The Wild Duck (1884)
Author: Henrik Ibsen
I have not quoted excerpts from this as they would be meaningless and not be able toconvey the message of the play. This is a break from my usual book reviews or reports as I usually quote excerpts from the author rather than explain it in my own words.
This is a short play by Henrik Ibsen. The setting is Scandinavia in the late 1800s. It centers around a family that consists of Hjalmar Ekdal, father and a photographer, Gina, his wife and mother to their 14 year old daughter, Hedvig. The other two central characters are Haakon Werle a business owner in the town, and his son, Gregers, visiting from out of town. Gregers and Haakon do not get along well. It has to do with the fact Gregers thinks his father is corrupt and unethical and blamed him for his mother’s, (Haakon’s wife), death. This short play challenges a very basic concept we are all taught at a very young age-that truth is the best policy.
It opens at a dinner party thrown by Haakon. Among the several people in attendance are his estranged son and Hjalmar. After the party Haakon and Gregers talk about Haakon’s eyes failing and the possibility of him going blind and him wanting to patch their relationship up. There was some criminal activity some years before for which Hjalmar’s father went to prison. Some of the hard feelings are around the incident. Both were supposedly involved but Hjalmar’s father took the fall. Gregers is an idealist, a moral crusader the type that is going to save the world. This affair comes up and the son was talking about the father financially involved with the Ekdals behind the scene setting Hjalmar up in the photography business years before. Gregers asks the father about it and in the process finds out Hjalmar’s wife was their housekeeper at one time and the financing of the photography business just happened to be shortly after this period and after Hjalmar and Gina were married. I think you can see the direction this is headed.
Gregers goes to visit Hjalmar and his family and finds out they have a room to rent. Hjalmar is for it but Gina is not which confuses Hjalmar because it was her idea to rent the room out in the first place. Gregers rents it and finds out the family has a pet wild duck. The duck was wounded by Gregers’ father Haakon but did not die and the Ekdals ultimately ended up with it and made it a pet. The duck is loved by Hedvig, the daughter, and it is her prize possession. Gregers talks with her at length about the duck.
Much of the play is about the loving relationship of the family and how Hjalmar dotes on Hedvig. He constantly frets about her eyes as she has weak eyes and there is the possibility she will go blind. Gregers sees this happy family but feels it is his duty to set the record straight and let Hjalmar know of the past relationship between his father and Gina. They go for a walk and when they return Hjalmar is upset and abrupt with both Gina and Hedvig and when talking he is mostly thinking out loud paying little attention to them. When Hedvig reminds him that tomorrow they were to have her birthday celebration and mentions the wild duck Hjalmar snaps at her calling the duck infernal and he’d like to wring it’s neck. She gets extremely upset as she loves the duck. He told her he would not hurt it for her sake but he didn’t like the thought it came from Haakon.
During this time a letter is mentioned that was sent to Hedvig from Gregers’ father. Haakon said he was leaving town and in the letter it stated that Hjalmar’s father, who took the fall for Haakon’s crime would get so much a month and upon his death Hedvig would get it for the rest of her life. At that point Hjalmar puts it together and due to the letter and the hereditary nature of the eye problem realizes that Hedvig probably isn’t his and in anger gets ready to leave. Hedvig grabs him and begs him not to leave but he pushes her away and rejects all her subsequent attempts to cheer him up and love him. When she calls him daddy he rejects her and he leaves to go to a neighbors. Hedvig is devastated and confused and begins to think she may not be his daughter and he does not love her. Gregers does not understand why Hjalmar is not happy to find out about the deception. He felt the truth would set Hjalmar free from living a lie.
Gregers tells Hedvig that Hjalmar would be happy again and tells her that he would love her if she would sacrifice something that meant a great deal to her to show her love for him. She should sacrifice the wild duck. She sleeps on it but in the morning when she wakes having second thoughts did not think much of the idea. Gregers assures her it would work. Hjalmar had been gone all night and still had not returned so she begins to think of it again. She gets the gun her grandfather used for shooting rabbits and takes it into the room where the wild duck is. Hjalmar returns and he and Gregers talk. Gregers said she loved him still and he loved her. Hjalmar is not convinced and they hear a shot. Gregers is overjoyed and tells Hjalmar that his proof of her love is in the other room. They all go into the room and find that Hedvig could not bring herself to kill the duck so killed herself instead.
In the West we are all taught from an early age that the truth is the best policy. Honesty is what counts. I am sure all societies do and probably have from since at least the beginning of recorded human history when we began to get collective rules to hold the societies together with common behavior. The real truth is sometimes truth may not be the best policy. We don’t like to think of it but it is a fact. The truth can set you free but it also has the power to enslave and destroy. Sometimes the truth is fragile and must be handled with care. Is the truth relative, absolute, either or neither? It could be any one of them depending on your perspective. Some are simple and and some are very complex. “My religion is the best and only true one.” “Lobsters are the best food in the world.” “One race is superior to another.” “Fords are better than Chevys.” “It is cold.” And so forth possibly into infinity. Is truth always the best policy? There is one school that thinks people must be shielded from the truth. The truth would be more than they could bare. The other school is in the other camp believing that humanity could stand anything if they knew the truth. It is something to think about as we are often faced with this dilemma whether from a collective point of view or as an individual.