Henrik Ibsen, the renowned Norwegian playwright, was the author of more than twenty-five plays. His work covers a broad range of dramatic styles, settings and characters- enough so that one play could almost seem to be written by an entirely different author. Ibsen began his career writing poetry, shifted to dramatic verse, shifted again to a style of prose that scathingly criticized Victorian morality, and finally concluded his writing by turning the focus inward and examining human nature (Hanssen). A play written by Ibsen in 1867, Peer Gynt, is thus radically different in style and form than a later Ibsen play such as Hedda Gabler, written in 1890. Peer Gynt is a poetic fairy tale, with a wide range of settings, brimming with semi-human characters. Hedda Gabler, on the other hand, is a realistic study of a Victorian wife and her husband that takes place entirely in their house. It would be easy to conclude, then, that these two plays share very little. In fact, the opposite is true.
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In Ibsen’s dramatic verse play Peer Gynt, the central character’s conflict surrounds an unmade choice- whether to fully accept the difficult life of self-examination as a man or to ignore that and embrace the unexamined, self-sufficing life of a troll, perhaps as the easier alternative. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda faces a similar existential dilemma, although its demonstration is quite different. Hedda is faced with a choice between the shallow, aesthetic life of a beautiful woman in society, and the role of a life-giving, sustaining mother and wife. Thus, although the two plays are different in both setting and style, the main characters share a similar struggle over their own identity and their lack of desire to face their inner humanity.
Peer Gynt was written soon after Ibsen’s move from the Norwegian capital to the beauty of Italy’s Mediterranean coast. The move was inspired by his lack of success as an artist, as well as his dissatisfaction with the current Norwegian dramatic scene (Hanssen). It is strange to imagine that Peer Gynt, a work that draws heavily on Norwegian fairy-tales and local legend, was written in the sunny Mediterranean. But the change of atmosphere must have worked, because Peer Gynt, his second work written after he left Norway, was published with tremendous popular support and acclaim (McFarlane vii).
The audience is introduced to Peer Gynt’s roguish character in the first scene. Peer is telling his mother, Ase, the fanciful story of a wild reindeer ride through the mountains. Ase rebukes him for his storytelling, in retaliation, teases him over his loss of a young woman, Ingrid, who is to be married the next day. Peer rushes to the wedding and ends up getting himself banished from the area after he runs away with the bride for the night. At this same wedding, he meets a young woman named Solveig who is to be his faithful talisman for the rest of his life. He is unable to see this at the time however, and embarks on a journey of escape. Peer travels to places as far away as Morocco and Egypt in a futile attempt to avoid any kind of moral struggle. In his first adventure, which takes place in his dreams, he is lured by the Troll Princess into her father’s house, where the Troll King inadvertently gives him the motto by which he lives. When asked about the difference between a man and a troll, the Troll King responds that “Among men… they say: ‘Man, to yourself be true!’ while here… we say: ‘Troll, to yourself be- enough!’” (Ibsen, Peer Gynt 55). Although Peer often quotes the motto of man, he actually lives by the words of the troll, as he will realize later on in his life. Throughout the rest of his travels- to Morocco, the Sahara and a ship back to Norway, he accumulates wealth and acquaintances, only to have them snatched from him at every turn. He remains full of the old bravado, but robbery and finally a shipwreck make him decide to return home. When he is cast on the Norwegian shores he meets a Button-Moulder, the symbol of Death. Death tells him that it is his time to be “melted down” (Ibsen, Peer Gynt 182). Peer is told that, while he never sinned enough to go to Hell, he is also not “buoyant enough for heaven” (Ibsen, Peer Gynt 187). While he manages to negotiate an extension of the date of his death, he is struck by the accusation that he had never been truly himself, and had instead behaved as the very opposite. In their next meeting, the Button-Moulder tells Peer how he has failed. He says that “To be yourself is to slay yourself” (Ibsen, Peer Gynt 193), meaning that to fully live up to ones potential, one must kill one’s self-reliance in order to open into a full, true version of who one is meant to be. Peer has failed to do this by shirking responsibilities, passing blame and telling lies. Although he has never committed an actual sin, he has also never done or appreciated a truly noble deed or feeling, such as the love given to him by Solveig. When he finally decides to approach life head-on, the two are reunited and she tells him that he has existed all along, in her “faith, hope and love” (Ibsen, Peer Gynt 208). At the end of the play, Solveig protects Peer from the Button-Moulder who is waiting outside.
Hedda Gabler is entirely different in scope and style. The play takes place within two rooms of the Tesman’s house, as opposed to multiple settings, and it is written in prose. There are no trolls, neither are there any fairy-tales or dream sequences, as in Peer Gynt. Instead, the play is a realist study of a woman struggling to avoid the confines of her new marriage. The play begins when the Tesmans return home from their extended honeymoon. The audience quickly gets the sense that Hedda comes from a moneyed family, and that she is something of a snob. Her husband’s aunt Miss Tesman has even bought a new hat so that Hedda will not be embarrassed of her when they go out in public. When Hedda enters she is distant and rude to both Miss Tesman and her husband, and it soon becomes apparent that she feels smothered by their small talk. At the same time, there are hints that Hedda may be pregnant, which she denies. The Tesmans are soon visited by an old school friend of Hedda’s, Mrs. Elvsted, who informs them that Mr. Tesman’s academic rival, Eilert Lovborg, is also in town. He has become an alcoholic, and she is afraid for him after the progress that the two of them made on his new book. Mr. Tesman is concerned by the promise of this book, because, as their friend Judge Brack tells them, it might upset his appointment to a new position at the university. This sets up the tension between Hedda and Mr. Tesman, as she is clearly upset by any strain on their finances, and threatens to fill her spare time by playing with her pistols. Throughout the rest of the play, Hedda effectively manipulates each character; making Mrs. Elvsted worry about her lover Lovborg’s drinking, while making Lovborg (Hedda’s former lover) angry at Mrs. Elvsted and driving him to drink. She also teases Judge Brack with flirtation and the hint of a closer relationship, presumably as a way to relax her boredom. After gaining possession of Lovborg’s manuscript, she tells him in his ensuing distress that he should kill himself “in beauty” with a pistol that she gives him. After he leaves, she burns his manuscript, calling it the child of Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted. It is clear that she is fiercely jealous that Mrs Elvsted is able to muster up the passion to have a scandalous affair, with her former lover no less, while she is stuck in a house with a man who bores her. Hedda’s frustration stems from the fact that she is too afraid of what other people will think of her to act in a similar fashion. She is aghast at the boldness of Mrs. Elvsted’s action, when she asks her, “Well, what do you think people will say about you, Thea?” (Ibsen, Hedda Gabler 305) marvelling that she could do such a thing, and so openly. Hedda’s own disinterest means that she must take out her anger by bringing misery to others. The play comes to a terrible climax when Judge Brack reveals that Lovborg died when the pistol went off accidentally, as opposed to the beautiful death she imagined. Hedda is distraught, crying “Oh absurdity-! It hangs like a curse over everything I so much as touch” (Ibsen, Hedda Gabler 352). Brack then proceeds to tell her that he knows that Lovborg used her pistol, and that if word got out it would cause a terrible scandal- the thing that Hedda most fears. She is now beholden to Brack, a constraint that she finds unimaginable. Mrs. Elvsted and Mr. Tesman, meanwhile, are forming a bond over a new academic work. In sheer anger she retreats to another room and shoots herself in the temple.
Hedda Gabler and Peer Gynt are strikingly similar characters. Although Peer Gynt does not resort to the evil manipulations of Hedda, both characters are haunted by a similar fear. One of the most difficult times in a man’s life is the moment when he must look at himself in the mirror and face up to both his strengths and his weaknesses. It is only through gratitude of one’s mistakes that one can hope for redemption and the rebuilding process that follows. And it is only through this rebuilding that man can find his true nature and subsequently enrich his the experiences of his life. Both Hedda Gabler and Peer Gynt are afraid of doing this. Hedda’s repeated denials that she is pregnant show that she is chafing at the bounds of her bourgeois life. Although on the surface it appears that she is bored and lazy, these denial also speak to a deeper fear that, if she gives herself over to the task of mothering her child, she will be forced to face up to her faults and potentially become insignificant in the eyes of the men she continues to torment. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, Hedda has fallen, “into the abyss between the ideals which do not impose on her and the realities that she has not yet discovered” (56). Peer Gynt faces a similar choice. By constantly moving from place to place, he is effectively avoiding any personal confrontations that settling down might produce. Peer’s attempt to steal the bride away from her own wedding for a night of romance show that he does not possess the maturity to make such a commitment. In leaving Solveig, he is also leaving the idea that simple, true love can be the ultimate, noble destiny of man, and searching for fulfillment through material wealth both real and imagined. This idea of love is one that Hedda Gabler also shies from. Neither of them has the strength of character necessary to admit that satisfaction might be found by looking within. The most important difference between Hedda and Peer is that, when faced with the ultimate test of their will (Peer by Death himself and Hedda by the prospect of insignificance and constraint), Peer has the grace to realize what he has been missing and embrace Solveig’s love, while Hedda chooses the coward’s way out.
In the end, however, both characters have wasted their lives in inactivity and selfish acts while those surrounding them move on to greater things. It is possible that in the beginning of Ibsen’s career, when he wrote Peer Gynt, he hung on to the belief that there is hope for us all in the end. Perhaps Hedda’s wasteful end is symbolic of the cynicism that comes with age, as Ibsen realized the depths to which humanity could sink. Conjecture aside, one thing can be said for certain: the subjects of identity and inner human struggle resonated soundly for Ibsen, and can be found in both Peer Gynt and Hedda Gabler.
Hanssen, Jens Morten. “Short Ibsen Biography.” Ibsen.net April 7, 2007. May 2, 2008 < http://ibsen.net/index.gan?id=11130435&subid=0 >
Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler.” In Ibsen’s Selected Plays. Ed. Brian Johnson. New York: Norton, 2004
Ibsen, Henrik. Peer Gynt. Trans. Christopher Fry and Johan Fillinger. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969
McFarlane, James. “Introduction.” In Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867), Trans. Christopher Fry and Johan Fillinger. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969
Shaw, George Bernard. “The Lesson of Ibsen’s Plays.” In Literary Sourcebook on Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Ed. Christopher Innes, New York: Routledge, 2003
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