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

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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Places Discussed

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Solness home

Solness home. The town, or village, in which the home is located is not named but may be envisaged as within the vicinity of Trondheim, which lies on the west coast of Norway. Slightly northeast of Trondheim lies Størdalshansen, which could be the actual setting of the play. West of this town, on the other side of the fjord, is Stranda; and well northeast of this town on the upper part of the fjord is Levanger. Løvstrand, representing the future, is where the master builder wants to build a villa. Lysanger, the past, is the scene of triumph: There, ten years earlier, against extreme odds, he crowned with a wreath the highest point of the tower of a building he had constructed. The thirteen-year-old Hilde Wangel, who witnessed this event with transcendent pleasure, comes to the Solness home to exact from Solness the fulfillment of a promise she claims he made at that time, namely, to make her a princess and build her a castle. The promise is translated into Solness’s wreathing the tower of his newly built home. He wreathes the tower at Hilde’s insistence and to her joy but then falls to his death. The location of the home, below the mountains and below, or south of, the scene of his past triumph, comports with Solness’s situation as a relatively successful man (a master builder but not an architect) who will die attempting the impossible, that is, to repeat his triumph, rather than go on to old age while younger professionals surpass him.

Historical Context

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In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated violent action typical of melodrama. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopted the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society.

To accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions nineteenth-century women suffered. Writers who embraced realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Anna-Marie Taylor, in her overview on Ibsen for the Reference Guide to World Literature, comments that the author’s realism centered on middleclass manners. She argues that his plays effectively deflated ‘‘bourgeois self-confidence’’ as they suggested that the ‘‘cosiest and best furnished of drawing rooms could harbour grim secrets, dissatisfaction, and despair.’’ The exposure of deception and restrictions became a main focus of his social dramas, especially A Doll House and Pillars of Society. Later, when his plays became more experimental, Ibsen incorporated realistic techniques into a more symbolic structure.

Dramatists during the early decades of the twentieth century also adopted the techniques of another new literary movement. expressionism eschewed the realists’ attention to verisimilitude and instead employed experimental methods that tried to objectify the inner experiences of human beings. Influenced by the theories of Freud, playwrights like August Strindberg used nonrealistic devices that distorted and sometimes oversimplified human actions in order to explore the depths of the human mind.

Ibsen’s long career reflected the shifting styles of the theatre at the end of the nineteenth century that would continue into the twentieth. His early social dramas...

(This entire section contains 425 words.)

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were realistic depictions of the interactions between family members and between men and women. In the later part of the decade, he experimented with more symbolic forms of drama, most notably in The Master Builder andWhen We Dead Awaken. In the former play, the action is centered on the consciousness of the central character. Often viewers are not certain whether Solness’s life becomes a construct of his dreams and desires, especially his relationship with Hilda, who becomes a muse figure in the play.

Literary Style

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Realism and Expressionism Ibsen combines elements of realism and expressionism in the play. Most of Ibsen’s plays can be grouped into the realist movement, the dominant literary form in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In The Master Builder, however, Ibsen experiments with expressionism, a new movement that was coming into vogue. Realist and expressionist techniques merge in his characterizations. As Ibsen charts the rise and fall of master builder Halvard Solness, he takes a close look at cause-andeffect relationships. As in most realist works, the main character in Ibsen’s play faces a moral choice, in this case whether or not to allow his ambition to run unchecked. When he decides that he will let nothing thwart his dream of rising to the top of his profession, he must face the destructive consequences. Ibsen presents a realistic depiction of the pain Solness’s choice has caused not only his wife but also, ultimately, himself.

Ibsen’s expressionistic techniques emerge in Solness’s insistence that he has devils and trolls that enforce his will. When Solness claims that these to the long-suffering Aline. devils were responsible for the burning of his home and Kaja’s decision to seek employment with him, Ibsen suggests they are manifestations of Solness’s own guilt. Ibsen also employs expressionism in his depiction of Hilda, who reenergizes Solness’s creative spark and thus his confidence in himself, which provides him with the will to climb the tower again. Her mysterious arrival, just at the moment Solness needs to rejuvenate his creative energies, coupled with her unexplainable obsession for him, suggests that she may be a fantasy figure.

The dominant symbol in the play is the tower that Solness climbs on two occasions, a phallic structure that suggests his authority and sexuality. Hilda watches transfixed both times as he climbs the vertical edifices to the top, thrilled at the power and courage he displays as he rises high above the town. Her active observance of Solness’s physical prowess causes her to become obsessed with him, so much so that she is willing to break up his marriage to the long-suffering Aline.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the Western world. In the last decade of the century, symbolism and naturalism emerge as important new movements.

Today: Musicals, like The Producers, and reality based plays, like Rent, dominate Broadway.

1890s: The Klondike gold rush begins in 1896 in northwest Canada. News of the discovery of gold there prompts thousands to rush to the area, hoping to strike it rich.

Today: Eastern nations criticize what they see as rampant materialism in the Western world.

1890s: Samuel Clemens dubbs this decade ‘‘The Gilded Age,’’ due, in large part, to the industrialization of the West. During this period, a handful of large industries gain control of the economy in the United States. Those industrialists who profited saw their fortunes grow at a rapid rate, while the working class suffered with low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Today: Public awareness of major companies exploiting foreign workers has grown. Many fear that the current push for economic globalization will reinforce the imbalances between the rich and the poor.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barnet, Sylvan, ''Introduction,'' in Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, Signet, 1969, pp. vii—xix.

Brandes, Edvard, Review of The Master Builder, in Politiken, December 22, 1892.

Brinckmann, Christian, Review of The Master Builder, in Nyt Tidsskrift, 1892-1893, pp. 272-81.

Göthe, George, Review of The Master Builder, in Nordisk Tidskrift, 1893, pp. 153-57.

Jaeger, Henrik, Review of The Master Builder, in Dagbladet, December 27, 1892.

Review of The Master Builder, in Daily Telegraph, February 1892.

Bentley, Eric, The Playwright As Thinker, Harcourt Brace, 1987.
This study examines the philosophical point of view in Ibsen's works.

Egan, Michael, Ibsen: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1972.
Egan traces the history of the critical response to Ibsen's plays.

Haugen, Einar, Ibsen's Drama, University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Haugen engages in a comprehensive examination of the themes and structure of Ibsen's plays, including The Master Builder.

Meyer, Michael, Ibsen: A Biography, Doubleday, 1971. Meyer presents a thoughtful analysis of Ibsen's life, tracing ‘‘his development as a man and as a writer’’ and offering an assessment of his work, ' 'both intrinsically and historically.’’ He also discusses Ibsen's impact on the theatre.


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Clurman, Harold. “Fears and flights.” In Ibsen. New York: Collier Books, 1977. A discussion of the last four plays, in which Ibsen abandons social polemics to probe his own failures as a man and an artist. Clurman points out biographical parallels in Ibsen’s life and the character of Solness.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Ascent.” In Henrik Ibsen. New York: Grove Press, 1962. Knight describes the central symbolic action of The Master Builder as the climbing of a tower—to live one’s art. The play coalesces an external event with spiritual meaning.

Meyer, Michael. “The Master Builder.” In Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Discusses the inception and writing of the play, its reception by critics, Ibsen’s deliberate self-portrayal, and theme of an old man’s fear of and longing for youth.

Muir, Kenneth. “Ibsen.” In Last Periods of Shakespeare, Racine, Ibsen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1961. Discusses how Ibsen’s last four plays are linked in theme; each protagonist is a genius facing conflicting claims of vocation and personal life, each is compelled to recognize his guilt, and each expresses Ibsen’s own personal conflicts.

Shaw, Bernard. “The Master Builder.” In The Quintessence of Ibsenism. New York: Hill & Wang, 1957. Shaw’s classic introduction of Ibsen remains invaluable. Shaw concludes that old gentlemen and poetic young women are apt to build castles in the air.


Critical Essays