1/ In many ways, The Wild Duck is more complex than Ghosts. Ghosts has 5 characters: Mrs Alving, her son Oswald, Manders (the sanctimonious pastor), Engstrand (the carpenter), and Regina (his daughter). The Wild Duck has 15 characters that have a name or nickname, plus 6 other guests at the party and several servants.
Ghosts has 3 acts. The Wild Duck has 5 acts.
(The translation is by R. Farquharson Sharp).
2/ At the party, Gregers says to Hjalmar “Why should I not invite my best and only friend?”. A few sentences later, we’re told that they haven’t met for 16-17 years. Strange, that.
3/ When we read Ibsen, it’s important to be aware of chronology because the plays, I’ve been told, are in dialogue with each other. After Ghosts, he wrote An Enemy of the People, and then The Wild Duck.
At the most basic level, if Ghosts is about the danger of living for years with a lie, The Wild Duck is about the danger of pursuing the absolute truth. At the beginning of the play, the Ekdal family are living in illusion: old Ekdal, who has gone to jail because of someone else’s guilt and lost everything, clings to his past as a lieutenant and a hunter, and uses the attic as a forest; Hjalmar lives with the illusion that he is an inventor, who can restore good name to his father; both are ignorant of old Werle’s role in the downfall, and grateful for his support after the arrest. Hjalmar also doesn’t know about old Werle’s violation of his wife Gina before their marriage.
The troubles begin when Gregers, after being away for a long time, returns and enters their house and takes it upon himself to reveal the truth and destroy all illusions.
Interestingly, Ibsen skips that moment altogether and jumps to its aftermath, but what a scene that follows it! Gregers destroys two illusions, about old Werle (his father) and about the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina, and Hjalmar’s conversation with her reveals another painful truth—that they live not on his earnings as a photographer but mostly on old Werle’s payment for old Ekdal’s copying.
4/ Why does Gregers do so? I don’t think it’s because of some ideal as he says, at least it’s not the only reason. I think it’s also his way of fighting against his father and dealing with, or perhaps compensating for, the web of lies in his own family.
He is cold and brutal. The worst part is that he’s absolutely convinced he’s doing the right thing.
It’s when Hedwig (Gina’s daughter) receives a present from old Werle that I see his true nature:
“GREGERS Yes, Hjalmar—now we shall see who is right, he or I.”
It’s being proven right and getting back at the father that Gregers is interested in. He doesn’t seem to think about the fact that for a long time old Werle has tried to pay back for his actions by providing for the Ekdal family when he’s not expected to do so.
Just as Ghosts gets grimmer and grimmer, The Wild Duck becomes more and more extreme. The Ekdal family have too many skeletons and suddenly they’re all out, one by one. Readers may have different thoughts about Gregers’s revelations to Hjalmar, but there’s no justification for what he says to the 14-year-old Hedwig.
5/ In the play, Ibsen sets up a dilemma—we have Gregers on one side, with his uncompromising insistence on the truth, and the neighbour Relling on the other side, who thinks people should live in delusion and avoid the truth. There is no simple answer. I think everyone would agree that Gregers is a fanatic, tearing apart a family because he thinks he’s setting it on a new foundation of truth, but in Ghosts, Ibsen has depicted the consequences of living for years in deceit and self-deception, and in The Wild Duck itself, Mrs Sørby hides nothing and her new marriage with old Werle would be the true marriage that Hjalmar doesn’t have with Gina.
Interestingly, Gregers, the one who wants to strip his friend of all delusion, has one himself: he is greatly mistaken about his friend. If his action is a kind of test, Hjalmar fails it because he doesn’t have the character, the strength to overcome it, to forgive everyone and start afresh. The Wild Duck is largely a tragedy, but part of the comedy is because Hjalmar is essentially weak and doesn’t have the ideals his friend wants: in front of Gregers, he bravely tears in half the deed from old Werle, only to paste the pieces back together afterwards; he makes a scene of leaving his wife, having learnt of her past, so Gina makes him a meal and packs his case, but after they eat some time in silence:
“HJALMAR If I decided to do so, could I—without being exposed to intrusion on anyone’s part—put up for a day or two in the sitting-room there?
GINA Of course you could, if only you would.
HJALMAR Because I don’t see there is any possibility of getting all father’s things out in a moment.”
So he tells himself.
6/ I won’t write about symbols and poetic elements in The Wild Duck because Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) has written a brilliant blog post about it, including the wild duck:
Himadri also writes about the characters, and raises the interesting point that old Werle, far from being immorally pure, may not be the monster that his son thinks he is.
7/ If you’ve got this far, perhaps you’re acquainted with the play or indifferent to spoilers, but here I’m going to write a bit about the ending so those of you who haven’t read the play, be warned.
In the ending, after the devastating moment, Ibsen presents two opposing visions: are you with Relling, or are you with Gregers? Is Gregers too naïve and idealistic? Or is Relling too cynical?
That is something to think about—I’ll probably need to consider it for some time. One thing is clear, however:
“GREGERS Hedwig has not died in vain. You saw how his grief called out all the best that was in him.”
I don’t doubt that Hjalmar’s grief is deep and genuine, especially when he realises his own cruelty, but I’d say that Hedwig dies a meaningless death. That’s why it’s so painfully tragic.