The “Ibsen Cycle”, and the search for an -ism

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact date when artists, writers and composers all decided they’d had enough of being Renaissance, and it was high time they changed to being Baroque. Although, it’s fair to say, the change wasn’t quite so clear cut: some took a detour through Mannerism, but that didn’t really last too long.

Fair enough, my sarcasm above is a bit heavy-handed, but I really do not decry labelling. However different, say, Bach, Handel and Telemann are from each other, it is clear that they are closer to each other than any of them is to, say, Tallis or Palestrina, and labels can be useful in signposting such matters – as long as we take the labelling to be no more than rough guides, and do not insist upon them dogmatically. (I say this rather ruefully, as I am rather given myself to crude generalisations, and have, quite rightly, been picked up before on the matter.)

But even overviews come a cropper when it comes to western literature of the 19th century. Or, more precisely perhaps, of the mid- to late- 19th century. When it comes to composers of that era, we may safely say that Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, etc., different though they all are from each other, are Romantics. In art, we have a useful catch-all term – “impressionism” – to cover most of the major artists of that era. (And for a slightly later generation of artists who don’t quite fit the term – Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat – we have ingeniously thought up the term “post-impressionist”.) So that’s the artists covered. But what do we make of the major writers of that era? – of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Flaubert, Dickens (the later Dickens at least), Baudelaire, Ibsen, and the like? Caught between Romanticism before them and Modernism after, there seems to be no -ism into which they seem comfortably to fit.

At this point, we tell ourselves that labels don’t matter, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But I never was one for moving on. Not that I necessarily want to find a handy label: I do recognise that such labelling is pretty pointless. But I recognise also that, by the end of the century, something had changed from the heady days of Romanticism – that it would not have been possible to have produced the novels of Zola or of Hardy in the same age that had produced the odes of Keats or the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But what precisely had changed is not so easy to put one’s finger on – at least, not without making the kind of crude generalisations that I had promised myself not to make again.

But let’s make a few anyway, and see if they hold.

The first crude generalisation is that the mid- to late- 19th century was an era of “realism” in fiction – that is, writers of fiction aimed for verisimilitude, and attempted to produce narratives that the reader could believe might have taken place in the real world. But almost instantly we run into problems. Are not the plot and the characters of an 18th century novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa, say, also believable? And conversely, is there anyone who could believe that the characters populating novels so heavily stylised as Dead Souls, Little Dorrit or The Idiot could conceivably have existed as described? Or that the events that take place in those novels might conceivably have happened in reality? All right, let us take these instances as exceptions rather than the rule (although, it must be conceded, these are pretty big exceptions). But it still won’t do: the more one thinks about it, the more such exceptions crowd the mind – novels preceding the mid-19th century that are very realistic in nature (“realistic” as described above, that is), and novels of the mid 19th century that don’t even aim for surface realism. So no, I really don’t think that appealing to “realism” will do.

Neither would it do, I think, to claim that writers of the mid-to-late 19th century were more aware of social and economic pressures. There is no shortage of social and economic awareness in the works of Austen (who wrote when most of the poets we class as “Romantic” were active); or in the works of Fielding or Richardson. Or, going back even further, in the novels of Defoe (see Moll Flanders, for instance, or Roxana). Conversely, Henry James, who was very active towards the end of the 19th century, often made his characters so wealthy that they did not have to worry about economic pressures. So no, that one won’t do either.

But one thing that may, possibly, be said – though I say it rather gingerly – is that it became more difficult to create big characters – heaven-storming characters, characters who aspire to the level of gods; characters who fill the page (or the stage), who fill our imaginations with their bigness. Such characters are familiar in epic poems and plays of the classic age, and beyond – godlike Achilles; Odysseus, the man of twists and turns; Electra and Medea, Othello and Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. And Romanticism allowed for this bigness as well: indeed, with its emphasis on the individual self, it positively invited it – Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Prometheus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, this became more difficult. When the Phaedra of Euripides or the Phèdre of Racine lusts guiltily for a younger man, their passions are huge, they shake the very earth: when Natalya Petrovna similarly lusts guiltily for a younger man (in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), she is simply an insignificant wife of an insignificant provincial landowner – a sympathetic figure, certainly, but rather small and pathetic in a way the creations of Euripides or of Racine aren’t. When authors of the post-Romantic era do produce big figures, they have to be removed from everyday life and its quotidian concerns (Captain Ahab); or these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy). We cannot, after all, have Milton’s Satan or Shelley’s Prometheus worrying about paying their bills.

And, just as it became more difficult to present these big characters, it became easier to present humans as mere ants teeming in an anthill – whether they be the slum-dwellers of Zola’s L’Assommoir, the rotten bourgeoisie of Zola’s Pot Bouille, or the brutal peasantry of Zola’s La Terre. Of course, these novels could not have been written in the Romantic age as the social and economic environments presented by Zola were very much of their own time; but putting that aside, this view of humanity itself as something that is small, of individuality as something that is paltry, submerged in some wider, impersonal collective, seems to me very alien to the Romantic sensibility. Where the Romantics enjoined us to strive, now, the very idea of striving seems absurd. Even those who are dissatisfied with their present do not know what to strive for, or how: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as petty and as stupid as that that she is rebelling against.

Now, before you all regale me with notable exceptions to all this, let me suggest a couple myself: Brand, and Peer Gynt. Ibsen created these huge characters in the mid-1860s, in two verse dramas, epic in conception, and vast in scope. But then, his art took a strange turn, and I am still not sure why he felt this turn had to be taken. Having written Emperor and Galilean (which I won’t be posting about here, as I don’t think I understand it very well), and The League of Youth (which I won’t be posting about either, as it seems to me rather slight), he turned, quite deliberately, away from all that bigness, all that grandeur, and fixed his gaze upon those little ants teeming in the anthills. No, not quite Zola-esque, perhaps, but certainly little figures – smug bourgeoisie, small-time businessmen, bank managers, bored housewives, and the like. It’s like stepping deliberately from Racine’s Phèdre to Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna.

Why did he do it? Could he on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor?

The first of these plays is The Pillars of Society (which I hope to be blogging about shortly). Without wishing to anticipate, it does seem a bit of a come-down from the granitic magnificence of Brand, or the riotous exuberance of Peer Gynt. But this is what Ibsen wanted. Towards the end of his life, some twenty-five years later, Ibsen himself described the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken as a “cycle”; and the eminent Ibsenian critic, Brian Johnston, takes Ibsen at his word. But did Ibsen know from the start what this cycle would develop into? Did he, indeed, envisage it as a cycle at all? To judge from Michael Meyer’s biography, I think the answer appears to be “no”. At least, there exists no evidence that he did.

But had he indeed looked forward to the plays towards the end of this cycle, he would have known that even restricting himself to prose (and to everyday prose at that), even confining himself to milieux that are, on the surface at least, “realistic”, he would, by the end, create characters every bit as big as anything achieved by writers of the past. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to flights of fancy, said of the protagonists of Ibsen’s late plays that there’s not one of them who is not touched by the Holy Ghost. And by the end of his last play, When We Dead Awaken, we seem back once again to the poetic and imaginative world of Brand. Ibsen had come full cycle. But that journey back to where he had started is long, and tortuous; and also utterly fascinating.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I had decided to blog about the major Ibsen plays, I thought I would do it one play at a time, and not anticipate what lies ahead. But reading The Pillars of Society, I think that would not be very advisable.  The connections not only with plays already written, but with plays yet to be written, are too important to ignore.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 5, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    I can’t talk sensibly about Ibsen, though I’ve seen a surprising number of his plays: Peer Gynt, The Master Builder, Brand, Ghosts, The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler.
    With respect to the late 19th century: the characters of John Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Jules Verne don’t seem like ants to me.
    The obvious objection is that these are largely adventure stories and not serious literature and maybe that is the only place for such characters in an increasing middle class society. Of course there were places outside of respectable society – this was the period of empire building and the wild west after all.


    • Oh, I didn’t mean it as a general rule. Zola, as ever, is an extreme example, and what he exemplifies certainly doesn’t hold across the board. But what I am suggesting, albeit diffidently, is that this vision of humanity as ants, as tiny creatures, is very unlikely to have occurred to a writer in the Romantic era. And conversely, creating larger-than-life figures became more difficult.

      But yes, once the characters are removed from the trappings of urban society, it can be a different story (I gave Captain Ahab as an example). Then you can have Long John Silver, Captain Nemo, and so on. But the smallness of a Madame Bovary is very much, I think, a consequence of post-Romantic way of looking at the world, in which humanity cannot even strive towards anything great because they do not have the greatness of heart or of mind for such striving, and also because, in addition, there’s nothing that great to strive towards.


  2. Ah, I just thought of the Zola counter-example – Nana. How does one strive for greatness in an absurd world of ants? One becomes a celebrity! Which is itself absurd, and a big change from the Romantic period, or a hyper-Romanticism, where the relevant example is Byron. Emma Bovary had a hint of this, when she disastrously tried to turn her husband into a famous doctor.

    The arc of the Ibsen plays is extraordinary. I agree that the “cycle” is retrospective, but he clearly saw what he was doing by the end, somewhere in those last three or four plays.


    • That seems just about spot on – and I wish I had thought of it. We don’t really believe in greatness, but are still saddled with this Romantic concept of striving for it. So we strive for celebrity status. And yes, Flaubert and Zola both saw it.

      I do often think of Flaubert as pivotal in this. I can’t think of a single character in any fiction who is conceived in terms as anti-Romantic as Frédéric Moreau.


  3. “…these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy)”

    I wouldn’t put it this way. Much of the action takes place in or near the kitchen – what can be more quotidian? There’s a smell of porridge and dogs on every other page. In the bigger picture, Heathcliff schemes Hareton and then Cathy Jr. out of their inheritance. It’s only his long-overdue death that restores both mansions to their rightful owners. (I hadn’t realized until I read WH that married women in old England had zero control over their hereditary property.)


    • Yes, you are right, of course in all you say. I had expressed myself badly.
      What I was trying to say, I think, is that Wuthering Heights presents a fictional location that is completely cut off from the outside world. We are reduced, effectively, to two households and the moors between: what happens outside this location is of no interest – not even so major a feature of the plot as the source of Heathcliff’s wealth. Ownership and wealth are clearly important, as you say, but, as I remember, there is nothing on how these families earned their income in the first place. Presumably it came from livestock farming (the moors were too barren for arable farming), but the novel shows no concern with this. If we compare this to the novels of Hardy, say, we find a far greater concern with the society of which the characters are inevitably a part: there is a greater focus on the rural economy, on how much the workers earn, and so on. The economic realities are as much part of the novels as the characters are. I don’t really see this in Wuthering Heights. Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously said about this novel that though the place names are English, it is actually taking place in Hell. He was exaggerating, of course – the quotidian aspects of reality are, as you say, still there – but I do get a sense of overwhelming individual passions transcending their environment, whereas in the later novels of Hardy or of Zola, the passions depicted (and these can be great passions also) are contained within their environment. The tragedies of Gervaise Coupeau or of Jude Fawley are to a great extent the consequence of the environment in which they find themselves, in a way that the tragedies of Heathcliff and Catherine aren’t.

      But yes, I did express myself badly, and you’re perfectly right to pick me up on that point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: