Places Discussed

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Werle house

Werle house. Home of the wealthy industrialist Haakon Werle in which the play opens. Shaded lamps in its rich study cast a greenish glow, giving the illusion of a forest or seascape setting. Werle’s former partner, Old Ekdal, begs release from a locked office, symbolizing his earlier imprisonment. The dim study screens him and allows others to ignore him. A brilliant inner room and other chambers suggest depth of place and characters.

Ekdal house

Ekdal house. Shabby home of the Ekdal family in which the play’s second act is set at night. A single lamp in the set suggests Old Ekdal’s poverty, stressing the contrast with Werle’s brilliantly lighted home.

Old Ekdal spends most of his time in a garret, in which he keeps a curious assortment of animals. He pretends that the garret with its old Christmas trees is a forest like the one in which he hunted as a young man. The ambiguous attic place suggests freedom but is actually a prison to the animals. Although the family bases its life primarily on self-deception and illusion, the Ekdal home is a happy one.

When Gregers visits the house to see his friend Hjalmar Ekdal, he is appalled by its condition and vows to reveal the truth to the Ekdals. To that end, he rents a room in the house. When he smokes up the house, pours water into the stove, and makes the floor a “wet pigsty,” the disaster symbolizes the family disruption caused by Gregers’s revealing the truth. The subsequent darkness of the place symbolizes melancholy; darkness and sadness remain, despite a lighted lamp with no shade. Hedvig believes that in daylight (symbolizing truth and happiness) their place (family) will again be stable. When he threatens to leave, Gina says they need an attic place (illusion) for happiness. This attic place, however, later brings grief—not happiness. Gregers’s closing metaphor for himself uses place: He is the thirteenth place at a table and a source of unrest.

Historical Context

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Union With Sweden and the Constitution Since 1536, Norway had been a province of Denmark, but in the early 1800s, Sweden attacked Denmark. The resulting peace treaty transferred Norway to Sweden. Crown Prince Christian Frederik, the nephew of the Danish king, refused to accept this transfer. He initiated an uprising and called for the convention of a national assembly. The delegates wrote and signed a constitution, and elected Christian Frederik king of a free and independent Norway.

Norway received no support from Europe. Swedish troops attacked, and Christian Frederik resigned two weeks later. Sweden accepted Norway’s constitution, which was amended to reflect the union effective November 1814. A Norwegian government and the National Assembly, the Storting, would make national policy. Though Norway remained an independent nation, it shared Sweden’s king and foreign policy.

Norway Becomes a Parliament Despite the popularity of King Charles John, the popularly elected Storting continued to struggle against the king and his cabinet. In 1833 representatives from the farming class formed a majority in the Storting. The so-called Farmer Storting advocated greater local control over local matters. The farmers also forged a relationship with radical urban intellectuals, which led to the formation of Norway’s first political party, the Liberal party, in 1869. The party’s major goal was to introduce a parliamentary system of government to Norway. The Liberals passed three amendments to the constitution—in 1874, 1879, and 1880—that would require the participation of the king in Storting sessions, but the king refused to sanction this proposal. Members of the Conservative party, who wanted to strengthen the union between...

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Sweden and Norway, held the majority in the Storting, and they supported the king.

In 1882, the Liberals gained a majority in the Storting. They began an impeachment process and removed the government of the king’s appointed prime minister from office in 1884. The king saw no option but to ask the Liberal leader to become the new prime minister of Norway. Parliamentarism was thus established.

An Independent Norway Toward the end of the 19th century, Sweden and Norway were clashing frequently. The Swedish demanded that the union’s prime minister be Swedish, and they did not want to give in to Norway’s demands for its own consular service. In March 1905, the prime minister’s government decided that the issue had to be settled unilaterally. The Storting passed the new consular law, but the king in Sweden vetoed it. The Norwegian ministers, however, refused to countersign the veto. When the king would not accept their resignation, they gave up power to the Storting. The prime minister declared that, in refusing to form a new ministry, the king had left Norway without a government, which was unacceptable according to Norway’s constitution. Failure to do his constitution duty, he argued, led to his abdication. The Storting thus declared the dissolution of the union.

Sweden demanded a vote by the Norwegian voters that would show whether the nation as a whole agreed with this action. In August 1905, only 184 Norwegian voters voiced dissenting opinion. A final agreement on the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway was made in September. Norway was a free and independent country for the first time since 1397.

Social Changes in Nineteenth Century Norway Over the course of the century, many Norwegian towns saw enormous growth. For example, Christiania, which had a population of around 12,000 in 1800, had 228,000 residents 100 years later. New roads and railway lines improved communication and trade between towns. Industry grew dramatically, particularly the timber trade and the textile industry. Whereas at the beginning of the decade, Norway was predominantly an agricultural county, by 1900, about 27 percent of Norwegians relied on industry to make their living.

The specifically peasant culture, known as the Bondekultur, had flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but by the mid-1800s it was in a state of decline. Old stave-churches from the Middle Ages were pulled down; peasant costumes, arts, and crafts were neglected; folktales were forgotten or scorned. A group of scholars and intellectuals wanted to ensure the survival of the Bondekultur. They recorded folktales, ballads, legends, and music for future generations. They researched peasant arts and crafts, customs, beliefs, and values.

In 1851, the Society for Popular Enlightenment was founded by educationalists and intellectuals. This society contributed to a new school law in 1860, which called for the establishment of permanent schools in rural areas. Soon, high schools also began to be constructed in rural areas.

Arts in Late-Nineteenth Century Norway In the 1870s and 1880s, Norwegian literature began to breakthrough on the European and world scenes with foreign translations of the works of writers such as Ibsen, Bjornstjerne Bjornson, Alexander Kielland, and Jonas Lie. These writers availed themselves of changes in Norwegian society—particularly the rise of industry and the disintegration of old rural society—to explore new themes. Norwegians were themselves interested in the new European literary realism, as represented by writers such as Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, and Ivan Turgenev. Writers were also influenced by the Danish critic Georg Brandes, who demanded the new literature must present problems for debate. Many writers were supportive of the Pan-Scandinavian movement, which called for increased solidarity between the three Scandinavian countries: Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

By the 1890s, however, Norwegian literature underwent the period of New Romanticism. Writers were turning away from the exploration of the individual’s role in society to a probing of the relationship between individuals and their inner lives and psyches. In their later works, Ibsen and his contemporaries had turned their ideas inward, as well, but a new group of writers also emerged in the decade, such as Knut Hamsun who later won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Other important developments were made in the arts. In 1899, the National Theatre opened in Christiania with Bjornson serving as its first director. The 1880s were a turning point in Norwegian painting. Young painters traveled to Paris to learn from the works of painters such as Claude Monet. When they returned home, they developed an indigenous school of painting that concentrated on realistically but vividly depicting Norwegian daily life

Literary Style

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Symbolism The wild duck is the foremost symbol Ibsen employs. The wild duck has come to live with the family after having been shot by Hakon, which in itself is symbolic. Hakon is the instrument of the duck’s downfall, just as he was the instrument of Gina’s downfall. Both duck and woman almost came to destruction. In the case of the duck, Hakon’s dog saved the creature; in the case of Gina, Hakon’s money saved her from disgrace. For Gregers, however, the duck, which became caught amidst the mire and rubbish at the lake bottom, comes to represent the Ekdal family: Gina; Old Ekdal, who according to Hakon is one of those people who ‘‘dive to the bottom the moment they get a couple of slugs in their body, and never come to the surface again’’; and Hjalmar, who according to Gregers has ‘‘something of the wild duck’’ in him, having mired himself in the dark ‘‘poisonous marsh.’’ According to some critics, when Gregers entreats Hedvig to sacrifice the duck, he is encouraging the symbolic destruction of the lie that has poisoned her whole family.

To further the symbolic relationship, Gregers sees himself as the ‘‘absurdly clever dog’’ that saves the duck—or the family, or Hjalmar’s life— from the swamp. He determines to save Hjalmar and bring him to a truer existence. In seeing himself as a savior, however, Gregers denies the possibility that the duck—or Hjalmar—might lead a worse existence as a result.

The wild duck is a potent symbol for other characters as well. For Old Ekdal, she represents his past life in the wild, where he was the happiest. For Hjalmar, the duck represents a distraction from his present lifestyle.

Imagery Sight imagery is important in the play. On a literal level, blindness plays a role in its plot. Hakon is going blind, which is why he needs a wife to care for him. Hedvig is going blind, which ties her parentage to Hakon Werle; but her eyesight is also used as a device to show Hjalmar’s general carelessness of her: he forbids her to read so that she might save her vision, yet when it suits his purposes, he has her do painstaking photographic work.

Yet, as pointed out by Otto Reinert in his essay ‘‘Sight Imagery in The Wild Duck,’’ the idea of blindness and sight also plays an important role on a figurative level. Gregers is determined ‘‘to open Hjalmar Ekdal’s eyes.’’ Gregers declares that Hjalmar ‘‘shall see his situation as it is.’’ The import of Gregers’s actions is underscored by other commentary in the play. Hakon tells Gregers, ‘‘You have seen me with your mother’s eyes . . . But you should remember that those eyes were-clouded at time,’’ implying that Gregers’s vision of the world is not even a truthful one but one that has been imposed on him—much as he wants to impose his vision on Hjalmar.

Similarly, Hjalmar is blind to the realities of life. He refuses to acknowledge his father at the Werle house, pretending that he ‘‘didn’t notice’’ Old Ekdal’s passage through the room. Hjalmar’s spiritual blindness is further reflected in his belief that he has, in Reinert’s words, ‘‘superior insight.’’ When he leaves with Gregers on the afternoon he learns about Gina’s past, he believes that it is Gregers who is in trouble and needs ‘‘a friend’s wakeful eyes.’’ Though knowledge of the truth causes him to look on his past as one long blind period, he persists in living in that false world, senselessly blaming Hedvig for her parentage. ‘‘I can’t stand to look at you,’’ he says, as if the mere vision of her has destructive qualities, yet again, he cannot bear to open his eyes to the truth. As Reinert writes, ‘‘Both [Gregers and Hjalmar] are incapable of seeing beneath the surface of facts; both are blind to their own reality.’’

TragicomedyThe Wild Duck is at the same time both tragic and comic—a tragicomedy. Its tragic elements derive primarily from the ruin that Gregers’s flaw— his compulsive and unrealistic need for the idealistic— brings upon the Ekdal household and particularly on Hedvig. Single-handedly, Gregers takes a secure family and turns them into an isolated collection of people, none of whom trusts or has confi- dence in the other. Hedvig’s tragedy, while instigated by Gregers’s course of action, stems from her father’s renunciation of her. His actions are inevitable, for they are based on his rampant egotism. Thus, the mantle of tragic character falls upon him as well.

The play’s comedic elements derive from the ludicrous behavior of the characters and their surroundings: Hjalmar’s insistence on his departure from the family at the same time he allows his wife to serve him breakfast; Old Ekdal’s ‘‘hunting’’ amidst the decrepit Christmas trees in the attic; even the scenes involving Hjalmar’s reproach of Gina are tinged with the comic. Additionally, Gregers’s ideals, pretentiously shared and out of place in the shabby surroundings, are imbued with a broadly comic and unrealistic dimension.

Compare and Contrast

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1880: The second half of the 19th century is an age of literary greatness in Norway. Along with Ibsen, Bjornstjerne Bjornson was a major writer. By the 1890s, writers such as Gabriel Scot and Knut Hamson are introducing symbolism and neoromanticism into the Norwegian literary world.

1990s: Today, Norway supports its writers through tax exemptions, monetary grants, and government purchasing for libraries. Norway ranks among the world's leaders in books published per capita. About 5,000 new titles are published each year of which about two thirds are works by Norwegian authors.

1870s: Industrialization begins in Norway. This shift in production causes a national migration to urban areas.

1990s: In the 1990s, industry contributes about one quarter to the country's gross domestic product and employs about one third of the labor force. Important industries include petroleum and gas production, food products, metals and metal products, machinery, and transport equipment.

1880s: In 1889, Norwegian law changes to require children aged seven to fourteen to attend school. The first compulsory education law had been passed in 1860.

1990s: In the 1990s, the law requires nine years of basic schooling with a tenth optional year. Mandatory subjects include Norwegian, religion, math, music, physical education, science, and English.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Brustein, Robert, review of The Wild Duck, in The New Republic, April 14, 1986, p. 27.

Bull, Francis, Norsk Litteraturehistories, Volume IV, 1937, pp. 18–19.

Christiani, Dounia B., preface to The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.

Ellis, Havelock, ‘‘Ibsen,’’ in The New Spirit, 1890.

Howells, W. D., ‘‘Henrik Ibsen,’’ in The North American Review, Summer, 1906, pp. 1-14.

McCarthy, Mary, ‘‘The Will and Testament of Ibsen,’’ in Sights and Spectacles, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1956, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 182–189.

Peacock, D. Keith, ‘‘The Wild Duck: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2d ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.

Reinert, Otto, ‘‘Sight Imagery in The Wild Duck,’’ in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 55, July, 1956, pp. 457–462, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 177-82.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, review of The Wild Duck, in Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, Macmillan and Co., p. 95, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 216–217.

Shaw, Bernard, review of The Wild Duck, in Our Theatres in the Nineties, p. 138, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, p. 217.

Smith, Ely Jelliffe, and Louise Brink, ‘‘The Wild Duck,’’ in The Psychoanalytic Review, October 1919, pp. 357-78.

Valency, Maurice, The Flower and the Castle, The Macmillan Company, 1963 pp. 168-76, 379-80, 382-83, reprinted in The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968, pp. 199-207.

Further Study T Ferguson, Robert, Henrik Ibsen, Richard Cohen Books Ltd., 1996. This is a more recent biography of Ibsen.

Henrik Ibsen, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1998. A collection of critical essays on Ibsen’s most important works.

Ibsen, Henrik, The Wild Duck, translated by Dounia B. Christiani, W. W. Norton & Company, 1968. This edition of The Wild Duck is annotated with contemporary reviews, scholarly criticism, Ibsen’s letters, and suggested sources for the play.

Shafer, Yvonne, Henrik Ibsen: Life, Work, and Criticism, York Press, 1985. This is a popular, accessible discussion of the influences on Ibsen’s work and the scholarly assessment of it.


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Caputi, Anthony, ed. Eight Modern Plays. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Dounia B. Christiani’s translation of The Wild Duck is supplemented with excerpts from Ibsen’s letters and speeches and two chapters from books by M. C. Bradbrook and Dorothea Krook. Bradbook’s contribution explains how the play works on different levels simultaneously, and Krook remarks on the subtlety of Ibsen’s theme of self-deception. Caputi’s foreword provides an excellent introduction to Ibsen and twentieth century drama.

Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. New York: Macmillan, 1977. An introductory study that provides the general reader with a good starting place for reading about Ibsen. Clurman, a renowned stage director, comments with sensitivity on the plays as both theater and literature. Includes an instructive discussion of The Wild Duck, which concludes that Gregers’ zealotry leads him to misjudge Hjalmar’s essentially mundane nature.

Fjelde, Rolf, ed. Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Sixteen essays cover, among other topics, Ibsen’s conception of truth, realism, and stage craftsmanship. Robert Raphael discusses the theme of self-deception in The Wild Duck and two other Ibsen plays.

Lyons, Charles R., ed. Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A thorough and useful volume of essays that collects discussions addressing the ideology, realism, and dramatic form of Ibsen’s plays. The remarks on The Wild Duck explore the play’s structure, language, and exposition.

McFarlane, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A collection of sixteen newly written essays on Ibsen’s life and work, which include discussions of Ibsen’s working methods and the stage history of the plays. A helpful source.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide