Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844

Ibsen published The Wild Duck in 1884, and the following winter, it was produced on stage for the first time. Initially, most critics did not respond to Ibsen’s humble setting and characters, his sense of humor, and what they saw as his pretentiousness. While some viewers greatly enjoyed the play, they were, at that time, in the distinct minority. Playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1897 after viewing the play, ‘‘Where shall I find an epithet magnificent enough for The Wild Duck!’’ He found the play to be ‘‘a profound tragedy,’’ yet one that kept the audience ‘‘shaking with laughter . . . at an irresistible comedy.’’ The poet Rainer Maria Rilke lauded the poetry of Ibsen’s words. ‘‘There was something great, deep, essential,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Last Judgement. A finality.’’

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Summing up the majority opinion of the play, Francis Bull wrote in Norsk Litteraturhistorie in 1937 that ‘‘[P]eople had got used to the idea that Ibsen’s dramas should engage in controversial issues, and when The Wild Duck came out, 11 November 1884, the public was utterly bewildered. Alexander Kielland, quoted in Bull’s ‘‘Norsk Litteraturehistories,’’ found the book odd and was annoyed by ‘these everlasting symbols and hints and crude emphases.’ Bjornson, cited in Rilke’s Review of The Wild Duck in Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke ‘‘called the whole play ‘disgusting,’ and thought its psychological foundation false.’’ In the years to come, many critics had a hard time understanding both the play and what Ibsen was A Phoenix Theatre production of The Wild Duck, 1990. trying to accomplish. An 1894 reviewer from The Athenaeum wrote, ‘‘The play must be a joke . . . it is a harmless, if not very humourous piece of selfbanter, or it is nothing.’’ In a review of a series of Ibsen’s plays written by Edmond Gosse, quoted in Valency’s ‘‘The Flower and the Castle,’’ echoed what many had already said about the play: ‘‘This is a very long play, by far the most extended of the series, and is, on the whole, the least interesting to read . . . There is really not a character in the book that inspires confidence or liking . . . There can be no doubt that it is by far the most difficult of Ibsen’s for a reader to comprehend.’’

Havelock Ellis, a sexual psychologist, wrote in 1890 that The Wild Duck was ‘‘the least remarkable of Ibsen’s [tragedies]. There is no central personage who absorbs our attention, and no great situation . . . [T]he dramatist’s love of symbolism, here centered on the wild duck, becomes obtrusive and disturbing.’’ Ellis, however, found redemptive factors in the play—as a satire on ideals and beliefs expressed in Ibsen’s earlier plays such as A Doll’s House and The Pillars of Society. He also noted that ‘‘Ibsen approaches in his own manner, without, however, much insistence, the moral aspects of the equality of the sexes.’’ More laudatory was W. D. Howells, the American author and literary critic, in a review of 1906. He put forth his analysis of Hjalmar’s reaction to the truth, which, in light of the body of criticism available to modern readers, seems rather simplistic: ‘‘inference is that the truth is not for every one always, but may sometimes be a real mischief.’’ Howells, however, was one of the first critics to explore the important concept of truth and illusion that Ibsen presented.

In years to come, other critics and scholars analyzed the characters. Psychoanalysts Smith Ely Jelliffe and Louise Brink published their analyses in terms of contemporary psychoanalytic theory in 1919. They found Gregers to be a caricature of ‘‘false blundering therapy’’ and believed that he ‘‘whimsically represents’’ Ibsen’s ‘‘own earlier zeal and fate as a reformer.’’ In this analysis, they agreed with Ellis; later critics, such as Hermann J. Weigand and Ronald Gray would concur with this opinion.

‘‘Only gradually,’’ wrote D. Keith Peacock in Reference Guide to World Literature, ‘‘was Ibsen’s play recognized as a painful, but at times ironically comic, comment upon humanity’s need for the protection of illusion.’’ In the years since its first publication, The Wild Duck has come to be viewed as one of Ibsen’s masterpieces. Dounia B. Christiani, an Ibsen translator, noted in her preface to a 1968 edition of The Wild Duck that while it ‘‘gained early recognition [from literary critics and scholars] as the most masterfully constructed of Ibsen’s prose dramas, its innovative combination of farce with tragedy and of realism with symbolism has only rather recently won the sort of appreciation that is based on acute critical analysis.’’ More contemporary criticism of The Wild Duck has focused on symbolism, imagery, and characterization, and some critics have used the play as an insight into Ibsen’s beliefs. The play continues to draw attention, both among students and scholars of literature and drama, as well as theatergoing audiences. When the play was staged in New York in 1986, Robert Brustein commented on the director’s focus on the play’s theme, ‘‘which is the malignant effect of utopian idealism on those who need illusions in order to survive.’’

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