“The Wild Duck” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

HEDWIG: It’s only a loft.

GREGERS (looks hard at her): Are you sure?

HEDWIG (astonished):  That it’s only a loft?

GREGERS: Yes. Are you quite certain about that?

It is hard either to read or to see The Wild Duck, and not be aware of its various symbols. Of course, Ibsen had used symbols in his earlier plays too: if, as I increasingly think, the point of serious literature is to force language to communicate matters language is not primarily designed to communicate, then symbols becomes virtually unavoidable, and all serious writers, to some extent or other, use symbols to refer to that which cannot be stated directly. But in The Wild Duck, we seem so firmly enmeshed in a network of symbols, we can barely move without running into them.

The loft, for instance. It’s a strange concept in what is still a “realistic play” – by which I mean a play that takes place in the world we inhabit rather than in some dreamscape, features characters from walks of life familiar to us, and tells a story that we can believe could conceivably happen in our real world. This loft, which in performance is just offstage and can be just tantalisingly glimpsed, is a dark place, done up like a forest with what Meyer’s translation refers to as “Christmas trees”, and populated by chickens, pigeons, and rabbits. We don’t need to be told that this loft represents more than a mere literal description can convey.

And what’s more, the characters know this as well. But to each character, it means something quite different. For instance, to Ekdal, once a fearless bear-hunter in the great forests but now reduced to a pathetic shell of a man, it is an image of the forests he used to love, but which he now does not have the nerve to go to. Once he went into the forest to hunt bears; now, he goes into the loft with his gun to shoot rabbits. He speaks of the forest “taking its revenge”, and when the final tragic act of this drama unfolds in this loft, he returns to this theme: “The forest has taken its revenge,” he says quietly. So to Ekdal, the loft is a symbol of the forest, and the forest itself is a symbol of some mysterious impersonal force that punishes humans for their encroachments – though why, we do not precisely know.

Meanwhile, the teenage girl Hedwig associates the loft with the “vasty deep” – the depths of the sea, where a former lodger, a sea captain, is now drowned. And this “vasty deep” she associates with the world of the imagination, a magical world removed from the solid, quotidian concerns of real life.

And inside this loft, this mock-forest, this “vasty deep”, there resides, amongst the pigeons and the rabbits and the chickens, the wild duck of the title. And, of course, this too is a symbol for something. But it’s perhaps best not to try to interpret these symbols too precisely, or too rigidly: the play is, after all, a play about humans interacting with each other, and not an abstract interplay of theoretical symbols, or some intellectual crossword puzzle to be solved. But the preponderance of these various symbols, and the various different interpretations that are attached to each of them (often by the characters themselves), create in this play a powerful poetical dimension: alongside the reality – the  real world that Ibsen by now was so expert in depicting on stage – we are shown another world, a mysterious and poetic world of the imagination, or, as Hedwig would call it, of the “vasty deep”. And these two worlds co-exist, each inter-penetrating the other, on the one hand giving the real world a poetic depth, and, on the other, anchoring the flights of poetic fancy to the solid and the everyday. While, in the four earlier plays of this cycle, we had mainly inhabited the real world of solid things, with The Wild Duck, I get the impression that Ibsen was moving into new directions: we are now in a world that is increasingly suffused by the poetic, by the mysterious and inscrutable powers of the imagination, by the “vasty deep” itself – by all those things that language unaided by the poetic sensibility is so ill equipped to communicate. And, however solid the real world had been that Ibsen had presented to us in his previous four plays, he was – as Brand and Peer Gynt should remind us – as much a poet as he was a dramatist. If his previous play, An Enemy of the People, was, as I had suggested, a sort of step back, then we can see it in the light of the subsequent plays as a sort of consolidation, a restatement of what Ibsen had already achieved, before setting out on a new and adventurous direction.

But to say we shouldn’t be too rigid in interpreting these symbols doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interpret them at all: we need merely to remember that each interpretation is at best partial – that these symbols can mean all sorts of different things simultaneously, and that what they mean at bottom is as elusive and as intangible as the workings of the human mind itself.

The wild duck, for instance, also means different things to different people. It is Hedwig’s pet, and she loves it; and Gregers, the fanatic, knowing how much it means to her, suggests she sacrifice it in order to prove her love for her father – an act of pure symbolism to demonstrate that which is real. But Gregers himself sees the duck as something else. This duck had been winged by his father (from whom Gregers is now alienated); it had fallen into the lake, and had gone down to the “vasty deep”; and from there, it had been retrieved by his father’s dog. And now, wounded and flightless, it resides in the loft that is at the same time real and symbolic. In one sense, this duck is Hedwig’s mother Gina, once violated by Gregers’ father, and now living her life in quiet, unassuming domestication. But that “vasty deep” into which the duck had sunk means to Gregers something other than what it means to Hedwig: to Hedwig, it represents the world of the imagination; but to Gregers, it represents a world of lies, of delusion. And he sees Hedwig’s father, Hjalmar, as the duck that has sunk into this world of delusion; and he sees his own self as the dog who is to bring him back to the surface, into the clear light of day.

There are other symbols too – weaving its way in and out. There’s the recurring image of vision (or the lack of it), and of light; there is the image of hunting; and so on. We can quite easily get to the stage that we start looking for symbols in everything. So, for instance, when Gregers fails to light his stove properly and the room fills with poisonous fumes, and he throws water over the stove to put it out and floods his room, we can’t help wondering what it symbolises. I personally think it is no more than a comic episode, and, far from symbolising anything, merely demonstrates Gregers’ inadequacy in dealing with the real world of solid things – an inadequacy that, in a different context, leads to devastation. But if we wish to tease symbolic meaning here too, I’m sure we’re entitled to: as long as we do not allow this interplay of symbols obscure the very human drama that Ibsen presents with such clarity. For the play does not merely inhabit a poetic world of the imagination: it is as firmly rooted in reality as is any of Ibsen’s earlier plays in the cycle.

And it has a very well-defined plot. The principal protagonists of this plot are two young men who used to be schoolfriends, but who are very unlike each other. There’s Hjalmar Ekdal, good-looking and vain (he speaks admiringly of his own curly hair), indolent, self-obsessed and self-dramatising, and living a blissfully contented life. And there’s Gregers Werle, who is (we are told) physically ugly; he is son of a very wealthy local businessman, but he is not on good terms with his father: his father had been a philandering type, and he cannot forget the misery this had caused his late mother. He has tried to stay away from his father, and on returning to his home town, finds he cannot forgive him:

WERLE: Gregers – I believe there’s no-one in the world you hate as much as you do me.

GREGERS (quietly); I have seen you at close quarters.

WERLE: You have seen me with your mother’s eyes.

Their respective fathers had been in business together, but Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal, had been found guilty of business malpractice, had served a prison term, and is now a broken man. Gregers’ father had been indicted too, but he had been found not guilty: Gregers does not believe his father had been innocent, although we, the audience, never know the truth of the matter. As far as Gregers is concerned, his father had merely used Ekdal, letting him go to prison while he himself had thrived.

And old Ekdal has a further reason for shame: when found guilty, he had a gun in his possession, and honour demanded that he turn the gun on himself; but he, the fearless hunter of bears in the forest, had proved (in his own mind, at least) a coward. And now, he is utterly broken, reduced to doing some menial copy-writing work given to him by his former business partner, and shooting rabbits in his own loft.

Hjalmar speaks sentimentally about his father, and speaks of rehabilitating him once again in society; but in reality, he is ashamed of him, and fails even to acknowledge him in public. He is married to the submissive Gina, who does all the work – and even, we find out, runs his business, as Ekdal is too lazy to run it himself. (He has been set up by Werle as a professional photographer.) And Ekdal is blissfully unaware that his wife Gina, when she had been housekeeper at the Werles’, had been Werle’s mistress; and Hedwig, the girl he thinks is his own, is, almost certainly, Werle’s.

It is into this atmosphere that Gregers intrudes. Unable to live under the same roof as his father, he becomes a lodger with the Ekdals. And he is determined that his old friend Hjalmar must not live with his delusions; he must know the truth about his wife, and accept that Hedwig, who loves him unconditionally, is not his own daughter. And Gregers is convinced that once Ekdal’s eyes are open, he will forgive, and that they will all live happily in perfect understanding of each other, and with perfect love – that a new life will open for them, based not on lies and illusion, but on Truth, which is the most important thing of all.

Gregers is quite clearly a fanatic, as Brand and Dr Stockmann had been; and he is also, quite clearly, mad. While it is possible to see his forerunners Brand and Dr Stockmann as heroic, it is hard to discern anything at all heroic about this strange character who insists on seeing life in terms of ideals, and who is so much at odds with the rest of humanity that he cannot see what really is so blindingly obvious – that a man as shallow and as self-dramatising as Hjalmar Ekdal is not capable of living with the Truth, however valuable that Truth may be.

But the principal conflict in the drama is not between Gregers and Hjalmar: the weak and indolent Hjalmar is not really strong enough character to carry the burden of such a conflict. The conflict is between Gregers and Dr Relling. Dr Relling, unlike Gregers, takes a much dimmer view of humanity: humanity, he feels, cannot live with the Truth, and it is better for them to live contentedly with whatever illusions they need to get through life. So he has convinced Hjalmar that he has the talent to be an inventor; and he convinces the rather pathetic drunkard Molvik that there is actually something “daemonic” about his character. Contrasting as he does with Gregers’ lunacy, it is tempting to see Dr Relling as the voice of sense – the chorus, as it were, commenting sensibly on what is happening, but unable to prevent the tragedy. But this won’t do.  At the very end, after the almost unbearably tragic outcome (which, seen in a good production, really does tear the heart apart), we get a brief scene between Gregers and Relling, where Relling says that, despite the uncontrollable grief of Hjalmar’s, he will not be ennobled by his experience, that he is incapable of being ennobled – that he will continue to be the indolent, self-dramatising and self-pitying man he always has been. Gregers’ can’t accept this:

If you are right and I am wrong, life is not worth living.

And while we may agree with Relling on this specific point, we would be wrong to dismiss Gregers: if life does indeed consist, as Relling insists, merely in drowning ourselves in illusion so as to avoid facing truths, then life really isn’t worth living. Gregers may be mad, but in this, he is surely right.

In An Enemy of the People, it was Dr Stockmann who held the people in utter contempt: this is because he saw them incapable of being the noble searchers for Truth that he feels they should be. But it is not just the idealists who can become enemy of people: here, it is Dr Relling who holds humans in contempt; it is he who knows Molvik to be merely a pathetic drunk, and Hjalmar a self-deluding fool. Can the case not be made that it is Dr Relling, so contemptuous of his fellow humans, and, indeed, of himself, who is, indeed, the Enemy of the People here?

To understand the drama in realistic terms rather than as an abstract clash of  theories, we need to try to re-create something of these characters’ past. Gregers had been quite devoted to his mother. When Hjalmar speaks of his feelings when his father had been indicted and sentenced to prison, of how the world seemed at the time to collapse around him, Gregers is immediately reminded of how he had felt when his mother had died. It does not require too great a psychological insight to deduce that Gregers blames his father for his mother’s unhappiness, and that his present actions may be (albeit unknowingly) motivated by this hatred. But the nature of his parents’ marriage is not easy to unravel. Towards the end of the first act, we get the following exchange between Gregers Werle and his father:

WERLE (lowers his voice a little): But you should remember her vision was sometimes a little – blurred.

GREGERS (trembling): I know what you are trying to say. But who was to blame for that? You were! You and all those – ! And the last of them you palmed off on Hjalmar Ekdal, when you no longer – oh!

WERLE (shrugs his shoulders): Word for word as if I were listening to your mother.

The vision being “blurred” is a reference to the image of sight and of blindness that runs through the play: old Werle is going blind, as is the young Hedwig, presumably through some hereditary defect. And here, this reference to blurring is also, quite obviously, a euphemism: Gregers certainly understands what his father is driving at: though it is never made clear, we may infer that she was becoming mentally unbalanced. And that, at least as far as Gregers is concerned, it was his father who had driven her to madness. Now, it could be that Werle was simply an unprincipled and ruthless sybarite, who was cruel to his wife; or it could be that their marriage had already broken down for other reasons. We cannot really tell. We see Werle now as a successful and respectable businessman, but of course, that means nothing. We see him also as a man who is careful to do his duty: he may have escaped prison (rightly or wrongly), but he spends his own money to set up his disgraced partner’s son in business, and later, makes sure his illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter Hedwig will be more than adequately provided for. And we certainly don’t see him as dissipated: he is clearly living with his housekeeper, the very self-possessed independent minded widow Mrs Soerby, and in the course of the play, announces his engagement with her. Dr Relling and Molvik go out boozing  together, and often visit a certain establishment run, we are told, by a Madame Ericsson: Werle is not the type of person to frequent such places. Now, it could be that with age, and, possibly, under the good influence of Mrs Soerby, Werle has grown out of his past habits; but it could equally be that, though far from morally pure, he was not quite the monster his son thinks him to be. We cannot be sure.

But Gregers has, for better or worse, taken after his mother. And so disgusted is he by what he sees as his father’s moral depravity, he is determined to see other humans as essentially noble beings. Or, at least, as the noble beings they would be if only they were to perceive the Truth. He is certainly a fanatic, and in this, he recalls Brand, but the differences are important: for one thing, Gregers does not mention God. Brand had insisted on the highest moral standards for humans because that is what God wants from Man: it’s not as a means of achieving happiness, but rather, to carry out God’s will, for only in carrying out divine will can the soul be purified. Pastor Manders too, in Ghosts, had asked why we humans should search happiness: we have our duty, given us by God himself, and that is sufficient.

But if God is no longer part of the equation, then what can we live for? How then can we justify life at all? Gregers may not mention God; he may not even believe in God; but his moral compass is very firmly rooted in Christianity all the same, and is centred, as Christianity is, around the concepts of forgiveness and sacrifice. Search for Truth, take this Truth to our hearts, forgive, and sacrifice for the sake of those we love; for only through that can we achieve for ourselves happiness and joy, and make life worth living. We may think all this hopelessly naïve, but before we dismiss it as such, we should consider Dr Relling’s position: live in delusion, he says, for we are not good enough or strong enough to live with the Truth; and, far from searching for happiness and joy, take solace instead in drunkenness, and in the joyless pleasures of Madame Ericsson’s establishment. Is this really any better than Gregers’ naivety? If Dr Relling is right and Gregers is wrong, then is life really worth living?

The Wild Duck addresses some of the most fundamental of questions about our lives: how should we live? How can we justify our lives, and make our lives worth living? But there is nothing abstract about the drama: it is a very human story, peopled with weak and fallible people who nonetheless demand our sympathy and understanding; and it culminates in a tragedy that really does break the heart. Hjalmar may be weak and self-dramatising, but seeing him weep over the body of one who had loved him unconditionally, but whose love he had in his moral blindness rejected; and to see also the equally helpless tears of the mother Gina, who saw the terrible tragedy unfold before her eyes, but who was helpless to prevent it; is among the most heart-rending of all scenes in drama, and even brings to mind the final scene of King Lear.

And interfused with this tragedy is the poetry – the deep and resonant imagery of the loft, which is at the same time the forest and the “vasty deep”, and whatever associations the forest and the vasty deep may have; and of the wild duck itself, winged, brought up from the vasty deep, and now, wounded, residing in the mock forest in the loft. The point is not to identify what these things mean, but, rather, to allow this world of dreams and of the imagination to intermingle with the worldly solidities, and reveal to us some of  the most hidden compartments of our consciousness.

Ibsen in his later plays was to go much further in using theatre, the most public of all art forms, to delve deeply into our unconscious: The Wild Duck is only the beginning.

26 responses to this post.

  1. What do you make of the overt symbolism in play’s title?

    Reply

    • It’s clearly a symbol that means many different things: each character seems to see different things in it. Gregers sees it as something to be sacrificed in order to demonstrate love. But Hedwig becomes the stand-in for the wild duck, sacrificing herself instead.

      Reply

  2. For me Hedwig, the rescued wild duck, dies like Brand’s Agnes (agnes dei) for love of her fellow man.

    Gregers is the moral hero who is ultimately isolated, socially and financially, like Dr Stockmann in ‘An Enemy of the People’. Gregers brings honesty to the approaching marriage of his father to Mrs Sorby and, with Hedvig’s angelic heroism, the second-rate marriage of Hjalmar and Gina. He helps to restore Old Ekdal to some credibility.

    The very plausible Dr Relling is merely the voice of pedestrian mediocrity.

    Reply

    • You appear to see the drama very much from the perspective of Gregers. That is certainly a consistent view; but a view so partisan, refusing as it does to consider even the possibility that other views (e.g. Dr Relling’s) may also have some validity to them, irons out much (if not all) of the play’s dramatic ambivalence.

      Hjalmar’s and Gina’s marriage may have been “second rate” – as you put it – because it was not based on honesty. Nonetheless, they were content in their marriage. And human contentment, as long as it does not impinge upon the happiness of others, is not, I think, something to be sneered at.

      Gregers makes moral demands of his fellow humans. But if humans, on the whole, aren’t able to live up to these demands, then I, for one, would question what value they have.

      Reply

      • ‘Hjalmar’s and Gina’s marriage may have been “second rate” – as you put it – because it was not based on honesty. Nonetheless, they were content in their marriage.’

        An interesting parallel with “A Doll’s House”. Torvald and Nora’s marriage may have been “second rate” – like Hjalmar’s and Gina’s – because it was not based on honesty. Nonetheless, they were content in their marriage!” Kristine Linde – like Gregers – makes moral demands of her fellow humans, based on truth.

        Fascinating?

      • Indeed, it is fascinating. The truth is important. We know that. We shouldn’t live a life based on lies. We know that too. But life is always more complicated than any neat formulation. And it’s these complications that Ibsen depicted. We don’t need to be told how important the truth is, but Ibsen considers our human capacity for living with the truth. It is indeed, as you say, fascinating.

      • Yet another fascinating parallel relates to the play “Brand”. Brand and Agnes’s marriage is indisputably “first rate” because it is based on honesty. They are wholly content in their marriage,” because of moral demands on each other, based on truth.

        Ibsen said,”I am Brand in my best moments.”

      • Brand and Agnes’ marriage ends with Agnes desperately unhappy, and her realising that she cannot go on living. This may be a “first rate” marriage, but it’s a “first rate” marriage that most humans (myself included) could well do without.

        Brand may well be Ibsen at his “best moments”, but humanity (Ibsen included) cannot be at their best at every moment of their lives. Brand’s injunction that we be so may be noble and honourable, but it is also utterly unrealistic.

      • Far from desperately unhappy, Agnes is ecstatic as their marriage comes to a dramatic end. (See my post, today, in your other Ibsen thread)

        The marriage of Agnes and Brand is perhaps the only happy marriage in all of Ibsen. Marriage in “Love’s Comedy”, written four years earlier, makes an interesting comparison, where Falk and Svanhild decide not to marry to preserve their infatuation for each other!

      • It is possible to Agnes’ ecstasy at the end as illusory – to se it as a consequence of a mind snapping after enduring profound earthly unhappiness. What is not at doubt is the unhappiness itself.

      • I know enough about happiness to know that is fragile, short-lived, and as much related to one’s mindset than anything else. Having all life can offer is but weakly related to happiness.

        If Agnes’s ecstasy is illusory, Brand shares same illusion but with far less reason. After all he is losing his beloved wife, having just lost son and mother.

      • Brand, unlike Agnes, dies in mental and physical torment. He continues to believe in God: he addresses God directly all the way to the end. But he finds himself uncertain and questioning: he is, by the end, no longer sure of the nature of the God he follows.

      • Brand dies heroically striving for what Agnes has already achieved.

        He continues to believe in love, and love addresses him directly at the end. All we who strive are also uncertain and questioning. Brand, by the end, becomes certain of the nature of the God he follows: GOD IS LOVE.

        Without love: nothing!

  3. It has just occurred to me that Dr Relling tells lies, Greger tells truths, but Hedvig lives and dies for truth. Greater love has no man than this…

    Reply

    • That is not my reading. Hedwig dies because she has been rejected by the man she thinks is her father. And he has rejected her because the truth that Gregers tells him is something he cannot handle.

      Gregers believed the truth would ennoble. It doesn’t. Gregers is wrong.

      In what way does Hedwig die for truth? What precisely does her death achieve? Her death is heartbreaking precisely because it is so meaningless.

      Reply

      • Hedwig’s death is steeped in meaning and she achieves her goal. Seeing more deeply than Gregers, her half-brother, she freely shows her unconditional love for her father in the only way left to her. Greater love hath no man than this…

        In the passage below, Greger suggests Hedwig shoot the wild duck. Alone in the attic, Hedvig takes Gegers advice and ultimately shoots ‘the wild duck’ rescued from the sexual adventures of Werle, her father. Thereupon, Hjalmar repents of rejecting Hedvig and her mother, in an emphatic vindication of idealistic Gregers.

        Her death is heartbreaking precisely because it is steeped in meaning: the climax of the play.

        Gregers. And the wild duck that you’re so very fond
        of — your father wanted to wring its neck?

        Hedvig. No, he said it would be best for him if he
        did, but that he would spare her for my sake; and that
        was very good of father.

        Gregers {coming a little closer). But if you were to sacri-
        fice the wild duck of your own free will for his sake ?

        Hedvig (rising). The wild duck !

        Gregers. If you now freely sacrificed for him the
        best thing you know and possess on earth ?

        Hedvig. Do you think that would help ?

        Gregers. Try it, Hedvig.

        Hedvig (in a low voice and brightening eyes). Yes, I
        will try.

      • Hedwig did not need to prove her love to Hjalmar. Her love to Hjalmar (whom she thinks her father) is never in any doubt. Even Hjalmar does not question it. Hjalmar rejects Hedwig not because he thinks she doesn’t love him, but because he thinks she is not his daughter. If Hedwig does indeed kill herself to prove a love that was never in any doubt anyway, then I’d say it is an utterly meaningless death.

        In any case, Gregers recommends she shoots the duck, not herself. She goes into the attic to shoot herself immediately after Hjalmar rejects her. It could be, as you say, to prove her love to him (in which case, it was way too high a price to pay); or it could be that this wasn’t a reasoned act, and that she was simply in despair. Either way, none of this would have happened without Gregers insisting on his “ideals”.

        Even if Hedwig’s love really had been in doubt, the loss of a human life as precious as Hedwig’s is way too great a price to pay to prove it. Idealists tend to reckon their ideals are so precious, they are above even human lives. So Brand sacrifices his child’s life for his ideals (a life that wasn’t his to sacrifice); Gregers thinks at the end that Hedwig’s death is justified because it was for the sake (as he thinks) of an ideal. Well, I disagree. No ideal is worth a child’s life. History is full of instances of the hideous things that happen when ideals are valued above human lives.

      • “In any case, Gregers recommends she shoots the duck, not herself. ”

        Hence, the sheer moral magnificence of Hedwig’s free response!

        You may think her response—along with that of Brand, Agnes, Nora, Romer, and Solness—”too great a price to pay”. The great playwright thinks otherwise, although these characters are rather larger than life.

      • “The great playwright thinks otherwise.”

        The great playwright depicted.

        In a play we hear various characters’ voices. It is up to us to interpret. A great work of art can accommodate many interpretations – even conflicting interpretations.

        In my own interpretation, Hedwig’s death was a tragic and meaningless waste; and placing ideals above human life is wicked folly.

      • If your straightforward interpretation of “Brand” and “The Wild Duck” is all Ibsen intended, I should have abandoned reading him long ago.

      • I don’t think my interpretations are “straightforward” by any means, but of course, we’re all free to differ.

      • I mean by “straightforward” that your interpretation, of each of the Ibsen plays you have reviewed, is one I shared on first reading.

        Reflection disclosed more.

      • That you interpreted these plays in this way at first reading does not in itself imply that this interpretation is “straightforward”. I’d have thought that refusing the take Brand’s and Gregers’ estimation of themselves at face value is far from “straightforward”. But be that as it may – these plays are, as I have been saying all along, complex enough to accommodate many different interpretations.

  4. Posted by Slevin on August 26, 2020 at 4:24 am

    I think Ibsen was just writing a straight forward play. We knew that Werle Sr. was the Hedvig’s father when they mentioned both their demising vision. Y’all tripping, ‘The Enemy of the People’ was much better

    Reply

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