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An analysis of the play by Henrik Ibsen

The following article is reprinted from Henrik Ibsen: Plays and Problems. Otto Heller. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912.

With The Lady from the Sea (1888), Henrik Ibsen's creative work enters upon its third and final phase.

When on Ibsen's seventieth birthday his publisher presented the world with the complete edition of his works, the poet accompanied the gift with the admonition that these works should be treated as a coherent entirety--otherwise the reader could not gain a correct impression of the single parts. And certainly we have observed in our study of the plays to this point that, taken in their totality, they present an unbroken progress and clarification of ideas. Ibsen fared, and all true poets do, like Goethe, who said to Eckermann (December 6, 1829): "It is with me as with one who in his youth has a great quantity of small silver and copper money which in the course of his life he exchanges for more valuable coin, so that at the last he sees his early possessions in the form of pure golden coin." The connective continuity of any two successive plays is perfectly plain to him who knows how to look for their inner meaning. Similar human problems are treated under altered objective, likewise under altered subjective, aspects; that is to say, a familiar problem reappears in the guise of a new environment, and is viewed each time through a more enriched and matured philosophy. Consequently, the primary figures of the plays are closely allied in some of their essential traits. The poet seems to be experimenting with a character by sending him forth successively into greatly differing sets of circumstances. Yet we are not merely to see various sides of one and the same personality, or one and the same side under different lights and aspects; for we witness simultaneously the extraordinary fertility of a poet's creative imagination. Ibsen is extremely rich in ideas, and also very facile in the invention of human characters to convey them. So his figures are much like reincarnations, each increased over its predecessors in moral stature, width of grasp, and beauty of significance. It may be truly said of them, in respect of their ethical import, that they rise to better things on stepping-stones of their dead selves. Ibsen's procedure reminds us of Adolf Wilbrandt's mystical drama Der Meister von Palmyra, in the several acts of which the principal character returns in a sequence of genealogical reincarnations. Nevertheless, the plots and the people are quite distinct. They differentiate themselves spontaneously, inasmuch as each problem treated begets another problem. In this way Ibsen's dramas, taken as a whole, read like a fairly exhaustive case-book of modern social conditions and relations.

While, thus, in intellectual content the dramas of Ibsen's final period are superior if anything to his earlier works, and still more poetical,--in that they possess more of a subtle quality of suggestion,--it must be confessed that from this point on the dramatic imagery grows more unsubstantial; at times the figures are almost shadowy, and rarely do they stand out with the plastic sharpness of outline to which we were formerly accustomed. Possibly, a further refinement has also taken place in the language, especially through the most cunning balance between word and epithet, but herein, too, a certain loss has to be registered; the speech has lost some of its wonderful naturalness and now and then is almost mannerized.

For the leading part in The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen had two models in mind: Camilla Collett and the stepmother of his wife, the well-known authoress, Anna Magdalena Thoresen. Ellida Wangel is a young woman full of an aimless and unbridled yearning. Over her imagination a romantic lure exerts its strange power. The dangers and mysteries of the unknown, the far-away, preoccupy her adventurous spirit. Thus in this drama the lure of the mystical occurs as a tragic strain much as in the earlier parts of Franz Grillparzer's great trilogy, Das Goldene Vliess. Ellida's is a nature outwardly lethargic, inwardly quivering with perpetual unrest, a nature torn away from its anchors by deep and violent perturbations. Her existence is overcast by a thick cloud of melancholia, which hides from her the pleasures and obligations of daily life. She has no appreciation for the blessings of a home, and no understanding of her appointed duties in it. Husband and children are neglected. Even the routine of housekeeping is left to one of the two step-daughters. It is a house threatened with disruption by her inexcusable indifference. The "mermaid," as she calls herself, cannot be happy or make others happy, because she is out of her element. The painter Ballested is inspired by her fate and behavior to represent her as a mermaid dying in a sultry cove. She is a stranger to the village on the fjord, coming from a country where, as Dr. Wangel picturesquely declares, there is flow and ebb in the souls of the people. Her usefulness is wholly submerged in overwrought fancies, in dreams of a romantic and altogether impalpable existence. It would not be a difficult matter to find several obvious resemblances between Ellida Wangel and Rebecca West. Even the figurative name "mermaid" is once applied to the latter by that old castaway, Ulrik Brendel. And a parallel might also be drawn between Ellida and Nora, or between the former and Dina Dorf. But it seems to me that our more truly relevant task is an independent comprehension of Ellida's character in her own situation. This situation involves some past guild of Ellida, for without an assumption of some sort of tragic blame the dramatic transaction would not be much better than a ghost story. Briefly stated, Ellida's crime is that she has been untrue to herself by contracting a marriage of reason. The old favorite problem of Ibsen, the marriage question, is stirred up again; after the fashion of nearly all the French dramatists of his century Ibsen dealt as a rule with love problems only as they present themselves in the lives of married people. For her unhappiness Ellida blames herself no less than her husband.

ELLIDA: The truth--the sheer, unvarnished truth is this: You came out there and--bought me.

WANGEL: Bought--did you say--bought?

ELLIDA: Oh, I was not a bit better than you. I joined in the bargain. I went and sold myself to you.

The marriage was an out-and-out "Versorgungsheirat," as the Germans say. And on his part it was also largely an act of practical calculation; the widower, unable to bear the void in his home, had looked deliberately about for someone to be a mother to his children. "I see that the life we two lead with each other," says Ellida, "is really no marriage at all." We may rightly speak of guilt in her case, inasmuch as she did not enter into marriage ignorantly, as did Nora, or even reluctantly, as Helen Alving may be presumed to have done. Ellida has sinned against a sacrament. She married without offering love, and without claiming it. Her penance is like that of an earlier heroine of Ibsen.

"For me is life but a long black night,
Nor sun nor star for me shines bright,
I have sold my youth and my liberty,
And none from my bargain can set me free."

At first we are apt to overestimate Ellida, or at least to side with her in the struggle with Wangel; hers seems the larger, more freedom-loving nature beside his outwardly cramped existence. But our respect for the plain country doctor both as a man and a physician increases an hundredfold as we see him rise to the height of self-abnegation. Seeing through her neuropathic state, he cures her through heightening her own sense of responsibility. This he does by putting into her own hands the free choice to stay or to follow the Stranger to whom she feels herself bound by a previous vow. By this generous act on the part of Wangel the crisis is averted and the entire situation changed. Her phantom pursuer desists as soon as she opposes the force of her own will to his. At first she feels irresistibly recaptured by the old obsession, and seems bound against her will to follow the stranger by whom she is in equal measure attracted and repelled. Just the same she declines her husband's help and protection, for her choice must be free, nobody can help her but herself. When at last, uninfluenced by her husband, who leaves her free to choose, she decides to stay with him, the Stranger accepts the decision calmly and leaves for good.

Has the Lady from the Sea lost her love of liberty, or has she not rather conceived a new idea of freedom? Before now, liberty meant to her the possibility for boundless self-assertion. At the turning-point in her fate it assumed the meaning of personal responsibility. Freedom consists, for a ripened personality, primarily in the right of overcoming one's egotism by one's moral sense. All men may share in the privilege of conquering the lower by the higher nature; it is an opportunity that remains even to those who reject the belief in the freedom of will. Our best chance of happiness lies in harmonizing ourlives with the restrictive laws of society so far as these are reasonable. Our freedom is not lost when we surrender it voluntarily, with full moral consent. "Nous serons heureux parce que nous aura plu d'être ce que nous sommes." The instant that Ellida assumes her freedom of choice and action she is rid forever of her pursuer; no longer is she overshadowed by that vaguely yearning discontent, but takes her stand in solid reality, feeling herself competent and willing to undertake her duties as a wife and mother. The enjoyment of her very life depended on her knowing that it is a life for herself to govern and direct; but that right assured to her, she lives no longer for her own selfish pleasure, but with a constant care for others.

Although the central idea of The Lady from the Sea is transparent enough, yet the clarity of this psychologically so interesting work is somewhat impaired by the spirit of abstraction that trespasses on the concrete premises of the drama, a further complication being caused by the commixture of heterogeneous symbolical assumptions. The symbolism is thereby rendered too intricate and too wavering in its logic, and a phantasmagoric tone is given to the veriest realities. The trouble lies in the poet's willful play with his fancies, or, perhaps better, in his surrender to their caprices. It has been pointed out that not only is the symbolical meaning of events and ideas differently understood by the various persons involved in the action, but even one and the same person comprehends the same symbols quite differently on different occasions. These discrepancies lead to confusion, since, in order to grasp all the ideas of the play, we should first have to puzzle them out. Ellida, for instance, is nicknamed the Lady from the Sea, in allusion to her yearning for the ocean,--a feeling, by the way, which Ibsen shared keenly throughout his life. In her new place of abode she never gets over a sense of intolerable restraint. She misses the limitless expanse of the water view she had from the paternal lighthouse. Her daily dip in the fjord is like the sold touch of home to her; but here the water is different, it makes her melancholy and nervous. Ellida is not "acclimatized," to use the painter Ballested's favorite phrase. But the sobriquet has also a deeper meaning. Ellida is called the Lady from the Sea, as though the sea were her natural life element, as though in some inexplicable fashion she partook of the nature of creatures that live in the sea. Ibsen herein made Ellida's nostalgia for the sea the poetical expression of a half-jesting biogenetic superstition. It is assumed by zoologists that the earliest vertebrate ancestor of man was an ichthyomorphous animal. In Haeckel's Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte mention is made of the Lancelet (Amphioxus lanceolatus) as a surviving representative of the lowest vertebrates. Ibsen's remarks anent a "primal link" in the evolutionary chain refer to this animal. He feels that in some people there survives an undercurrent of atavistic memory of this extremely remote lineal kinship.

There exist some interesting paralipomena from the preparatory work for the play.

Has the progress of the human race taken a wrong direction? Why do we belong to the dry land? Why not to the air or the sea? The desire to possess wings; the strange dreams in which we imagine we can fly and are flying without wondering about it.--What do these mean?... We must conquer the sea; we must build floating cities upon the ocean and let them take us from north to south or in the opposite direction with the change of the seasons; we must learn to master the winds and the weather. This good fortune will come. And [how unluckly are we] not to live to see it!--The mysterious attraction of the sea. Homesickness for the sea. Persons that are related to the sea. Sea-bound: dependent upon the sea; drawn back to it.... A species of fish represents an early link in the evolution [of mammals]. Are there traces (rudiments) of it still left in the human soul--at least in certain human souls?... The sea commands a power of moods that rules us like a dominating will. The sea can hypnotize us; so can nature in general. The great mystery is man's dependence upon blind forces.

In the play itself Ellida is incredulous about mankind having been destined to live on the dry land. She is congenitally in love with the ocean, fascinated by its boundless magnitude and demonic energy in which she senses a quintessential expression of the strenuous forces of life. This character of the sea is externalized in her former lover, the Stranger, who exercises such hypnotic power over her. Of course, the Stranger is not a mere allegory but a breathing human being; but by his moods, habits, character, calling, even by his appearance, he personifies that vast, savage, elemental allurement. Viewed as a human character, he is a totally "declimatized" personality, unknown by name, with a mysterious past. He signs himself by the common cognomen of Johnston; but that is fictitious; to Ellida he gave his name as Freeman. He dwells outside of the society and the laws of men. Once he slew a man, his own captain at that, yet his conscience is clear, for it was a deed of justice. He is never without a loaded revolver, because death for him would be easier to accept than any restraint of his liberty. Ellida's marriage he ignores, since no formal contract can affect his ways. With a plain hint of this anarchistic disposition Ibsen makes him come and go by a leap over the garden fence in disregard of the convenient gate. As the open ocean serves to symbolize the ego unrestrained, so the inland, on the other hand, and the fjord, signify the confinements of society. Whereas out on the main the passions rule and rage, laws and duties and renunciations hem in the self-expression of human nature in any state of civilization.

"That man is like the sea," remarks Ellida, at the conclusion of Act III. In striving to achieve the anthropomorphosis of the sea, the material reality of the Stranger is at times put greatly in jeopardy. Now on this already far from simple symbolism another is superimposed. If the Stranger is the incarnation of the sea--the sea, understood either as a simile or the resistless sweep of life's blind forces over the individual will or as a simile of the natural impulses in their antagonism to the social agreements,--then the Stranger, as the symbol of a symbol, yet performs symbolic ceremonies on his own account in his function as a concrete personality: he and Ellida have both wedded themselves to the sea, by throwing their rings into it,--the statement comes almost like a warning not to identify the Stranger too closely with the element. But if he does not represent the irresistible fascination the sea has for Ellida, who then is he, and what does he represent? We look bewildered for a definite answer that would stand the test of so much contending evidence. The fact that Ibsen used a "model" for the Stranger--he had heard in Molde the story of a seaman who by the magic of his eye had seduced a minister's wife--helps us not at all. In a letter to Julius Hoffory, Ibsen stated the history of the Stranger in detail and described his apparel. But he added: "Nobody should know what he is, just as little should anybody know who he is or what he is really called." Ibsen has succeeded admirably in his mystification, for of a certainty the Stranger is drenched in deepest mystery. Ultimately we have to resign ourselves to the thought that it is all a dream, and are only puzzled to know who does the dreaming: Ellida? Ibsen? or you and I? Symbolism approaches here close to the lawless logic of the "Märchendrama" (fairy tale play).

Once it looks as though the poet were resolved to enlighten us. Dr. Wangel, in the last act, furnishes an explanation:

I begin to understand you by degrees. You think and conceive in images--in visible pictures. Your longing and yearning for the sea--the fascination that he--the Stranger--possessed for you, must have been the expression of an awakening and growing need for freedom within you--nothing else.

This sounds like a terse, clear-cut definition from incontrovertible authority. Yet it does not altogether comport with all features of the action. Also, the "nothing else" at the end makes the definition less satisfying than otherwise it might be. It sounds too much like a caution, "Thus far you may venture, but no farther." We are warned off the private preserves of the poet. And so we are dismissed here--and in the other symbolistic dramas--in a manner that gives us a certain sense of aggravation, a resentment at our being deemed unworthy of the poet's entire confidence; and we part from the play with a measure of diffidence in our ability to spell aright his full meaning. Is not that definition a mere sop to our intellectual curiosity? As one critic puts it drastically, "you have to pick up each and every word and fact like a stone to see what lies hidden underneath." These things combine to detract from the clarity of the play and from its artistic authenticity. The Lady from the Sea impresses us as a very remarkable and beautiful construction, but not as a spontaneous artistic creation.

It must be conceded, however, that the uncertainties and improbabilities and romantic vaguenesses, while diminishing its dramatic worth, add to The Lady from the Sea a fresh element of intense poetical interest. It is by design that the action moves on the border line between the commonplace and the preternatural. The incertitude of the beholder results in his greatly heightened suspense. In this general impression of weirdness, as well as in the particular technical contrivances whereby the impression is conveyed, the work bears a striking resemblance to the dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck.

With these parabolic dramas of Ibsen it is much more difficult to deal in an analytic fashion than was the case with the satirical plays. A hard-and-fast prosaic explanation, even were it safe to give, would be injurious to their subtler poetic fibre. For in their "succinct and intricate type of structure detail ceases to be detail, and the ties of sense and logic are merged into the fine, impalpable web of symbol."

All the same, Ibsen does not belie, even in these dramas, his old passion for straightforward earnestness of statement. As a rule the ideas or lessons are therefore palpable enough under their veilings. The "idea" or "lesson" in The Lady from the Sea is a positive restatement of Ibsen's old thesis that a true marriage is not the work of priest or judge, and that its only guarantee lies in the willing mutual surrender of two independently yet harmoniously developed personalities. The play, so to put it, is a pendant to A Doll's House. The miracle that Nora expected in vain is here fulfilled. Summarizing the dialectic of The Lady from the Sea, we may point once more to the marriage of the principals as a contract that is flimsy and momentarily in danger of annulment until it becomes firm and solid through the infusion of individualism in its double aspect of freedom and obligation. And yet the happy ending is not convincing. The conjugal happiness of the principals remains rather problematical. Since Ellida's yearning was not reasoned but temperamental, is it not likely that sooner or later it may come over her again? Perhaps Ibsen himself did not imagine a cloudless future for the unequal union. For when the younger daughter, Hilda, reappears on the stage in The Master Builder, she speaks of having lived not in a real home but in a cage. Is not this possibly a passing allusion to the sequel?

On the question of the merits of The Lady from the Sea, critical opinion differs. As a stage play it has been less popular than most of Ibsen's dramas. For this lack of public enthusiasm the several flaws in the technique may be partly to blame. The treatment is somewhat too broad, and the by-plot (Boletta-Arnholm) occupies too much time and space in proportion to its intrinsic interest. The union of the younger couple is too much like a representation of the conventional marriage of Ellida to Dr. Wangel. The modern public does not relish such improbabilities as the adventurous encounter between the Stranger and the sculptor Lyngstrand of which the latter tells, or the curious conduct of the Stranger before Ellida, so long as he is meant for a being of flesh and blood and not for a mere phantasmagory, a sort of Flying Dutchman. If, on the other hand, he is to be thought of as a supernatural being, how can the intended effect of unearthliness be produced by a creature in a tweed business suit and peaked traveling cap?

The total absence of social satire also told against the play, since people felt that Ibsen had built up his reputation on that and were loathe to miss it. In fact the works of this final period are felt by some critics to undo the earlier efforts mainly because of their freedom from satiric intention. Ibsen was accused of having turned violently anti-Ibsenite. All in all, there was a widespread feeling among friends and foes alike, that Ibsen's power in this play showed itself as being on the wane.

The preoccupation with cryptic phenomena, which, as has been shown, decreases the vitality of the enacted characters, deserves a special comment. The first sign of this tendency was visible in Rosmersholm. The Lady from the Sea is bolder in the use of thought-transference. In The Master Builder and Little Eyolf it is also carried to great lengths. The "fishy eyes" of the Stranger and the "magnetic eye" of the architect Solness, with their hypnotic power over others, are of great importance, not only for the characterization of those persons, but they are also general factors in the shaping of the events. This might be said even for "the great open eyes" of Little Eyolf. Solness credits himself with a mysterious gift of telepathic coercion. He can make people do his bidding by fixing his eyes upon them, and can bring his wishes true by mere volition. "I merely stood and looked at her and kept on wishing intently that I could have her here"; or again: "Don't you agree with me, Hilda, that there live special, chosen people who have been endowed with the power and faculty of desiring a thing, craving it, willing it--so persistently and so--so inexorably, that at last it has to happen? Don't you believe that?" To a few other occurrences of purposed or involuntary telephathic compulsion we must call attention. Little Eyolf is drowned at the very moment when his mother pronounces the malediction upon his "evil" eyes. Solness blames himself for having somehow, by his secret wish, brought about the conflagration of the old homestead. In The Lady from the Sea there are several striking incidents of the sort. The Stranger far out at sea, having learned of Ellida's marriage from an old newspaper, is seized with a violent rage. From that very day Ellida, being pregnant at the time, refuses to associate intimately with her husband. The eyes of the child that is born are discovered to have a most remarkable resemblance in color and expression to those of the strange sailor. At the approach of the English steamer, which, unknown to Ellida, carries the mysterious Stranger as one of its passengers, a presentiment lays hold of her; altogether, her increased nervousness just before the Stranger's return has to be explained likewise as the effect of mental influences.

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