Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
Hjalmar Ekdal, a photographer. After his father’s imprisonment for making and using a false map to fell timber on government land, his father’s former partner, Werle, a businessman, set Hjalmar up as a photographer. He got Hjalmar a room in a house run by the mother of the Werles’ former maid, Gina Hansen, who knows how to retouch photographs, and encouraged the two to marry. They have been married for some years when the play opens, and Hedvig, their fourteen-year-old daughter, is Hjalmar’s chief joy. In addition to his photography, Hjalmar is working on an invention. Since old Ekdal’s release from prison, he has lived with Hjalmar and his family. Hjalmar and old Ekdal have a strange attic filled with rabbits, doves, and a wild duck wounded by Werle and given to them. Hedvig claims it as a pet. Old Ekdal and his son, who “hunt” in the attic, shoot the rabbits and doves. They do not kill the duck because it is Hedvig’s pet. Although Gina’s bad grammar annoys Hjalmar, he is happy with her and with his life. Grateful for Werle’s aid, he thinks that Werle helped him because he and Werle’s son, Gregers, had been boyhood friends. When Gregers, who has been away for many years, returns and realizes that his father has tricked Hjalmar into marrying Gina and caring for Hedvig, who is probably Werle’s child, he says that Hjalmar is a wild duck that has been wounded, but that he will cure him. The knowledge he gives Hjalmar wrecks his friend’s happiness. Because Gina is not sure who the father of Hedvig is, he cannot bear to talk to the child. When Hedvig kills herself after her father rejects her, Hjalmar is horrified. Over the child’s dead body, he and Gina are reconciled. Relling, a skeptical doctor who has known Hjalmar since college days, says that his grief is not very deep and that he will be spouting sentimental poetry about Hedvig in a few months.
Gregers Werle, a son of the merchant Werle, a thwarted idealist disillusioned by his father. He can never convince people that his ideas are valid. After he has enlightened Hjalmar, he expects happiness to follow the truth. He is baffled by Gina’s and Hjalmar’s reaction; Gina seems indifferent, and Hjalmar is crushed. When Hedvig shoots herself, Gregers feels that she did not die in vain because sorrow has ennobled Hjalmar.
Old Werle, a merchant and manufacturer. Acquitted of implication in the map fraud that sent Ekdal to jail, he continues to pay the Ekdal family, apparently from conscience. About to marry Mrs. Sorby, his present housekeeper, he sends Hedvig a note telling her that he will pay her grandfather a hundred crowns a month for life and that after his death Hedvig will continue to receive that amount for her lifetime. Hedvig has weak eyes, like Werle, and will become blind. Although Werle has put everyone in a situation of vulnerability, he tries to support them. His misguided son hastens their downfall.
Gina Ekdal, Hjalmar’s wife. Gina says that she married Hjalmar because she loved him and that she deceived him about old Werle only because she was afraid he would not marry her if he knew of the affair. A good wife, she takes life calmly and apparently has no feeling of guilt for her past misbehavior. After Hedvig’s death, she is able to comfort Hjalmar. She is a primitive, uncomplicated, and nearly peasant woman.
Hedvig, the young daughter, a loving child with weak eyes. Always confused by the adult world, she is driven to desperation when her supposed father turns against her. After Gregers has convinced Hedvig that to sacrifice her wild duck to her father would win his approval, Hedvig takes his pistol and goes into the attic. There, she shoots herself. Because there are powder burns on her dress and her grandfather has just told her that the way to kill a duck is to shoot it in the breast, her death is clearly intentional.
Old Ekdal, Hjalmar’s father, a picturesque character given to scurrying around at the wrong time, drinking in his room, and game hunting in the attic. Everyone seems to be fond of old Ekdal.
Mrs. Sorby, Werle’s housekeeper, a protective, efficient woman. She evidently has a past, but she and Werle have told each other everything and look forward to a happy marriage.
Relling, a doctor with no illusions who lives in Hjalmar’s house. He tells Gregers that Hjalmar’s sorrow for Hedvig is temporary.
Molvik, a student of theology, Relling’s drinking companion.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080
Ekdal (also called Old Ekdal) is Hjalmar’s father. Years ago, he was Hakon Werle’s partner. Convicted of illegally cutting down trees, Old Ekdal was imprisoned, which led to the complete loss of his fortune, reputation, and military rank. After his release, Ekdal returned to live with his son. He has obtained work copying for his former partner, who remunerates him generously. Old Ekdal lives in a fantasy world. He creates a forest for himself in the attic; the rabbits that populate the forest are the bears he once hunted. He also has a drinking problem.
Gina Ekdal is a hard-working, kind woman. She comes from a lower social class than her husband, which is demonstrated by her lapses in grammar, but she is far more efficient and caring than he is. Not only does she accept the role of taking care of the home and family, she also runs her husband’s business. She sincerely loves her husband and tolerates his delusions with good humor. She makes every effort to conceal unpleasant realities from Hjalmar. She is intent on making her family happy. Despite her simple background, Gina is astute and intuitive. For instance, when Gregers wants to rent the room, she recognizes his potential for bringing destruction into her family, and she, not Hjalmar, does not want him to move in. In all facets of her life, Gina demonstrates that her primary goal is to protect her family.
Fourteen-year-old Hedvig Ekdal is a sensitive, intelligent girl. Due to her failing eyesight, Hedvig’s parents keep her out of school and consequently, she is a bit immature for her age. In other ways, however, she demonstrates remarkable maturity. For instance, when Gregers compares himself to the dog that saved the wild duck, she understands that he is speaking in symbolic terms. Unlike her father and grandfather, she uses the attic to broaden her experiences, not to escape reality. She eagerly reads the books left behind. Also unlike the adults, Hedvig believes in her father, thus when he says he is leaving never to return, she takes this as an absolute. Because she so deeply loves him, she intends to sacrifice her duck, which she also loves, as proof of her boundless affection.
Hjalmar Ekdal lives with his wife and daughter. He runs a photographic business, but his wife does most of the work. Hakon Werle has set him up in the business. He apparently once had more promise, but he was forced to leave school after his father’s scandal. When the play opens, Hjalmar is living a fairly happy and contented life. He spends his time hunting in the attic with his father in the ‘‘forest’’ they have created. He clings to his ‘‘life-lie’’: his dreams of inventing a photographic device that will restore the lost glory of his family’s name. Despite his persistent talk of this invention, Hjalmar makes no effort to actually construct it, and it exists merely in his fantasies. Those around him recognize this truth, and they humor him, never pointing out the inherent laziness of his life. Despite the fact that he is lazy, self-indulgent, shallow, and egocentric, his daughter loves him dearly and his wife constantly strives to protect him from life’s harsh realities, a job that she does quite well until Gregers’ appearance. While Hjalmar claims devastation at Hedvig’s death, Relling points out that Hjalmar’s life will merely continue as before, with yet another added touch of melodrama.
Molvik is the other downstairs border. He is an alcoholic student. Dr. Relling provides for him a ‘‘life-lie,’’ much as he does for Hjalmar. Relling asserts that Molvik drinks, not because he is an alcoholic, but because a demon takes over and makes him do so.
Dr. Relling lives downstairs from the Ekdal’s. He is one of the few characters who see the world around him clearly. For instance, he perpetuates Hjalmar’s ‘‘life-lie,’’ understanding that it is what keeps the man going. He scorns Gregers’s claims of creating an ‘‘ideal’’ existence and maintains the belief that humans need their illusions in order to live happily. Relling also serves as a general commentator on the other characters’ behavior, and as a voice of reason. Thus, when he says that Hjalmar will quickly recover from Hedvig’s death, it seems that he speaks the truth.
Mrs. Sorby is Hakon Werle’s housekeeper. A widow, she is also a friend of Gina. She is engaged to Hakon, and after Gregers refuses his overtures, she is sent to the Ekdal’s with Hakon’s bequest for Old Ekdal and Hedvig.
Gregers Werle is Hakon Werle’s son. Influenced by his mother, he strongly dislikes his father and has spent the past fifteen years in the north, away from his boyhood home. Upon his return— when he pieces together the truth about Gina and his father and her ensuing marriage to Hjalmar—he decides to enlighten his friend to the truth. He mistakenly believes that Hjalmar and Gina cannot be happy since their marriage is based on a lie. He believes that once the truth is expressed, they will begin anew. In deciding upon this course of action, Gregers does not take into account the individual personalities involved; he believes that everyone will react the way he would react and is surprised when this turns out not to be the case. Not only does Gregers bring about a dysfunction in the relationship between Hjalmar and Gina, he provides the suggestion that leads to Hedvig’s death, whether it is intentional or not. Thus he is implicated in the tragedy that befalls her.
Hakon Werle is a wealthy industrialist. He pursued Gina fifteen years ago, and after their affair ended and she was pregnant (most probably with his child), he took upon himself the responsibility for making sure that she and her family were financially cared for. He set up Hjalmar in the photography business, he provides Old Ekdal with a job and pays him handsomely, and his final gesture toward the family is a lifetime bequest for Old Ekdal and for Hedvig. He also reaches out toward his son, offering Gregers a partnership in the business, but Gregers refuses. Toward the end of the play, Mrs. Sorby reveals that Hakon is going blind, and the two are planning on marrying.
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