History of Literature

Henrik Ibsen


Henrik Ibsen



Henrik Ibsen

Norwegian dramatist and poet
in full Henrik Johan Ibsen

born March 20, 1828, Skien, Norway
died May 23, 1906, Kristiania [formerly Christiania; now Oslo]

Major Norwegian playwright of the late 19th century who introduced to the European stage a new order of moral analysis that was placed against a severely realistic middle-class background and developed with economy of action, penetrating dialogue, and rigorous thought.

Ibsen was born at Skien, a small lumbering town of southern Norway. His father was a respected general merchant in the community until 1836, when he suffered the permanent disgrace of going bankrupt. As a result, he sank into a querulous penury, which his wife’s withdrawn and sombre religiosity did nothing to mitigate. There was no redeeming the family misfortunes; as soon as he could, aged just 15, Henrik moved to Grimstad, a hamlet of some 800 persons 70 miles (110 km) down the coast. There he supported himself meagerly as an apothecary’s apprentice while studying nights for admission to the university. And during this period he used his few leisure moments to write a play.

This work, Catilina (1850; Catiline), grew out of the Latin texts Ibsen had to study for his university examinations. Though not a very good play, it showed a natural bent for the theatre and embodied themes—the rebellious hero, his destructive mistress—that would preoccupy Ibsen as long as he lived. In 1850 he went to Christiania (known since 1925 by its older name of Oslo), studied for entrance examinations there, and settled into the student quarter—though not, however, into classes. For the theatre was in his blood, and at the age of only 23 he got himself appointed director and playwright to a new theatre at Bergen, in which capacity he had to write a new play every year.

This was a wonderful opportunity for a young man eager to work in drama, but it brought Ibsen up against a range of fearsome problems he was ill-equipped to handle. In the medieval Icelandic sagas Norway possessed a heroic, austere literature of unique magnificence; but the stage on which these materials had to be set was then dominated by the drawing-room drama of the French playwright Eugène Scribe and by the actors, acting traditions, and language of Denmark. Out of these materials young Ibsen was asked to create a “national drama.”

First at Bergen and then at the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania from 1857 to 1862, Ibsen tried to make palatable dramatic fare out of incongruous ingredients. In addition to writing plays which were uncongenial to him and unacceptable to audiences, he did a lot of directing. He was too inhibited to make a forceful director, but too intelligent not to pick up a great deal of practical stage wisdom from his experience. After he moved to Christiania and after his marriage to Suzannah Thoresen in 1858, he began to develop qualities of independence and authority that had been hidden before.

Two of the last plays that Ibsen wrote for the Norwegian stage showed signs of new spiritual energy. Kjaerlighedens komedie (1862; Love’s Comedy), a satire on romantic illusions, was violently unpopular, but it expressed an authentic theme of anti-idealism that Ibsen would soon make his own; and in Kongsemnerne (1863; The Pretenders) he dramatized the mysterious inner authority that makes a man a man, a king, or a great playwright. This one play was in fact the national drama after which Ibsen had been groping so long, and before long it would be recognized as such. But it came too late; though the play was good, the theatre in Christiania was bankrupt, and Ibsen’s career as a stage writer was apparently at an end.

But the death of his theatre was the liberation of Ibsen as a playwright. Without regard for a public he thought petty and illiberal, without care for traditions he found hollow and pretentious, he could now write for himself. He decided to go abroad, and applied for a small state grant. He was awarded part of it, and in April 1864 he left Norway for Italy. For the next 27 years he lived abroad, mainly in Rome, Dresden, and Munich, returning to Norway only for short visits in 1874 and 1885. For reasons that he sometimes summarized as “small-mindedness,” his homeland had left a very bitter taste in his mouth.

With him into exile Ibsen brought the fragments of a long semi-dramatic poem to be named Brand. Its central figure is a dynamic rural pastor who takes his religious calling with a blazing sincerity that transcends not only all forms of compromise but all traces of human sympathy and warmth as well. “All or nothing” is the demand that his god makes of Brand and that Brand in turn makes of others. He is a moral hero, but he is also a moral monster, and his heart is torn by the anguish that his moral program demands he inflict on his family. He never hesitates, never ceases to tower over the petty compromisers and spiritual sluggards surrounding him. Yet in the last scene where Brand stands alone before his god, a voice thunders from an avalanche that, even as it crushes the pastor physically, repudiates his whole moral life as well: “He is the god of love,” says the voice from on high. So the play is not only a denunciation of small-mindedness but a tragedy of the spirit that would transcend it. The poem faced its readers not just with a choice but with an impasse; the heroic alternative was also a destructive (and self-destructive) alternative. In Norway Brand was a tremendous popular success, even though (and in part because) its central meaning was so troubling.

Hard on the heels of Brand (1866) came Peer Gynt (1867), another drama in rhymed couplets presenting an utterly antithetical view of human nature. If Brand is a moral monolith, Peer Gynt is a capering will-o’-the-wisp, a buoyant and self-centred opportunist who is aimless, yielding, and wholly unprincipled, yet who remains a lovable and beloved rascal. The wild and mocking poetry of Peer Gynt has ended by overshadowing Brand in the popular judgment. But these two figures are interdependent and antithetical types who under different guises run through most of Ibsen’s classic work. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they are universal archetypes as well as unforgettable individuals.

With these two poetic dramas, Ibsen won his battle with the world; he paused now to work out his future. A philosophicalhistorical drama on the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate had long been on his mind; he finished it in 1873 under the title Kejser og Galilaeer (Emperor and Galilean), but in a ten-act form too diffuse and discursive for the stage. He wrote a modern satire, De unges forbund (1869; The League of Youth) and then after many preliminary drafts a prose satire on small-town politics, Samfundets støtter (1877; Pillars of Society). But Ibsen had not yet found his proper voice; when he did, its effect was not to criticize or reform social life but to blow it up. The explosion came with Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House).

This play presents a very ordinary family—a bank manager named Torvald Helmer, his wife Nora, and their three little children. Torvald supposes himself the ethical member of the family, while his wife assumes the role of a pretty irresponsible in order to flatter him. Into this snug, not to say stifling, arrangement intrude several hard-minded outsiders, one of whom threatens to expose a fraud that Nora had once committed (without her husband’s knowledge) in order to obtain a loan needed to save his life. When Nora’s husband finally learns about this dangerous secret, he reacts with outrage and repudiates her out of concern for his own social reputation. Utterly disillusioned about her husband, whom she now sees as a hollow fraud, Nora declares her independence of him and their children and leaves them, slamming the door of the house behind her in the final scene.

Audiences were scandalized at Ibsen’s refusal in A Doll’s House to scrape together (as any other contemporary playwright would have done) a “happy ending,” however shoddy or contrived. But that was not Ibsen’s way; his play was about knowing oneself and being true to that self. Torvald, who had thought all along that he was a sturdy ethical agent, proves to be a hypocrite and a weak compromiser; his wife is not only an ethical idealist, but a destructive one, as severe as Brand.

The setting of A Doll’s House is ordinary to the point of transparency. Ibsen’s plot exploits with cold precision the process known as “analytic exposition.” A secret plan (Nora’s forgery) is about to be concluded (she can now finish repaying the loan), but before the last step can be taken, a bit of the truth must be told, and the whole deception unravels. It is a pattern of stage action at once simple and powerful. Ibsen used this technique often, and it gained for him an international audience.

Ibsen’s next play, Gengangere (1881; Ghosts), created even more dismay and distaste than its predecessor by showing worse consequences of covering up even more ugly truths. Ostensibly the play’s theme is congenital venereal disease, but on another level, it deals with the power of ingrained moral contamination to undermine the most determined idealism. Even after lecherous Captain Alving is in his grave, his ghost will not be laid to rest. In the play, the lying memorial that his conventionally-minded widow has erected to his memory burns down even as his son goes insane from inherited syphilis and his illegitimate daughter advances inexorably toward her destiny in a brothel. The play is a grim study of contamination spreading through a family under cover of the widowed Mrs. Alving’s timidly respectable views.

A play dealing with syphilis on top of one dealing with a wife’s abandonment of her family sealed Ibsen’s reputation as a Bad Old Man, but progressive theatres in England and all across the Continent began putting on his plays. His audiences were often small, but there were many of them, and they took his plays very seriously. So did conventionally-minded critics; they denounced Ibsen as if he had desecrated all that was sacred and holy. Ibsen’s response took the form of a direct dramatic counterattack. Doctor Stockmann, the hero of En folkefiende (1882; An Enemy of the People), functions as Ibsen’s personal spokesman. In the play he is a medical officer, charged with inspecting the public baths on which the prosperity of his native town depends. When he finds their water to be contaminated, he says so publicly, though the town officials and townspeople try to silence him. When he still insists on speaking the truth, he is officially declared an “enemy of the people.” Though portrayed as a victim, Doctor Stockmann, like all Ibsen’s idealistic truth-tellers after Brand, also carries within him a deep strain of destructiveness. (His attacks on the baths will, after all, ruin the town; it’s just that by comparison with the truth, he doesn’t care about this.) Ibsen’s next play would make this minor chord dominant.

In Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck) Ibsen completely reversed his viewpoint by presenting on stage a gratuitous, destructive truth-teller whose compulsion visits catastrophic misery on a family of helpless innocents. With the help of a number of comforting delusions, Hjalmar Ekdal and his little family are living a somewhat squalid but essentially cheerful existence. Upon these helpless weaklings descends an infatuated truth-teller, Gregers Werle. He cuts away the moral foundations (delusive as they are) on which the family has lived, leaving them despondent and shattered by the weight of a guilt too heavy to bear. The havoc wrought on the Ekdal family is rather pathetic than tragic; but the working out of the action achieves a kind of mournful poetry that is quite new in Ibsen’s repertoire.

Each of this series of Ibsen’s classic modern dramas grows by extension or reversal out of its predecessor; they form an unbroken string. The last of the sequence is Rosmersholm (1886), in which variants of the destructive saint (Brand) and the all-too-human rogue (Peer) once more strive to define their identities, but this time on a level of moral sensitivity that gives the play a special air of silver serenity. Ex-parson Johannes Rosmer is the ethical personality, while the adventuress Rebecca West is his antagonist. Haunting them both out of the past is the spirit of the parson’s late wife, who had committed suicide under the subtle influence, we learn, of Rebecca West, and because of her husband’s high-minded indifference to sex. At issue for the future is a choice between bold, unrestricted freedom and the ancient, conservative traditions of Rosmer’s house. But even as he is persuaded by Rebecca’s emancipated spirit, she is touched by his staid, decorous view of life. Each is contaminated by the other, and for differing but complementary reasons, they tempt one another toward the fatal millpond in which Rosmer’s wife drowned. The play ends with a double suicide in which both Rosmer and Rebecca, each for the other’s reasons, do justice on themselves.

Ibsen’s playwriting career by no means ended with Rosmersholm, but thereafter he turned toward a more self-analytic and symbolic mode of writing that is quite different from the plays that made his world reputation. Among his later plays are Fruen fra havet (1888; The Lady from the Sea), Hedda Gabler (1890), Bygmester Solness (1892; The Master Builder), Lille Eyolf (1894; Little Eyolf), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and Naar vi døde vaagner (1899; When We Dead Awaken). Two of these plays, Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder, are vitalized by the presence of a demonically idealistic and totally destructive female such as first appeared in Catiline. Another obsessive personage in these late plays is an aging artist who is bitterly aware of his failing powers. Personal and confessional feelings infuse many of these last dramas; perhaps these resulted from Ibsen’s decision in 1891 to return to Norway, or perhaps from the series of fascinated, fearful dalliances he had with young women in his later years. After his return to Norway, Ibsen continued to write plays until a stroke in 1900 and another a year later reduced him to a bedridden invalid. He died in Kristiania in 1906.

Ibsen was in the forefront of those early modern authors whom one could refer to as the great disturbers; he belongs with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and William Blake. Ibsen wrote plays about mostly prosaic and commonplace persons; but from them he elicited insights of devastating directness, great subtlety, and occasional flashes of rare beauty. His plots are not cleverly contrived games but deliberate acts of cognition, in which persons are stripped of their accumulated disguises and forced to acknowledge their true selves, for better or worse. Thus, he made his audiences reexamine with painful earnestness the moral foundation of their being. During the last half of the 19th century he turned the European stage back from what it had become—a plaything and a distraction for the bored—to make it what it had been long ago among the ancient Greeks, an instrument for passing doom-judgment on the soul.

Robert M. Adams




Type of work: Drama
Author: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: Nineteenth century
Locale: Norway
First presented: 1879


Nora Helmer, the central character of this play, realizing that after eight years of marriage her husband has never viewed her as anything more than a sheltered, petted doll, leaves him in order to learn to become a person in her own right. One of Ibsen's best-known and most popular works, A Doll's House has become a classic expression of the theme of women's rights.


Principal Characters

Nora, the "doll-wife" of Torvald Helmer. Seeking to charm her husband always, Nora is his "singing lark." his pretty "little squirrel," his "little spendthrift." She seems to be a spendthrift because secretly she is paying off a debt which she incurred to finance a year in Italy for the sake of Torvald's health. To get the money, she had forged her dying father's name to a bond at the bank. Now Krogstad, a bookkeeper at the bank where Torvald has recently been appointed manager, aware that the bond was signed after Nora's father's death, is putting pressure on Nora to persuade Torvald to promote him. Frightened, Nora agrees to help him. When her friend Christine Linde, a widow and formerly Krogstad's sweetheart, also asks for help, Nora easily persuades Torvald to give Christine an appointment at the bank. The position, unfortunately, is Krogstad's. Torvald, finding Krogstad's presumption unbearable, plans to discharge him. While Christine helps Nora prepare a costume for a fancy dress ball in which she will dance the tarantella, Krogstad writes a letter, following his dismissal, telling Torvald of Nora's forgery. Nora desperately keeps Torvald from the mailbox until after the dance. She decides to kill herself so that all will know that she alone is guilty and not Torvald. After the dance Torvald reads the letter and tells Nora in anger that she is a criminal and can no longer be his wife, although she may continue to live in his house to keep up appearances. When Krogstad, softened by Christine's promise to marry him and care for his motherless children, returns the bond, Torvald destroys it and is willing to take back his little singing bird. Nora, realizing the shallow basis of his love for her as a "doll-wife," leaves Torvald to find her own personality away from him. She leaves him with the faint hope that their marriage might be resumed if it could be a "real wedlock."
Torvald Helmer, the newly promoted manager of a bank. Concerned with business, he is unaware that his wife Nora, whom he regards as a plaything, is capable of making serious decisions. When he discovers her forgery, he is horrified and convinced that he will be blamed as the instigator, and he plans to try to appease Krogstad in order to forestall his own disgrace. As soon as the bond is returned, Torvald becomes himself again, wants his pet reinstated, and is eager to forget the whole affair. He is baffled when Nora says that she no longer loves him and is leaving him. At the end, he has a sudden hope that what Nora has called "the most wonderful thing of all" might really happen, the "real wedlock" which she wanted. But Nora has gone.
Nils Krogstad, a bookkeeper at the bank, dissatisfied with his appointment and with life in general. At first Krogstad appears as a sinister blackmailer threatening Nora with disaster if she does not help him gain a promotion at the bank. Later, when he finds the love of Christine Linde, whose loss had embittered him in the first place, he becomes a changed man and returns the bond.
Christine Linde, a widow and Nora's old school-friend. When Mrs. Linde first appears, she is quite worn and desperate for work. She had married for money which she needed to support her mother and two young brothers. Now husband and mother are dead and the brothers grown. In the end, when she and Krogstad have decided to marry, she is happy because she will have someone to care for. She decided that Nora cannot continue to deceive Torvald and that Krogstad should not retrieve his letter, presumably Krogstad will retain his position at the bank.
Doctor Rank, a family friend, in love with Nora. Suffering bodily for his father's sins, Dr. Rank is marked by death. Nora starts to ask Dr. Rank to help her pay off the debt, but after he reveals his love for her, she will not ask this favor of him. He tells Nora that he is soon to die and that when death has begun, he will send her his card with a black cross on it. The card appears in the mailbox with Krogstad's letter. Dr. Rank serves no purpose in the play except to show Nora's fidelity to Torvald when she refuses Rank's offer of help after she knows that he loves her.


The Story

On the day before Christmas, Nora Helmer was busying herself with last minute shopping, for this was the first Christmas since her marriage that she had not had to economize. Her husband, Torvald, had just been made manager of a bank and after the New Year their money troubles would be over. She bought a tree and plenty of toys for the children, and she even indulged herself in some macaroons, her favorite confection, but of which Torvald did not entirely approve. He loved his wife dearly, but he regarded her very much as her own father had seen her, as an amusing doll—a plaything.
It was true that she did behave like a child sometimes in her relations with her husband. She pouted, wheedled, and chattered because Torvald expected these things; he would not have loved his doll-wife without them. Actually, Nora was not a doll but a woman with a woman's loves, hopes, and fears. This was shown seven years before, just after her first child was born, when Torvald had been ill, and the doctor said that unless he went abroad immediately he would die. Nora was desperate. She could not seek Torvald's advice because she knew he would rather die than borrow money. She could not go to her father, for he himself was a dying man. She did the only thing possible under the circumstances. She borrowed the requisite two hundred and fifty pounds from Krogstad, a moneylender, forging her father's name to the note, so that Torvald could have his holiday in Italy.
Krogstad was exacting, and she had to think up ways and means to meet the regular payments. When Torvald gave her money for new dresses and such things, she never spent more than half of it, and she found other ways to earn money. One winter she did copying, but she kept this work a secret from Torvald, for he believed that the money for their trip had come from her father.
Then Krogstad, who was in the employ of the bank of which Torvald was now manager, determined to use Torvald to advance his own fortunes. But Torvald hated Krogstad, and was just as determined to be rid of him. The opportunity came when Christine Linde, Nora's old school friend, applied to Torvald for a position in the bank. Torvald resolved to dismiss Krogstad and hire Mrs. Linde in his place.
When Krogstad discovered that he was to be fired, he called on Nora and informed her that if he were dismissed he would ruin her and her husband. He reminded her that the note supposedly signed by her father was dated three days after his death. Frightened at the turn matters had taken, Nora pleaded unsuccessfully with Torvald to reinstate Krogstad in the bank. Krogstad, receiving from Torvald an official notice of his dismissal, wrote in return a letter in which he revealed the full details of the forgery. He dropped the letter in the mailbox outside the Helmer home.
Torvald was in a holiday mood. The following evening they were to attend a fancy dress ball, and Nora was to go as a Neapolitan fisher girl and dance the tarantella. To divert her husband's attention from the mailbox outside, Nora practiced her dance before Torvald and Dr. Rank, an old friend. Nora was desperate, not knowing quite which way to turn. She had thought of Mrs. Linde, with whom Krogstad had at one time been in love. Mrs. Linde promised to do what she could to turn Krogstad from his avowed purpose. Nora thought also of Dr. Rank, but when she began to confide in him he made it so obvious that he was in love with her that she could not tell her secret. However, Torvald had promised her not to go near the mailbox until after the ball.
What bothered Nora was not her own fate, but Torvald's. She pictured herself as already dead, drowned in icy black water. She pictured the grief-stricken Torvald taking upon himself all the blame for what she had done and being disgraced for her sake. But the reality did not quite correspond with Nora's picture. Mrs. Linde, by promising to marry Krogstad and look after his children, succeeded in persuading him to withdraw all accusations against the Helmers, but she realized that Nora's affairs had come to a crisis and that sooner or later Nora and Torvald would have to come to an understanding.
This crisis came when Torvald read Krogstad's letter after their return from the ball. He accused Nora of being a hypocrite, a liar, and a criminal, of having no religion, no morality, no sense of duty. He declared that she was unfit to bring up her children. He informed her that she might remain in his household but she would no longer be a part of it.
Then another letter arrived from Krogstad, declaring that he intended to take no action against the Helmers. Torvald's whole attitude changed, and with a sigh of relief he boasted that he was saved. For the first time Nora saw her husband for what he was—a selfish, pretentious hypocrite was no regard for her position in the matter. She reminded him that no marriage could be built on inequality, and announced her intention of leaving his house forever. Torvald could not believe his ears and pleaded with her to remain. But she declared she was going to try to become a reasonable human being, to understand the world—in short, to become a woman, not a doll to flatter Torvald's selfish vanity. She went out with irrevocable finality, slammed the door of her doll house behind her.


Critical Evaluation

Although Henrik Ibsen was already a respected playwright in Scandinavia, it was A Doll's House (Et Duk-kehjem) that catapulted him to Internationa/ fame. This drama, the earliest of Ibsen's social-problem plays, must be read in its historical context in order to understand its impact not only on modern dramaturgy but also on society at large.
Most contemporary theater up to the time, including Ibsen's earlier work, fell into two general categories. One was the historical romance; the other was the so-called well-made (or "thesis") play, a contrived comedy of manners revolving around an intricate plot and subplots but ultimately suffocated by the trivia of its theme and dialogue as well as by its shallow characterization. An occasional poetic drama—such as Ibsen's own Brand and Peer Gym—would also appear, but poetic form was often the only distinction between these plays and historical romances, since the content tended to be similar.
Into this dramaturgical milieu, A Doll's House injected natural dialogue and situations, abstinence from such artificial conventions as the soliloquy, the "aside," or observance of the "unities" of time and place, and insistence upon the strict logical necessity of the outcome without wrenching events into a happy ending. These theatrical innovations—now so familiar that twentieth century audiences hardly notice them—constitute Ibsen's fundamental contribution to the form of realistic drama.
Realism in the theater emphasizes believability; the guiding question is, "Could this event actually have happened in the lives of real people?" There is no attempt to achieve the comprehensiveness of, say, photographic reality; rather, realism is selective, striving for representative examples in recognizable human experience. And through selectivity, realism implicitly assumes a critical stance. Thus, the Helmers' domestic crisis had, and still has, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I impact on theater audiences. Since A Doll's House was first produced, drama has not been the same. And it is for that reason that Ibsen is called the father of modern drama.
Ibsen's influence on modern drama was twofold, for he combined both technique and content in the realism of his A Doll's House. Specifically, Ibsen elevated play-making to a level above mere entertainment by validating the respectability of plays about serious social issues. And one of the most volatile issues of his day was the position of women, for at that time women throughout virtually all of Western civilization were considered by law and by custom chattel of fathers and husbands. Women were denied participation in public life; their access to education was limited; their social lives were narrowly circumscribed; they could not legally transact business, own property, or inherit. In the mid-nineteenth century, chafing under such restrictions, women began to demand autonomy. They pushed for the right to vote and the opportunity for higher education and entry into the professions. By the last two decades of the nineteenth century, open defiance developed as women began engaging in such traditionally men's sports as bicycling, hunting, and golf. Their demands and their behavior predictably evoked cries of outrage from men.
Against this turbulent background, Ibsen presented A Doll's House. The response was electric. On the strength of the play, suffragists construed Ibsen as a partisan supporter, while their opposition accused the playwright of propagandizing and being an agent provocateur. Yet Ibsen was neither a feminist nor a social reformer in the more general sense. (Indeed, Ibsen personally deplored the kind of emancipation and self-development which brought women out of the domestic sphere into the larger world; he saw women's proper role as motherhood, and motherhood only.) His apparent feminist sympathies were but a facet of his realism. His own responsibility extended no further than describing the problems as he saw them; he did not attempt to solve them. Nevertheless, he had a sharp eye and many sharp words for injustice, and it was the injustice of Torvald's demeaning treatment of Nora—a deplorably common occurrence in real life, Ibsen conceded—that provided the impetus for the play.
In the raging debate over the morality of Nora's behavior, however, it is altogether too easy to neglect Torvald and his dramatic function in the play. For this smug lawyer-bank manager is meant to represent the social structure at large, the same social structure that decreed an inferior position for women. Torvald is, in effect, a symbol for society: male-dominated and authoritarian. Thus, he establishes "rules" for Nora—the petty prohibition against macaroons, for one; he also requires her to act like an imbecile and insists upon the Tightness, empirical as well as ethical, of his view in all matters. (In fact, Ibsen remarks in his "Notes" for the play that men make the laws and judge a woman's conduct from a man's point of view, "as though she were not a woman but a man.") His righteous refusal to borrow money is a particularly ironic example, and his contemptuous attitude toward Nora's intelligence and sense of responsibility—he calls her his "little lark," his "little squirrel," his "little featherbrain," his "little spendthrift," and so on—actually reflects men's prevailing view toward women: that they are owned property, playthings, dolls to be housed in toy mansions and be indulged, but only sparingly.
In this Neanderthal context, it is difficult not to view Torvald as a thorough-going villain. But like society, Torvald is not completely devoid of redeeming grace— else why would Nora have married him to begin with; why would she commit forgery at great personal risk and use her utmost ingenuity to save his life and to protect him from shame; why would she continue to sacrifice for him, if he possessed not a shred of virtue to elicit from her a feeling of genuine love? For Nora is both sensible and sensitive, despite Torvald's disparaging insinuations, and her awareness of her own worth is gradually awakened as the play unfolds—and with it her sense of individual responsibility. When at last she insists on her right to individual self-development, the spoiled girl-doll becomes a full-fledged woman. She slams the door of the doll house in a gesture symbolic of a biblical putting away of childish things and takes her rightful place in the adult world. Needless to say, that slam shook the very rafters of the social-domestic establishment, and the reverberations continue to the present time. So powerful an echo makes a powerful drama.




Type of work: Drama
Author: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: Southern Norway
First presented: 1883


In An Enemy of the People Ibsen relates the story of a doctor who is rejected by society for upsetting the status quo and the financial security of a Norwegian coastal town when he exposes the health hazards of the local Baths, a lucrative tourist attraction. Ibsen uses Dr. Stockmann to dramatize the problem of an individual faced with personal disaster if he speaks out against majority opinion.


Principal Characters

Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the Municipal Baths, a conscientious man of science and the enemy of illness and deceit. Because Stockmann discovers that the healing waters, the principal source of income for the town, are polluted, causing the users to contract typhoid fever and gastric illnesses, he incurs the censure of the town and is proclaimed an "enemy of the people." Stockmann is the one honest man in public life in the town. When he realizes that all his associates would prefer concealing the fact that the Baths are polluted, he is at first amazed and then infuriated. Denied all means of spreading his information through the press or in public meeting, he at last calls a meeting in the home of a ship's captain, Captain Horster. Before Stockmann can speak, however, the group elects a chairman, Aslaksen, who permits Stockmann's brother, Peter, mayor of the town, to make a motion forbidding the doctor to speak on the matter of the Baths because unreliable and exaggerated reports might go abroad. Aslaksen seconds the motion. Stockmann then speaks on the moral corruption of the town and manages to offend everyone, including his wife's adoptive father, Morten Kiil, a tanner whose works are one of the worst sources of water pollution. Morten Kiil buys up the bath stock the next day and proposes that the doctor call off the drive because he has bought it with money which Kiil had planned to leave Mrs. Stockmann and the children. Stockmann rejects the suggestion. He thinks of leaving the town and going to America, but when Captain Horster is discharged for permitting Stockmann to speak in his house, he cannot sail on Horster's ship and decides to remain in the town, educate the street urchins, and rear his own sons to be honest men. He says that only the middle class opposes him and that the poor people will continue to call on him. In his decision, he is cheered by his young schoolteacher daughter, Petra, and by Mrs. Stockmann and one of the boys. Although Petra, and by Mrs. Stockmann and one of the boys. Although Stockmann is not an especially personable character, he is an excellent representation of the frustrations which confront the reformer.
Peter Stockmann, the mayor of the town and brother of Dr. Stockmann. Peter Stockmann is a typical willfully blind public official who would rather poison the visitors of his town than cut its income. Under the pretense of concern for the town he is able to win others to his side. He ruins his brother but suggests that he will reinstate him if he recants.
Hovstad, the editor of the People's Messenger. At first, Hovstad supports Dr. Stockmann and plans to print his article about the Baths. However, when he learns that public opinion is against Stockmann, he deserts him until he hears that Morten Kiil has bought up the bath stock. Then he offers to support Stockmann again, because he thinks that Stockmann will cash in on the Baths and he wants to be in on the deal. Because Hovstad starts off as a forthright newspaper man, he is a disappointment when he abruptly changes character and sides.
Aslaksen, a printer. Aslaksen begins as a volunteer supporter of Stockmann's proposal to clean up the Baths. As chairman of the Householders' Association, he promises the support of the majority in the town, but as soon as matters become difficult, and when Dr. Stockmann grows more emotional than Aslaksen thinks is in keeping with his idea of moderation, he turns against the doctor. He comes with Hovstad to try to cash in on the profits which they think Stockmann expects to make with Morten Kiil.
Petra, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Stockmann. An earnest young woman, a teacher, Petra is the first to discover Hovstad's insincerity. Petra refused to translate an English story for Hovstad to print because its theme is that a supernatural power looks after the so-called good people in the world and that everything happens for the best, while all the evil are punished; she has no such belief. When Hovstad tells her that he is giving his readers exactly the kind of story they want, Petra is distressed.
When he blurts out a few minutes later that the reason he is supporting Dr. Stockmann is that he is Petra's father, Petra tells him that he has betrayed himself, that she will never trust him again. Because she supports her father, she loses her job. Her employer tells her that a former guest in the Stockmann home has revealed Petra's emancipated views. Petra is her father's true child.
Mrs. Stockmann, the doctor's wife and his loyal supporter. At first she does not want her husband to go against the wishes of his brother, but she soon gives her full approval. She is not presented as a woman of strong personality.
Morten Kiil, a tanner, Mrs. Stockmann's adoptive father. Although described by other characters as an "old badger," a man of wealth whose influence and money Dr.Stockmann hates to lose because of his wife and children, Morten Kiil seems to live more by reputation than by representation in the play. He goes against Dr. Stockmann and buys up all the bath stock with money he had intended leaving to Mrs. Stockmann.
Captain Horster, a ship's captain who befriends Dr. Stockmann, the only person outside the Stockmann family who remains loyal to the doctor. He allows Stockmann to attempt his public speech about the Baths to an audience assembled in his house.
Ejlif and
Morten, the two young sons of the Stockmanns.
Billing, a sub-editor. He agrees with Aslaksen and Hovstad.


The Story

All the citizens of the small Norwegian coastal town Christiania were very proud of the Baths, for the healing waters were making the town famous and prosperous. Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer of the Baths, and his brother Peter, the mayor and chairman of the Baths committee, did not agree on many things, but they did agree that the Baths were the source of the town's good fortune. Hovstad, the editor of the People's Messenger, and Billing, his sub-editor, were also loud in praise of the Baths. Business was good and the people were beginning to enjoy prosperity.
Then Dr. Stockmann received from the university a report stating that the waters of the Baths were contaminated. Becoming suspicious when several visitors became ill after taking the Baths, he had felt it his duty to investigate. Refuse from tanneries above the town was oozing into the pipes leading to the reservoir and infecting the waters. This meant that the big pipes would have to be relaid, at a tremendous cost to the owners or to the town. When Hovstad and Billing heard this news, they asked the doctor to write an article for their paper about the terrible conditions. They even spoke of having the town give Dr. Stockmann some kind of testimonial in honor of his great discovery.
Dr. Stockmann wrote up his findings and sent the manuscript to his brother so that his report could be acted upon officially. Hovstad called on the doctor again, urging him to write some articles for the People's Messenger. It was Hovstad's opinion that the town had fallen into the hands of a few officials who did not care for the people's rights, and it was his intention to attack these men in his paper and urge the citizens to get rid of them in the next election.
Aslaksen, a printer who claimed to have the compact majority under his control, also wanted to join in the fight to get the Baths purified and the corrupt officials defeated. Dr. Stockmann could not believe that his brother would refuse to accept the report, but he soon learned that he was wrong. Peter went to the doctor and insisted that he keep his knowledge to himself because the income of the town would be lost if the report were made public. He said that the repairs would be too costly, that the owners of the Baths could not stand the cost, and that the townspeople would never allow an increase in taxes to clean up the waters. He even insisted that Dr. Stockmann write another report, stating that he had been mistaken in his earlier judgment. He felt this action necessary when he learned that Hovstad and Billing knew of the first report. When the doctor refused either to change his report or withhold it, Peter threatened him with the loss of his position. Even his wife pleaded with him not to cross his powerful brother; he was sustained in his determination to do right only by his daughter Petra.
Hovstad, Billing, and Aslaksen were anxious to print the doctor's article so that the town could know of the falseness of the mayor and his officials. They thought his words so clear and intelligible that all responsible citizens would revolt against the corrupt regime. Aslaksen did plead for moderation, but he promised to fight for what was right.
Peter Stockmann appeared at the office of the People's Messenger and cleverly told Aslaksen, Hovstad, and Billing that the tradespeople of the town would suffer if the doctor's report were made public. He said that they would have to stand the expense and that the Baths would be closed for two years while repairs were being made. The two editors and the printer then turned against Dr. Stockmann and supported Peter, since they felt that the majority would act in this way.
The doctor pleaded with them to stand by the promises they had given him, but they were the slaves of the majority opinion which they claimed to mold. When they refused to print his article, the doctor called a public meeting in the home of his friend, Captain Horster. Most of the citizens who attended were already unfriendly to him because the mayor and the newspaper editors had spread the news that he wanted to close the Baths and ruin the town. Aslaksen, nominated as chairman by the mayor, so controlled the meeting that a discussion of the Baths was ruled out of order.
Dr. Stockmann took the floor, however, and in ringing tones told the citizens that it was the unbelievable stupidity of the authorities and the great multitude of the compact majority that caused all the evil and corruption in the world. He said that the majority destroyed the freedom and truth everywhere because the majority was ignorant and stupid. The majority was really in slavery to ideas which had long outlived their truth and usefulness. He contended that ideas become outdated in eighteen or twenty years at the most, but the foolish majority continued to cling to them and deny new truths brought to them by the intelligent minority. He challenged the citizens to deny that all great ideas and truths were first raised by the persecuted minority, those few men who dared to stand out against the prevailing opinions of the many. He said that the real intellectuals could be distinguished as easily as could a thoroughbred animal from a crossbreed. Economic and social position had no bearing on the distinction. It was a man's soul and mind that separated him from the ignorant masses.
His challenge fell on deaf ears. As he knew from the beginning, the majority could not understand the meaning of his words. By vote they named him an enemy of the people. The next day they stoned his house and sent him threatening letters. His landlord ordered him to move. He lost his position as medical director of the Baths, and his daughter Petra was dismissed from her teaching position. In each case the person responsible for the move against him stated that it was only public opinion that forced the move. No one had anything against him or his family, but no one would fight the opinion of the majority. Even Captain Horster, a friend who had promised to take the Stockmanns to America on his next voyage, lost his ship because the owner was afraid to give a ship to the man, the only man, who had stood by the radical Dr. Stockmann.
Then the doctor learned that his father-in-law had bought up most of the now undesirable Bath stock with the money which would have gone to Mrs. Stockmann and the children. The townspeople accused the doctor of attacking the Baths so that his family could buy the stock and make a profit, and his father-in-law accused him of ruining his wife's inheritance if he persisted in his stories about the uncleanliness of the Baths. Reviled and ridiculed on all sides, Dr. Stockmann determined to fight back. He could open a school. Starting only with any urchins he could find on the streets, he would teach the town and the world that he was stronger than the majority, that he was strong because he had the courage to stand alone.


Critical Evaluation

Sometimes called "the father of realism" in modern drama, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen unleashes in An Enemy of the People a savage attack on majoritarian democracy and its tendency to sacrifice truth on the altar of financial success or power. Widely praised—and at times disparaged—as a "provincial dramatist," Ibsen was frequently led by his social conscience into open controversy in his homeland, and often engendered undisguised public outrage toward the themes and the moral conflicts with which he imbued his plays. His reputation as a social dramatist is in some ways overshadowed by his equally electrifying stage technique, a technique born of his iconoclastic view of the theater and his rejection of the classical model of dramaturgy. Because Ibsen's innovative staging techniques became so conventional in the twentieth century, it is difficult to realize just how revolutionary they were in turn-of-the-century stage direction. His strong realism—exemplified in Аи Enemy of the People in the minutiae of everyday detail, the precision of dialogue, the painfully honest portrayal of the psychological makeup of his characters—requires of his actors and his readers their utmost energy and resilience.
It appears that Ibsen completed An Enemy of the People as a response to the savagely negative critical response to his earlier play, Ghosts (1881), though both plays were begun at roughly the same time. Hearing a news item regarding a Hungarian scientist who had discovered and exposed the poisoned water in the town's water supply and was then unceremoniously pilloried for his discovery, Ibsen adapted its essential core for his drama. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen probes the tensions between the individual and society, specifically between majority rule and minority dissent, and the stage becomes a window through which the audience may witness a living dialectic. Artfully using G. W. F. Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula, Ibsen posits the individual-as-thesis in conflict with society's antithetical opposition, the clash eventually yielding a synthesis that in some sense resolves the dramatic plot conflicts without relieving the tension or friction between the dissenter and his social context. Ibsen's keen sense of everyday ness, the vivid capturing of the details of the then-emergent "modern age," gives An Enemy of the People its stability and moral force. Christiania, ostensibly the town in which the story takes place, is on the verge of renown and legendary status as a healing oasis whose soothing waters symbolize the humanitarianism of its people. On the surface, Dr. Stockmann, a rather self-effacing personality, is an ebullient, community-minded scientist. He lives in the best of all worlds—a town whose income is built almost entirely on the Baths, which supply life-giving nurture to tourists who travel there for health reasons-enjoying a quality of life he himself has had a part in discovering and now oversees. He basks in the success of his township's "natural" benevolence. Yet, the same scientific rigor that certifies Dr. Stockmann's judgment and accredits him as an authority also brings him grief when the contamination of the same Baths is revealed to him. When Dr. Stock-mann blithely reports the findings to his brother Peter and to fellow citizens, always assuming their equal concern for the "health" of the tourist trade, he discovers a different kind of concern, and the play's fundamental theme emerges: his animated opposition to his brother Peter's credo, "The individual must subordinate himself to Society as a whole or more precisely to those authorities responsible for the well-being of that society."
An Enemy of the People is thus Ibsen's cynical answer to the question, "What happens when the truth conflicts with the will of the majority?" In his response, Dr. Stock-mann is at once both an aristocrat and an anarchist; when the majority is right, to be one of the establishment has honor and dignity—he may protect, within certain boundaries, the welfare of his people and his clients. When he becomes an outsider, however, he is quick to become uncooperative and obstinate in his stand for the truth. His willingness to start over after his defeat—to begin a school that will reeducate the young in ethical behavior—marks him as one willing to subvert the social order at any cost, even if it means isolation and alienation from the public at large. His family, initially and understandably cautious, takes up his cause with fervor. Yet, he is not completely admirable; Ibsen himself referred to Stockmann as a muddlehead, an innocent, absent-minded professor type, uncomfortable and shy in public yet lavishly hospitable and extravagant with his own resources. Consequently, while Stockmann appears to be a classical hero who invites the spectator's identification at the play's start, later he reveals that he is not. He is, in fact, impetuous and uninhibited. Stockmann is not a savvy and brooding clinical observer of human life and its folly but a common, compassionate man genuinely shocked by what has transpired among people he thought he knew well. Thus he remains a prototypical nineteenth century hero: His defiant confidence at the end of the play, while in some ways not foreshadowed, marks him essentially as a gullible optimist who is incredulous (as a truly good man would be) at the turn of events which displaces his sudden heroism with equally sudden villainy in the public eye. This newfound boldness and stubborn insistence on standing alone may be seen simply as the other side of the charm and naivete he displays at the beginning of the play.
Another key theme is the failure of each of the town's major institutions—the press, the Householders' Association, and the town council itself—to stand with integrity on the side of honor. Each betrays its selfishness when the town's livelihood is threatened. Petra, Dr. Stockmann's daughter, uncovers the jadedness of the newspaper she works for early in the play, when she refuses to translate a short story whose message she finds patronizing: "It's all about a supernatural power that's supposed to watch over all the so-called good people, and how everything is for the best and how the wicked people get punished in the end." Her editor Hovstad's reply, "You're absolutely right, of course. But an editor cannot always do what he wants. After all, politics is the most important thing in life—at least, for a newspaper it is," manifests his shallow concern for veracity. With one eye on the truth and the other on subscriptions, Hovstad's priorities are clear, and it is no surprise that he later must fire Petra for her insubordination. Despite his tabloid-like response to Dr. Stockmann's alarming report and his initial desire to expose to the populace its unscrupulous politicians, Hovstad's reluctance to buck the tide and thus print all the news fit to print demonstrates that even in a democracy the media can be coopted. When the mayor, Dr. Stockmann's own brother, and businessman extraordinaire Aslaksen conspire against them, the family's illusions of the goodness and mercy they thought to be characteristic of their friends and colleagues is shattered beyond repair. Built into their culture's hitherto disguised authoritarian community is an ethical malaise wherein outworn conventions strangle the life of the individual—compelling choices without a moral basis, thereby corrupting and stultifying the society in which they live. While An Enemy of the People is rightly considered Ibsen's most militant play, it is technically, in an odd way, also a species of comedy: a play designed to bring, with humor as well as pathos, a stumbling protagonist to a fitting end. There are no tragic deaths in the play, save that of the principle of minority rights and altruistic concern for the welfare of all in a democracy. Yet it is just this juxtaposition of dramatic form with dramatic irony that gives the play its ideological impact. Declaring that to be a poet is most of all to "see," and thus deliberately conflating the role of the poet ("to make") with that of the biblical prophet ("to see") into one office, Ibsen peered into the fading Lutheran culture of fin de siecie Norway and, gazing bleakly heavenward, discovered only an empty sky bereft of divine comfort or direction. Fast closing industrialization had brought to his country a more ruthless sense of profit and production, a fact mirrored in the malice and errant democracy depicted in the town of Christiania in An Enemy of the People. As American playwright Arthur Miller, who adapted his work for the American stage, has suggested, every Ibsen play in effect begins with the words, "Now listen here." This preaching, even pontificating posture would seem to border on propaganda, and would do so in the hands of a less skillful dramatist. The quality that prevents An Enemy of the People from devolving into a political tract is Ibsen's dialectical narrative, a strategy that forces his characters to discover the truth about themselves and others onstage in the course of the action, and not in exposition or soliloquy. The audience learns of Dr. Stockmann's stalwart character, and the weaknesses of his brother's, through a temporal confrontation that unfolds before the audience's (and the characters') eyes as it happens. As neither brother is a classical hero or villain—one whose fate is fixed by the gods or by fatal flaws neither can transcend—their destinies rest, rather, in the moral choices they make when they are confronted with life's challenges and then called to stand alone for the truth against the majority. This single dramatized fact is perhaps Ibsen's main legacy both to the theater and to twentieth century democracy.




Type of work: Drama
Author: Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: Norway
First presented: 1890


Perhaps the most perfectly structured play of the modern theater, Hedda Gabler was the summing up of Ibsen's dramatic theories and skills. Within this flawless structure he created an unforgettable character, a woman filled with contradictions; she is both ruthless and afraid, desperate and tormented. The economy of writing and the compression of style in the play contribute greatly to its emotional impact.


Principal Characters
Hedda Gabler Tessman, the exciting but unenthusiastic bride of George Tessman, who holds a scholarship for research into the history of civilization. Back from a six-month wedding trip during which George studied civilization, Hedda is dangerously bored. The daughter of General Gabler, she keeps as her prize possession her father's pistols, with which she plays on occasion. She also plays with people: with George's Aunt Julia, whose new bonnet Hedda pretends to think belongs to the servant; with George, who has bought her a villa which she pretended to want and who now must buy her a piano because her old one does not suit her new home; with an old school acquaintance, Mrs. Elvsted, who has rescued Hedda's talented former lover, Eilert Lovberg, from drink; with Eilert Lovberg, whom she cannot bear to see rescued by Mrs. Elvsted; with Judge Brack, who outmaneuvers her and pushes her over the brink of endurance to her death. Hedda is a complete egocentric, caring for no one, careless of life for herself and for others. Badly spoiled, she seems to gain her only pleasure from making everyone miserable. Eilert Lovberg she finds more amusing than anyone else, even though she had dismissed him when she was free. When she realizes that he has destroyed his career, she gives him a pistol and tells him to use it— beautifully. When the pistol discharges accidentally and injures him fatally in the boudoir of Mademoiselle Diana, and when Judge Brack convinces her that he knows where Eilert got the pistol, Hedda takes its mate, goes to her room, and shoots herself in the temple, but not before she has seen Mrs. Elvsted quietly gain a hold on George Tessman.
George Tessman, Hedda's husband, a sincere, plodding young man dazzled by his bride but devoted to his work. When Hedda burns Eilert's manuscript, which George has found, she tells George that she did so to keep Eilert from surpassing him; but in reality she burned it because Eilert wrote it with Mrs. Elvsted and they call it their "child." George's surprised horror at her deed turns to warm delight when he thinks that Hedda loves him enough to destroy the manuscript for his sake. When Mrs. Elvsted says that she has notes for the manuscript, George says that he is just the man to work on someone else's manuscript and that they can put the book together again. Sincerely delighted that he can help restore the lost valuable book, he plans to work evenings with Mrs. Elvsted, to the disgust of Hedda, who in cold, calm rage and despair shoots herself.
Eilert Lovberg, a former suitor of Hedda who has written a book in the same field as Tessman's. He could easily win the appointment which Tessman expects, but he decides not to compete with him. Since Hedda broke up their association after it threatened to become serious, he has been living with the family of Sheriff Elvsted, teaching the Elvsted children and writing another book. His manuscript completed, he comes to town. In his writing and in his reform from his old wild ways, he has been inspired by Mrs. Elvsted. Eilert shows the effects of hard living. As soon as Hedda has an opportunity, she reasserts her control over him, destroying his confidence in Mrs. Elvsted and persuading him to resume his drinking. Hedda says that he will return "with vine leaves in his hair—flushed and fearless." Instead, he returns defeated, having lost his manuscript. He tells Thea Elvsted that all is over between them, because he has destroyed the manuscript, but he has merely lost it and is ashamed to tell her so. After leaving Judge Brack's party he had gone to the rooms of Mademoiselle Diana, a red-haired entertainer whom he had known in his riotous days. There, missing his manuscript, he had accused Diana and her friends of robbing him. When the police appeared, he struck a constable and was carried off to the police station. Released the next day, he goes in despair to Mademoiselle Diana's rooms to look for his lost manuscript. Here the gun discharges, killing him. Wanting the manuscript desperately because he claimed it contained his "true self" and dealt with the future, he had planned to deliver lectures on it after Tessman's appointment had gone through.
Judge Brack, a friend of the family, a sly man whom Tessman trusts. Hedda agrees to the apparently harmless arrangement to keep her entertained. After Eilert Lovberg's death, Judge Brack tells Hedda that he knows the true story, but there is no danger if he says nothing. When Hedda protests that she will now be his slave, a thought which she cannot bear, he replies that he will not abuse the advantage he now holds. He is incredulous when he hears that Hedda has killed herself.
Thea Elvsted, the wife of Sheriff Elvsted, a sweet-faced woman with blonde hair, born to inspire men, although, unfortunately, not her husband. She rescues Eilert, works with him, preserves his notes, seeks to preserve him, and after his death and Hedda's will no doubt inspire Tessman. When Eilert comes to town, Mrs. Elvsted, who is in love with him, follows him because she is afraid that he will relapse into his old ways. Because she and Hedda had known each other in school, she comes to see Hedda. Mrs. Elvsted had been afraid of her when they were girls because Hedda sometimes pulled her hair and threatened to burn it off. However, she confides to Hedda the story of her love for Eilert and thus helps to bring about his death and Hedda's.
Miss Juliana Tessman (Aunt Julia), Tessman's aunt, who is eternally hoping for an offspring for Hedda and George. Her constant, veiled remarks about sewing and the use for the two empty rooms are lost on George and ignored by Hedda. With her sister, Rina, now dying, Aunt Julia had reared George. She serves in the play to remind George of his past and to irritate Hedda. She is a sweet, good woman who loves her nephew and wants to help the helpless.


The Story

When aristocratic Hedda Gabler, daughter of the late General Gabler, consented to marry Doctor George Tessman everyone in Hedda's set was surprised and a little shocked. Although George was a rising young scholar soon to be made a professor in the university, he was hardly considered the type of person Hedda would marry. He was dull and prosaic, absorbed almost exclusively in his dusty tomes and manuscripts, while Hedda was the beautiful, spoiled darling of her father and of all the other men who had flocked around her. But Hedda was now twenty-nine, and George was the only one of her admirers who was willing to offer her marriage and a villa which had belonged to the widow of a cabinet minister.
The villa was somewhat beyond George's means, but with the prospect of a professorship and with his Aunt Juliana's help, he managed to secure it because it was what Hedda wanted. He arranged a long wedding tour lasting nearly six months because Hedda wished that also. On their honeymoon George spent most of his time delving into libraries for material on his special field, the history of civilization. Hedda was bored. She returned to the villa hating George. Then it began to look as if George might not get the professorship, in which case Hedda would have to forego her footman and saddlehorse and some of the other luxuries she craved. George's rival for the post was Eilert Lovberg, a brilliant but erratic genius who had written a book, acclaimed a masterpiece, in George's own field. Hedda's boredom and disgust with her situation was complete. She found her only excitement in practicing with the brace of pistols which had belonged to General Gabler, the only legacy her father had left her.
George discovered that Eilert had written another book, more brilliant and important than the last, a book written with the help and inspiration of a Mrs. Elvsted, whose devotion to the erratic genius had reformed him. The manuscript of this book Lovberg brought with him one evening to the Tessman villa. Hedda proceeded to make the most of this situation. In the first place, Thea Elvsted was Hedda's despised schoolmate, and her husband's former sweetheart. The fact that this mouselike creature had been the inspiration for the success and rehabilitation of Eilert Lovberg was more than Hedda could bear. For Eilert Lovberg had always been in love with Hedda, and she knew it. In the distant past, he had urged her to throw in her lot with him and she had been tempted to do so but had refused because his future had been uncertain. Now Hedda felt a pang of regret mingled with anger that another woman possessed what she had lacked the courage to hold for herself.
Her only impulse was to destroy, and circumstances played into her hands. When Lovberg called at the Tessman Villa with his manuscript, George was on the point of leaving with his friend, Judge Brack, for a bachelor party. They invited Lovberg to accompany them, but he refused, preferring to remain at the villa with Mrs. Elvsted and Hedda. But Hedda, determined to destroy the handiwork of her rival, deliberately sent Lovberg off to the party. All night, Hedda and Mrs. Elvsted awaited the revelers' return. George was the first to appear with the story of the happenings of the night before.
The party had ended in an orgy, and on the way home Lovberg had lost his manuscript, which George recovered and brought home. In despair over the supposed loss of his manuscript, Lovberg had spent the remainder of the evening at Mademoiselle Diana's establishment. When he finally made his appearance at the villa, George had gone. Lovberg told Mrs. Elvsted he had destroyed his manuscript, but later he confessed to Hedda that it was lost and that, as a consequence, he intended to take his own life. Without revealing that the manuscript was at that moment in her possession, Hedda urged him to do the deed beautifully, and she pressed into his hand a memento of their relationship, one of General Gabler's pistols—the very one with which she had once threatened Lovberg.
After his departure, Hedda coldly and deliberately threw the manuscript into the fire. When George returned and heard from Hedda's own lips the fate of Lovberg's manuscript, he was unspeakably shocked; but half believing that she burned it for his sake, he was also flattered. He resolved to keep silent and devote his life to reconstructing the book from the notes kept by Mrs. Elvsted.
Except for two circumstances, Hedda would have been safe. The first was the manner in which Lovberg met his death. Leaving Hedda, he had returned to Mademoiselle Diana's, where instead of dying beautifully, as Hedda had planned, he became embroiled in a brawl in which he was accidentally killed. The second was the character of Judge Brack, a sophisticated man of the world, as ruthless in his way as Hedda was in hers. He had long admired Hedda's cold, dispassionate beauty, and had wanted to make her his mistress. The peculiar circumstances of Eilert Lovberg's death gave him his opportunity. He had learned that the pistol with which Lovberg met his death was one of a pair belonging to Hedda. If the truth came out, there would be an investigation followed by scandal in which Hedda would be involved. She could not face either a public scandal or the private ignominy of the judge's proposal. So while her husband and Mrs. Elvsted were beginning the long task of reconstructing the dead Lovberg's manuscript, Hedda calmly went to her boudoir and with the remaining pistol she died beautifully—as she had urged Lovberg to do—by putting a bullet through her head.


Critical Evaluation
In Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen constructed a complex play which caused considerable bewilderment among contemporary critics. Some found fault; some simply confessed puzzlement. Hedda Gabler, as one of Ibsen's later plays, was, for example, often judged in the context of his earlier work instead of evaluated on its own merits. Hence, when the broad social issues treated in earlier plays were found lacking or deficient in Hedda Gabler, the latter play was pronounced inferior. The most common misperception of Hedda Gabler, however, stemmed from a tendency to see the play through its title and hence its protagonist. "How," it was asked, "could Ibsen present a 'heroine' so totally devoid of any redeeming virtues?" Again, critics who raised the question misconstrued the play—and drama criticism, as well—for a protagonist need not be a heroine or a hero.
Modern critical opinion has focused more carefully on the structure of the play. Hence, one critic has called attention to a typical Ibsen device which the critic characterizes as "retrospective action"—a theatrical method noted by many other critics but without the apt label. As a theatrical device, Ibsen's dramatic innovation operates thus: the problem of exposition—revealing the crucial events which preceded the present action in the play (motion pictures solve the problem through flashbacks)—is handled in the first few scenes by having the major characters, reunited with other characters after a long absence, recapitulate past activities to bring the other characters up to date. Hence, the Tessmans, returning from their extended honeymoon, reveal much of themselves in conversation with Juliana and others. Yet, despite this sophisticated surmounting of theatrical obstacles, the play is not without structural weaknesses. Lovberg's apocalyptic attitude is unconvincing; Ibsen's view of scholarly enterprise as a batch of notes in someone's briefcase is ludicrous; and Hedda's potential disaffiliation with the play poses a threat to dramatic unity. These disabilities notwithstanding, the play holds up under critical review because dialogue, characterization, and theme carry it through.
For the verbal polish and linguistic sensitivity of the dialogue, Ibsen's method of playwriting is largely responsible. After completing a play, Ibsen would rest, letting his mind lie fallow. Then he would begin incubating ideas for his next play. When he was ready to write, he wrote quickly, completing his first draft in about two months. Next, the draft was set aside for another two months or so to "age" properly, whereupon Ibsen would then attack the final job of refining each nuance to perfection, completing the job in two to three weeks and having the copy ready for the printer within a month's time; the following month, the play was off the press and ready for distribution. It was in the refining process that Ibsen sharpened his dialogue to crystal-clear perfection. He added to the play George Tessman's fussy expostulations—the characteristic, questioning "Hmm's?" and "Eh's"—Brack's inquisitorial manner, and striking imagery such as "vine leaves in his hair." Out of such stuff truly poetic dialogue is made, and Ibsen certainly made it. Few playwrights can match the exquisitely fine-tuned dialogue of Hedda Gabler.
As for characterization, one is hard put to resist the temptation to concentrate exclusively on Hedda without touching upon at least George, Lovberg, and Judge Brack. Yet the character of Hedda stands out in bold relief only by contrast with these other characters in the play. Thus the others must be given serious consideration at least as the medium for Hedda's development. Hedda's three major counterfoils are George Tessman, Eilert Lovberg, and Brack, but all of the men are rather static characters in the play. Although their personalities are revealed to us gradually as the play progresses, none of them undergoes any fundamental change. Thus, George Tessman begins and ends as a somewhat distracted "Mr. Chips" personality; Lovberg is revealed as an incurable incompetent; and Brack is exposed for the coldly calculating, manipulative Svengali he wants to be, on the face of it a perfect match for Hedda's own apparently predatory instincts. But against this background, Hedda dominates the scene: a creature of impulse and indulgence, her father's spoiled darling. Let us remember that the play is titled Hedda Gabler, not Hedda Tessman! Let us also remember Hedda's growing contempt for Tessman and her opportunism as it grows in inverse ratio to his declining prospects. And let us not forget that in the matrix of Lovberg's inelegant death, Tessman's ineffectuality, Brack's obscene proposition, and Hedda's unwanted pregnancy with Tessman's child, Hedda prefers an efficient suicide to a messy life. Hedda's life does not meet her exacting standards, but her suicide fulfills her sense of style in a way that living cannot. Ibsen's vivid insight into Hedda's personality thus constitutes the real meat of the play, for it is Hedda as an individual—not Hedda as a "case study" or Hedda as a "social issue" or Hedda as anything else— that constitutes the play Hedda Gabler.
How can we understand Hedda? Certainly she is more substantial than a mad housewife or an ex-prom queen. Inchoately, she desires, but she has not the sophistication to focus her desires. She is thus directionless. Her angst is as much an identity crisis as a lack of goals. She does not know what she wants, much less how to get it. Her apparent hardheadedness, which so attracts Brack, is no more than a mask for insecurity. Hers is not a problem of social justice but of private insight. She knows nothing of personal or political power; hence, she appears to use people, to exploit them—but, in reality, more out of naivete than cold calculation, for she does not recognize or appreciate her influence. The metaphorical evolution of Hedda's personality—from self-indulgent child, to falsely confident adolescent, to desperate and despairing (and pregnant) woman who puts a bullet through her head—starkly depicts the life of an individual, not a symbol of a social issue. As such, Hedda Gabler is a problem play, not a social-problem play.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy