Analysis of Major Characters
The fiery, melodramatic Hialmar figures as the comic double of the romantic hero Ibsen so famously unmasks in his theater. Hialmar is most explicitly unmasked in the exchange between Relling and Gregers in Act V. Hialmar's handsomeness, "superficially emotional temperament," "sympathetic voice," and talent for declaiming the verses and thoughts of others have always made him appear the "great light of the future" among his intimates. As Relling notes, Hialmar has always figured as a "shining light" within his private circles. The play of course thoroughly debunks this fantasy throughout, from his humiliation, beginning at Werle's banquet in the first act.
On his own part, Hialmar understands himself as a great father, provider, and inventor, the redeemer of the family line. Little does he know his continued debt to the man who ruined his father and the reasons for Werle's facilitation of his marriage with Gina. The revelation of both will lead him to abandon temporarily his household. Soon, however, his need for domestic comfort as well as a space where he might continue to play the shining idol quickly returns him home. Hialmar's dismissal of the petty concerns in life and dawdling in the garret while he awaits the necessary inspiration for his invention is certainly a parody of romantic notions of creation and creativity.
Cast by his rival Relling as a spiritual "quack," Gregers is the impassioned, idealistic son of Hakon Werle. He has returned from self-imposed exile to avenge his father's crimes on the Ekdal family. In this sense, his appearance in the Ekdal household figures as a "returned of the repressed." For Gregers, vengeance consists of the unmasking of Hialmar's family life: the revelation of his wife's liaison with his father, their continued debt to Werle, and, inadvertently, Hedvig's uncertain parentage. Gregers justifies his "mission" with the "claim of the ideal." Like the wild duck, Hialmar has lost himself in the "poisonous marshes" of his delusions and should raise himself into the light of truth.
Despite the ruin he brings to the household, Gregers will preach his gospel up to the end of the play. The disjuncture between his fanatical exhortations—that the family should seek "true frame of mind for self- sacrifice and forgiveness"—and the suffering of the Ekdals is comic and grotesque. Note Gregers's inexorable Christian logic. He speaks in a language of abasement, forgiveness, exaltation, redemption, martyrdom, confession, absolution, and sacrifice.
When he finally realizes that he has failed to redeem his friends, Gregers makes a melancholic exit from a world in which he in a sense has come to have no place. His destiny is to be the "thirteenth at the table," or the guest outside the circle of diners. His number of course recalls the figure of Judas at the Last Supper; Relling also identifies him as the devil or Antichrist. Gregers's insistence on the ideal condemns him to a false gospel that drives him to the betrayal of his friends and brings ruin to their houses.
Hedvig is perhaps the play's most pathetic figure: its innocent, martyred child. She is of uncertain parentage, belonging either to Hialmar or Werle and potentially passed from the former to the latter in a marriage designed to circumvent public scandal. Hedvig's beloved father dispossesses her at the moment when her future is assured through Werle's beneficence. She comes to double the wild duck in being the wayward daughter. Like the duck, she is no longer certain of her origins and has been adopted into a second home.
Hedvig's doubling with the wild duck particularly distinguishes itself from that of the rest of the cast in taking metaphoric substitution to a lethal conclusion. This shift occurs when the two figures both become the object of sacrifice. When Hialmar abandons Hedvig, Gregers will exhort her to sacrifice the duck, her most precious possession, to prove her love for her father. Hedvig will enter the garret to kill the duck but end by killing herself in a chaste and bloodless suicide. She dies for her father's love. The irony is that throughout the play Hedvig intuits the lunacy of Gregers's gospel and nearly awakes from it before committing suicide.
Hedvig is also marked by an incipient blindness, a degenerative eye-disease that she has inherited from either Werle or Hialmar's line. Her inherited disease is the legacy of crimes past, crimes of which she is again innocent. Her blindness also symbolizes the predominance "life-illusion" in the Ekdal household.
The cynical Dr. Relling is Hialmar's longtime antagonist from the Hoidal works and his rival over the fate of Hialmar. Appearing as a figure of critical knowledge, he in some sense incarnates Ibsen's famous turn to the psychological. Relling pits himself against Gregers's appeals to the ideal as all so much "quakery." Rather than engage with Gregers on his own terms—"spiritual tumults" and a Christian logic of forgiveness and redemption—Relling recasts their discussion in a quasi-medical discourse of pathology. Thus Relling considers the ideal as little more than a lie: the two are related as typhus is to putrid fever. Man does not require redemption but treatment, an inoculation he terms the "life-illusion" or "life-lie." The life-lie, be it the delusions of Ekdal in his garret or Molvik's conviction that he is possessed, makes the patient's survival possible, guarding against his complete disintegration.
Relling above all offers diagnosis, evaluating the pathologies of both the play's romantic protagonists. In his eyes, Hialmar has too long figured as the "shining light" within his private circles; he has done so since in the care of his "hysterical" spinster aunts. Gregers suffers from an "integrity-fever" in his guilt over the Ekdals' ruin and a "delirium of hero-worship." With such diagnoses, Relling would replace metaphysics with metapsychology.
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