“The Lady from the Sea” 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 from “The Lady from the Sea” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

Looking through the mature plays of Ibsen, I am frequently left with an impression of terror, but it is not always easy to pinpoint where this terror comes from. If pressed, I would say it comes from his various depictions of what I, at any rate, would term fanaticism – a single-mindedness that refuses to be deflected, that rejects any form of compromise. Often, perhaps always, this fanaticism is in a good cause: it is on the side of Truth; it looks with fresh eyes at all that custom has dictated, and re-examines without fear or favour; it refuses to live a life based upon a Lie. And it is perhaps for this very reason that I find myself all the more terrified by where such single-mindedness leads us. For it is easy to identify the flaw of that which is based upon a lie, and reject it for that very reason; but when one cannot accept the logical consequences of something based upon Truth, the earth itself seems to open at our feet.

And Ibsen’s plays offer us no respite, no consolation: they are deeply uncomfortable works, and, I think, less overtly didactic than is often thought. For while the Lie is rejected, the Truth is often seen as something that most humans cannot live with. And Ibsen populates his plays with characters who make us uncomfortable, who, indeed, terrify us, with their unflinching adherence to what they know, or believe, to be true. Take Nora in A Doll’s House, for instance: at the end, she famously walks out on her husband and children, and the last sound we hear before the final curtain is the slamming of the front door. This slam, predictably, outraged Ibsen’s audiences. We moderns, on the other hand, are more likely to cheer, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than our predecessors. Both reactions seem to me to underestimate the complexity of what Ibsen presents. For while it is true that Nora’s logic is impeccable; and while it is true that her refusing to live a Lie is admirable; it is also true that deserting her beloved children will cause her immense pain, and that the children themselves, deprived so suddenly of a loving mother, will be traumatised. Pursuing the Truth at all costs may indeed be admirable, but there is also about it something that is inhuman, something not consistent with what we generally think of as human values. It is like the “ice church” in which Brand meets his end – holy and beautiful and pristine, but cold, bloodless, and remote from the warmth of humanity.

We may see this pattern repeated throughout Ibsen’s plays. Dr Stockmann stands up for an important truth, but does not stop to think what this will mean for the townspeople. Of course, he could have argued against the townspeople on purely utilitarian terms – by pointing out, for instance, that failing to address immediately the issue of the polluted waters will mean storing up even greater problems for the future; but he does not make this argument. Instead, he reviles the people for failing to accept the Truth, which, for him, is by definition absolute, and sacred. In The Wild Duck, the truth-seeker is Gregers Werle, who, with the best of moral intentions, effectively plays the part of Iago, destroying what had till then been a contented marriage, and creating an environment that drives the innocent Hedwig to despair and to death. And, so certain is he of his moral righteousness, that even at the height of the tragedy he does not stop even to question his actions. Is this really the price we need to pay for Truth? – depriving small children of their mother, driving teenage girls to suicide? Ibsen’s plays are populated by characters who would insist that it is – that the price for Truth, however high, is worth paying. And since this blog claims to be no more than a record of my own subjective impressions, I must admit that this terrifies me.

So what is the alternative? I think we may dismiss Dr Relling’s view that we might as well live by lies, since that is the only way we may lead lives that can at least be contented. Whatever we may think of Gregers Werle, I find it hard not to agree with him when he says that if Relling’s view were true, life really would not be worth living. But what about a middle way? What about compromise? What about accepting the importance of Truth, but stopping before we exceed the point where we harm ourselves by pursuing it? Ibsen had touched upon this theme of compromise before: in Ghosts, Mrs Alving, long before the dramatic action we see on stage, had been persuaded to return to her dissolute husband, and live a Lie: that is, she had been persuaded to do that which Nora (despite having been in a very different kind of marriage) had refused to do. And the results were catastrophic. In The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen returns again to the possibility of compromise, and, while the dark clouds are by no means completely banished, he finds in this a possibility, at least, of redemption: at the end of this play, very unusually for this author of deeply troubled dramatic visions, the stage fills with hope, with sunlight. But, just as the heroic and seemingly admirable refusal to stray from the Truth is fraught with immense and possibly insuperable difficulties, compromise is no easy path either: nothing can be straight-forward given our infinitely complex natures.

In the series of twelve plays stretching from The Pillars of the Community to Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken – which we may think of as a cycle – The Lady from the Sea seems to me to mark something of a turning point. Although set, realistically enough, in a small town by the fjord, we seem far from the hurly-burly of public affairs, which, even in the previous play Rosmersholm, was present, albeit off-stage. We may even question to what extent the action presented may be seen as entirely realistic: elements of folklore, and of the supernatural, never seem too far away. On top of that, this is the first play in this series of plays where we find scenes outdoors. This may seem a trivial consideration, but it isn’t: the setting of the scenes is always important in Ibsen, and it contributes to the feel of this play – its atmosphere, its texture, as it were – that four of its five acts are set outdoors. No longer do we feel the claustrophobia of those stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms: we are out by the fjord, in the fresh air, in the natural light of a northern summer.

In the first act, the young consumptive Lyngstrand tells of an event that had taken place some three years earlier, involving a man who, unknown to him, had played an important part in the life of the one of his listeners. Such outrageous coincidence to help the plot along had long been staple stuff of the creaky old dramaturgy that Ibsen, in the previous plays in this series, had been trying to move away from: that he is happy to include this here should really warn us that the world we are now in is not quite realistic.

In the opening scene, Ballested, a sort of Jack-of-all-Trades in the town, speaks of a picture he is painting. “The Dead Mermaid”, he calls it. It depicts a mermaid who haa become stranded on land, and has died. Ibsen here is alluding to the same folk take that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”: a creature from the sea comes to land, and, unable to acclimatise, perishes. Ballested himself speaks of how he had acclimatised after the theatrical company he had been working for had broken up. He stutters on the word “acclimatise”, thus drawing attention to it: it is an important concept in this play. This ability we have to adapt ourselves, to change in order to accommodate ourselves to our circumstances, allows us to live, and not perish like the mermaid: it may even be our saving grace. But this capacity to adapt – more importantly, perhaps, this willingness to adapt – is a quality generally in short supply in Ibsen’s plays, populated as they are with unbending fanatics.

The identity of the mermaid in this play is obvious – Ellida Wangel, the Lady From the Sea herself. Like Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, she is an outsider: and, again like Rebecca, she is originally from the far north – not from the banks of a narrow fjord, as here, but from the shores of the vast, open sea. She cannot keep away from the sea: even here in the fjord, she bathes regularly, and has come to be known locally as “The lady From the Sea”. But how she longs for that open sea from her younger days!

ELLIDA: Fresh? Dear God, the water here is never fresh. It’s lifeless and stale. Ugh! The water is sick here in the fjord.


ELLIDA: Yes – sick. I mean, I think it makes one sick. Poisonous too.

Of course, by this stage, we all know a symbol when we see one. Ellida’s current environment is as poison to her, and she longs for the open sea of her childhood. But what exactly does that open sea represent? This is a question not even to be asked. Seeing Ellida so obviously unhappy, her husband, the kindly Dr Wangel, offers for her sake to move north, away from the environment in which he had lived all his life; but he mistakes the symbol for that which it symbolises. The narrow fjord, the open sea – these are but symbols: the underlying malaise lies deeper.

Ellida is the second wife of Dr Wangel, a man much older than her. He had been a widower when he had first met her, and when he had proposed to her, she had agreed, because, as she later explains, for no better reason than that she had not been in a position to refuse. But Ellida has never settled into life in her new home, with her husband, and with his daughters from his first marriage: she has remained detached from them all, and, while her husband is pained and concerned by her detachment, the two daughters are resentful: the elder, Bolette, not much younger than Ellida herself, generally tries to keep her dislike hidden under her polite exterior, while the younger daughter, Hilde – who, as her sister correctly intuits, secretly longs to be close to her stepmother – frequently comes close to expressing her dislike openly. Dr Wangel’s first marriage had been happy, and Ellida has never come close to replacing the first Mrs Wangel in the family’s affection. Nor, frankly, has she tried to: she has throughout remained remote and distant. As with Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, her new surroundings have changed her up to a point; she has, as Ballasted might put it, “acclimatised”; but it is precisely this acclimatisation that troubles her:

ELLIDA: … I’ve grown so very fond of him. That’s what makes it so dreadful.

When she speaks these enigmatic words in the first act, it is hard to see why she should find this acclimatisation “dreadful”, why she should keep herself aloof so as not to acclimatise herself further. But before the reason unravels, we find ourselves in a strange world where the real and the unreal seem to mingle. For Ellida is, quite literally, haunted.

Back in the north, where she had grown up, she had once promised herself to an American sailor. He was a mysterious figure, and, most likely, a dangerous man: he had disappeared after the captain of his ship had been found murdered, and it had been generally assumed that it was he who had been the murderer. Indeed, as Ellida reveals later, he had admitted to her that he had killed the captain, and, although he did not go into the details of the matter, gave her to understand that he had not been at fault. But he had to leave. And before he left, he promised Ellida that he would come back for her. They were, in a sense, already married: they had put their rings together on a keychain, and had thrown it far into the sea. They were married themselves to the vast, mysterious sea itself.

And he seemed to exert a strange power over her. His eyes, she claimed, changed colour with the sea itself. And this strange, dangerous man, with eyes the colour of the sea, continued to haunt her.

Three years earlier, this American sailor had, most likely, died in a shipwreck. Lyngstrand, the young consumptive who visits the Wangels, had been a sailor, and had nearly died as well in that same shipwreck. Not knowing of Ellida’s connection with this man, he tells her about this American sailor they had taken on, who used to read through Norwegian newspapers, because, he said, he wanted to learn the language. But one day, he found in the papers a wedding announcement: the woman he loved has married another man. Lyngstrand had heard his howl of despair. But later, the American sailor had told him in a calm voice:

“But mine she is, and mine she will always be. And she will come to join me, even if I go as a drowned man to claim her.”

And Lyngstrand, who fancies himself a sculptor, imagines a work he will create, with the deceiving woman lying asleep in bed, dreaming, while standing over her was a ghostly drowned man, still wet from the sea, returning to keep his promise.

This story naturally resonates with Ellida. For, we find out later, three years ago, when the shipwreck had happened, and while she had been pregnant with her husband’s child (the child had not lived long), this ghostly drowned man did indeed come to her. And he has been visiting her ever since. And he terrifies her.

WANGEL: To think that for three years you have been in love with another man! Not with me.

ELLIDA: I don’t love anyone else. Only you.

WANGEL (in a subdued voice): Then why have you refused to live with me as my wife all these years?

ELLIDA: Because I am afraid. Afraid of the stranger.

WANGEL: Afraid?

ELLIDA: Yes, afraid. The sort of fear that only the sea can give you.

We are very far now from the very realistic dramatic world Ibsen had been presenting till now. We are far even from the world of Rosmersholm, with its mythical white horses that presage doom. The setting here is realistic enough, but we have entered the realm of ghost stories, of folklore. And suddenly, all possibilities, possibilities that don’t exist in strictly realistic drama, become available. As with perhaps the most famous ghost story of all, The Turn of the Screw, we must ask ourselves whether this ghost is real, or whether it is not, perhaps, an emanation of Ellida’s own troubled psyche, a resurgence of her repressed desire. Of course, others too see the ghost (if ghost he is): but the creation of the mind taking on real, physical form should not surprise us from the author of Peer Gynt, a play in which reality and unreality prove infinitely malleable.

The Ghosts of Ibsen’s earlier play, Gengangere – literally, “those who walk again” – had been no more than metaphorical; but here, the past takes on a palpable physical form, and the ghost literally walks again. The past cannot remain repressed: it will out. Here, that stranger with eyes like the sea does not merely haunt Ellida at nights: he keeps his promise, and comes to the town claim her. He may be a ghost; or he may be a physical manifestation of a creation of Ellida’s mind. Or, more prosaically than either, he may be a living man who had, against expectations, escaped the shipwreck. In a play such as this, in which reality and unreality meld into each other, it hardly seems to matter.

Ellida is not the only one who sees the stranger. Her husband, to whom she confides, also sees her. Lyngstrand and the others see him too. Wangel’s reaction is to protect her: he is her husband, after all, and, whatever the state of the marriage, it is the husband’s duty to protect the wife. But things are more complicated. In the fourth of the five acts, husband and wife speak openly to each other, much as Nora and Torvald speak openly to each other in the final scene of A Doll’s House. And, as in the earlier play, the wife cannot continue to live a lie, and has some serious things to say to her husband that are painful.

ELLIDA: Wangel, it’s no use us going on lying to ourselves.

WANGEL: Lying?

ELLIDA: Yes. Or hiding the truth. The real truth of the matter is that you came out there and bought me.

WANGEL: Bought! Did you say bought?

ELLIDA: Oh, I wasn’t any better than you. I agreed to the bargain. Left home and sold myself to you.

WANGEL: Ellida!

ELLIDA: Is there any other word for it?

And we begin to understand why Ellida had considered her acclimatising herself to become fond of her husband so “dreadful”, for it was acclimatising herself to living a lie. We begin to understand also why she had remained so aloof, so detached: Ellida is at heart another of those terrifying Ibsen characters who cannot bear to live a life based on a lie. And the truth that must be acknowledged is that she had been bought, that her decision to accept Dr Wangel had not been a free decision.

WANGEL: Then have these five or six years we have lived together meant nothing to you at all?

ELLIDA: Oh no, Wangel, no! I have had everything here that anyone could wish for. But I didn’t come to your home of my own free will.

The man she had promised herself to, of her own free will, is a ghost. Or maybe not. He has come to claim her. She knows nothing about him – not even, perhaps, whether he is alive. And he is most likely a murderer. It is utterly irrational for Ellida to choose such a man over a kind, loving husband like Dr Wangel. But, as with Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Ellida would rather choose the irrational, the demonic, if only to assert her freedom to do so.

WANGEL: What do you know about him? Nothing. Not even who he is – or what he is.

ELLIDA (to herself): I know. It’s just that that is so – demonic.

WANGEL It certainly is.

ELLIDA: That’s why I think I must go to meet it.

WANGEL (looking at her): Because it is demonic?


WANGEL (comes closer to her): Ellida, what exactly do you mean by demonic?

ELLIDA (pauses): The demonic – is something that appals – and attracts.

Or, as she had said earlier, it inspires “the sort of fear that only the sea can give you”.

And as they wait for the stranger to come again to claim his bride, Wangel’s elder daughter Bolette too is being “bought”. Arnholm, Bolette’s former tutor and some twenty or so years older than her, proposes to her – but it is a strange sort of proposal. Throughout the play, he had been viewing her almost as if their future marriage was a given, and when Bolette speaks despairingly of being such forever in the dreary backwater, he tells her that he would be happy to prevent that happening. Bolette misunderstands him at first: she could never accept such generosity, she says. But then she realises: he is actually proposing to her. She is taken aback, and is, indeed, quite horrified by the suggestion. But he calmly goes on to explain: if she does not accept him, what future would she have to look forward to? What prospect does she have but to remain for ever in this provincial backwater, merely becoming older and lonelier? So she agrees. As with Ellida and Wangel, Arnholm buys her, and she agrees to the bargain. And we may ask ourselves, what price compromise now?

In an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Janet Garton speaks of a production in which Arnholm, having been accepted, strips Bolette to see what he has bought. I haven’t seen this production, but this strikes me as utterly misconceived. For what Arnholm tells her is nothing but the truth. Bolette is coerced not by male brutality, but by reason – the very reason that Ellida cannot reconcile herself to. To put it bluntly, how can we claim to be truly free if our freedom must submit constantly to reason? – to that tyrant reason that brooks no dissent? Maybe, in time, Bolette too will learn to compromise; she too may acclimatise. But a union on terms so unequal that only one party needs to acclimatise is not really a proper marriage at all.

Meanwhile, the younger sister, Hilde, is fascinated with the consumptive Lyngstrand. Lyngstrand is dying, though he doesn’t know it. Bolette, aware of his condition, does her best to be kind to him, even despite his comical foolishness and self-regard, and his unshakable belief that he has it in him to become a great sculptor. He tells Bolette at one point that it is a wife’s duty to accommodate herself to her husband, but that the husband has no reason to reciprocate: it is the husband’s part to develop his talent, and the wife’s part to help him do so. (Bolette is not to know that she herself would shortly agree to just such a bargain.) But Hilde shows no such compunction with Lyngstrand. There is in Hilde a strong streak of cruelty: she is fascinated by the fact that Lyngstrand is dying, and teases him mercilessly. We haven’t seen here the last of Hilde: she reappears as a major character in The Master Builder, written in 1892, just four years after The Lady from the Sea.

Marriage, Lyngstrand declares somewhat smugly, is a “miracle”. Perhaps even he is not quite sure what he means by that word, but this is the very word used in the final scene of A Doll’s House: in that play, Nora had said that only a “miracle” could save their marriage; and, as Torvald muses on what that word may mean, we hear the famous slam of the front door as Nora walks out. What the miracle might be, we do not know, any more than Torvald does. But in this play, a miracle does occur. The ghostly stranger re-appears, as he had said he would. Dr Wangel tries at first to protect his wife, but he knows it is no use; and, in one of the most moving moments in all dramatic literature, he gives his wife the freedom she had so long yearned for – complete freedom, to choose, as she wills. “With all your heart?” she asks him, astonished. “Yes, I mean it,” he replies, “with all my heart.” With all his suffering heart. “Who chooseth me shall give and hazard all he hath,” said the leaden casket in The Merchant of Venice, and Dr Wangel, the stolid, respectable, bourgeois doctor, becomes the most unlikely of dramatic heroes: he gives and hazards all he has, and it is indeed heroic. And this is the miracle that Nora did not find, and Ellida did not expect. But once she has the freedom, she knows what her choice is. The ghostly stranger now loses his power over her: no longer can he terrify. It is as if a weight from Ellida’s troubled psyche has been lifted, and she is troubled no more. The ghost’s exit is almost an anti-climax. And, in the closing moments, the play fills with light. Wangel has given her freedom; he has offered not merely to compromise, but to give up everything he has, everything, for her sake. So now, she can reconcile herself to “acclimatising”: it is no longer a “dreadful” thing. Ibsen is not an author we normally associate with joy, but here is little in all dramatic literature to match the what we find at the end of this play.

But this is not, of course, by any means Ibsen’s last word. In the course of the journey to this ending, some very dark clouds have been seen, and they aren’t going to go away. There is a long way to go yet. Only two years after The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen brought us back down to earth with the uncompromisingly grim and claustrophobic Hedda Gabler. But let’s keep that one till later.


2 responses to this post.

  1. You write, “The identity of the mermaid in this play is obvious – Ellida Wangel, the Lady From the Sea herself.” Is it so obvious?

    The play begins with Ballested, in conversation with Lyngstrand, speaking of his unfinished painting. Ballested laments the missing figure of a mermaid: by the rocks in the foreground lying half dead. With no scope for artistic expression in Norway, Ballested is finding social activities to pass the time. He would like to think he has “accli—a—acclimatised”. As the end play ends, Ellida is no mermaid, so how can Ballested complete his picture.

    It rather seems to me that the consumptive Lyngstrand ends as the metaphorical mermaid dying in brackish waters having missed, as he says, “The last voyage this year.” Our would-be sculptor has become that mermaid. As the play ends painter Ballested, finally, has his mermaid model!

    Consumption aside, Ibsen himself had fled an artistically barren Norway, for Italy, so his art could flourish.


    • The image of the dying mermaid is introduced right at the start of the play, so it is not unreasonable to expect it to refer to the play’s central dramatic action. At the centre of the play is Ellida, the title character. and the image fits: Ellida in this play is a woman very much out of her natural habitat, and is deeply unsettled. Of course, there may well be supporting characters whose situations reflect in some way those of the major players in the drama: that is only to be expected. But it does seem to me unlikely that this important image is introduced at the very start of the play to refer to Lyngstrand, who is really no more than a subsidiary character.


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