Analysis of Henrik Ibsen’s Plays

Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906) is widely acknowledged as the father of modern drama, but his significance in literature and history overshadows the influence of his revolutionary stage techniques and his iconoclastic concept of the theater. James Joyce observed of Ibsen, his youthful idol, “It may be questioned whether any man has held so firm an empire over the thinking world in modern times.” Despite early disappointments, which led to twenty-seven years of self-imposed exile from Norway, Ibsen at last received the acclaim there that he had been accorded previously throughout Europe, and by the end of his long and immensely productive career, the Norwegian government granted him a state funeral as one of its most illustrious, if controversial, citizens. Ibsen’s plays continue to be revived throughout the world, and a steady stream of scholarly books and articles testifies to his popularity among critics and readers who appreciate the therapeutic northern blasts of Ibsen’s message.


The unvarying setting of Ibsen’s quest as a creative artist was the human mind. At first, he concentrated, with little success, on Norwegian nationalistic themes and historical subjects, in opposition to the Danish domination of Scandinavian theater. As he probed increasingly profound psychological themes involving the individual and society, his analytic dramas seemed threateningly radical, largely incomprehensible, or simply obscene to European audiences then content with frothy farce or Scribean melodrama.

Ibsen’s first plays written from exile in Italy won for him fame, but their critical reception was mixed. Later, his social problem plays found their greatest contemporary acceptance in England through William Archer’s devoted translations and George Bernard Shaw’s espousal of Ibsen’s work as support for his own Socialist theories. In his next stage, Ibsen concentrated on the individual’s psychological condition; his last plays, written after his return to Norway, which deal with the conflict between art and life, exhibited his shift to Symbolism and were greeted with enthusiasm by James Joyce and Thomas Mann, who both learned Norwegian solely to read Ibsen’s works. Another lonely thinker, Sigmund Freud, wrote a perceptive essay on the Oedipus complex as motivation in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Much of Europe, especially czarist Russia, saw Ibsen’s plays as potentially explosive, but by 1935, the prominent critic Johanna Kröner commented, “Through Ibsen’s influence, European drama has experienced a powerful renewal and progress.”

Ibsen’s technical innovations in the theater have become so widely accepted that it is difficult to grasp the intense novelty that they represented to their contemporary audiences. The strongly realistic and even naturalistic stage settings of his mature plays contain a wealth of closely observed detail that requires a corresponding intensity of attention by actors to the individualized behavior of his characters. His tense, crackling interchanges of dialogue, a dramatic shorthand, often seem to omit more words than they include, conveying highly complex states of mind and passions through implication and demanding a high degree of emotional stamina from his actors.

As Ibsen’s American translator Rolf Fjelde has observed, the language of Ibsen’s finest plays resembles poetry in its compaction and resonance. Above all, as Henry James noted, Ibsen has a “peculiar blessedness to actors . . . the inspiration of dealing with material so solid and so fresh,” an attraction that seems as valid for the careful reader as it is for Ibsen’s stage interpreter. Though Ibsen’s contributions to dramatic theory and form have been outmoded by many of the very dramatists his work inspired, his insight into the human condition has not dated. Ibsen insisted that he not only “described human beings” but also “described human fates.” Such fates, springing from deep conflicts in human personalities, provide both solid and fresh material for endless meditation. In scholar Einar Haugen’s words, “Ibsen’s plays . . . enable people to look beyond the little cares of the day and . . . give them some glimpses of eternity.”

“To be a poet is, most of all, to see,” Henrik Ibsen said, and early in his literary career, he had already recognized the hammer as at once the symbol of creation and of destruction, with mythical overtones of the Old Norse thunder god, Thor, who unflinchingly sacrificed his own hand to bind the wolf Fenris and save his world from the unleashed forces of the underworld. Ibsen’s early poem “The Miner” shows his gaze fixed firmly into the depths: “Downward I must break my way . . . break me the way, my heavy hammer, to the hidden mystery’s heart.” Throughout his literary canon, although he is best known for his prose dramas, the rich poetic vein is never far from the working face of Ibsen’s creativity.

The constructions and destructions necessary to the realization of Ibsen’s vision fall into two distinct categories on either side of the watershed year of 1875. Fjelde differentiates them in apt architectural metaphor, viewing the earlier romantic group of Ibsen’s plays as a diverse old quarter, ranging from Roman villa to Viking guildhalls and even a contemporary honeymoon hotel, while glimpsing immediately beyond a small arid space “what appears to be a model town of virtually identical row houses . . . dark and swarming with secret life.”

Whatever the outward style of their construction, at the core, all of Ibsen’s earlier plays share a basically romantic orientation. Romanticism had already reached its fiery height in most of Europe by the time Ibsen published his first verse drama in 1850, but like the northern summer sun, the German-derived glow of romanticism lingered longer in Norway, where the emerging Norwegian state, lately reestablished, was seeking its national identity in its Viking heritage.

While reviewing a folkloristic play in 1851, Ibsen presented his own characteristically individual theory on nationalism in literature: “A national author is one who finds the best way of embodying in his work that keynote which rings out to us from mountain and valley . . . but above all from within our own selves.” Following that precept at the risk of alienating superpatriots, Ibsen wrote three Viking plays, Lady Inger of Østraat, The Feast at Solhaugh, and The Vikings at Helgeland. In 1862, he made an extensive field trip to gather folklore, which he incorporated with Rousseauistic ideals of the simple natural life in The Pretenders, another medieval Viking drama; in the volcanic Brand, set in the harsh west fjord country; and in the lighthearted Peer Gynt.

An important part of Norway’s nationalistic fervor stemmed from its state Lutheranism, in which Ibsen had received a traditionally rigorous grounding as a child, although none of his plays portrays clergymen sympathetically. In Brand, Ibsen also seemed to embody Søren Kierkegaard’s famous “either-or” in Brand’s call for “all or nothing,” challenging the institutionalized religion of his day. Haugen has commented that paradoxically “the rascal Peer is saved, but the heroic Brand is sacrificed,” seeing therein a reflection of Ibsen’s early religious training, similar to his puritanical attitude toward sex and his emphasis on the necessity of confession and atonement for redemption.

The dominant philosophical trend of Ibsen’s time and place was the idealism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who died in 1831. Ibsen’s enormous double play, Emperor and Galilean, departs from the strictly romantic theories present in his earlier work to take the direction of a Hegelian dialectic conflict between “thesis” and “antithesis,” which is resolved by a “synthesis” that itself becomes the “thesis” of a new conflict. Ibsen pits the pagan happiness that he had celebrated in his Viking plays against the spiritual beauty represented by Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on the Cross. The failure of Julian the Apostate to bring about the required “third empire,” mingling the Christian and the pagan worlds, may be read as Ibsen’s rejection, like Kierkegaard’s, of the possibility of achieving a synthesis in this life. For Ibsen, duality was inescapable in the human condition, with humanity caught between what it is and what it should be, between the beastly nature and the divine.

In 1875, midway in his literary career, Ibsen struck an “arid place” where he reluctantly had to concede that the rhyme and meter suitable to romantic drama could no longer convey his explorations of “the hidden mystery’s heart.” The literary trend in Europe, leading toward the realistic and even naturalistic expression of contemporary social problems, came to Scandinavia principally through the critic Georg Brandes, who had become Ibsen’s close friend in 1871.

Ibsen’s last twelve plays divide neatly into three distinct subgroups of four dramas each, characterized by their dominant thematic elements—social, psychological, and philosophical. This sequence, which Ibsen clearly intended as an organic whole, leads inexorably from social agony to spiritual conflict and at last to an area hitherto unexplored in Ibsen’s time, described by Fjelde as an “extraordinary, pre-Freudian sensitivity to unconscious pressures behind the conscious mind—the relationships of motives and conflicts bred in the troll-dark cellar.”

In each category, Ibsen employed his personal experiences differently. From The Pillars of Society to An Enemy of the People, the social plays use contemporary settings that might have been encountered on the streets of Christiania and characters caught up in the new industrialized manifestation of the old conflict between what is and what ought to be. Between The Wild Duck and Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s hammer broke through to a deeper layer of consciousness beyond the social, forcing away the barriers which the individual erects between his self-image and his ideals.

Finally, from The Master Builder to When We Dead Awaken, Ibsen probed the clash between his artistic vocation and his responsibility to those who loved him, using in each play a flawed creative personality who at last realizes that the ultimate height of achievement is denied him because he has not been able to merge love with his art. With the twelve plays of his prose cycle, Ibsen adopted what Fjelde calls “a way of seeing, deceptively photographic on the surface, actually a complex fusion of perspectives, which then became his dramatic method,” as, even more significantly, he simultaneously reached the summit and the deepest heart of his own experience of life.

To the theater in particular and to literature in amazing generality, Ibsen bequeathed innovations almost as astonishing in retrospect as they must have been to his contemporaries. He was first to involve ordinary human beings in drama, abandoning the old artificial plots and instead creating scenes that might be encountered in any stuffy drawing room or aching human heart.He conveyed for the first time in centuries a depth and subtlety of understanding of human character and relationships, especially those of women, evocative of the height of human tragic experience seen previously among the Elizabethans and the Periclean Greeks. He dared to challenge social abuses, knowing their agonizing sting at first hand. He explored the unconscious mind to an extent unmatched until the promulgation of Freud’s theories decades later.

The Vikings at Helgeland

Before Ibsen gained the summit of his creative efforts he participated in the attempt to create a national Norwegian theater by writing plays based on Norwegian folktales. Ibsen gathered his material for The Vikings at Helgeland not from the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied but from a much older work, The Völsungasaga, itself a derivation of the Elder Edda containing the story of the Valkyrie Brynhild, who destroys her beloved hero Sigurd because he has betrayed her trust. Ibsen chose to base The Vikings at Helgeland on the Icelandic family saga, in which, he said, “the titanic conditions and occurrences of The Nibelungenlied and the Volsung-Saga have simply been reduced to human dimensions.” Yet he saw an insoluble incompatibility between the objective saga and the dramatic form: “If a writer is to create a dramatic work out of this epic material, he must introduce a foreign element. . . .”

Ibsen’s “foreign element” in The Vikings at Helgeland is realism, a rendition of the myth of Brynhild set in tenth century Norway, at the advent of Christianity. The Brynhild-figure is Hjørdis, a merciless visionary, married to Gunnar but in love with Gunnar’s close friend, the weak-willed warrior Sigurd, who had won her under the guise of Gunnar and with whom she has had her only satisfying sexual experience. When Hjørdis learns of the deception—Sigurd is married to another woman—she slays her lover, hoping to be united with him in death, but as he dies, Sigurd reveals that his meek wife Dagny has converted him to Christianity. In despair and rage, the pagan Hjørdis hurls herself into the sea. Ibsen’s preoccupation in The Vikings at Helgeland is not with the fall of mythic goddesses and heroes but with the human tragedy wrought by deliberate falsehood, a theme to which he would often return.


Ibsen called Brand “a dramatic poem.” Brand is a stern young pastor who defies both his church superiors and the self-serving local governmental officials, demanding “all or nothing” in the service of his God. Brand even applies his unbending doctrines to his mother, to whom he refuses to grant forgiveness unless she relinquishes all her property, and to his wife and his child, who die because Brand will not take them to a milder climate. Brand then leads his flock to an “ice church” high in the mountains, where he believes that they will all be closer to God, but, daunted by the painful journey, his people at last stone him and return to their valley far below. Brand is finally moved to tears by a vision of his dead wife shortly before he is buried by a mammoth avalanche, above whose roar he hears a voice proclaim, “He is a God of love.” In Brand, the story of a man whose tragedy is the negation of love, Ibsen not only used the figure of an acquaintance he had met in Rome, Christopher Bruun, a devout reformer who fought the established church as well as the spirit of compromise, but also drew on his own personality. He remarked in an 1870 letter, “Brand is myself in my best moments.”

Emperor and Galilean

Emperor and Galilean, the double play that stands between Ibsen’s two groups of dramas, ranges over much of the fourth century Roman Empire, interpreting successive phases in the life of Julian the Apostate, who tried to replace Constantine’s Christianity with a renewed paganism. In part 1, Caesar’s Apostasy, the young Julian is disillusioned by Christianity and is influenced by the pagan seer Maximos, who desires a “third empire” uniting classical beauty and Christian ethics. In part 2, The Emperor Julian, force proves ineffective in reinstating pagan religious observances; in battle, Agathon, a Christian, slays Julian, who mutters as he dies, “Thou hast conquered, Galilean.” Like Cain and Judas, Julian unknowingly changed history in a way he never intended. Ibsen told Edmund Gosse, “The illusion I wanted to produce is that of reality . . . what I desired to depict were human beings.” He also said later that Emperor and Galilean contained “more of my own personal experience than I would care to admit.” He saw Christianity as removing the joy from human life, his own included, encasing people in an emotional confinement from which only violent action could free them. This play marks Ibsen’s “farewell to epic drama” and his adoption of prose as his dramatic medium;Meyer calls it the “forerunner of those naturalistic plays which were shortly to explode . . . like a series of bombs.”

A Doll’s House

More than one literary historian has identified the precise moment when modern drama began: December 4, 1879, with the publication of Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House), or, more dramatically at the explosive climax of the first performance in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879, with the slamming of the door as Nora Helmer shockingly leaves her comfortable home, respectable marriage, husband, and children for an uncertain future of self-discovery. Nora’s shattering exit ushered in a new dramatic era, legitimizing the exploration of key social problems as a serious concern for the modern theater, while sounding the opening blast in the modern sexual revolution. As Henrik Ibsen’s biographer Michael Meyer has observed, “No play had ever before contributed so momentously to the social debate, or been so widely and furiously discussed among people who were not normally interested in theatrical or even artistic matter.” A contemporary reviewer of the play also declared: “When Nora slammed the door shut on her marriage, walls shook in a thousand homes.”

Ibsen set in motion a transformation of drama as distinctive in the history of the theater as the one that occurred in fifth-century b.c. Athens or Elizabethan London. Like the great Athenian dramatists and William Shakespeare, Ibsen fundamentally redefined drama and set a standard that later playwrights have had to absorb or challenge. The stage that he inherited had largely ceased to function as a serious medium for the deepest consideration of human themes and values. After Ibsen drama was restored as an important truth-telling vehicle for a comprehensive criticism of life. A Doll’s House anatomized on stage for the first time the social, psychological, emotional, and moral truths beneath the placid surface of a conventional, respectable marriage while creating a new, psychologically complex modern heroine, who still manages to shock and unsettle audiences more than a century later. A Doll’s House is, therefore, one of the groundbreaking modern literary texts that established in fundamental ways the responsibility and cost of women’s liberation and gender equality. According to critic Evert Sprinchorn, Nora is “the richest, most complex” female dramatic character since Shakespeare’s heroines, and as feminist critic Kate Millett has argued in Sexual Politics, Ibsen was the first dramatist since the Greeks to challenge the myth of male dominance. “In Aeschylus’ dramatization of the myth,” Millett asserts, “one is permitted to see patriarchy confront matriarchy, confound it through the knowledge of paternity, and come off triumphant. Until Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door announcing the sexual revolution, this triumph went nearly uncontested.”

The momentum that propelled Ibsen’s daring artistic and social revolt was sustained principally by his outsider status, as an exile both at home and abroad. His last deathbed word was “Tvertimod!” (On the contrary!), a fitting epitaph and description of his artistic and intellectual mindset. Born in Skien, Norway, a logging town southwest of Oslo, Ibsen endured a lonely and impoverished childhood, particularly after the bankruptcy of his businessman father when Ibsen was eight. At 15, he was sent to Grimstad as an apothecary’s apprentice, where he lived for six years in an attic room on meager pay, sustained by reading romantic poetry, sagas, and folk ballads. He later recalled feeling “on a war footing with the little community where I felt I was being suppressed by my situation and by circumstances in general.” His first play, Cataline, was a historical drama featuring a revolutionary hero who reflects Ibsen’s own alienation. “Cataline was written,” the playwright later recalled, “in a little provincial town, where it was impossible for me to give expression to all that fermented in me except by mad, riotous pranks, which brought down upon me the ill will of all the respectable citizens who could not enter into that world which I was wrestling with alone.”

Largely self-educated, Ibsen failed the university entrance examination to pursue medical training and instead pursued a career in the theater. In 1851 he began a 13-year stage apprenticeship in Bergen and Oslo, doing everything from sweeping the stage to directing, stage managing, and writing mostly verse dramas based on Norwegian legends and historical subjects. The experience gave him a solid knowledge of the stage conventions of the day, particularly of the so-called well-made play of the popular French playwright Augustin Eugène Scribe and his many imitators, with its emphasis on a complicated, artificial plot based on secrets, suspense, and surprises. Ibsen would transform the conventions of the well-made play into the modern problem play, exploring controversial social and human questions that had never before been dramatized. Although his stage experience in Norway was marked chiefly by failure, Ibsen’s apprenticeship was a crucial testing ground for perfecting his craft and providing him with the skills to mount the assault on theatrical conventions and moral complacency in his mature work.I

n 1864 Ibsen began a self-imposed exile from Norway that would last 27 years. He traveled first to Italy, where he was joined by his wife, Susan-nah, whom he had married in 1858, and his son. The family divided its time between Italy and Germany. The experience was liberating for Ibsen; he felt that he had “escaped from darkness into light,” releasing the productive energy with which he composed the succession of plays that brought him worldwide fame. His first important works, Brand (1866) and Peer Gynt (1867), were poetic dramas, very much in the romantic mode of the individual’s confl ict with experience and the gap between heroic assertion and accomplishment, between sobering reality and blind idealism. Pillars of Society (1877) shows him experimenting with ways of introducing these central themes into a play reflecting modern life, the first in a series of realistic dramas that redefined the conventions and subjects of the modern theater.

The first inklings of his next play, A Doll’s House, are glimpsed in Ibsen’s journal under the heading “Notes for a Modern Tragedy”:

There are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and one, quite different, for women. They don’t understand each other; but in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren’t a woman but a man.

The wife in the play ends by having no idea what is right and what is wrong; natural feelings on the one hand and belief in authority on the other lead her to utter distraction. . . .

Moral conflict. Weighed down and confused by her trust in authority, she loses faith in her own morality, and in her fitness to bring up her children. Bitterness. A mother in modern society, like certain insects, retires and dies once she has done her duty by propagating the race. Love of life, of home, of husband and children and family. Now and then, as women do, she shrugs off her thoughts. Suddenly anguish and fear return. Everything must be borne alone. The catastrophe approaches, mercilessly, inevitably. Despair, conflict, and defeat.

To tell his modern tragedy based on gender relations, Ibsen takes his audience on an unprecedented, intimate tour of a contemporary, respectable marriage. Set during the Christmas holidays, A Doll’s House begins with Nora Helmer completing the finishing touches on the family’s celebrations. Her husband, Torvald, has recently been named a bank manager, promising an end to the family’s former straitened financial circumstances, and Nora is determined to celebrate the holiday with her husband and three children in style. Despite Torvald’s disapproval of her indulgences, he relents, giving her the money she desires, softened by Nora’s childish play-acting, which gratifies his sense of what is expected of his “lark” and “squirrel.” Beneath the surface of this apparently charming domestic scene is a potentially damning and destructive secret. Seven years before Nora had saved the life of her critically ill husband by secretly borrowing the money needed for a rest cure in Italy. Knowing that Torvald would be too proud to borrow money himself, Nora forged her dying father’s name on the loan she received from Krogstad, a banking associate of Torvald.

The crisis comes when Nora’s old schoolfriend Christina Linde arrives in need of a job. At Nora’s urging Torvald aids her friend by giving her Krog-stad’s position at the bank. Learning that he is to be dismissed, Krogstad threatens to expose Nora’s forgery unless she is able to persuade Torvald to reinstate him. Nora fails to convince Torvald to relent, and after receiving his dismissal notice, Krogstad sends Torvald a letter disclosing the details of the forgery. The incriminating letter remains in the Helmers’ mailbox like a ticking timebomb as Nora tries to distract Torvald from reading it and Christina attempts to convince Krogstad to withdraw his accusation. Torvald eventually reads the letter following the couple’s return from a Christmas ball and explodes in recriminations against his wife, calling her a liar and a criminal, unfit to be his wife and his children’s mother. “Now you’ve wrecked all my happiness—ruined my whole future,” Torvald insists. “Oh, it’s awful to think of. I’m in a cheap little grafter’s hands; he can do anything he wants with me, ask me for anything, play with me like a puppet—and I can’t breathe a word. I’ll be swept down miserably into the depths on account of a featherbrained woman.” Torvald’s reaction reveals that his formerly expressed high moral rectitude is hypocritical and self-serving. He shows himself worried more about appearances than true morality, caring about his reputation rather than his wife. However, when Krogstad’s second letter arrives in which he announces his intention of pursuing the matter no further, Torvald joyfully informs Nora that he is “saved” and that Nora should forget all that he has said, assuming that the normal relation between himself and his “frightened little songbird” can be resumed. Nora, however, shocks Torvald with her reaction.

Nora, profoundly disillusioned by Torvald’s response to Krogstad’s letter, a response bereft of the sympathy and heroic self-sacrifice she had hoped for, orders Torvald to sit down for a serious talk, the first in their married life, in which she reviews their relationship. “I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child,” Nora explains. “And in turn the children have been my dolls. I thought it was fun when you played with me, just as they thought it fun when I played with them. That’s been our marriage, Torvald.” Nora has acted out the 19th-century ideal of the submissive, unthinking, duti-ful daughter and wife, and it has taken Torvald’s reaction to shatter the illusion and to force an illumination. Nora explains:

When the big fright was over—and it wasn’t from any threat against me, only for what might damage you—when all the danger was past, for you it was just as if nothing had happened. I was exactly the same, your little lark, your doll, that you’d have to handle with double care now that I’d turned out so brittle and frail. Torvald—in that instant it dawned on me that I’ve been living here with a stranger.

Nora tells Torvald that she no longer loves him because he is not the man she thought he was, that he was incapable of heroic action on her behalf. When Torvald insists that “no man would sacrifice his honor for love,” Nora replies: “Millions of women have done just that.”

Nora finally resists the claims Torvald mounts in response that she must honor her duties as a wife and mother, stating,

I don’t believe in that anymore. I believe that, before all else, I’m a human being, no less than you—or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on believing what the majority says, or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.

The finality of Nora’s decision to forgo her assigned role as wife and mother for the authenticity of selfhood is marked by the sound of the door slamming and her exit into the wider world, leaving Torvald to survey the wreckage of their marriage.

Ibsen leaves his audience and readers to consider sobering truths: that married women are the decorative playthings and servants of their husbands who require their submissiveness, that a man’s authority in the home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of anyone is to arrive at an authentic human identity, not to accept the role determined by social conventions. That Nora would be willing to sacrifice everything, even her children, to become her own person proved to be, and remains, the controversial shock of A Doll’s House, provoking continuing debate over Nora’s motivations and justifications. The first edition of 8,000 copies of the play quickly sold out, and the play was so heatedly debated in Scandinavia in 1879 that, as critic Frances Lord observes, “many a social invitation in Stockholm during that winter bore the words, ‘You are requested not to mention Ibsen’s Doll’s House!” Ibsen was obliged to supply an alternative ending for the first German production when the famous leading lady Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to perform the role of Nora, stating that “I would never leave my children!” Ibsen provided what he would call a “barbaric outrage,” an ending in which Nora’s departure is halted at the doorway of her children’s bedroom. The play served as a catalyst for an ongoing debate over feminism and women’s rights. In 1898 Ibsen was honored by the Norwegian Society for Women’s Rights and toasted as the “creator of Nora.” Always the contrarian, Ibsen rejected the notion that A Doll’s House champions the cause of women’s rights:

I have been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people generally tend to suppose. I thank you for your toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for women’s rights. I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights. And if you read my books carefully you will realize that. Of course it is incidentally desirable to solve the problem of women; but that has not been my whole object. My task has been the portrayal of human beings.

Despite Ibsen’s disclaimer that A Doll’s House should be appreciated as more than a piece of gender propaganda, that it deals with universal truths of human identity, it is nevertheless the case that Ibsen’s drama is one of the milestones of the sexual revolution, sounding themes and advancing the cause of women’s autonomy and liberation that echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and anticipates subsequent works such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Many interpreters narrowly see A Doll House as a plea for female emancipation. Nothing seems further from Ibsen’s intention. In 1879, he did strongly support equal voting rights for female members of the Scandinavian Club in Rome, but nearly twenty years later, in 1898, when he spoke to the Norwegian League for Women’s Rights, he declared, “My task has been the description of humanity,” as Fjelde notes, putting the issue of women’s liberation squarely in the larger context of “the artist’s freedom and the evolution of the race in general.”


Ibsen wrote to Sophie Adlersparre in 1882, “After Nora, Mrs. Alving had to come,” and he often said that writing Ghosts was “an absolute necessity” for him. Mrs. Alving is not simply a Nora grown older, but a character evolved into a vastly more tragic figure. Nora leaves her home, but Mrs. Alving stays with her debauched husband, an irredeemable syphilitic sot. After his death, she builds an orphanage with his fortune and welcomes home their son Oswald, who has been living as an artist in Paris.

A villainous carpenter at the orphanage, Engstrand, tries to entice his daughter Regine, Mrs. Alving’s maid, into becoming a hostess (and more) in a seamen’s hangout he plans to build, and Engstrand persuades Mrs. Alving’s pastor, Manders, to speak to Mrs. Alving in that regard. Manders, once Mrs. Alving’s lover, though he counseled her to return to her husband, learns not only that Regine is Captain Alving’s illegitimate daughter but also that Mrs. Alving has begun to question her religion. As they talk, they overhear an innocent flirtation between Oswald and Regine in the next room, a “ghost” of a flirtation of years before, when Mrs. Alving overheard her husband and her maid, Regine’s mother. After fire destroys the uninsured orphanage, consuming the captain’s financial legacy, the ill and exhausted Oswald learns the horrifying truth about Regine’s birth and his own inherited venereal disease. Regine consequently leaves to join Engstrand, who blackmails Manders into supporting his new business venture, and Mrs. Alving is left alone with Oswald as he slips into paretic insanity, begging his mother to help him end his life at once.

Ibsen knew that such material could hardly help but inflame Victorian sensibilities. Early in 1882, he wrote, “The violent criticisms and insane attacks . . . don’t worry me in the least.” As always, Ibsen relished the thrill of the battle, but Ghosts aroused more negative sentiment than any of his other plays. Norwegian critics led Europe in dismissing it, Ludvig Josephson calling it “one of the filthiest things ever written in Scandinavia,” and Erik Bøgh rejecting it as “a repulsive pathological phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, Ghosts stimulated the young and the daring. By 1888, some observers noted that the play was comparable to classical Greek tragedy though written about modern people, an opinion still popular today. Whereas in the Greek drama, inexorable Fate brings heroes low, in Ibsen’s Ghosts, the power of the past devours the central figures. A choice once made must stand, regardless of the consequences, Ibsen is saying, and all the shocks that he delivers to his audience reinforce his basic message. The human choice must be made, in Fjelde’s words, “out of the integrity of one’s whole being.” The ghosts of the past rise to strangle Helene Alving, the hypocritical Pastor Manders, and even the innocent victims of their parents’ mistakes, Oswald and Regine. The most powerful of Ibsen’s tightly constructed social plays, Ghosts also marks an important milestone in dramatic history; according toMeyer, it was “the first great tragedy written about middle-class people in plain, everyday prose.”


Ghosts of a somber past also haunt the brooding manor house in Rosmersholm, the second of Ibsen’s psychological dramas and the one that, after Ghosts, had the worst contemporary reviews. Among the few who supported it, Strindberg, in a rare tribute to Ibsen, declared Rosmersholm “unintelligible to the theatre public, mystical to the semi-educated, but crystal-clear to anyone with a knowledge of modern psychology.”

The central problem of Rosmersholm is the redemption of a human spirit. A young, liberal-spirited woman, Rebecca West, came to the estate on a western fjord as companion to Rosmer’s wife, Beate, and after Beate’s suicide stayed on as manager of the household, influencing Rosmer, who feels drawn to her unconsciously. His brother-inlaw, the inflexible schoolmaster Kroll, attempts to turn Rosmer back to conservatism, but when he fails, he recalls his late sister’s intimations of “goings-on,” as does the leader of the radical element, the journalist Mortensgaard. Rosmer tries to quiet the talk by proposing to Rebecca, but she rejects him violently.

After Rosmer’s sense of guilt at his wife’s despair begins to eat at him, Rebecca openly admits her guilt in urging Beate to death, confessing that she had acted out of love for him. As she prepares to leave the estate, she tells Rosmer that her earlier “pagan” will has fallen under Rosmersholm’s traditional moralistic spell, which “ennobles . . . but kills happiness.” Rosmer and Rebecca pledge their mutual love, savoring one final moment of bliss before, in atonement, they follow Beate into the white foam of the millrace.

Meyer claims that “in this play Ibsen was, for the first time . . . in any play for over two centuries, overtly probing the uncharted waters of the unconscious mind.” Ibsen had given the play the working title “The White Horses,” after the ghost reputedly seen frequently on the estate, a white horse, the symbol of irresistible unconscious forces driving the individual to excessive behavior, based on a folktale about a water spirit in equine shape that lures its victims into dangerous depths.

Ibsen gradually reveals that Rebecca came to Rosmerholm as not only the former mistress of one Dr.West but also, as she learned too late, his daughter.HerOedipal guilt, as Freud observed in 1914, drove her to dispose of Beate, “getting rid of the wife and mother, so that she might take her place with the husband and father.” Beate’s death in the millrace was only the most recent guilt-inspired act of violence that Rebecca, under the refining, “ennobling” influence of Rosmer, found she must expiate. Ironically, Rosmer himself is weak, and his one act of heroism is performed for Rebecca: “There is no judge over us; and therefore we must do justice upon ourselves.”

In his advice to a young actress undertaking the role of Rebecca in Christiania, Ibsen wrote, “Observe the life that is going on around you, and present a real and living human being.” He also instructed the head of the Christiania Theater that Rebecca “does not force Rosmer forward. She lures him.” His characterization of RebeccaWest, who throughout the play crochets an indefinable white garment, calls up mythic overtones of the Norse Norns, spinning out human destiny in some white-fogged eternal night. Ibsen’s revelation of man’s destiny in Rosmersholm is once more in woman’s hands, here lightening the eternal dark with one perfect gesture of sacrificial atonement made ironically for an imperfect lover, an echo of the myth of Brynhild that he had treated earlier in The Vikings at Helgeland and to which he would return before long.

With Rosmersholm, Ibsen left off political themes as motivation in his drama. The men and women of the Ibsen plays that followed became increasingly aware of what Meyer calls “the trolls within, not the trolls without . . . strange sick passions which direct their lives.” Ibsen’s earlier plays had portrayed men such as Rosmer undone by their involvement with provincial politics, while his later works stress figures, mostly women such as Rebecca, who feel intense passion but who cannot express it and thus become “ennobled” without some salvific act of atonement requiring the emancipation of self-sacrifice.


Hedda Gabler

In the powerful domestic tragedy Hedda Gabler, often considered his most popular play, Ibsen adapted the old myth of Brynhild to startling new uses. Around this time, he wrote, “Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves,” and he began to see that the greatest human resource in that struggle, the will, tended to remain undeveloped in women of his day. As the daughter of General Gabler, Hedda had romantically dreamed of a perfect hero, but her dreams and her physical realization with a man not her equal were quite different. Eilert Løvborg, whose combination of profligacy and brilliant scholarship had originally fascinated her, proved unworthy, and she turned in anger and frustration to mediocre Jørgen Tesman, settling for the weaker man as Hjørdis had done in The Vikings at Helgeland. Like Hjørdis, too, Hedda is violently jealous of the gentle girl her first hero seems to prefer.

At the opening of the play, Hedda and Jørgen have returned to their bourgeois home and to Jørgen’s bourgeois aunts after a wretched six-month European honeymoon. Hedda is suffering from massive ennui already, compounded by a pregnancy she ferociously denies. When she learns that Eilert Løvborg has reformed under the tutelage of ordinary Thea Elvstad, whose lovely curling hair she has always envied, Hedda exacts a horrifying vengeance. She goads Løvborg to drink again; he loses the only manuscript of the monumental book he has composed with Thea’s help, and he later comes to his senses in the boudoir of the redheaded Mlle Diana, a notorious fille de joie. Jørgen finds Løvborg’s manuscript and gives it to Hedda, but when Løvborg, frantic at the loss of his “child,” comes to Hedda for help, she denies all knowledge of it.

Alone, Hedda burns his book, and after a final conversation, she sends him to a “beautiful” death by handing him one of her father’s dueling pistols. Hedda’s own moment of despair arrives when she learns that Løvborg has botched his suicide disgracefully. She now is trapped not only with Jørgen, and Thea Elvstad, now Jørgen’s scholarly inspiration, and his remaining aunt, but also with a blackmail threat from lascivious Judge Brack. Her only escape is to kill herself and Jørgen’s despised unborn child.

The portrayal of Hedda Gabler has challenged actresses throughout the play’s history, and critics have read her variously as a frustrated feminist, a remnant of the shattered aristocracy, a sadistic psychopath, and even, as Meyer does, as Ibsen’s “Portrait of the Dramatist as a Young Woman.” No one-sided interpretation seems adequate. Throughout this play, the most claustrophobic of Ibsen’s dramas, Hedda Gabler moves in a web of complex symbols, trapped at last, according to Haugen, “between a Christian-bourgeois domesticity and a pagan-saturnine liaison.” Her father’s pistols, symbols of his rank, his avocation, and his personality, represent both Hedda’s entrapment and her release, for the pistol found with the mortally wounded Eilert Løvborg at Mlle Diana’s establishment catches Hedda in an unthinkable scandal, while the remaining one allows her to make restitution to the only person who matters now to Hedda Gabler—herself.

Hedda Gabler is appropriately the last of Ibsen’s psychological dramas. Ibsen often claimed that “Self-realization is man’s highest task and greatest happiness,” yet, as he expressed it in Peer Gynt, “to be oneself is to slay oneself.” Hedda Gabler’s tragedy is not merely the selfish act of a spoiled, bored woman, but a heroic act to free herself from a domination she cannot accept. Incapable of selfless love for a fatal multitude of reasons, Hedda Gabler at last even ruefully abandons her youthful dream of “vine leaves in his hair,” the pagan ecstasy that had aroused her sensuous curiosity toward Eilert Løvborg. Her self-realization allows her one last moment of paradoxical human life, the moment she leaves it, a poetic truth of “hidden and mysterious power,” in Martin Esslin’s words, “which springs from the co-existence of the realistic surface with the deep subconscious fantasy and dream elements behind it.”


The Master Builder

Not long after the publication of The Master Builder, Ibsen stated, “It’s extraordinary what profundities and symbols they ascribe to me. . . . Can’t people just read what I write?” Ibsen insisted then, as always, that he only wrote about people’s inner lives as he knew them: “Any considerable person will naturally be . . . representative of the . . . thoughts and ideas of the age, so that the portrayal of such a person’s inner life may seem symbolic.” Having shared experiences, at least to some degree, with many of his characters, Ibsen’s last plays, the philosophical garnering of his life’s harvest, are in that sense rich in symbol.

The title “Master Builder” has been applied frequently to Ibsen himself in recognition of his mastery of his craft and art, and more perilously, as an identification of the dramatist with the hero of the first of his philosophical plays, Halvard Solness, a talented architect just realizing that he is passing his prime. At the peak of his chosen profession, Solness is gnawed by his wife’s unhappiness, a result of his absorption in his work, and obsessed by his strange ability to affect the lives of others, especially his bookeeper Kaja, by the extrasensory projection of his powerful will.

Solness had begun his career with churches erected to the glory of God, though for the last ten years he has defied God by choosing to build only human dwellings. Now Solness is attempting a synthesis, a “third world” of architecture, by building himself a home with a tall spire, like a church. At this difficult moment in his art and life, the passionate young Hilde Wangel enters both. She had become infatuated with Solness ten years earlier when he had daringly hung his last dedication wreath on the tower of her village church. She now urges him to repeat the feat, though he has begun to suffer from vertigo, and, inspired by her youthful ardor, he attempts “the impossible” again. As Hilde waves her white shawl—like Rebecca’s, but completed, quivering to unseen harps—Solness plunges to his death.

Critics following William Archer have often played heavily on overt resemblances between Ibsen and Solness. Their ages are similar, their marriages unhappily affected by their devotion to their work, their infatuations with much younger girls notorious. Other commentators stress the resemblance between Solness’s three types of building and Ibsen’s three types of prose drama. Still others stress the Hegelian thesis-antithesis- attempted synthesis structure of Solness’s work and Ibsen’s several dramatic versions of that theme.

Meyer cites Ibsen’s 1898 lecture to students in Christiania, in which he observed that Solness was “a man somewhat akin to me.” In an interview, Ibsen also declared that architecture was “my own trade.” His “May sun,” Emilie Bardach, was unspeakably grieved to have been identified publicly with the vicious Hilde of The Master Builder, and conjectures about Solness’s marriage injured Ibsen’s relations with his own wife. Haugen suggests that The Master Builder “involves the Christian-pagan conflict,” since Solness defies God, ceases building churches, and attempts to find his creative outlet solely among “happy human beings.” Fjelde convincingly warns against equating Solness’s “homes for happy human beings” with Ibsen’s Ghosts or Rosmersholm, and suggests an archetypal reading, in which Solness represents the sacred king who has reached the acme of his powers and must be sacrificed by his own consent to ensure the continued existence of his clan, an impression reinforced, Fjelde claims, when at the close of the play “the young king, Ragnar, brings to the old king, Solness, that ambiguous symbol of victory and death, the ribboned wreath.”

Thus, Solness’s death, which illuminates the entire play, may be seen on various levels of meaning, as biographically, realistically, symbolically, and mythically significant. The Master Builder perhaps more than any other of Ibsen’s plays illustrates the immense control that Ibsen could exert over his expressed theme through the limpid prose he used as his dramatic vehicle, which approaches poetry in its compression, imagery, and suggestiveness. Here, too, Ibsen examines not only the workings of the unconscious mind but also mysterious powers beyond ordinary sensory perception, without destroying his chosen naturalistic perspective. Fjelde aptly describes the dramatic method in Solness’s tragedy as “Truths beyond, within, outside the self . . . a lyric and seamless unity.”

Principal drama
Catalina, pb. 1850, revised pb. 1875, pr. 1881 (verse drama; Catiline, 1921); Kjæmpehøien, pr. 1850, revised pb. 1854 (dramatic poem; The Burial Mound, 1912); Norma: Eller, En politikers kjærlighed, pr., pb. 1851 (verse satire); Sancthansnatten, pr. 1853, pb. 1909 (St. John’s Night, 1921); Fru Inger til Østraat, pr. 1855, pb. 1857 (Lady Inger of Østraat, 1906); Gildet paa Solhaug, pr., pb. 1856, revised pb. 1883 (verse and prose drama; The Feast at Solhaugh, 1906); Olaf Liljekrans, pr. 1857, pb. 1902 (verse and prose drama; English translation, 1911); Hærmænde paa Helgeland, pr., pb. 1858 (The Vikings at Helgeland, 1890); Kjærlighedens komedie, pb. 1862, pr. 1873 (verse comedy; Love’s Comedy, 1900); Kongsemnerne, pb. 1863, pr. 1864 (The Pretenders, 1890); Brand, pb. 1866, pr. 1885 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1891); Peer Gynt, pb. 1867, pr. 1876 (dramatic poem; English translation, 1892); De unges forbund, pr., pb. 1869 (The League of Youth, 1890); Kejser og Galilæer, pb. 1873, pr. 1896 (2 parts: Cæsars frafald and Kejser Julian; Emperor and Galilean, 1876, 2 parts: Caesar’s Apostasy and The Emperor Julian); Samfundets støtter, pr., pb. 1877 (The Pillars of Society, 1880); Et dukkehjem, pr., pb. 1879 (A Doll’s House, 1880; also known as A Doll House); Gengangere, pb. 1881, pr. 1882 (Ghosts, 1885); En folkefiende, pb. 1882, pr. 1883 (An Enemy of the People, 1890); Vildanden, pb. 1884, pr. 1885 (The Wild Duck, 1891); Rosmersholm, pb. 1886, pr. 1887 (English translation, 1889); Fruen fra havet, pb. 1888, pr. 1889 (The Lady from the Sea, 1890); Hedda Gabler, pb. 1890, pr. 1891 (English translation, 1891); Bygmester Solness, pb. 1892, pr. 1893 (The Master Builder, 1893); Lille Eyolf, pb. 1894, pr. 1895 (Little Eyolf, 1894); John Gabriel Borkman, pb. 1896, pr. 1897 (English translation, 1897); Naar vi døde vaagner, pb. 1899, pr. 1900 (When We Dead Awaken, 1900); Samlede verker, hundreaarsutgave, pb. 1928- 1957 (21 volumes); The Oxford Ibsen, pb. 1960-1977 (8 volumes); The Complete Major Prose Plays, pb. 1978.

Other major works
Poetry: Digte, 1871; Poems, 1993. nonfiction: Ibsen: Letters and Speeches, 1964. miscellaneous: The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, 1906-1912, 1928 (13 volumes).

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henrik Ibsen. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Ferguson, Robert. Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography. London: R. Cohen, 1996.
Garland, Oliver. A Freudian Poetics for Ibsen’s Theatre: Repetition, Recollection, and Paradox. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1998.
Goldman, Michael. Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Johnston, Brian. The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from “Pillars of Society” to “When We Dead Awaken.” Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
Ledger, Sally. Henrik Ibsen. Plymouth, England: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 1999.
McFarlane, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Shepherd-Barr, Kirsten. Ibsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
Templeton, Joan. Ibsen’s Women. 1997. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Theoharis, Theoharis Constantine. Ibsen’s Drama: Right Action and Tragic Joy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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