Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

Truth and Falsehood
Truth and falsehood are major themes in The Wild Duck. Gregers is determined that Hjalmar learn the truth about Gina’s past and why Hakon Werle has been so helpful to the family. Hjalmar has lived in blissful ignorance, never questioning why Hakon decided to be of such service to him and his family. He leads a contented life and actively seeks to avoid unpleasantness, as he childishly tells Gregers. Gina protects Hjalmar from unpleasant economic realities, truly catering to all his needs, both his physical and emotional ones. Hedvig adores him, never seeing how he makes use of her love. For instance, though he worries about her sight, he lets her do eye-straining work of retouching photographs so he can play in the attic with his father. His life is based on one simple, yet determined falsehood: the photographic device that he will never invent. For Hjalmar, the invention is what Relling calls a ‘‘life-lie’’—it enables him to live. Ironically, despite his exuberant protests, Hjalmar is quite able to survive knowing the truth about his wife’s past and the parentage of Hedvig. Though he claims that he will leave the family, he makes only a show of carrying out these threats. Hedvig, however, a younger- than-average fourteen-year-old, takes her father at his word. She has not yet learned the pattern of lies that can exist in relationships.

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Choices and Consequences
Gregers makes the deliberate choice to reveal his suspicions about Gina’s past and Hedvig’s paternity to Hjalmar. Gregers justifies his actions through claims to idealism and talk about helping Hjalmar and Gina form a marriage based on truth instead of on lies. In deciding to pursue this course of action, however, whether or not Gregers thought about the consequences is subject to debate. Some critics have suggested that Gregers acts as he does in order to exact revenge on his father. They have even suggested that Gregers deliberately urges Hedvig to suicide since her existence as his half-sister sullies his own identity.

Hedvig’s suicide is another example of a choice and consequence. There are two possible interpretations of her action. One school of thought contends that Hedvig, coached by Gregers to sacrifice something that she loves to prove her love to her father, determines that self-sacrifice will make the most stunning gesture. An opposing viewpoint contends that Hedvig decides to kill herself only after hearing her father’s scornful comment that Hedvig has been playing him for her own purposes. Regardless of why, Hedvig decides to kill herself, as Relling’s scrutiny determines. Aside from her death, her action has the consequence of binding her mother and father—but they had begun that process even before her death—and providing her father further opportunity for self-pity.

Identity
Identity is an important theme because it is Hedvig’s possible identity as Hakon’s daughter that leads to the tragic ending. Many of the other characters, however, raise the issue of identity. In Hjalmar’s eyes, for instance, Gina’s identity completely changes upon the revelation of her affair with Hakon. This knowledge causes Hjalmar to regard his wife in a completely different manner, thus, she is no longer the person that he has known for the past fifteen years.

Other characters have actually gone through significant changes in their lifetime. Mrs. Sorby was a housekeeper, but she is about to become the wife of a wealthy industrialist. Hjalmar had been a student, but because of his father’s scandal, he dropped out of school. The greatest change in identity, however, is seen in the transformation of Old Ekdal. Formerly Hakon’s partner, and thus an industrialist himself, he was found guilty of the crime of illegal tree felling. Sentenced to jail, Ekdal emerged from prison to a completely different lifestyle. Instead of being in charge of a company, he performs copying services for his former partner. Since he no longer has access to the northern forests, he creates a wooded scene for hunting in the attic of the apartment house. This action shows Ekdal’s inability to let go of his past life and his pathetic clinging to his former identity.

Deception
Many of the characters practice self-deceit. Ekdal’s creation of a forest in which he can hunt is one example of this. He pretends that the rabbits are the great bears he once shot down. He wears his army uniform although he has been stripped of his ranking because of his crime. He sports a brown wig, showing his refusal to accept his aging. Hjalmar also practices deception, particularly in respect to his father. He insists upon calling his father the white-haired old man, despite the toupee, as if that will make him more respectable. He steadfastly and vocally maintains his belief in his invention. This serves an ulterior purpose as well, because it provides justification for letting his wife take over most of the daily tasks of running the photography studio.

In contrast, the Ekdal women are remarkably straightforward. Hedvig believes everything she hears, taking her father’s histrionics on a literal level. Gina sees through the deceptions of the members of her family, but she accepts and ignores them. Her deliberate innocence stretches from the harmless— pretending not to know that Old Ekdal is drinking liquor—to the fatal—playing along with Hjalmar’s game of leaving the household. Relling occupies somewhat of a middle ground. He encourages Hjalmar’s practice of self-deception because he understands it has a greater purpose.

Relling alone has the capability of choosing which truths and lies he will see, which he will reject, and to which he will react. Such understanding of the deliberate deception affords Relling more control than the other characters.

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