Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1460
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 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...
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