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Wild Duck

Henrik Ibsen

Important Quotations Explained

Act V: Part Two

Key Facts

GREGERS: Oh, indeed! Hialmar Ekdal is sick too, is he!

RELLING: Most people are, worse luck.

GREGERS: And what remedy are you applying in Hialmar's case?

RELLING: My usual one. I am cultivating the life-illusion* in him. ("Livslognen," literally "the life-lie.")

GREGERS: Life-illusion? I didn't catch what you said.

RELLING: Yes, I said illusion. For illusion, you know, is the stimulating principle.

This dialogue toward the beginning of Act V introduces the motif of the "Livslognen" or "life-illusion." It takes place between the play's rival "doctors," two men in conflict over the Ekdals's fate. Relling opposes Gregers's continuous appeals to the "claim of the ideal" with a quasi- medical or psychological discourse. This turn to a discourse of psychology is one of the defining aspects of Ibsen's drama. For Relling, Hialmar suffers not from spiritual tumult but illness. He requires a remedy; the "stimulating principle" of illusion. The ideal does not figure as some moral or spiritual imperative but is yet another pathology, as closely related to the lie as typhus is to putrid fever. The "life-lie" is an "inoculation" against the pathological effects of these delusions, an illusion that makes the patient's survival possible.

EKDAL: It's Hakon Werle we have to thank for her, all the same, Gina. [To GREGERS] He was shooting from a boat, you see, and he brought her down. But your father's sight is not very good now. H'm; she was only wounded.

GREGERS: Ah! She got a couple of slugs in her body, I suppose.

HIALMAR: Yes, two or three.

HEDVIG: She was hit under the wing, so that she couldn't fly.

GREGERS: And I suppose she dived to the bottom, eh?

EKDAL: [sleepily, in a thick voice] Of course. Always do that, wild ducks do. They shoot to the bottom as deep as they can get, sir — and bite themselves fast in the tangle and seaweed — and all the devil's own mess that grows down there. And they never come up again.

GREGERS: But your wild duck came up again, Lieutenant Old Ekdal.

EKDAL: He had such an amazingly clever dog, your father had. And that dog — he dived in after the duck and fetched her up again.

Having just revealed the treasure of the garret to Gregers, Ekdal recounts the story of the wild duck in Act II. The wild duck is a "quilting point" for most of the characters' fantasies of themselves and those around them; its tale comes to serve as an allegory for much of the play's action. Thus Ekdal figures as the wild duck in having been betrayed and shot down by his old partner Werle. He has sunk into his reveries never to return. Gregers imagines Hialmar as the wild duck in his entrapment in the "poisonous marshes" of his household, the tangle of deceit that makes his marriage possible. In contrast, he imagines himself in the figure of the clever dog that would rescue the wounded bird. He also considers himself the wild duck in becoming the Ekdals' adopted tenant. Lastly Hedvig figures as the wild duck in losing her family and place of origin—she is in some sense her father's adopted child.

HIALMAR: [comes in with some manuscript books and old loose papers, which he lays upon the table] That portmanteau is of no use! There are a thousand and one things I must drag with me.

GINA: [following with the portmanteau] Why not leave all the rest for the present, and only take a shirt and a pair of woolen drawers with you?

HIALMAR: Whew!—all these exhausting preparations—! [Pulls off his overcoat and throws it upon the sofa.]

GINA: And there's the coffee getting cold.

HIALMAR: H'm. [Drinks a mouthful without thinking of it, and then another.]

GINA: [dusting the backs of the chairs] A nice job you'll have to find such another big garret for the rabbits.

This excerpt comes from Act V during Hialmar's comic return to the household. Much of The Wild Duck's action consists of domestic activity, generally performed or supervised by the ever-practical Gina. Gina will, for example, tabulate the day's expenses, prepare and serve lunch, clean the apartment, and onward. In contrast, Hialmar cannot bear these banalities—they only divert him from his "mission" to redeem the family name. Ibsen repeatedly deploys petty household concerns to deflate Hialmar's fiery tirades in his attempt to undermine the romantic stage hero. Even if he screams that he cannot stomach living amongst traitors, Hialmar has no intention of leaving his home as it is there that he is cared for. Moreover, as the first act makes all too clear, it is only here that he can play what Relling describes as the "shining light," the idealized father and provider even if, as Gina's quiet management of the household economies reveal, this is hardly the case.

HEDVIG: And there's an old bureau with drawers and flaps, and a big clock with figures that go out and in. But the clock isn't going now.

GREGERS: So time has come to a standstill in there — in the wild duck's domain.

HEDVIG: Yes. And then there's an old paint-box and things of that sort; and all the books.

GREGERS: And you read the books, I suppose?

HEDVIG: Oh, yes, when I get the chance. Most of them are English though, and I don't understand English. But then I look at the pictures. — There is one great big book called Harrison's History of London. It must be a hundred years old; and there are such heaps of pictures in it. At the beginning there is Death with an hour-glass and a woman. I think that is horrid. But then there are all the other pictures of churches, and castles, and streets, and great ships sailing on the sea.

This dialogue appears in Act III, offering a view into the space in the Ekdal household dedicated to the production of fantasy: the back room garret. As we recall, the garret is the home of the wild duck and dream-space of the more fanciful members of the Ekdal household. It is here that Hedvig daydreams her fantastic journeys, Ekdal theatrically returns to his hunting days, and Hialmar finds a diversion from his toil. Accordingly, the dialogue between Hedvig and Gregers lends the garret a frozen, mythic temporality. Its broken clock indicates that time has come to a standstill. The allegorical image of Death, the hourglass, and the woman suggest that a mythic or cosmic time is at work within. This mythic time becomes especially important with Hedvig's ultimate suicide, her death figuring in a sense as a revenge for the mysterious crime committed against the woods many generations ago. With this in mind, note that Hedvig does not so much read her history book as a chronicle than as a visual point of departure for her flights of fancy.

RELLING: Oh, life would be quite tolerable, after all, if only we could be rid of the confounded duns that keep on pestering us, in our poverty, with the claim of the ideal.

GREGERS: [looking straight before him] In that case, I am glad that my destiny is what is.

RELLING: May I inquire,—what is your destiny?

GREGERS: [going] To be the thirteenth at table.

RELLING: The devil it is.

This dialogue between Relling and Gregers closes the play. Hedvig has died to no redemptive end. The sardonic Dr. Relling thus delivers a sort of epitaph on the romantic, Salvationist hero cut here by Gregers. Life would be "quite tolerable" if missionaries left men in their poverty rather than preaching the delusions of the ideal. Thus 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," that is, the guest outside the circle of diners. His number recalls the figure of Judas at the Last Supper, and 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.

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