Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157
The Wild Duck is one of Henrik Ibsen’s most important problem plays. From the time of its first appearance, it captured audiences and readers with its vitality and universality. Ibsen, known as the founder of modern drama, achieved this recognition over tremendous obstacles, not the least of which was that he wrote in a little-known language. Born into a provincial milieu in Norway, Ibsen suffered early poverty and hardships, including poor education. In 1851, he became the assistant manager of the Bergen Theater, studied stage production abroad, and in the next six years gained invaluable practical theatrical experience by putting into production 145 plays. By the time he started writing his own plays, he had a knowledge of the theater and its literature matched by very few playwrights.
In Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880), Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1885), En folkefiende (1882; An Enemy of the People, 1890), The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler (1890; English translation, 1891), Ibsen introduced realism to the stage and established it so overwhelmingly that it became the dominant approach to the stage throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ibsen substituted middle-class protagonists for kings and queens and wrote prose dialogue rather than poetry, stating that “My plays . . . are not tragedies in the old meaning of the word; what I have wanted to portray is human beings and that is just why I did not want them to speak the language of the gods.” He introduced detailed stage directions to authenticate the background scene, and he approached his characterizations with a desire to reveal them to the audience almost scientifically, thus incorporating his age’s new discoveries of the importance of instincts, biology, heredity, and environment. In his plot innovation, he dispensed with the intrigue and trickery of then popular “well-made plays.” While maintaining his skillful manipulation of plot, he ended each act with strong, theatrical curtain scenes. Some of his innovations—as in his extensive use of light-dark imagery; his pervasive irony; his elimination of all events antecedent to the critical situation; and his use of the unities of time, place, and action—reveal his study of Greek tragedy.
The Wild Duck marked Ibsen’s turning away from realistic problem plays. From that time on his plays were complex, enigmatic studies of the human condition, and they employed expressionistic and symbolic techniques. The Wild Duck reflects some of his most important preoccupations. These include the presentness of the past; man’s search for his true identity and place in life; the effects of idealism as a social force; the conflict of reality and illusion; and the problem of man’s ultimate freedom. Ibsen himself said that the critics would “find plenty to quarrel about, plenty to interpret” in this play.
The key to the universality of the play lies in the complexity of the strong, well-rounded characters. A lesser playwright would have settled, for example, for making old Werle the villain of a melodrama. Ibsen, instead, presents his human complexity. Gregers, the son, sees the elder Werle as an unredeemable villain who ruined old Ekdal, made his housemaid pregnant, and then foisted her off on the unsuspecting son of Ekdal. Hjalmar Ekdal, however, describing what old Werle did for him and his family, sees him as a fairy godfather. The truth in Ibsen, as in life, lies somewhere in between—perhaps in old Werle’s espousal of “the attainable ideal.” Gina Ekdal, too, moves far beyond the stereotype of the fallen woman redeemed by marriage. It is Gina’s work on the photographs and her sewing, her concern for practicalities and the welfare of Hedvig and her husband, that keep the family going and enable Hjalmar to indulge in his dreams.
The two major characters, Gregers and Hjalmar, are even more complex. Both men see themselves as intellectually and morally superior to all around them; both are judged by the audience as self-indulgent, egocentric men with no true sympathy or love for others, not even their own family. Both wish to attain truth, but both harbor illusions about the nobility and goodness of their actions. Gregers admires Hjalmar as the most gifted and intelligent of his schoolmates, yet Ibsen characterizes his intelligence as that of a photographer and speech writer, not of an artistic creator. Gregers lacks the moral strength to stop his father from trapping Ekdal; Hjalmar lacks the courage to commit suicide as he claims to wish to do; both men fail to face their responsibility in the death of Hedvig. However, Ibsen does not dismiss the quest for truth out of hand but shows instead the ambiguity and complexity of the undertaking.
Dramatic irony is an important device throughout the play. Gregers, who ends up destroying a home and contributes to the suicide of a young girl, earlier accuses his father of leaving things like “a battlefield strewn with broken lives.” Hjalmar remarks that happiness is home, just as Gregers knocks on his door to bring the information that will help destroy that happiness and that home. Many of the ironic reverberations are connected with the sense of sight. Those who are blind—old Werle and Hedvig—often see more clearly than those who have good physical vision. Like Oedipus, Gregers and Hjalmar are metaphorically blind to the real truth of their human condition. Unlike Oedipus, however, they never face the truth and thus remain in darkness at the end of the play. Ibsen also employs light and dark imagery in the set and the dialogue: Act 1 begins in brightness and candle glow, but the other acts grow ever darker and act 5 ends cold and gray.
The title of the play carries the complexity of meanings with it. The duck, wounded by old Werle, is saved and trapped. Relling sees it as a symbol of all people who are wounded while attempting to live in this world. Hedvig associates the duck with herself, wounded and unable to fly yet happy to stay at home in that created world. Old Werle connects the duck with old Ekdal, who is unable to live in reality. Gregers at one time sees himself as the dog who rescues the duck from drowning in the sea of lies and illusions; later he identifies with the duck; still later, he suggests the identification of Hedvig with the duck. The duck’s world is a surrogate for the real forest in which, with its clipped wings, it can no longer live. The family questions whether the duck can adapt; they decide that as long as it cannot see the real sky, it can survive unconscious of its trapped condition. The sky, associated with light and freedom and the natural state of bird and man, is thus juxtaposed with the darkness of Ekdal’s attic, the unnatural state that humans create for themselves. Old and young Ekdal are capable only of hunting tamed or disabled animals in their artificial forest and are as unable as the duck to survive in the real world.
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