, to please himself and reassert his will to achieve the impossible, he designed a splendid house with a tower, fanciful as a “castle-in-the-air.” Ibsen’s experience with the theater similarly consisted of three stages: Romantic poetic drama, social drama intended to reform outworn traditions, and personal drama with a special concern for a philosophy of life and death. There are other parallels as well. The high point of Solness’s art as a Master Builder was the...

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time he climbed a church tower and, as was the custom among Norwegian builders at that time (much like the christening of a ship), hung a garland at the topmost spire. Hilda had seen the triumph of her hero and remembered the precise date. “It was ten years ago,” she said, “on the nineteenth of September.” It was on September 20, 1889, that Ibsen wrote on the visitor’s ledger at Gossensass, “The great, painful joy of striving for the unattainable.” Also, like Solness, Ibsen was troubled by great heights. When he was a youth, he attempted to scale a mountain in Italy but discontinued his ascent in fear, lying flat to the ground clutching a boulder. Finally, like the Master Builder, he was deeply interested in the power of thought transference, and Ibsen was an avid follower of studies on hypnotism and spiritualism.

However interesting are the similarities between the author’s life and parallel themes of the play, The Master Builder is best enjoyed as theater rather than autobiography. The sharply defined conflicts of the play are resolved only at the conclusion. For this reason, the play performs especially well, although it has never been quite so popular as Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House. The central conflict is that between high aspiration—romantic dreams to attain the impossible—and the limitations of reality. As Master Builder, Solness has achieved a measure of financial success and even fame, but, as he discloses to Doctor Herdal and later, more completely, to Hilda, he considers himself a mere shell, a failure. Having defied God at the church tower, he has since feared that he will be cursed for his presumptuousness. At first he believes that the younger generation will be the agent of his destruction. Later, as he allies himself with the idealism of Hilda, he fears that his downfall will come not so much from rivals like Ragnar Brovik but from the failure of his own will. All his life he has depended upon “Helpers and Servers” to advance his career. Although a genius in his own right, he has nevertheless had to fight the world. His powerful will, like the nearly hypnotic force that controls the affections of Kaia Fosli, has directed the helpers and servers to perform his wishes. Without assistance, however, he loses confidence in his art.

Finally, however, Solness understands that the enemy to his peace lies not outside himself but within. He really has no need to fear the young, and he does not require the blind obedience of servitors. His failings are those of conscience. He believes that he is going insane. So terrible is his sense of guilt—guilt because of his conduct toward his wife; guilt because he has abandoned the dreams of creating great edifices, churches; guilt because he has defied God—that he becomes increasingly isolated, almost paranoid. When Hilda encourages him to perform the impossible, to prove to the world that only he should be allowed to build, his inner conflict breaks. He determines to hazard everything, even his life, to satisfy his princess and provide her with her promised kingdom—to top a wreath on the tower of the new house.

At this point in the drama, the center of conflict shifts from Solness—now that he has made his idealistic decision—to Hilda. Will she allow the Master Builder to risk his life simply to satisfy her own iron will (or from another viewpoint, the passions of a spoiled child)? She knows that Solness experiences giddiness when he is climbing. Ragnar tells her that the Master Builder has always been afraid to place the wreath on the topmost place, that other workmen perform the task. Yet she steadfastly demands her castle-in-the-air. In a romantic bond with the artist, she has identified her passion with his. Like the Viking women of old, with whom she has declared her kinship, she disdains a bourgeois conscience. For in her sprightly way she, too, is a warrior, and with a robust conscience she demands of her hero a sacrifice to prove his manhood.

A modern audience may perhaps judge Hilda more harshly than would Ibsen. As a character of social realism, she is idealistic to the point of folly. Careless, selfish, and willful, she contrasts with the sober, self-sacrificing, dutiful Aline Solness, the Master Builder’s wife. Yet when the audience comes to understand Mrs. Solness better, it sees that she has lived too narrow a life, devoid of romantic risks and heroism. She has never dared to confide to her husband the secret of her own guilt—that after the fire that destroyed her ancestral house, she lamented the loss of her nine dolls more grievously than that of her twin sons, who died shortly afterward. While the audience sympathizes with her human frailty (for she is not to be condemned for grasping firmly to such symbols of the past), it also sees in a contrasted light the heroic striving of Hilda. The trolls (hobgoblins that are symbols both of destructive and creative forces) that guide her life are still strong, not diminished by civilization. At the end of the play—when she shrieks with wild intensity, “My—my Master Builder!”—she identifies his romantic achievement with her own. She has willed his triumph. To Ibsen, the death of a mere man, even a genius, is an insignificant price for such a triumph. In his visionary play, the Master Builder lives on in his work and in Hilda.


Critical Overview