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Henrik Ibsen: The Major Plays

THE PILLARS OF SOCIETY

The Story of a Ship-Owner, Karsten Bernick

The central character in this play is a man called Karsten Bernick. He is a rich ship-owner in a small
port-town of Norway. He has married a woman whom he did not love; he married her only to
achieve his worldly ambitions. His life has been a series of successes which have resulted mainly
from his dishonest dealings. Fifteen years before the play opens, this man had been caught in an
actress's bed-room while he was engaged to the woman whom he subsequently married. At that
time he had allowed his fiances brother Johan to take the blame for his misadventure and to
emigrate. Now he has secretly purchased all the land through which a railway line is to be built.
When Johan returns from America and threatens to expose him, Bernick lets him go on a ship which
he knows is rotten and must sink. But he finds, seemingly too late, that his own son has gone aboard
the same ship. The ship is discovered not to have sailed. Bernick in his relief confesses his crimes but
is left unpunished; in fact, he becomes even more prosperous than he was before.

Two of the Strongest Characters in This Play

The brief story of the play as given above does not include the various sub-plots and some of the
play's strongest characters, notably Lona Hessel, Bernicks former beloved, who returns from
America to let some fresh air into the closed society of the little town, and Martha, Bernicks sister,
who has loved Johan and waited for his return only to find that he does not care for her because he
is interested in another girl who is half his age.

Truth and Freedom: The True Pillars of Society

In this play, society, represented by the figure of one of its main pillars, Karsten Bernick, is exposed,
mainly on account of the intrusion of the defiant Lona Hessel. In contrast to the conventional and
hypocritical morality of society, Lona represents a broader view and a higher morality, and an
unconditional demand for truth from the individual. In the eyes of society, Bernick is a man of
honour, and a benefactor of the people. But Lona knows that the whole of this mans work has its
origin in lies and in the betrayal of love. It is chiefly out of her concern for his inner being that she
now demands that he should tell the truth. Lonas closing maxim is that the spirit of truth and
freedom are the pillars of society.

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

Dr. Stockmanns Courage in the Face of Public Opposition

The central character in this play is Dr. Stockmann, a medical officer of a small health-resort in
Norway. People flock to this spa town in order to bathe in its waters, and the local people are
therefore prosperous. Dr. Stockmann, however, discovers that the baths on which the local people
depend for their livelihood are contaminated. At first the citizens praise him as a public benefactor;
but when they learn that the baths would have to be closed for several years thus affecting their
incomes, they turn against him. When he calls a meeting to put his views before the people, they
stigmatize him as their enemy. The consequence is that he loses his medical practice, and his
daughter loses her teaching job. His first reaction to these misfortunes is that he should leave the
town and take away his family from here. But when the mob breaks his windows, he decides to stay
on and try to re-educate the people of the town with his new-found strength. He tells his wife that
the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.
Frank and Aggressive Social Criticism in the Play

The play has a strong element of comedy in it. It is rich in memorable scenes. The symbolism is
unambiguous, and the character-portrayal is perfectly clear. The social criticism is more frank and
aggressive than in any other play by Ibsen. Dr. Stockmanns tragi-comic struggle with the authorities
and with public opinion represents the conflict between moral and human considerations on the one
hand and bureaucratic conservatism, economic self-interest, and mob-appeal on the other hand.
The social criticism has a further motive. The conflict about the waters of the spa opens endless
perspectives for the doctor. No, it is the whole society which needs to be cleansed and disinfected,
he says. All our spiritual resources are poisoned and the whole of our civic community rests on an
infected bed of lies. The most dangerous name to truth and freedom among us is the damned,
compact majority. Dr. Stockmann is not only an undaunted champion of truth but also a superb
comedy-figure, enthusiastic and impractical, irritable and naive, colourful in his passionate
eloquence, bubbling over with fighting spirit and humour.

THE LADY FROM THE SEA

Three Main Characters in the Play

The central character in this play is Ellida Wangel. She is married to a doctor who is much older than
herself and who has two daughters by a previous marriage. Ellida can no longer persuade herself to
have sexual relations with her husband because she is now haunted by the memory of a sailor whom
she had met years before and who had betrothed her to himself by linking their rings on a key-ring
and throwing them into the sea. She knows that this sailor had killed a man, but she cannot free
herself from thoughts of him. One day he reappears and asks her to go with him. She finds it
impossible to say no to him. Her husband fails to persuade her to stay on with him, and therefore
permits her to go away because he believes that, if prevented forcibly from going away, she would
become insane. As soon as he gives her the permission to go away with the sailor, her feeling of
compulsion to go with that man leaves her, and she stays on with her husband. I was free to choose
the unknown. So, I was free to reject it, she says.

A Psychological Transformation in Ellida

Among other things, this play illustrates Ibsens obsession with the sea. The sea always fascinated
him. The sea had a magnetic power over him. In the play, the sea is intimately associated with
Ellidas past and particularly with the sailor to whom she had once pledged her word and to whom
she had bound herself symbolically when they joined rings and threw them into the sea. She is
constantly seeking the sea, bathes at all times of the day, and lives as a stranger with her husband
and his two daughters. But when the sailor who had been lost now returns, the crisis for her
becomes acute. She is drawn towards him but at the same time retreats, terrified. The horribleit
is that which both terrifies and fascinates. Her husband, Dr. Wangel, tries to hold her with all the
means in his power, and it is only when he sets her absolutely free that she becomes inwardly free
and therefore responsible. She becomes a new and independent person who can face her conflict
boldly and is able to take her own free decision. According to an eminent psychiatrist, the play is an
excellent demonstration of a psycho-analytical cure; and the way in which Ibsen has here anticipated
Freud has been further discussed by other qualified critics.
HEDDA GABLER

The Tragic End of Hedda

Hedda Gabler is the daughter of a general. At the age of twenty-nine, in a state of despair, she has
married George Tesman, an amiable, but dull scholar. She has become pregnant, but she does not
want the child. She hates everything that is ugly, and this for her includes sex. She has romantic
ideas about males but cannot tolerate being touched by them. A former admirer, Ejlert, reappears in
her life. He is a brilliant writer but a dissolute man. Heddas friend of old days, Thea, has helped
Ejlert to get rid of his drinking habits and persuaded him to start writing again. Hedda becomes
jealous of Thea. She makes Ejlert drunk and, as a consequence, he loses the manuscript of his new
book. Heddas husband, George Tesman, happens to find the manuscript. Hedda, without telling
Ejlert that the manuscript has been found, pistol to kill himself, asking him to do it beautifully.
Ejlert does kill himself with the pistol but he does so accidentally when he visits a brothel Judge
Brack, another admirer of Hedda, recognizes the pistol as Sa s He blackmails Hedda in order to force
her to become his mistress, wing to reveal the ownership of the pistol and thus cause a scandal eh
Hedda is terribly afraid of. So, she shoots herself.

Hedda, an Egotistical Woman

According to a critic, most of Ibsens plays had been about egotistical and unselfish women but
Hedda Gabler is a play about an egotistical woman. Whereas a mans egotism may at least often
cause him to achieve much, a womans egotism merely forces her into isolation and self- admiration.
Hedda has no source of richness in herself and she therefore seeks it in others, so that her life
becomes a pursuit of sensation and experiment. Her hatred of bearing a child is the ultimate
expression of her egotism, a sickness which brings death.

Different Interpretations of Heddas Character

No other character in Ibsens play has been discussed as much as Hedda Gabler One critic found her
to be a magnificent, richly endowed woman and tragic character. Another called her a truly
degenerate type, without competence or real ability. Yet another saw her as a satirical portrait of a
modern society lady. It is between these extremes that judgments of her character have tended to
move.