Sunday, June 9, 2013
An Objectivist Analysis of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck by Jenny Chieu
Man strives to escape reality. In The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen depicts this doomed struggle in the conflict between Gregers Werle and the Ekdal family. Gregers epitomizes the idealistic and naïve man who passionately believes that a truthful and perfect life is possible. He attempts to help the Ekdal family, but only manages to ruin Hialmar and Gina Ekdal’s marriage and cause their fourteen-year-old daughter, Hedvig, to commit suicide. In Objectivist philosophy, the supremacy of the individual and absolute truth are most important, because these enable man to think rationally and create progress. Ibsen demonstrates that the failure to become an independent individual and embrace reality as it exists separate from man leads to suffering and the stagnation of human life. Encapsulated in the symbol of the wild duck, this theme manifests itself in the characters of Hialmar Ekdal and Gregers Werle.
The wild duck represents man’s dependence on a false reality and the illusion of his freedom. The wounded duck that the Ekdals care for has “lived in [their garret] so long now that she [had] forgotten her natural wild life” (Ibsen 101), symbolizing the acceptance of a fake reality. To survive, the wounded duck continues this mirage, and “never…[got] a glimpse of the sky and the sea” (101); the forgotten and true world would have killed the duck, because she is no longer self-sustaining. The duck reflects the actions of man faced with hardship, for often times the scars of the past that leave illusion as the only crutch. As an alternative to living a false reality, a wild duck may also try to escape reality altogether. Rather than face their wounds, “[the ducks] shoot to the bottom [of the lake]… bite themselves fast… and they never come up again” (101). Wild ducks succumb to distress, mirroring the human’s choice to drown in sorrow or commit suicide. The ability to discard a counterfeit reality and live with the truth is a purely human trait. Failure to do so brings one down to the level of animals and renders true happiness impossible.
Hialmar Ekdal is the human manifestation of the wild duck. He possesses neither independence of his mind and body nor the ability to see the truth. Exhibiting his own dearth of creativity, Hialmar’s talent consists of “declaiming other peoples verses, and other people’s thoughts”(139); Hialmar simply lacks an individual mind. Furthermore, though he boasts about his invention, Hialmar claims that people “mustn’t ask for details yet. It takes time, you see” (113). Truly, Hialmar’s independent mind is like his invention – non-existent. He even underlines the lack of control over his mind by espousing the idea that “an invention … depends largely on inspiration – on intuition – and it is almost impossible to predict when the inspiration will come” (144). Like an animal, Hialmar depends on stimulus by other humans to move his life forward. Beyond simply staying alive, Hialmar’s mind is void of that human spark of independence and progress.
Hialmar’s physical dependence on others reveals itself in his profession, financial status, and family life. As a photographer of people, he merely captures what is already there, not creating anything new. Due to a past incident, the Ekdal’s meager income is also supplemented by money from the Werle family (124). It was Werle who urged Hialmar into photography and gave him enough money to marry and start a business (79). Not only does Hialmar lack mental capabilities, but also the financial means to progress in life. In the household, Gina, not Hialmar, takes care of the family business. Gina organizes advertisements, does much of the photography and retouching, cleans the house, and cooks the food (94, 105, 106). She has “always been a bit more practical and wide-awake than [Hialmar]” (125). Thus, Hialmar lives a parasitic life, contributing to his household merely vacuous statements, imaginations of an invention, and only a bit of real work now and then.
The mists of Hialmar’s inadequacy distance him from reality. Hialmar does not realize that he adds no more to the family than the wild duck. Like his photography job, Hialmar retouches his life; he erases all the blemishes, sustaining the illusion that he is intelligent, the breadwinner of the family, and beloved by all (126, 92). But Hialmar even goes further to escape reality. As accepting reality consists of accepting the work and responsibility of the real world, Hialmar shuns his photographic work as much as possible (105). He chooses to work with his father in the garret to make a new home for the wild duck, symbolizing his belief in lies over reality.
Through Hialmar, Ibsen reveals the core of procrastination – escaping the reality of responsibility by busying the mind with other matters. Hialmar’s reality is also obscured by his tendency to wallow in sorrow. Similar to the wild duck diving into the deep, Hialmar “[has] strayed into a poisonous marsh, … and an insidious disease has taken hold of [him] and [he] has sunk down to the dark” (115). Hialmar inebriates himself with emotions and fails to see reality. It is fitting, then, that Hialmar should say, “It’s all dark”, when others reply, “Nonsense, it’s moonlight” (99). Blinded by his lack of individualism and reliance on lies, Hialmar lives a perilous and animalistic existence. Ibsen illustrates the horror of this choice, for Hialmar survives perpetually in the night.
When a wounded duck dives to the bottom of a lake, a hunter sends his dog to fetch it (101). This dog is an apt metaphor for Gregers, who exemplifies its loyalty and lack of independence, and therefore unhappy human life. Gregers has one master – truth. He is committed to realizing what he believes is the “claim of the ideal” (116), or the perfect and honest life. Doctor Relling, a lodger in the Ekdal house, notes that Gregers “is suffering from an acute attack of integrity” (121). Gregers is so obsessed with the ideal that he wildly tries to instill it even where the truth is a killing force. His blind devotion is directly connected to his lack of individualism. Similar to a dog, Gregers is “always in a delirium of hero-worship; [he] must always have something to adore, outside of [himself]” (140). Gregers places the value of other individuals over himself and loses the ability to judge the world in a rational way, for the first step to rational thinking lies in trusting one’s mind and body. Gregers “makes such shocking mistakes about every new phoenix [he] thinks [he] has discovered” because he has no self-trust or self-worth (140). This lack of self-value leads to his unhappy life and the ruining of the Ekdal family. Greger’s hero-worship illustrates that the so-called “joyous and fearless spirit of self-sacrifice” is not a way of living (141), but at its essence a way of death. Truly, one of the most important things a person can do to live is find true self-respect.
Hialmar becomes a symbol of death, achieving nothing as his life ticks to an end. He indolently works at retouching and wastes time in the garret making a house for the duck. His excuse is that he “must have something alongside of [the invention] to fill up the time of waiting” (114) and whenever questioned about his invention or other work, Hialmar says, “It takes time, you know” (113, 127, 146). In one of Hedvig’s picture books, the first page shows “Death with an hourglass and a woman” (109). As a book “is a sort of world by itself” (108), this page alludes to the world that Hedvig lives in. Death and the hourglass symbolize Hialmar, whose only function is to use time up, while the woman represents Gina, a human because she can think rationally. When a person dies, he cannot perceive the passage of time anymore. Hialmar’s individualism and sense of reality have died, so though time, which is absolute, still passes in the hourglass beside him, “time has come to a standstill there – in the wild duck’s domain” (109).
As a harbinger of death, Hialmar acts as a reverse and grotesque parody of Jesus Christ. Hialmar attended Werle’s dinner party, where there were thirteen at the table, the same number of people in Jesus’s last supper. In addition, only one woman, Mrs. Sorby, was present. Gregers, whose fate it is “to be thirteenth at the table” (152), acts as a Judas figure, but instead of bringing death, Gregers ironically almost opens a new life for Hialmar. As established previously, Hialmar uses the way of death and by revealing the truth, Gregers causes Hialmar much pain and suffering. When Hialmar complains, “Do you think a man can so easily throw off the bitter cup I have drained?” (126), Ibsen alludes to Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). Thus, the revealing of the truth is the crucifixion of Hialmar. Accordingly, Hialmar is anti-resurrected to his way of death with Hedvig’s suicide. She gives him sorrow, another excuse to “plunge deep into the night side of existence” (132). The reversal of life and death underlines the terrible effects of Hialmar’s choices. Ibsen illustrates that to accept lies leads to death, whereas to embrace reality, as it resides separate from human consciousness, and to pursue staunch individualism bring resurrection and life.
Only Doctor Relling realizes the bitter reality, and sets out to cure people diseased from illusions and sacrifice. Unfortunately, this sickness has spread so far and deep that complete eradication is impossible; Relling can only “[cultivate] the life illusion [to save people]… For illusion, you know, is the stimulating principle” (140). The way of death is firmly ingrained in people’s minds, corrupting the true to the false and the false to the true illusion. In this backwards way, the truth really becomes an impossible goal; instead of “that foreign word: ideals, [we] have an excellent native word: lies” (141). People have become dependent on the way of death and can no longer live true lives, for to “rob the average man of his life-illusion [is to] rob him of his happiness in the same stroke” (141).
The guests play blind-mans-bluff at Werle’s dinner party, in which one person is blindfolded and must rely on the guidance of others to find his way around. This game symbolizes the human condition that Ibsen laments: our distance from reality and our lack of independence. Often times, people reject the truth for a happier illusion, foolishly squander their lives, or fail to become individuals. This disregard for life results in the way of death that many follow today. In order to truly live as humans, we must pull off our blindfolds, and though some may claim that we “mustn’t stop there any longer staring at all the lights” (79), we must persevere in search of a reality affirmed by, but not created by, our thinking as we each strive to become rational individuals.
1. Ibsen, Henrik. The Wild Duck. New York: Airmont, 1966. Print.
Posted by Andrea Kittelson at 10:10 AM