Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Elise (The Mother)
Elise is a greedy woman who indulges in rich food and other expensive pleasures, leaving her children to struggle against starvation. In this way she is an inversion of the mythic pelican, which uses its own blood in order to sustain its young. Her evil is different to that of Axel, being founded not on shrewd calculation but on instant gratification. This is conveyed by how, after her initial fondness for her son in law’s poem that he wrote to her, she comes to realize his true nature and is horrified by his lack of love for her daughter. It is further evidenced by her strategy of blanket denial in the face of her son’s accusation, a strategy which suggests she had not planned for the backlash of her actions. Portrayed as physically fragile and passive up until the moment she launches herself out of the window, Elise is likewise portrayed as an emotionally fragile and sensitive figure throughout the play, as demonstrated by her toying with, and ultimate resolution to jump out of the window.
Axel (The Son-in-Law)
Axel is a cruel opportunist who saw his marriage to Gerda and his seduction of Elise as means for obtaining financial gains. He has no motive other than money and is not truly invested in the family, as demonstrated by his disappearance from the house in order to attend a business meeting during much of the play’s action.
Gerda (The Daughter)
Gerda appears to be the play’s most innocent character; it is later revealed that, like her mother, she is also emotionally fragile. She thinks only of the present, in particular of how best to maintain the paper happiness of her marriage, with little regard for how her actions might return to haunt her in the future. Like her brother, she is self-destructive, though her self-destructive tendencies stem from inaction, whereas Fredrik's stem from action. Once she enters into an alliance with Fredrik against their mother, Gerda radically changes, becoming forceful in her accusations of Elise but finding no relief from the despairing mindset that leads her into a suicide pact with her brother.
Fredrik (The Son)
Fredrik suffers from persistent hunger and coughing due to his material neglect at the hands of his mother. He is so cold that in order to keep warm he plays the piano, with his only other means of expression being through the consumption of alcohol. Just as it did for his father, alcohol enables Fredrik to intermittently escape from the claustrophobia of his family home, but it is also a means of self-destruction by which he hastens his eventual demise. Unlike his sister, he is overtly accusatory of his mother from the start, and it is he who finds the letter that proves Elise's complicity in his father’s death. As an aspiring lawyer, his discovery of this legal document has him acting as prosecutor in the case of his own family, in mounting an evidence-based indictment against Elise, who ruined his childhood. In his becoming aware that his father was driven to his death in such a fashion as to avoid legal sanction, however, his faith in law as a means of justice and order in the world is shaken. His eventual suicide can be put down to the verification in his mind of his belief that he has no purpose.
The father’s presence in the play is conveyed through props and is defined by its omnipresence, as in the relentless and maddening rocking of the chair, the aroma of the funeral flowers, and the wind that rages outside...
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the window and intrudes at the least opportunity. When Elise leaps out of the window, the father’s ghost is shown as waiting for her to land so that he can witness the death of the woman who tormented him in life.
As an outsider to the family, Margret is in a position to indict Elise for her treatment of Gerda and Fredrik. Moreover, as a cook, Margret has an intimate knowledge of the food consumed by individual family members. In a play where the quality of food symbolizes emotional nourishment, she is therefore in a position to comment with authority on the starvation of Gerda and Fredrik. In the play’s opening scene, Margret also gives the audience insight into the poor treatment of the family’s servants. Such insight proves that Elise’s cruelty is not familial only, but is an overwhelming aspect of her character that influences all with whom she comes into contact.