Cold, grey morning light fills the studio; a snowstorm roars outside. Gina is doing housework when Hedvig rushes through the door. She is certain Hialmar is at Relling's. Old Ekdal enters in a dressing gown, and the women tell him Hialmar has gone out.
Gregers appears. He is dismayed that Hialmar is downstairs; he should be collecting his thoughts in solitude. Relling enters and reports that Hialmar is snoring on his sofa. Gina asks Hedwig to help her with the housecleaning.
Gregers asks Relling how he explains the "spiritual tumult" at work in Hialmar. Relling sees none; Gregers is mistaken is idealizing him as some great man. Gregers counters that the aunts who raised him, the "soul mothers" Relling dubs high-flown hysterics, never forgot the claim of the ideal. Relling argues that they are part of Hialmar's illness: in his own circle, he has always been looked on as a "shining light." His 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." Gregers hardly thinks himself as "stone blind" as Relling believes. Relling disagrees and says that Gregers is sick as well, suffering from an "integrity fever" and a "delirium of hero-worship."
Gregers asks what Relling has prescribed as Hialmar's cure. Relling has given him the usual one: the Livslognen or "life-illusion." He will not reveal Hialmar's particular inoculation but offers Molvik's as an example. Relling has told Molvik he is demonic to save him from self-contempt. Similarly Ekdal has found his own illusion with his fantasies of hunting in the garret.
Gregers sighs in pity; Ekdal has narrowed the ideals of his youth. Relling retorts that he should use a native word, lies, rather than the foreign one, "ideals." The two are as closely related as typhus and putrid fever. Gregers pledges to rescue Hialmar from Relling's clutches.
Relling returns to his flat, and Hedvig re-appears. When Gregers asks if she has yet to kill the duck, Hedvig replies that when she woke this morning, the plan no longer seemed worthwhile. Gregers laments that if only her eyes had been opened to the ideal, and if only she possessed the spirit of sacrifice.
Hedvig wanders the room. Ekdal emerges from the garret. She asks him how one goes about shooting wild ducks. He explains and shuffles off to his room. Hedvig reaches for the pistol on the bookshelf when Gina enters. She hastily lays it down, unobserved. Gina sends her into the kitchen to check on Hialmar's breakfast.
The door opens hesitantly and an unkempt Hialmar enters. He declares tonelessly that he will depart shortly. Hedvig sees and runs to him in joy; Hialmar rejects her anew. Hedwig retires without a word. Hialmar begins rummaging for his technical magazines; he requires them for the invention. Gina asks if he is still leaving. Hialmar cannot live among traitors and he plans to take Ekdal with him as well.
As noted throughout, Ibsen is known for staging the destruction of the romantic hero and articulates as the claims of the ideal. Here the romantic hero, who finds his comic double in the fickle, melodramatic Hialmar, is most explicitly demystified in the exchange between Relling and Gregers. 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" within his personal circles. The play debunks this fantasy of the romantic hero from his humiliation among his class betters at the banquet onward.
Over and against the spiritual quack Gregers, who colludes in the myth of this hero, the sardonic Dr. Relling functions here as a figure of critical knowledge. He sees Hialmar's delusions as well as the would-be prophet Gregers's stony blindness. Again note the crucial tropes of blindness and obscurity, light and dark. The shadows that pervade the household, metaphors for the delusions of its residents, now obscure the garret entirely. Gregers hopes to cast the light of transfiguration through the house's poisonous vapors. Though Hedvig will again intuitively doubt the merits of Gregers's gospel, in some sense waking up to their strangeness, Gregers will prevail upon her anew by accusing her of blindness to the claims of the ideal.
For Relling, this tropological economy of dark/light blindness/sight, vulgar/ideal, and lie/truth is precisely part of Hialmar and Gregers's problem. Hialmar has always played the shining ideal within his personal circles and remains blind to the world. Transfixed by his idol, Hialmar becomes "stone blind" himself.
Relling instead uses two alternative metaphors: the economic and the medical. Thus for Relling Gregers's "claim of the ideal" is not moral/spiritual but pecuniary. Gregers has come to cash in at the Ekdals only to discover that residents are insolvent. As we have seen, the appeal to economics, as in oikos or management of the household, has functioned to deflate the characters' grander claims.
More importantly, Relling speaks in terms of pathology, replacing the spiritual diagnoses Gregers offers of the house's poisons and taints with quasi- medical/psychological ones. This turn to a discourse of psychology is one of the defining aspects of Ibsen's drama. Gregers suffers from an "integrity-fever" and a "delirium of hero-worship." His "claim of the ideal" becomes a disorder rather than a moral or spiritual imperative. Rather than lead one to the truth, the ideal is similar to the lie in being a disease of the mind. What is imperative for Relling is not the soul's attainment to truth but the treatment of mental disorders. His primary cure is the lie, an inoculation with the "life-illusion" that makes existence bearable. Thus, Hialmar can dream of his invention and sustain the faith of his family and the mirage of his happy household, and Ekdal can hunt in the garret.
Finally, we should note that this turn to psychology involves an implicit notion of female degeneracy. Relling pointedly locates Hialmar's illness in his upbringing by his two hysterical aunts. Similarly, Werle continually appeals to the sickly consciousness of his dead wife to explain Gregers's unruliness.