Old Ekdal, Hialmar, and Hedvig push back the sliding door while Gregers watches; Gina sits and sews. A deep garret, filled with irregular nooks and crannies, appears through the open doorway. Moonbeams shine through the skylights, illuminating parts of the room while leaving others in shadow.
Ekdal invites Gregers to look. Gregers observes poultry, pigeons, rabbits, and a fowl lying in a basket. Ekdal bristles at the suggestion that it is simply a "fowl" or even a "duck." It is a special duck, a wild duck that belongs to Hedvig. The household won the duck when Hakon Werle wounded it on a hunting expedition. When shot, she dived to the bottom and tangled herself in the seaweed in an attempt to escape, but Werle's clever dog retrieved it. The duck carries a few slugs in its body, making flight impossible. She has lived in the garret so long she has forgotten her natural habitat.
Gregers prepares to leave. He first asks, however, about the Ekdals' spare room. Gina attempts to dissuade him from taking it in vain. Gregers insists on taking the room no matter how sparse it is. He will be like the wild duck himself. He wants to remain in town but recoils at the thought of staying with his father; he would rather be the clever dog that retrieves the duck than a Werle.
Gregers exits and Hedvig remarks that "he meant something different from what he said—all the time." Hialmar celebrates their new lodger, telling Gina that everything works out if you "keep your eyes open." Gina fears the repercussions with Werle. Hialmar makes a show of bravery and welcomes his wrath. He pledges to fulfill his mission in life and restore the honor of the family name.
This scene primarily revolves around the revelation of the wild duck, the play's chief symbol. Before considering the duck, note Ibsen's crucial remarks regarding the garret's lighting. The alternation between shadow and illumination in the mysterious garret materializes the central motifs of the play. These motifs, some of which we began to discuss earlier, organize themselves as permutations of the opposition between light and dark: sight and blindness, ideal and vulgar, truth and lie.
The wild duck is never heard and never appears on stage. It is a "quilting point" for the characters' respective fantasies: it is in reference to the duck that they imagine themselves and each other. Thus the story of the wild duck will recur continually as an often illustrative or explanatory allegory for the play's action, character psychology, and onward. For example, Gregers insists that, like the wild duck, Hialmar has lost himself in the "poisonous marshes" of his delusions. Only the importance of the duck in the characters' fantasies explains the household members' seemingly perverse undertaking. The rescue of crippled fowl from an old enemy and adoption of it, as Gregers notes later, as chief inhabitant of their garret.
Certainly the duck becomes a necessary in these "life-illusions," whether in Ekdal's dreams of hunting of Hialmar's delusion that he is at work at his great invention. Identifications are also rampant between the characters and the invisible bird. The first of these identifications appears in the act previous. Retrospectively, the spectator hears the echo of the wild duck in Werle's thoughts on Old Ekdal. His partner is the wild duck he shot down, never to emerge from the mire. In contrast, Gregers would imagine himself as both the duck—that is, his father's victim as well as the Ekdals' adoptee, as well as the clever dog who would rescue the duck from its deathbed.
Another crucial motif in these first two acts is that of the mission. The thought of the mission obsesses the play's two romantic heroes, Hialmar and Gregers. Both men's missions proceed with regard to the paternal line. Gregers yearns to expose his father's crimes and renounce his clan. As noted above, he is continually aligned with his mother in his confrontations with Werle: he speaks with her words and sees through her eyes. In contrast, Hialmar would redeem the family name and help his father regain his reputation over and against the authority of Werle.
Finally the act concludes with a device that recurs at the end of a number of scenes. An unsettled and perplexed Hedvig mulls over what has just transpired. Over and against the credulous Hialmar, Ibsen appears to lend Hedvig a groping intuition of the disaster to come. Hedvig senses Gregers' duplicity, who seems to mean something difference from what he says. Hedvig's observation also indicates that the battles staged in over the family's fate, particularly those between Gregers and his rival Relling, will proceed on the plane of allegory, the art of "speaking otherwise."