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

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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The Faust Myth in Ibsen's play

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The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil so that he can gain knowledge, power, and riches can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity. This tale has been told under various names until the Renaissance, when it became known as the Faust myth. A German history of Dr. Faustus, the first known written account of the legend, inspired Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated version, Dr. Faustus (1604). Since Marlowe’s play, the story has appeared in various forms including Goethe’s Faust (1808). In The Master Builder, Ibsen creates his own version of the myth as he weaves it into the thematic fabric of his play. Through the tragic Faustian tale of architect Halvard Solness, Ibsen explores the nature and devastating consequences of unchecked ambition.

In Marlowe’s version of the Faust myth, the central character embarks on a quest for knowledge— in this case medical knowledge—so that he may ‘‘heap up gold’’ but also so that he can ‘‘make men to live eternally.’’ His monomaniacal pursuit of knowledge prompts him to enter into a pact with the devil, which fulfills his ambitions to acquire this godlike power. Ultimately, however, Faustus’s arrogance is punished when he must give up his soul at the end of the play and suffer eternal damnation.

In Master Builder, Ibsen’s central character, Halvard Solness, has been driven by overweening ambition to gain the position of ‘‘master builder.’’ He was able to achieve this acclaim after his inlaw’s home, in which he and his wife were living, burned to the ground, affording him the opportunity to subdivide the land and build on it. Initially, he had built country churches with a fervent spirit, but his ambitions turned him toward more selfish ends.

Solness believes that he willed the fire, aided by a personal troll and devils, ‘‘helpers and servers’’ whom he calls on incessantly to help him realize his ambitions. As a result, Solness has achieved a godlike status in his position as master builder, reinforced by the adoration of two young women: his bookkeeper Kaja, and Hilda, the mysterious guest who comes to stay with him and his wife. His superior position is symbolized when he climbs the church tower in Hilda’s hometown to place a celebration wreath at the top. It was then that Hilda fell in love with him, explaining how ‘‘wonderfully thrilling’’ it was for her to stand below, looking up and seeing ‘‘the master builder himself.’’

In his ruthless climb to the top, he has ignored the needs of others, especially his wife, whose despair over losing her parent’s home led to the death of their two sons. Although he never imagined the tragic effects his ambition would have on Aline, he has been more pitiless with his employees. In an effort to guard his supremacy, he has ‘‘broken’’ Brovik, his assistant, and impeded his son’s development, fearing the young man will eventually surpass him. He also cruelly manipulates Kaja’s feelings for him, in an effort to keep Ragnar in his place.

As Faust must eventually relinquish his soul in payment for his success, so too must Solness, although the master builder has suffered during his entire climb to the top of his profession. He feels a great sense of guilt over the loss of his sons, which he directly attributes to his desire for power and position. This guilt is compounded by his acknowledgement that Aline’s despair stems from her inability to cope with the loss of their children. He admits that the devilish powers within him have ‘‘sucked all the lifeblood out of her,’’ that she is now...

(This entire section contains 1460 words.)

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emotionally dead, and so he has been ‘‘chained to the dead.’’ As a result, there is ‘‘never a touch of sun, not the least glimmer of light’’ in their home.

In her introduction to Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Sylvan Barnet discusses the problem of ambition in the play. She notes that while his ‘‘ideals are corrupted . . . they reveal an abundance of energy that makes Faustus indisputably greater . . . than any of the other mortals in the play.’’ The same can be said of Solness, who has risen to greater heights, as symbolized by his climb to the top of the tower, than has any other architect. He has been a commanding and dominant presence to those who come into his circle, cementing his reputation as master builder. Yet, at the beginning of the play, his position at the top has become undermined.

Solness’s guilt and growing fear that he is losing his artistic abilities, and so will soon be overtaken by the young, paralyzes him to the point where he does not want to build any more. His lack of confidence in himself prevents him from recognizing the value of Ragnar’s work and causes him to deny the younger man’s request to build a home from his own ‘‘new, modern’’ plans.

Hilda’s adoration, however, gives him new confidence in his artistic abilities and his manhood. Her appreciation of his artistry, coupled with her obvious sexual attraction toward him, prompts her insistence that he carry her away and build them a castle in the air. In his guilt and despondency, Solness opens himself up to Hilda and accepts her fantasized image of him. As a result, she convinces him to again climb to the highest heights where she insists he belongs, this time to decorate the tower of his new home.

A consideration of Solness’s ultimate fate raises similar questions to that in the Faust myth. Barnet notes that Marlowe’s Faustus is responsible for the choices he makes, but those choices have been influenced by ‘‘a hostile cosmos that entraps him.’’ Barnet suggests the devils in his cosmos may be ‘‘not so much independent external creatures as they are aspects of himself, symbols perhaps of his pride.’’ In a similar way, Ibsen complicates the vision of Solness’s responsibility for his fate. Solness explains that his initial goal was to build ‘‘poor country churches in so honest and warm and fervent a spirit’’ that God would be pleased with him. However, he claims, he instead earned God’s displeasure and as a result, He caused his house to burn and his children’s death, so that Solness would not attach himself emotionally to anything except his work. When he climbed up the tower in Hilda’s hometown, successfully suppressing his fear of heights, he determined that he would be an independent creator, in his own realm. At that point, he swore that he would no longer build churches, but instead ‘‘homes for humans.’’ Yet, the achievement of his artistic goals resulted in the shattering of his personal life.

Solness insists that God has been aided in his plan to control and to punish him by influencing the ‘‘troll’’ and ‘‘devils’’ within him. He claims that God ‘‘turned the troll in me loose to stuff its pockets.’’ When Kaja appeared to read his mind as he was thinking that she should work for him, he determines that the ‘‘players’’ within him carried out his will and prompted her to ask for a position. Hilda confirms the existence of these internal devils when she insists that the trolls within each of them have brought them together.

Throughout the play, Ibsen suggests that the devils within Solness are most likely manifestations of the same pride that controlled Faust. Yet the final scene adds a note of ambiguity. At the end of the play, Solness’s fears that the younger generation will cause his downfall are realized in an ironic sense. He is destroyed not through the jealousy of the young, but through the worship of a young woman who encourages him to climb the tower one more time. After Solness moves up the side of the tower attached to his house, Hilda watches from below. When he reaches the top, she insists that she sees someone up there struggling with him. Seconds later, he falls, along with ‘‘some planks and splintered wood,’’ suggesting the possibility that as with Faust, devils have come to demand the payment of his soul.

The final scene of the play reinforces the complex image Ibsen has created of his protagonist. As the others look at his broken body lying on the ground in a heap, Hilda keeps her steady gaze on the tower and on her vision of Solness as the master builder. Through this portrait of the driven architect in The Master Builder, Ibsen reinvents the Faustian myth of a magnificent, powerful man who is celebrated yet ultimately destroyed by the corruption of his ambitious vision.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Master Builder, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

International Dictionary of Theatre—1: Plays

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Two different kinds of play are interlinked in The Master Builder. The first introduced is a naturalistic social drama concerning a successful, middle-aged man's attempt to block the path of a potential younger rival (Ragnar Br(pvik), whose father he himself displaced; working on the susceptible nature of Ragnar's finacée, Kaia, Master-Builder Solness has created an infatuation with himself which will keep both young people, and Old Brqrvik, working in his office. Still within Act I, a drama of the inner life—of fantasy, obsession, and neurosis— begins with the arrival of youth personified in Hilde Wangel and ousts the first level of the play from the centre of attention. The disturbing strangeness of the work as a whole springs from Ibsen's maintaining and interrelating the two dramatic modes to the end, so that Solness's inner renewal allows him to release Ragnar, and his death by falling from a tower suggests a multiplicity of meanings.

A direct reflection of Strindberg's The Father appears in Solness's suspicion that his wife, Aline, and Dr. Herdal believe him to be insane. The Swedish playwright's example had undoubtedly encouraged Ibsen to tread more boldly in dramatic territory represented in all his plays after The Wild Duck (1884). This advance involves recognition that the human mind operates in stranger ways than the limited, naturalistic view that rationality admits, and that human motivation and action can have a mythic dimension. He uses the technique of intimate duologues, as developed in his social plays (especially Ghosts), as a method of tracing the influence of the past in the present, to explore the secret mind and the innermost nature of human relationships. One school of critics, clinging to the tenets of naturalism, interprets the play as a study in mental abnormality: Solness, Aline, and Hilde in turn qualify for the madhouse. It is more rewarding to move with the play into a more imaginatively conceived understanding of reality, not choosing between alternatives, but reaching out to encompass divergent views.

Ibsen is careful to locate Hilde in the social world: both Dr. Herdal (the confidant) and Mrs. Solness remember meeting her before, in mundane situations; it is Solness who does not recall her. She has a history outside the play: the younger daughter of Dr. Wangel of Lysanger, in The Lady from the Sea, has put on years and arrived unexpectedly at the Solness house, come like the devil cheerfully on cue. To all the other characters she appears an attractive, lively, unconventional young woman, spontaneously friendly, if self-willed; to Solness, in their long solitudes à deux, she is an enchanting inquisitor who draws out of him all his hidden fears, desires, and sense of guilt, opens the prison of his everyday life and gives him hope. He is not troubled to verify or reject the story she tells him of their earlier meeting and her reason for seeking him out. Its fairytale quality insulated them from actuality in a world of the imagination and provides a language of metaphor in which they can talk freely. An emotionally adult woman, Hilde uses her fantasy from the past as an erotic challenge to Solness which he finds irresistible.

Although each of the three main characters recalls memories, the past that they reveal is ambiguous and unstable, as they do not verify each other's accounts. This is not the past as historical fact, but the fiction they each construct to live by. Ibsen has left it open to the actress playing Hilde to allow the character an awareness of the process that neither Solness nor Aline shares. The oddity of a mature young woman claiming a childish hero-worship of the Master Builder, and clinging to a pubertal fantasy of how, ten years before to the day, he chose her as his future princess, may be simply piquant. Solness, who spares scarcely a thought for the ruthlessness with which he treated Knut Br(pvik in the pursuit of his own ambitions, and less for having failed to give his wife a love through which she might have blossomed as a woman, has attached his sense of guilt to the burning down of her home which he knows, rationally, he did not cause. Aline's is the most horrifying displacement: grieving, not for the babies who died, but for her dolls and her own lost childhood. The obsessional symbols may have a deeper truth to tell.

An unnatural arresting of time emerges as one of the play's themes through its repetition within each of the main characters: Hilde's fixation on the day, ten years ago, when Solness climbed the church tower at Lysanger; Aline, who has grown old without growing up; and Solness, intent on resisting the process of change whereby men pass from youth to age and others take over from them. The ''out-of-time'' quality of the duologues is entirely apt. It is also a condition of contemplation in which the play's poetic reach can be explored. As a psychological drama, The Master Builder testifies to the symbolic and superstitious modes of thinking sophisticated human beings still employ alongside the scientific and rational, and which poets utilise most deliberately. It is a kind of poets' thinking that passes between Solness and Hilde, and it forces its way through into the action at the end of the play.

From the play's first appearance it has been regarded as partly autobiographical, the various phases of Solness's career as a builder corresponding to the major changes in Ibsen's dramatic style from the great philosophical plays in verse onwards. Yet it has also taken its place among the supreme modern tragedies. The obvious, phallic symbolism is subsumed in the traditional tragic symbolism of the rise and fall of overweening ambition. Hilde's recollection of the master builder, high in the air, challenging some invisible power and triumphing, is matched both by Solness's terrified thought that he has called down fire from heaven and by his response to the lure of the impossible: building a new house for Aline and himself, unhappy though they are together, with three nurseries, though they neither have nor can expect to have any children, giving it a tower, and siting it vertiginously on the edge of a quarry, even though he has lost his head for heights. An impression of more than human stature attaches itself to the faultridden human figure, and the philosophical ideas are not far away: Aline has nothing to live by but the categorical imperative of duty, to which Ibsen opposes livsglede (the joy of living); and Solness, in going beyond his nature to achieve the impossible, takes on the quality of the Nietzschean vision of man becoming superhuman. Hilde, who has goaded him out of mere idealistic dreaming (building castles in the air) and waves Aline's shawl at him in ecstasy, may be seen as his destroyer. But the Solness who takes the wreath to climb the tower is a better man than we have seen earlier in the play. He may not know that he is going to his death, but he is ready for it. The achievement is real.

Source: Margery Morgan, ‘‘The Master Builder,’’ in International Dictionary of Theatre—1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 493-94.

Deconstructing Realism in Ibsen's The Master Builder

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It has long been known that Ibsen's late plays—The Master Builder, Little Ejolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken—represent a departure from the famous realistic plays of his middle period. Even Bernard Shaw, who had been obsessively concerned with Ibsen the moralist, described Ibsen as now having ' 'completed the task of warning the world against its idols and antiidols,’’ and instead having written ‘‘tragedies of the dead.’’ But more than this, the late plays demonstrate Ibsen's greatness, both as a significant (though independent) figure in the Symbolist movement of the 1890s, and as a significant precursor of twentieth-century literary movements. In his late plays Ibsen anticipates such twentiethcentury concerns as the function of the artist, the use of personal experience in literature, and the importance of the inner life of both the conscious and the unconscious mind.

The Master Builder, published in 1892, shows all these concerns. Its hero is an artist, Halvard Solness, a successful architect (or ‘‘master builder,’’ as he prefers). Perfection of the work seems to have blocked perfection of the life; his artistic success has coincided with contempt for his clients, ruthlessness toward his associates, the loss of his children, the mental breakdown of his wife. He is restless, alienated, and afraid of being superseded by younger architects. Into his life comes a strange, alluring, naive young woman, who seems to know his deepest secrets, and who claims to have had a nearsexual affair with him ten years before, when she had been little more than a child. In contrast to the drab, realistic world in which he works, she talks of trolls and magic kingdoms and harps in the air, fascinating him and ultimately leading him to destruction.

Solness's psychological problems—a fear of growing artistic and sexual impotence, and a fascination with a young girl—reflect those of Ibsen himself at the time the play was written. The Master Builder is Ibsen's most personal play. Indeed, it has become common for critics to compare the details of the play with the pattern of Ibsen's career as a playwright: Solness began by designing churches, then shifted to houses, and now designs houses with steeples; Ibsen, at the time the play was written, had gone through three similar phases, first writing Romantic plays, then realistic plays, and finally realistic plays with Romantic overtones like The Master Builder itself. The shift in style in The Master Builder is not truly a reversion to Romanticism, however; the play instead looks forward to the work of the Surrealists and Expressionists of our century, in its exploration of inner psychological states.

The realistic plays of Ibsen's middle period were far more than simplistic problem plays taking moralistic stands on social issues. Nevertheless, they did follow standard realistic conventions, which, I shall attempt to show, provide a point of departure for the pivotal late play, The Master Builder. In A Doll House (1879), for example, we find ordinary, middle-class characters inhabiting a mundane, realistic world. The setting is an ordinary bourgeois living room. The characters' concerns are work, family, love, money. The action arises from conflicts between characters rather than within individual ones; Nora has forged a note to get money to treat her sick husband, Torvald Helmer, but this caused her no inner anguish—if anything, she is proud of it. Her problems arise when the loan shark, Krogstad, discovers the forgery and uses it to blackmail her. She fears being exposed (because she thinks that her husband will take the blame onto himself and go to prison), but she still feels no guilt.

All the information needed to drive the plot forward in A Doll House, as in Ibsen's other realistic plays, is provided by an extraordinary amount of exposition, necessitated by the late point of attack of the plot—in A Doll House, long after the forgery, after the husband's recovery, and just as the note is at last about to be paid off. A convention of this kind of realistic exposition is that it is always presented to the audience as factual; even though Nora has always cheerfully lied whenever it was necessary to cover up her scheme, when she explains it all to her confidant, Mrs. Linde, we take her every word for truth. This truth never comes into question, and is always perfectly clear. The play moves toward a climax in which Nora's husband is exposed as a hypocrite (instead of taking on the blame himself, as she had always expected he would, he plots a coverup), and in which Nora herself, bitterly disappointed in Helmer and seeing her whole life in a new light, leaves him to cast out on her own. It is a powerfully dramatic conclusion, but it is not in any sense a psychological one.

Although Ibsen's later realistic plays, such as Rosmersholm or Hedda Gabler, are decidely psychological, the psychology still exists within the same framework of realistic convention. The exposition, again, is presented as clear, uncontradictory truth. Thus when Rebecca West, in her famous speech, describes how she drove Rosmer's wife mad, it comes out in a blunt, straightforward manner:

I wanted Beata out of here, one way or another. But even so, I never dreamed it could happen. With every step ahead that I gambled on, it was as if something inside me cried out: ‘‘No further! Not one step further!’’ And yet I couldn't stop. I had to try for a tiny bit more. Just the least little bit. And then again—and always again—until it happened. That's the way these things do happen.

Rebecca is describing her own psychological turmoil, but her tone is clinical, as detached as a doctor describing a patient. Her conclusion—‘‘That's the way these things do happen''—is a profound insight, but again, is meant to be taken as straight truth by the audience, as is her whole speech. The audience may well be shocked by Rebecca's compulsion, but they experience no disorientation themselves. The psychology here is vivid, pitiable, even terrifying, but definitely understood. It is still realistic, in the sense of being clear and comprehensible.

The Master Builder, however, is in fact a "deconstruction" of realism. Using conventions that would have been familiar to late nineteenth-century audiences, Ibsen first creates apparently realistic characters in a realistic situation. Gradually, however, he moves into his hero's mind, to an inner world of unconscious desires and exotic symbolism. Written at the time of Freud's early work, the play anticipates much of Freud's theory, exposing the existence of the unconscious mind, the significance of dreams and mistakes, the ambivalence of emotion, and the unconscious belief in the omnipotence of thought. Nineteenth and twentieth-century techniques are thus combined in the play, which represents a major turning point in the history of dramatic literature.

The play opens in Solness' s ' 'plainly furnished workroom,’’ immediately establishing a realistic, mundane atmosphere for the audience. Solness's two assistants, Knut Brovik and his son Ragnar, are seated, busy with blueprints and calculations, while a young bookkeeper, Kaja Fosli, stands at her ledger. We are in the everyday world of work. Solness enters, and in a brief aside with the girl, Kaja, reveals that they are intimate. There follows a scene between Solness and Knut Brovik. Brovik is ill, and probably dying; he is concerned that his son be given a commission, to establish his career as an independent architect. Unaware of Solness's relationship with Kaja, Brovik speaks of his son wanting to marry her. Solness is callous toward Brovik, and frightened of giving up a commission to a younger man.

Thus, all the materials for a realistic problem play are here: the realistic setting with a workaday atmosphere, the sexual hypocrisy, the problems of aging and loss of power. The audience would expect that young Ragnar would ultimately triumph, winning a commission and the girl, while, Solness would either die or somehow become reconciled to his loss. The audience would also expect to draw moral conclusions about the nature and abuses of power, the importance of kindness and fidelity, the limits of individualism. Instead, the trio of Brovik, Ragnar, and Kaja turn out to be relatively unimportant in the play. After a few brief scenes, Ibsen introduces a raisoneur, in the character of Dr. Herdal; in his scene with Solness, a major incident warns us that we are in for a very different experience from the realistic power struggle that we expected.

Dr. Herdal tries to get Solness to see that he really is very well established, with nothing to fear from young Ragnar, but Solness is vehement.' 'The change is coming,’’ he insists. ‘‘Someday youth will come here, knocking at the door—'', when lo and behold, there actually is a knock at the door, and youth does enter, in the person of Hilda Wangel, a girl whom Solness had met ten years earlier. The moment is one of the great coups de théâtre in the history of drama, grotesque, funny, shocking—and awkward. (It has often been ridiculed.) What critics have not recognized is that the literal representation of a metaphor, such as this one, is something that Freud was noticing, around the time the play was written, as a common element in dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud was to give many examples, such as the dream of a horse frolicking in a field of the finest oats being an obvious manifestation of the expression, ' 'feeling one's oats.’’ Expressionist playwrights, in the early decades of twentieth century, were often to use the concrete manifestation of aphorisms as a device for inducing shock and laughter; Ibsen uses it for the same purpose here, starting his deconstruction of the realistic atmosphere and action that he had so carefully established.

The scene with Hilda at first seems realistic, however. She is no imaginary construct of Solness's, but a real flesh-and-blood girl, the daughter of a public health officer (a position of social responsibility, perhaps echoing Ibsen's own An Enemy of the People). Even Dr. Herdal has met her before, and recognizes her now. She has real bodily needs, too: she mentions that her underwear needs to be washed, that ‘‘they're real grimy.’’ The grimy underwear represents Ibsen's sly evocation of naturalism, the extreme form of realism that depicted man in purely physical, animal terms. The audience seems to find itself on familiar ground once again.

The familiarity is an illusion, however, Dr. Herdal soon exits, leaving Solness and Hilda alone. Gradually, without a seam showing, the tenor of the scene changes. Grimy reality melts away, to be replaced by something like a dream. Hilda describes the occasion of their first meeting, when she was a girl of twelve or thirteen. Solness had built a church tower in her town, and dedicated it by climbing to the top and hanging a wreath on the weather vane. In the late twentieth century, we hardly need to be told the sexual symbolism of climbing a tower, but to the audience of the time it would have seemed evocative and disturbing. More important, however, is what follows: Hilda says that she and Solness met afterwards, alone, and that he first promised that he would come back in ten years, carry her off ' 'like a troll,’’ and buy her a kingdom. Then, she says, he held her in his arms, bent her back, and kissed her— ‘‘many times.’’ Solness is shocked and dazed, first denying the incident, then saying, ‘‘I must have willed it. Wished it. Desired it. And so—Doesn't that make sense? Oh all right, for God's sake—so I did the thing too!’’ We have again left the external world of realism for the inner, dream world of Expressionism.

This passage is extraordinary in its anticipation of Freud's theory of' 'the omnipotence of thought.'' The infant cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, between wishing a thing and doing it. As adults, we continue to equate thought and reality in our unconscious minds, which is why we can feel guilty for something that we never did, but only wished. Here Solness cannot remember whether he actually kissed Hilda or not, but he realizes that he wanted to, which in his unconscious mind is equivalent to having done it. As for Hilda, she no longer seems the real live girl with the dirty underwear she was earlier. She has shifted to a mythic plane, describing herself as a princess and Solness as a troll, and demanding that he come up with the promised kingdom. Troll, princess, and enchanted kingdom show an obvious connection with the Symbolist movement, but we never leave the real world entirely. Ibsen's purpose is not so much to evoke a magical, poetic vision as it is to explore, very precisely, his hero's unconscious mind. Hilda now appears to be a fantasy, a projection of Solness's desires and fears.

The second act begins the following morning; Hilda has spent the night at Solness's house. She says that she dreamed the night before of falling over ‘‘a terribly high, steep cliff.’’ As in Freud, her dream seems charged with significance; it also foreshadows Solness's own fall at the end of the play. In addition, however, it signals another deconstruction of realism to Expressionism. As in the first act, there is another long scene between her and Solness. He tells of a disastrous fire that consumed the house in which he and his wife lived early in their marriage. The fire helped make Solness's reputation; he was then able to subdivide the land and build houses on it, which established him as an architect. As a result of the fire, however, Solness's two children died. Here again we have the basis for a realistic struggle of career versus family (a distinct echo of the great neoclassical theme of honor versus love), but the details are odd: the children did not die in the fire itself, but rather because of Mrs. Solness having taken sick from the strain, which affected her milk. Instead of the kind of simple, surface causality that we would expect in a realistic play, the causality here is strangely oblique, as if some inner, unseen mechanism were operating. The information that follows is even stranger: it turns out that Solness had noticed a crack in the chimney of the house, long before the fire, and neglected to fix it. He sensed, even then, that if the house were to burn down, he would be given a wonderful opportunity to advance his career. Here, we might think, is the kernel of the play, theoriginal sin. Solness's neglect— a ‘‘Freudian slip,’’ fulfilling his wish to get rid of the house—brought him fame and fortune, but cost him his children. ‘‘What price glory?’’ But then, in another bizarre and cunning stroke, Ibsen destroys our standard reaction. Solness says that ‘‘It's been proved without a shadow of a doubt that the fire broke out in a clothes closet, in quite another part of the house.'' It seems that Solness had nothing to do with starting the fire at all!

Yet once again, Solness believes that his inner state at the time represented true reality. In a key speech, he reflects on the power of wishes:

Don't you believe with me, Hilda, that there are certain special, chosen people who have a gift and power and capacity to wish something, desire something, will something—so insistently and so—so inevitably—that at last it has to be theirs? Don't you believe that?

This is omnipotence of thought once again, which Solness is coming to think of as an actual reality. Such omnipotence is found elsewhere in the play. For example, Solness says that he has got Kaja to come to work in his office simply by wishing it one day; then, ‘‘in the late evening,... she came by to see me again, acting as if we'd already struck a bargain.'' But Ibsen in the long run is not so crude as to suggest that thought is literally omnipotent; all the things wished for could have occurred by accident, or in this case, by Kaja's sensitivity to nuances of expression and attitude in Solness. Ibsen's focus is instead on Solness's confusion and fear with regard to his inner life, on his awareness that it might have powers far beyond his conscious understanding, and on his guilt for the immoral desires that seem to come true. Freud maintained that unfulfilled desires actually make us feel more guilty than fulfilled ones; the undischarged psychic energy of the desire turns inward, against the self. This is the case with Solness. He is not at all guiltridden about his sexual affair with Kaja, but feels extremely guilty about his desires for Hilda, even though they were never actually consummated. In the same vein, Solness's wife, Aline, feels more upset about the loss of her collection of dolls in the fire than about the loss of her two sons; her imaginary love for the dolls is more real to her than her ostensibly real love for her flesh-and-blood children. The pattern in the play is always that a character's inner life is paramount; the outer, realistic world, while genuine enough (Ibsen is no solipsist), is not the world in which one actually lives.

Ibsen continues his exploration of the inner life in his depiction of Solness's death. Solness, afraid of heights, no longer climbs towers to plant celebratory wreaths on them. Nonetheless, Hilda demands that he climb the tower on his latest building. Solness's acrophobia is distinctly ambivalent, in keeping with Freud's theory that strong conscious feelings of revulsion against something are always accompanied by equally strong unconscious feelings of desire for it. Solness unconsciously seems to yearn to climb and fall, just as he unconsciously wanted sex with the forbidden Hilda. In the end, it is the power of thought that again seems the catalyst: Hilda wishes his climb, twice saying,' 'I will see it!" At the ultimate moment, she excitedly snatches a white shawl and waves it at Solness, shouting from below to him high on the tower, ‘‘Hurray for master builder Solness!,’’ causing Solness to plunge to his death. Again, the exact nature of causality is ambiguous: did Solness fall because Hilda distracted him by shouting and waving, or because she willed him to fall? Is Hilda a real girl with an obsessive neurosis, who destroys Solness by palpable methods, or a witch, troll, a projection of Solness's own fantasies, who destroys him by the power of the unconscious mind? The greatness of the play is that it explores the boundary between outer and an inner reality, deconstructing the former to bring us to the latter. At the final curtain, the audience is as confused and frightened as Solness, confronted with the power of the unconscious mind, and unable to determine its extent or its meaning. They have entered the twentieth century.

Source: Richard Hornby, ‘‘Deconstructing Realism in Ibsen's The Master Builder,’’ in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 21, No. 1, November 1983, pp. 34-40.


Critical Overview