Gregers Werle, the son of a rich industrialist and a sensitive, high-minded mother, early in life develops a loathing for the unscrupulous means his father uses to amass his fortune. After his mother’s death, young Gregers leaves his father’s house for a time, but he eventually returns. His father, hoping to persuade his son to accept a partnership in the business, gives a large dinner party to which Gregers invites a thirteenth guest, his old school friend, Hjalmar Ekdal. This act displeases his father very much because Hjalmar does not belong in the Werles’ social set and because he is the son of a former business partner old Werle wronged. The older Ekdal now holds a menial position in Werle’s employ, to which he was reduced after a term in prison broke his mind and spirit.
Gregers is aware that his father’s machinations sent Ekdal to prison after a scandal in which both were involved, and he hated his father for this injury to his friend’s father. He discovers also that the older Werle arranged a marriage between Hjalmar and Gina Hansen, a former maid in the Werle household and, Gregers suspected, his father’s mistress. Gregers is therefore displeased both at his father’s offer of a partnership and at his father’s forthcoming marriage to Mrs. Sorby, his housekeeper. Gregers announces that his future mission in life is to open Hjalmar’s eyes to the lie he has been living for the past fifteen years.
The Ekdal home is shabby. Werle set Hjalmar up as a photographer after marrying him to Gina, but it is really Gina who runs the business while her husband works on an invention he hopes will enable his aged father to recoup some of his fortune. Old Ekdal himself, now practically out of his mind, spends most of his time in a garret where he keeps a curious assortment of animals. Ekdal believes that the garret is a forest like the one in which he hunted as a young man. He occasionally shoots a rabbit up there, and on holidays and special occasions he appears before the family dressed in his old military uniform.
Although based almost entirely on self-deception and illusion, the Ekdal home is a happy one. Gina takes good care of her husband, Hedvig, their fourteen-year-old daughter, and Hjalmar’s father. Hedvig is very dear to both Hjalmar and Gina, who keep from her the fact that she is rapidly losing her eyesight. Gregers is shocked when he sees the Ekdals’ home. Old Ekdal shows him Hedvig’s prize possession, a wild duck that Werle’s father once shot and wounded; the duck dived to the bottom of the water, but Werle’s dog retrieved it. Gregers sees himself as the clever dog destined to bring the Ekdal family out of their straitened circumstances.
To accomplish his end, he rents a room from the Ekdals, though Gina is unwilling to let him have it. She is not the only one to resent his presence in the house. Dr. Relling, another roomer, knows Gregers and is aware of his reputation for meddling in the affairs of others. He agrees that Gregers is the victim of a morbid conscience, probably derived from his hysterical mother. Hjalmar, in his innocence, sees nothing amiss in his friend’s behavior and allows him to stay.
Gregers sets about the task of rehabilitating his friend in a systematic way. He discovers that the family is supported by the older Werle and not, as Hjalmar supposed, by the photographic studio. More important, the coincidence of Hedvig’s progressive blindness and Werle’s father’s weak eyesight makes Werle suspect...
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that Hjalmar is not the child’s natural father. During a long walk he takes with Hjalmar, Gregers tries to open his friend’s eyes to his true position in his own house; he tells him everything he discovers except his suspicion of Hedvig’s illegitimacy.
Having no real integrity or resources within himself, Hjalmar falls into all the clichés of stories he read about the behavior of wronged husbands. He demands an accounting from Gina of all the money Werle paid into the household, and he asserts that every cent should be paid back out of the proceeds from his hypothetical invention. His outburst does nothing but disturb Gina and frighten Hedvig. Hjalmar’s pride might have been placated and the whole matter straightened out had not a letter arrived from old Werle, who is giving Hedvig a small annuity. Hjalmar announces that Hedvig is no child of his and that he wants nothing more to do with her. Hedvig is heartbroken at her father’s behavior, and Gregers, beginning to realize the consequences of his meddling, persuades the girl that her one hope of winning back her father’s love is to sacrifice for his sake the thing she loves most. He urges her to have her grandfather kill the wild duck.
Gina succeeds in convincing Hjalmar that he is quite helpless without her. They are discussing their plans for the future when they hear a shot. At first they think old Ekdal is firing at his rabbits, but it is Hedvig, who, in her despair, puts a bullet through her breast.