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“Hedda Gabler” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: Thefollowing 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 “Hedda Gabler” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

 

Surveying Ibsen’s last twelve plays – those plays stretching from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken, which occupied Ibsen for most of the last quarter of the 19th century, and which he himself referred to towards the end of his life as a “cycle” – it is tempting to see in the sequence a sort of progression. Certainly, the later plays in this cycle are very different in nature from the earlier ones: they appear to be set in a world more dreamlike than real, are more accommodating of oneiric symbols and images, and less insistent upon the solid reality of the world they seemingly inhabit. By the end of the cycle, we seem to have returned to the poetic world of Brand and of Peer Gynt. But perhaps “progression” is the wrong word to use in this context, as that implies the later works are greater than the earlier (although, I suppose, a good case could be made that that is indeed the case); better, I think, to speak of movement. However, that movement is not consistent across the range of plays. In The Lady from the Sea, the play Ibsen had written immediately before Hedda Gabler, Ibsen seemed to have moved quite radically from the very realistic milieu he had presented us with in earlier plays: for one thing, there was a movement away from the stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms into the more bracing fresh air of the fjords and mountains; and the action of the drama itself was informed by symbols and images drawn from folklore, by dreams and fancies, and by more than a hint of the supernatural. But in Hedda Gabler, we are very much back in the real, solid world. The setting, as in A Doll’s House, is that stuffy, stifling, bourgeois drawing room, and, again as in A Doll’s House, the scene doesn’t change through the play: we are stuck, as Hedda is, as Nora had been, in this claustrophobic setting. The elegant French windows open sometimes, but there’s little evidence of fresh air. And whatever dreams Hedda may have remain in their domain: they do not permeate into the real world, as they had done in the previous play. In many ways, Hedda Gabler seems a step backwards: the progression, if such it is, seems suspended, at least for a while, as Ibsen revisits the unrelentingly solid world of Nora and of Torvald.

Yet, a more detailed comparison of this play with the earlier A Doll’s House gives an indication of the extent to which Ibsen’s dramatic art has developed. For one thing, it seems to pack far more in, despite being shorter: Ibsen had now fully developed the art of saying more with less. There’s not a sentence that doesn’t add something to the dramatic picture. Even the stage directions are important. For instance, in the first act, Hedda, on entering her new house, comments that the piano doesn’t look right where it is. It isn’t just a throwaway line to establish a realistic milieu; for, in the stage directions at the start of the second act (set only a few hours after the end of the first), we find this:

The same as in Act One, except that the piano has been removed and an elegant little writing-table, with a bookcase, stands in its place.

Hedda is a woman who knows her own mind, who has a highly developed sense of aesthetics, and who is very much, it seems, in control – although precisely what the extent of that control is becomes very much one of the major concerns of the play.

For Hedda, like so many of Ibsen’s heroines, has married because she really didn’t have much of a choice. But this is not entirely true, as Hedda herself realises. She did have a choice: she could  have chosen not to marry Tesman, and to embark upon the world independently, on her own account, as Nora does at the end of A Doll’s House. Of course, in a society in which women did not generally have the financial means to live independent lives, and where, in addition, such independence would have been frowned upon, this would have required tremendous courage, and such courage Hedda, despite her aristocratic pride, does not have. And she recognises this pusillanimity in herself, and she despises herself for it. And when a person naturally proud despises herself, she can find it easy to transfer this hatred for one’s self on to someone else. And for Hedda, this “someone else” is close at hand: it’s her husband, and his elderly maiden aunts.

Not that her husband, George Tesman is despicable. (Michael Meyer has chosen to translate the name in its Anglicised form, presumably so that it doesn’t sound too alien or foreign in those two important passages where Hedda addresses him by his Christian name.) He is an academic, with, we gather, a promising career ahead of him. But we are also made to understand that his professional reputation rests upon painstaking collation and organisation of material rather than upon any brilliant or original thinking of his own. He is a kindly, gentle person, brought up by his maiden aunts, to whom he remains very deeply attached. He is still, in many ways, a child, at home in the warm and comfortable domesticity he has grown up in, and somewhat in awe of this aloof and aristocratic woman Fate appears to have landed him with. He would love nothing better than to bring Hedda into his pleasant and comfortable world, but it is precisely this world that Hedda despises, mainly, one suspects, because she did not have the courage to have avoid contact with it.

We are not told why Hedda had married into a household she so looks down upon, but it is not hard to infer the circumstances. She was a general’s daughter, an aristocrat. (A picture of Hedda’s father hangs on the wall throughout the play, looking down upon the action.) Tesman and his aunt Juliana remember seeing her as a young girl gallop by on her horse: she had seemed then far above them all. But her father had died presumably without the means to allow his daughter continue the kind of life she had become accustomed to, and the door to a marriage with a fellow aristocrat was most likely closed. So when a reasonable offer of marriage came along, she accepted; and she hated herself for accepting. And now, having married, she finds herself, like Ellida in The Lady from the Sea, in an environment to which she is not accustomed, and which she cannot accept as her own. And, also like Ellida, she bears at the back of her mind an awareness that she had had little choice in the matter; and this awareness fills her with a deep and burning resentment. But where Ellida had recognised and respected the essential decency of her husband, Hedda feels merely contempt. But much of this contempt is but a reflection for what she feels for her own self. For, while her choice had not been entirely free, it had not been entirely coerced either: all it had needed to have avoided this was a modicum of courage on her part – a courage that she did not have.

Such complex psychology – a psychology far more complex than anything we had encountered in the superficially similar A Doll’s House – is enough material for a full-length novel, but Ibsen was, by this stage in his career, so much in control of his material, that he could communicate all this (and more) in merely a few short scenes. I have, in describing above the situation Hedda finds herself in, deliberately avoided citing passages from the play in support, and this is principally because no single excerpt in isolation gives us the entire picture: each line, though naturalistic in context, is charged with meaning, and the full picture only really emerges when we take a step back, and observe the fuller picture created by all the small pieces of the mosaic.

The play opens early in the morning. One of George Tesman’s elderly aunts, Juliana, has come to visit her nephew and his recently married wife in their new house. The newlyweds had returned the previous night from a long honeymoon in Europe, and Juliana, still somewhat in awe of the new member of the family, wishes to welcome her. Accompanying her is Bertha, previously a maidservant in the Tesmans’ household, but now assigned to the new house; and she, too, feels uncomfortable about having to serve Hedda. George Tesman she had tended to virtually all his life, but in that household, she had been effectively one of the family. Here, it will all be different, and Berha expresses the nervousness that Juliana too feels:

BERTHA: … There’s another thing. I’m frightened madam may not find me suitable.

MISS TESMAN: Oh, nonsense, Bertha. There may be one or two little things to begin with –

BERTHA: She’s a real lady. Wants everything just so.

MISS TESMAN: But of course she does! General Gabler’s daughter! Think of what she was accustomed to when the general was still alive.

It is interesting that Juliana confirms rather than contradicts what Bertha says. They share similar apprehensions.

Husband and wife are both in bed when Juliana arrives, and it is George who is up first. The warmth of their conversation is unmistakable: these are two people who are, emotionally, very close, and they had clearly been missing each other. George’s speech is childish in many respects: he has clearly picked up many of the homely and naïve expressions used by his aunts. A picture is presented of a warm and close-knit relationship; of, indeed, a warm and close-knit household, a household of which even the maidservant Bertha feels herself to be a part. In the original text, George addresses his aunt as Tante Julle. Michael Meyer has translated this as “Auntie Juju”, because, as he says in a note following the text, Tante Julle is, and is intended to be, a childish expression: it is probably something George had called his aunt as a child, and it has stuck, anomalous though it is coming from a fully grown adult. Hedda winces every time her husband uses this name, and puts her foot down very firmly when her husband requests her to call his aunt by this name also. (Her husband, still somewhat in awe of his wife, doesn’t press the point.)

Michael Meyer continues:

To render this name as Auntie Julie, as has usually been done, is completely to miss the point; it must be a ridiculous name such as Juju.

Tesman’s gentle afection and warm-heartedness, which could be viewed either as childlike or as childish, depending upon one’s perspective, could almost be Dickensian, but Ibsen not afraid to introduce a dissonant note:

MISS TESMAN: Yes! And the enemies who have tried to bar your way have been struck down. They have been made to bite the dust. The man who was your most dangerous rival has had the mightiest fall. And now he is lying there in the pit he has dug for himself, poor misguided creature.

It is hard not to imagine the satisfaction this kindly old lady takes in the downfall of the man who has had the temerity to stand in the way of her adored nephew. This rival is Eilert Loevborg, a brilliant man, but a notorious, self-destructive alcoholic, and a man of dissolute habits – a man who, even were it not for the rivalry, would have been most unwelcome in the Tesmans’ cosy world. To Tesman’s credit, he is, and continues to be, generous to his rival talents. But however generous Tesman may be, Loevborg is a man from outside his world: Tesman has spent his entire life in an environment of comfort and warmth, and Loevborg, as we soon see for ourselves, is not a person to impart either.

And neither, for that matter, is Hedda. She is not entirely happy seeing her husband’s elderly aunt in her home first thing in the morning, but she is too polished in her aristocratic manners to say so openly. However, when she sees a hat lying on the sofa – a hat that the aunt had bought specially so that Hedda would not feel ashamed to be seen with her – she cannot resist:

HEDDA: Tesman, we really can’t go on keeping this maid.

MISS TESMAN: Not keep Bertha?

TESMAN: What makes you say that, dear? What?

HEDDA (points): Look at that! She’s left her old hat lying on the chair!

TESMAN (appalled, drops his slippers on the floor): But, Hedda – !

HEDDA: Suppose someone came in and saw it?

TESMAN: But Hedda – that’s Auntie Juju’s hat!

Later, Hedda narrates this incident to Judge Brack (who is very much someone of her own class, and, consequently, someone she can talk to), and admits that she had known all along this was “Auntie Juju‘s” hat. The domestic bliss of her husband’s former home is driving her mad, perhaps quite literally. She cannot view it with anything other than contempt. And yet, this bed she is lying in is the bed she has made for herself, through her own lack of courage.

It is into this highly charged environment that two outsiders appear – first, Thea Elvsted, an old schoolfriend of Hedda’s; and, soon afterwards, Judge Brack. Somerset Maugham once said that all Ibsen plays essentially have the same plot: a number of people inhabit a close, stuffy room; an outsider comes in and opens the window to let in the fresh air; and everyone does of cold. It is a mischievous observation, all the more so because, to a great extent, it is true. In this case, the outsider who opens the window, albeit, in this instance, unintentionally, is Thea. Thea had been a quiet girl at school, and Hedda used to look down upon her; but even while looking down on her, she had envied Thea’s luxuriant hair. This same Thea is still someone Hedda looks down upon, but once again, Hedda envies her: for she has something Hedda knows she lacks herself – courage.

Thea had been engaged to a wealthy household to look after the mistress of the house, who had been ill, and, after her mistress’ death, the master of the house had proposed to her. And, as with so many other women in Ibsen plays, Thea had not really had much of a choice: what else was there for her to do with her life? She had accepted. But this same Thea, this same quiet, timid girl, has now – it emerges – taken a step that is unthinkable to Hedda: she has left her husband. She has left her husband in search of her stepchild’s tutor – one Eilert Loevborg, the once notorious alcoholic and dissolute, and Tesman’s erstwhile academic rival.

While Loevborg had been in her rich husband’s employ, Thea, it seems, had had a calming effect on him; and, under her influence, and, indeed, as Hedda worms out of her, with her help, Loevborg had written finally the great book he had been capable of. Thea knows something of his past, but not all. She knows that he had once been close to some woman, but that their tempestuous relationship had come to a close, and she had threatened him with a pistol. But she knows no more about it than this. What concerns her now – what, indeed, is all but driving her mad – is Loevborg’s present state: he has walked away from the Elvsteds’, and has come in to the big city (presumably Kristiana, now Oslo), and Thea is distraught by the thought that the man to whom she had been closer than she ever had been to anyone else may now be returning to his drink.

As for Hedda, she knows full well who this woman was who had pointed the gun at Loevborg. That is what she once had been. And from that, she has come to this – settled in a comfortable domesticity, married to a big baby of a man, with only homely maiden aunts for company. Meanwhile, Thea, quiet, gentle Thea, whose luxuriant hair she used to pull at school, has tamed this Loevborg; and for his sake she has done what Hedda lacks the courage to do herself: she has walked out of her marriage, uncertain of her future.

We soon see Loevborg himself, but before that, Ibsen introduces us to the last major figure of the drama: Judge Brack. He is from Hedda’s own background: they understand each other immediately, and Hedda can speak to him with an openness that is quite impossible when speaking to her own husband. Brack is successful, well-established, extremely polished, and utterly confident of himself. His long conversation with Hedda at the start of the second act is an extraordinary combination of tact and of outrageousness: nothing is said openly, but every single sentence is loaded with meaning. To put it crudely – in a way that these two very polished and elegant individuals would never dream of doing – he, knowing how bored she must be with her husband, asks her to become her mistress, and she, politely but firmly, refuses; he, however, is not disheartened, because he knows well the rules of the game, and is something of an expert in gaining power over others. Indeed, this is what he lives for in his otherwise bored life: Hedda, to him, is just another challenge.

But Hedda can no more have an affair than she could walk out on her marriage, despise it though she might. Hedda Gabler is often classed with those other famous bored housewives of fiction – Emma Bovary Anna Karenina; indeed, I once saw an eminent writer class them all together as “adulterous heroines” of 19th century literature. But Hedda is far from being adulterous: if anything, she is more likely to be frigid. Though bored to death with the stuffy conventions of bourgeois life, sex is not a way out for her: she seems to have a horror of physical contact. It is suggested throughout this play that she may be pregnant, and “Auntie Juju” is, to Hedda’s disgust, particularly keen that she should be so; but the very thought of pregnancy fills Hedda with revulsion. When she had been with Loevborg, we find out later, she would listen, fascinated, to Loevborg’s accounts of his debauchery: but however tempestuous their relationship had been, she had stopped short of physical contact.

When Loevborg does finally make his entrance, in the middle of the second act of a four-act play, he perhaps confounds expectations. Far from the demonic hellraiser we may have been expecting, we see a quiet, polite man, seemingly in control over himself, and even refusing an offered drink. But then Hedda goes to work, and now, even those of us who had been following matters closely may find ourselves puzzled. Why does Hedda behave as she does? Even the worldly-wise Judge Brack finds himself saying at the end of the play “But, good God! People don’t do such things!” In terms of popularity, Hedda Gabler possibly ranks with A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People as Ibsen’s greatest hit, but the psychology of the characters in the earlier plays had not been too difficult to follow. Here, however, although, superficially we may seem to be in the more realist world of those earlier plays, Ibsen’s art had moved on. Precisely what motivates Hedda, what makes her do what she does, is more open to interpretation and debate than the motivations, say, of Nora or of Dr Stockmann, and is certainly more difficult fully to account for; but, however little we may understand of it all, Ibsen holds us in his grasp, and we have little choice but to look on with mounting horror.

Why, say, does Hedda knowingly goad Loevborg back to drinking? One apparent motive is envy: Hedda is envious of Thea, and of her achievement in taming the seemingly wild and untameable Loevborg; and, out of pure spite, she wishes to undo Thea’s work. There’s certainly an element of that, but Hedda, I think, has other motivations too – motivations that go deeper.

In seeing Loevborg so tame and so domesticated, Hedda’s aesthetic sense, I think, is hurt. All this homely domestication, these endless meetings with Auntie Juju in her silly hat – it’s everything Hedda despises. She has an image of something greater than that – something that transcends all this absurdity and triviality. Seeing Loevborg, of all people – Loevborg, whom she had once threatened with her pistol – reduced to being but a pet dog on Thea’s leash, hurts Hedda’s aesthetic sense. She wants Loevborg to rise above Thea’s pathetic domestication: she wants him to achieve the greatness that she herself is too cowardly to aim for. For, just as Hedda projects her own self-hatred on to others, so she also projects her sense of what is beautiful. Like Solness in Ibsen’s next play, The Master Builder, Hedda is afraid to climb as high as she builds: trapped by her own lack of courage in a life of pettiness that she disdains, she wishes others to reach a state of glory that she herself cannot even aim for. Loevborg, she is sure, will conquer. He will defy timid little Thea; he will go that the party that Thea so fears, and he will return triumphant. He will return, Hedda says with self-conscious self-mockery, “with vine leaves in his hair”. That will be his victory over Thea’s domestication; and that will be Hedda’s victory also.

At least, that, I think, may be part of Hedda’s motivation. Why exactly she acts as she does remains open to debate.

While the men are away, we remain in the same house, in the same room, with Hedda and with Thea: however stifled these characters may feel in this closed, claustrophobic setting, we are made to feel it too. We piece together what had happened that night from the various reports that emerge the next morning. Loevborg had, predictably, returned to his boozing with a vengeance; and, on his way to the “boudoir” of a certain Mademoiselle Danielle, he had lost the manuscript of his masterpiece, the work Thea had inspired him – and, indeed, helped him – to write. When he returns, he does not return “with vine leaves in his hair”: he returns instead a broken, distraught man. Rather than tell Thea the truth, he tells her that he has destroyed his work – their “child”, as Thea puts it. All they had worked towards is now gone.

And now, at this point, Hedda’s actions become even more bizarre than before. The manuscript has ended up in her possession, but she doesn’t mention this. Instead, she hands one of her duelling pistols – one of General Gabler’s pistols – to the suicidal Loevborg, and, in one of the most chilling moments in all drama, tells him to “do it beautifully”. Then, once she has the stage to herself, she brings out the manuscript, and sits in front of the stove.

HEDDA (throws one of the pages into the stove and whispers to herself): I’m burning your child, Thea! You with your beautiful, wavy hair! (She throws a few more pages into the stove.) The child Eilert Loevborg gave you. (She throws the rest of the manuscript in.) I’m burning it! I’m burning your child!

Not even the most grotesque physical violence of, say, Titus Andronicus, fills my heart with such terror as does this scene.

I’m not sure how Ibsen manages to maintain the dramatic tension after something like this, but, somehow, he does. Eilert Loevborg does indeed end up dead, but he didn’t do it “beautifully”. Far from it. He had returned to Mademoiselle Danielle’s “boudoir”, and had created a scene, accusing her of stealing his manuscript. Judge Brack tells the story, with his customary tact. They had found his body in the brothel: the gun, in his pocket, had gone off, seemingly accidentally. The wound was not in the breast, as Hedda had thought, but “in the – stomach. The – lower part – ” Or, to put it crudely, Loevborg had accidentally shot off his own genitals.

HEDDA (looks at him with an expression of repulsion): That, too! Oh, why does everything I touch become mean and ludicrous? It’s like a curse!

Hedda had tried to rise above the mean and the ludicrous, but it was no good: she could not climb as high as she built. And here she was still, still a prisoner in an absurd marriage that she had knowingly stepped into; and, worse, she was now in Judge Brack’s power.

***

The grim, concentrated dramatic power of Hedda Gabler (the whole action take place in just two days) seems in stark contrast with the almost other-worldly atmosphere of its predecessor; and, while the previous play had ended with a rare burst of sunlight, this play moves with a seemingly inexorable logic into the bleakest and darkest of conclusions. In some senses, we are back in the world of A Doll’s House, but in other senses, we aren’t: Hedda is far, far more than a victim merely of a patriarchal society; the roots of her doom lie deep within her own troubled psyche. Alongside Ghosts, Hedda Gabler is perhaps the darkest play Ibsen ever wrote.

In 1891, a year after the first performance of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen returned to his native Norway. He had left some 27 years earlier, a minor and little-known provincial writer; he returned a Grand Old Man of Letters, famed throughout Europe. He was now 63 years old, but he was far from finished. For in the four plays he wrote between his return and his debilitating stroke some ten years later, he seemed to move into a new level of artistry, perhaps even surpassing all that he had achieved earlier. These are difficult plays: at times, I get the impression that Ibsen, at this stage of his life, was writing primarily for himself rather than for an audience. Not surprisingly, his audiences found these plays – and still find these plays – hard to follow, and to understand. But full understanding is not perhaps to be expected in any major work of art. These late plays, for all their difficulties, are worth the effort, as they seem to me the works of a visionary.

“Perchance I will ne’er” go home”: the role of Emilia in “Othello”

When we speak of past productions we have seen of Othello, we remember who played Othello, Desdemona, Iago. We rarely remember who played Emilia. Emilia is seen merely as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant, whose sole purpose in the play is to nudge the plot along, and help unravel it in the last scene. Even Verdi and Boito, in their opera, reduced Emilia’s part to only the odd line here and there. She is not, in short, regarded as one of the major players in the drama. This increasingly strikes me as unfair. She seems me nowadays one of the drama’s principal actors, and not merely in terms of the plot.

It is, of course, in the final scene that she comes into her own, expressing a distress at the tragic events of the drama that makes the reaction of everyone else on stage seem merely lukewarm. And she sacrifices her life for what she understands to be the truth. She is utterly unafraid. Even when, on her own, she faces the fierce Othello, who has just murdered his wife and is openly threatening to murder her also, she is unafraid: “Do thy worst!” she dares him. And then she speaks a line that has resonated in my mind for many years now:

Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. 

Where did this come from? It’s an extraordinary line, indicating that the willingness to suffer hurt is in itself a “power”, and, in this instance at least, a power greater even than the power to inflict hurt. It is a line that only a saint could speak and actually mean. And what we have seen of Emilia, she is no saint. She is not above a bit of petty thieving (even from Desdemona), and a bit of lying too. On a number of occasions, her earthiness is contrasted with Desdemona’s other-worldly virtue:

EMILIA

I will be hang’d, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander; I’ll be hang’d else. 

IAGO

Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible. 

DESDEMONA

If any such there be, heaven pardon him!

 EMILIA

A halter pardon him! and hell gnaw his bones!

Desdemona’s forgiveness is not of this world, but Emilia’s rage is.  That is precisely the way that those of us who aren’t saints would react. Similarly in a later scene, when Desdemona says, with a childlike naivety that that does not quite belong to this world, that she cannot imagine why any woman would commit adultery, and that she herself would not do it “for all the world”; Emila’s response, once again, is very much down-to-earth, of this world:

EMILIA

The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.

DESDEMONA

In troth, I think thou wouldst not.

EMILIA

In troth, I think I should … I should venture purgatory for’t.

So how could this very worldly, this-earthly woman suddenly turn into a saint, into a heroic and self-sacrificing woman, unafraid of death? Perhaps there is no definitive answer to this – human good is as mysterious as is human evil – but addressing this question takes us, I think, into the very heart of the play itself.

For what Emilia does in this scene is purely out of love.  It’s not that she is suddenly transformed: and neither has she undergone a change over time. This is still the same Emilia who does not see the point in the Christian concept of forgiving one’s enemies, or in refraining from adultery if the prize is great. But Desdemona, whom she loved, has been murdered, and she suddenly realises what power her love has given her: she has the power to be hurt.  When she realises soon afterwards the part her husband has played in all this, she determines to tell the truth, knowing, once again, what she is risking. Iago angrily tells her to go home, but she replies with another line that stops me in my tracks:

Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.

What does she mean by this? This is usually interpreted as a premonition of her own death, a mystical understanding that for her, too, this is her journey’s end. This is certainly possible, but if this really is what she means, she is taking “home” to mean no more than what Iago had meant by that word – that is, the physical place where one lives. But “home” has other meanings too. “Home” is a place where one is at ease, where one is comfortable. Emilia, till now, had been at ease with the way things were: she had been at ease with her imperfect self in an imperfect world. But that is a “home” she cannot now return to. The world is more wicked than she, with her limited imagination, had ever thought (“I’ll kill myself for grief!”). There is now no going back: the world in which she had been at ease is no longer a world in which she can find a “home”. And so she sacrifices herself, one of the most heroic and most tragic of all Shakespearean figures.

In a later play, Shakespeare found sublimity in the irresponsible and drunken Antony, and in the frivolous and selfish Cleopatra. Here, too, he finds sublimity in ordinary humanity, in someone who is comfortable with the world as it is, who is not above a bit of thieving and lying, and who would quite happily commit adultery if the price is right. No other writer I know of has found such sublimity in ordinary humanity. No other writer I know has even looked.

[Edit: since this post went up about an hour ago, someone challenged me on that last sentence, and asked “What about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses?” I can only hold up my hand. I do get a bit carried away at times, I must admit.]

“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.

ARNHOLM: Sick?

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?

ELLIDA: Yes.

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.

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

There’s something about this time of year that makes me hanker for the rich, extravagant, plum-pudding prose of Dickens. A Christmas Carol is a bit too obvious, perhaps, and the long novels are a bit too … well, a bit too long, I guess – at least for a quick pre-Christmas read. There are those marvellous Sketches by Boz, of course, and the various little bits and pieces in various other collections. But I had been meaning to read Oliver Twist for some time now: I think the last time I read it, I was all of twelve years old, and I am sure that just about all I think I know about the novel is derived from David Lean’s film, or from Carol Reed’s film of the Lionel Bart musical, rather than from the novel itself.

It’s hard to know how to appraise a novel such as this. By the standards of, say, Austen or Eliot or James, or of just about any other major novelist of the nineteenth century, Oliver Twist is crude, lacking in nuance, in sophistication, in refinement. And it is lacking also in profundity, either in theme or in characterisation. The plotting also seems weak. For a street urchin known to be associated with a gang of crooks to be taken in by wealthy people and treated as one of their own is unlikely enough as it is, but when this happens not once but twice, one does get the impression that the author is struggling a bit with the plotline. And when all the various intrigues and past secrets are revealed near the end, they are done so in so perfunctory a manner that Dickens himself seemed as bored by them as most readers, I imagine, have been since.

So what is there in this novel to attract the reader? It has certainly become an icon: I doubt there is any other novel that contains so many iconic scenes and characters. But when one tries to identify its qualities – applying criteria of novelistic merit as derived from the likes of  Austen, Eliot, James, etc. – one struggles. Perhaps it is as well to forget these criteria: the novel, as a form, may achieve greatness by exhibiting other qualities too. And in this instance, they aren’t hard to identify: vividness, vigour, vivacity, vitality … and, no doubt, a great many other qualities beginning with “v”. The problem is, of course, that each of these qualities is more easily felt than described. Why is the image of a workhouse boy asking for more so very vivid? Why is the picture of Fagin and his gang of pickpocket boys so vivacious, so brimming with vitality? What is there so utterly compelling about the brutal violence of Sikes and the genuine decency of Nancy?

It is easy, too easy, to describe the novel’s deficiencies rather than its qualities, simply because the deficiencies are easily described, and the qualities aren’t. And these qualities, furthermore, are unique to Dickens: no other author could create what are essentially caricatures, and endow them with such richness and vitality that they seem to exist even outside the confines of the novel. And that, I think, is the point: these characters seem to exist outside the novel, as well as in them. It doesn’t really matter what bits of intrigue Fagin gets involved in to drive the plot forward: what we retain in our mind are the static pictures of Fagin in  his den, or of Fagin in  his condemned cell – pictures which do not advance the  novel in any way, but which resonate even outside the context of the plot. In contrast, the villain Monks is not memorable at all because he had been invented not for his own sake, but purely to move the plot on.

I remember when I first read the book as a child, I found it difficult to see Fagin as a villain, despite the often villainous things he does. I suppose it’s because it was obvious to me, even then, that had it not been for Fagin, Oliver would have starved to death on the streets. Yes, Fagin exploits the boys; but is what he does worse than what the authorities do to the children? Reading it as a child, I remember thinking that I’d much rather being Fagin’s gang than under the tender mercies of Mr Bumble and the parochial board at the workhouse. And I think I was right. If anything, the abuse meted out to the children by the authorities is far worse than anything Fagin does, as that abuse is, among other things, a wanton cruelty, a betrayal of trust. In Lionel Bart’s musical, Fagin (winningly played by Ron Moody in the film) becomes a lovable rogue, and the transformation isn’t too difficult. It would have been a far harder task to have presented Mr Bumble as likable.

But of course, there’s the antisemitism. That Fagin is a grossly anti-Semitic character can hardly be disputed: his Jewish characteristics are accentuated, and he is referred to throughout as “the Jew”. Dickens himself was shocked that his portrayal of Fagin had caused offence, and he wrote to a Jewish journal disclaiming any bigotry; but I suppose the fact that Dickens could create such a character and not even be aware of any bigotry on his part merely shows how deeply rooted the bigotry was. Of course, in a much later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gave us Mr Riah, and gentle, kind-hearted Jew who is derided for his Jewishness, and who is made to carry the blame for acts committed by Christians. Some have seen this as Dickens trying to make amends for Fagin, but I think that’s unlikely: had he wanted to make amends, he wouldn’t have waited some thirty years to do so. No – it’s more likely, I think, that the antisemitism in Oliver Twist was involuntary, and unconscious. But however that may be, it still sticks in the throat; and that he is perhaps the most vivid and living character in the entire novel, and further, that it is very easy, despite his villainy, to feel sympathy for him (especially in that very grim chapter towards the end where, completely isolated at this stage from the rest of humanity, he is sentenced to death), don’t go too far in mitigation.

It is easy to feel more than a touch of sympathy for the child pickpockets also. Only two are presented as characters – Charley Bates, a young man who obviously enjoys his calling (although Dickens does let him reform at the end), and the unforgettable Artful Dodger. Dodger’s appearance in the dock is among the greatest comic scenes in all literature: never has authority been quite so effectively put down as it is here. And, whatever moralising there may be in the rest of the novel, we are here entirely on the Dodger’s side – as, I think, Dickens had intended. The authorities have him transported for being a thief; but had he not been a thief, they would have brutalised him, and starved him, and beaten him. And probably killed him, as they killed so many others. These are the authorities whose representatives and functionaries include the likes of the pompous and unfeeling beadle Mr Bumble, and the cruel and nasty magistrate Mr Fang. What moral right do these authorities have to pass judgement on the Dodger? Or on anyone else? Dickens does not pose this question in so many words, but it is certainly more than merely implicit here.

Oliver himself, though, seems strangely uncharacterised. We know from the early chapters of David Copperfield how well Dickens remembered and how vividly he could portray the workings of a child’s mind, but we see none of that here. For Oliver, despite having been born in a workhouse and raised in an environment of neglect and wanton cruelty, acts and thinks like a child with a secure, middle-class background. For instance, he can read, although it is at no point described where he learnt to do so. He is horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates picking pockets, when really, given his background, there is no reason why he should be. Later, he is similarly horrified by the burglary in which he is unwittingly involved, and resolves to raise the alarm rather than let Sikes and the others make off with middle class property. He is, throughout, well-behaved and well-spoken, both highly unlikely given his toxic upbringing. One can but wonder why Dickens, with his prodigious imagination, refused to enter into the mind of a child who had been brutalised, who had not, throughout his entire childhood, ever heard a kind word or witnessed a generous act. Would a more realistic picture of Oliver have alienated the sympathies of his readership? I am not sure. But, given his background, I would have expected Oliver to have been a far more troubled child than he appears here.

However, let’s not dwell on this. Let us not dwell either on the cloying sentimentality with which the Maylies – especially Rose Maylie – are presented. Anyone could pick out such things. It is more difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes this seemingly naïve and unsophisticated little tale so compelling some two hundred years later; what it is that makes it come alive so vividly on the page; what it is precisely that imprints itself so indelibly on the reader’s mind.

Oliver Twist was a very early novel: Dickens was still only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, and he was writing it at the same time as he was writing the later episodes of Pickwick Papers. What seems notable is that, having given us an essentially sunny and comic novel, Dickens seemed, very deliberately, to go to the other extreme, and present us with vivid pictures of darkness. And, whatever the weaknesses, the dark pictures presented in this novel are likely to remain in our collective consciousness for some time yet.

“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

The “Six Degrees of Separation” meme

How about one of those book memes? Yes, why not. It’s nearly Christmas, after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. I found this lovely post in Marina Sofia’s blog, and thought to myself “that looks fun!” The meme is hosted by Kate in her blog, and the rules are described here. The idea is that we start off with a book of Kate’s choosing (this month, it’s Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol), and find some connection with another book. And then, we take that other book, and find some connection with yet another book. And so build up the chain, ending up with six books.

christmasCarol

I’ve posted about Dickens’ Christmas Books (including A Christmas Carol) quite often in the past, so I won’t repeat – yet again – how much I love that book, and why. But let me draw attention to the following passage, from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, describing a group of businessmen talking about a recently deceased colleague:

`No,’ said a great fat man with a monstrous chin,’ I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead.’

`When did he die.’ inquired another.

`Last night, I believe.’

`Why, what was the matter with him.’ asked a third, taking a vast quantity of snuff out of a very large snuff-box. `I thought he’d never die.’

`God knows,’ said the first, with a yawn.

`What has he done with his money.’ asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose, that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.

`I haven’t heard,’ said the man with the large chin, yawning again. `Left it to his company, perhaps. He hasn’t left it to me. That’s all I know.’

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

`It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,’ said the same speaker;’ for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer.’

`I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided,’ observed the gentleman with the excrescence on his nose. `But I must be fed, if I make one.’

Another laugh.

`Well, I am the most disinterested among you, after all,’ said the first speaker,’ for I never wear black gloves, and I never eat lunch. But I’ll offer to go, if anybody else will. When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met. Bye, bye.’

Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups.

Now, consider this passage, describing a group of lawyers speaking of the recent passing of a colleague:

“Gentlemen,” [Peter Ivanovich] said, “Ivan Ilych has died!”

“You don’t say so!”

“Here, read it yourself,” replied Peter Ivanovich, handing Fedor Vasilievich the paper still damp from the press.

… on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

“I shall be sure to get Shtabel’s place or Vinnikov’s,” thought Fedor Vasilievich. “I was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.”

“Now I must apply for my brother-in-law’s transfer from Kaluga,” thought Peter Ivanovich. “My wife will be very glad, and then she won’t be able to say that I never do anything for her relations.”

“I thought he would never leave his bed again,” said Peter Ivanovich aloud. “It’s very sad.”

“But what really was the matter with him?”

“The doctors couldn’t say — at least they could, but each of them said something different. When last I saw him I thought he was getting better.”

“And I haven’t been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.”

“Had he any property?”

“I think his wife had a little — but something quiet trifling.”

“We shall have to go to see her, but they live so terribly far away.”

“Far away from you, you mean. Everything’s far away from your place.”

“You see, he never can forgive my living on the other side of the river,” said Peter Ivanovich, smiling at Shebek. Then, still talking of the distances between different parts of the city, they returned to the Court.

This is from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych, in the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Plagiarism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a homage. Tolstoy, after all, revered Dickens. (As indeed did Dostoyevsky: Alyosha’s speech to the boys at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is almost word-for-word the same as Bob Cratchit’s address to his family when they are mourning Tiny Tim. But that’s another story, as they say…)

ivanillych

So that’s my first connection: The Death of Ivan Illych by Tolstoy – a short novel (novella is, I think, the preferred term) – describing an ordinary man, who had never so much as given a thought to his mortality, suddenly confronting the prospect of his imminent extinction.

The shadow of Tolstoy’s short novel seems to me very apparent in one of Ivan Bunin’s finest short stories, “The Gentleman of San Francisco”. A very wealthy American gentleman is on holiday, on a cruise, when he dies of a heart attack, and is transported back home in a coffin. At the risk of giving away spoilers, that’s about all there is to the plot. But as in Tolstoy’s work, albeit in a very different manner, we are made aware of the very basic and terrifying facts of our mortality lurking beneath what is but a thin veneer of civilisation – a civilisation which prefers, for the sake of decorum, to downplay that which is most important in our lives – that is, its end – and pretend it doesn’t really exist. Or, perhaps, that it doesn’t really matter too much.

bunin

Bunin was an émigré Russian writer. Which takes me to my next choice – Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps the most famous Russian émigré writer of them all. However, unlike Bunin, Nabokov, in his exile, started writing in English, the language of his adopted country. Pnin, which I wrote about recently on this blog (and a quick link saves me the trouble of repeating myself) I found among the most eloquent and touching accounts of the state of exile.

pnin

Exile, exile … that brings me to my next choice, Poems of Exile, Peter Green’s wonderful translations of Ovid’s Tristia, and the Black Sea Letters (Epistulae ex Ponto). (When I say “wonderful translation”, I mean they read very well in English: not having the benefits of a classical education, I cannot of course comment on how close they are to the originals.)

Ovid was, for reasons still obscure, exiled by Augustus from his beloved Rome to what was then the wild and dangerous frontiers at the far end of the Roman Empire – to what is now Romania, at the edge of the Black Sea. From there, in these poems, Ovid laments all he has lost. In my last post, I spoke of homesickness: perhaps there is no more powerful testament than these poems of the pain of that condition.

ovid

Fast forward to the twentieth century: the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, also wrote a collection of poems named (no doubt evoking Ovid) Tristia. Sadly, I have not read those poems. Mandelstam himself became an exile later in life, of course, and became one of the many millions (the numbers are so astronomically large that the mind reels) who died of cold and of hunger in Stalin’s gulags.

My next choice, though, is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs of those unimaginably terrible years, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (I am counting these two volumes as a single choice). These heartbreaking books rank with Anne Frank’s diary, or with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, as among the indispensable testaments of what it means to be human amidst the most unthinkable inhumanity. And yes, books such as these are particularly important now, when certain comfortable activists (known, I believe, as “tankies”) attempt to downplay and even whitewash the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I said at the start of this post that this meme looks like “fun”. Well, most of my choices haven’t frankly been “fun” choices. Let’s face it – I’m an overly serious, miserable, po-faced old grouch, whose idea of an enjoyable evening is to pour myself a large vodka, watch Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and follow it up listening to Mahler’s 6th symphony. And then, maybe, retire with some Samuel Beckett for a bit of bedtime reading. So let’s finish off with something lighter. That’s difficult: how can Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books be connected to anything light? Well, let’s try…

Hope Against Hope … hope … hope … yes, I have it! Sir Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda! A splendid swashbuckling adventure story, of the kind I used to love as a boy. And still do, in between my viewings of Bergman, my listenings of Mahler, and my readings of Beckett.

zenda

And that, I believe, is my sixth choice. If you have a blog, why not give this meme a go?

“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.