Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The "claim of the Ideal" and the "life-illusion"
The play distributes these competing doctrines between the rivals Relling and Gregers, two "spiritual doctors" in conflict over Hialmar's destiny. Gregers's claim of the ideal relies on his belief that the soul must bring itself into the light and attain truth at all costs. Thus Greger preaches forgiveness, exaltation, redemption, martyrdom, confession, absolution, and sacrifice in spite of the ruin he brings to the Ekdal household.
In contrast, Relling speaks in terms of pathology, replacing Gregers's spiritual diagnoses Gregers with quasi-medical/psychological ones. This turn to psychology is one of the defining aspects of Ibsen's drama. Hialmar is not in spiritual tumult but suffers from illness. Gregers himself 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. 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. What is imperative for Relling then is not the soul's attainment to truth but the treatment of mental disorder. Both men require a remedy, the "stimulating principle" of illusion. 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.
The Romantic Hero
In The Wild Duck, the romantic hero—who finds his comic double in the fickle, melodramatic Hialmar—is most explicitly demystified 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" within his personal circles. The play debunks this fantasy of idolatry throughout. The play also critiques the romantic hero by parodying his notions of creation and creativity. Though Hialmar cannot explain his invention at the moment, he is certain it will come. He only awaits inspiration.
Ibsen also unmasks the romantic hero by underling the everyday affairs of his household. The ever-practical Gina, who runs the household affairs, will methodically tabulate the day's expenses; Gina and Ekdal will fret about the rental of the spare room; and much of the action will revolve around domestic comforts, such as the serving of food. Such moments of domesticity function to ironize the lofty, romantic figure Hialmar would cut.
The Myth of the Fathers
The struggle with the figure of the father propels the action of the play. First, an almost mythically enigmatic crime committed by its two patriarchs, Werle and Ekdal, lurks in the backdrop, mysteriously establishing the relations between the two families. Thus Ekdal describes the tragedy that ultimately ensues as the woods revenge for this unspoken crime.
Within the fantasies of the sons, Werle figures as the "bad daddy" and Ekdal the good one. In fantasy, and Gregers's fantasy above all, Werle is a primal father, perverse and tyrannical, who intervenes freely into the sons' household. Thus the shadow of Werle supplants Hialmar as father and provider. Moreover, this fantasy Werle is guilty for ruining the rival patriarch, the good and, importantly, idealized Ekdal. Retrospectively Ekdal appears the brave lieutenant and stalwart hunter; undoubtedly his ruin makes this idealization all the more possible.
Materialized by the play of shadow and light in the mysterious garret, the opposition light/dark and its permutations provide the central motifs of the play. These motifs include: sight and blindness, ideal and vulgar, truth and lie. We should note its significance to Gregers's cause in particular. Unlike his near-blind father, Gregers believes that he "sees his mission in life," despite Werle's warning that he only looks through his sickly mother's "clouded eyes". Gregers is intent on bringing the "light of transfiguration" fails to shine forth from the couple after their confrontation. This light is the light of redemption according to the rigid claims of the ideal. Hialmar should rejoice in making himself noble and raise his wife to his own exalted level. As Relling will argue in the subsequent act, Gregers's fantasy of Hialmar as a "shining light" among men marks his neurosis: a disease of hero-worship and romantic idealization.
Instead of transfiguring light, Gregers only brings "dullness, oppression, and gloom" to the household. Gina responds to Gregers's language of light/dark, spiritual tumults, taints, and poisons by emphasizing "the practical." She delivers one of the more memorable jokes of the play in removing the lampshade in response to Gregers's exhortations. The joke operates by shifting from the plane of Salvationist allegory to physical comedy, from Gregers's impassioned rhetoric to the banal household object. The removal of the lampshade recalls how the petty concerns of the household function throughout the play to deflate the tirades of our would-be romantic heroes.
The Garret and Studio
The Wild Duck organizes the stage into a spatial metaphor. Hialmar's studio serves as the central playing space. As noted in the stage directions, it appears littered with photographic tools and apparatus. At a number of moments in the play, various characters will refer to their processing work, and appear retouching photographs. The playing space is literally a darkroom for the production and revision of the household's fantasies, opening onto a more enigmatic fantasy space at the rear—the wild duck's garret. The apartment would in some sense materialize a model of psychic topography.
A dialogue between Gregers and Hedvig in Act III offers a view into the wild duck's domain. Their conversation casts the garret—again, a space for the staging of fantasy—in magical and symbolic terms. Cluttered with the treasures of the "Flying Dutchman," the garret a fantastic seascape as well. As Gregers notes, no one can be certain that it is simply a spare room. Certainly the Flying Dutchman is a double for the household's own "shipwrecked man," Old Ekdal. Historical time has stopped entirely in this realm of fantasy. Instead, as suggested by Hedvig's image of death, the woman, the hourglass, a mythic or cosmic time prevails within.
The photograph that recurs continually in the Ekdals' studio is what Gregers derisively describes in the act previous as the "tableau of filial affection." Note how the Ekdals frequently assume the poses of a happy household. Hialmar plays the flute as his family gathers around him. Later, Dr. Relling will toast the family at the table as they attempt to form another heartwarming tableau. Gregers not only refuses to collude in his father's tableau of filial affection but will move to expose the deceit in Hialmar's as well.
The Wild Duck is littered with weighty and heavy-handed symbolism. Certainly the play's chief symbol is the wild duck. The duck serves as a "quilting point" for the characters' fantasies of themselves and those around them. 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. Finally, Hedvig figures as the wild duck in that she loses her family and place of origin. She is in some sense her father's adopted child.
Hedvig's doubling with the wild duck particularly distinguishes itself from that of the rest of the cast in that it takes the substitution of metaphor 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.
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