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

The Master Builder

by Henrik Ibsen

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Solness is aware of the suffering he has caused others, especially his wife, during his self-serving rise to power. In an effort to cope with the harsh consequences of this unchecked ambition, he tries to convince himself that he has not been completely responsible for his actions. He struggles to persuade others, as well as himself, that he is beset by internal devils, ‘‘players’’ that impose his will on others, without his consent. Solness insists that all he has to do is think of something he desires and immediately with no instruction from him, his devils carry out the deed. For example, the first time he meets Kaja, he thinks that he would like her to work in his office so Ragnar ‘‘would stay put too.’’ As he is telling this story to Dr. Herdal, he swears he ‘‘didn’t breathe a word’’ of these thoughts to anyone, but the next day, Kaja came back to the office, acting as if he had already given her the job. As a result of these thoughts, Solness admits to the doctor that he fears that he is going mad.

Hilda reinforces this self-deception when she insists that she also has a troll inside of her and that the trolls in each of them have brought them together. By absolving them of the responsibility of their desire for each other and their plans to run off together, Hilda tries to assuage their guilt over destroying Solness’s marriage and abandoning Aline.

Age versus Youth
As Solness struggles to cope with the consequences of his actions, he becomes obsessed with the idea that he is losing his creative edge. This obsession is compounded when Brovik tells him that Ragnar has drawn up blueprints for a young couple who have applauded his ‘‘new modern’’ ideas. Solness admits to Dr. Herdal that he harbors ‘‘a terrible fear’’ that an inevitable change is coming, heralded by the young, and as a result, he will become obsolete.

In an effort to stop this process, he tries to break Ragnar’s spirit and confidence in his abilities by refusing to allow him to work independently on a project. Solness cannot overcome his consuming fear even when Ragnar’s father, with his dying wish, begs him for a word of praise for his son.

Rejuvenation comes in the form of Hilda, a young woman who sparks Solness’s waning creativity and sexuality. When Hilda first comes to the house, Solness admits that he is no longer interested in building homes, for no one appreciates his work. When Hilda tells him that the sight of him climbing the tower in her hometown was ‘‘wonderfully thrilling’’ and ‘‘lovely,’’ and reminds him that he kissed her several times that evening, his pride in his work reemerges along with his sense of sexual prowess. After Hilda expresses unwavering confidence that he can again build and climb magnificent towers, he admits, ‘‘all these years I’ve been going around tormented by . . . a search for something—some old experience I thought I’d forgotten.’’ She helps him remember the passion and creativity of his youth and instills in him the belief that he can regain his old powers. Hilda convinces him that he can carry her off to a magnificent castle in the air that he will build for the two of them. As a result, he admits to her, ‘‘you are the one person I’ve needed the most.’’

What Hilda helps him recapture during these musings is youth, the very thing that he thought would usurp his power and position. Solness, however, is ultimately unable to retain his sense of rejuvenation, and as his old fear of failure returns, he falls off the tower to his death.

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