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Wild Duck,
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The Wild Duck
(Vilanden)
By Henrik Johan Ibsen  (1828-1906)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication, First Performance
Language: Dano-Norwegian
Setting
Characters
The Ibsen Stage
Plot Summary
Climax
Source of Conflict
Style
Themes
Foreshadowing
Symbols
Imagery
Satire
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Ibsen
Complete Free Text
Index Page
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
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Type of Work

.......The Wild Duck (Vilanden) is a tragedy with comic episodes. Henrik Ibsen himself characterized the play as a tragicomedy. It depicts ordinary life realistically instead of romantically and sentimentally, a revolutionary concept in Ibsen's time. Oslo University's Professor Bjørn Hemmer has written: "More than anyone, he [Ibsen] gave theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theatre had lacked since the days of Shakespeare. In this manner, Ibsen strongly contributed to giving European drama a vitality and artistic quality comparable to the ancient Greek tragedies." 

Publication and First Performance

.......Frederik Hegel & Son published the play in November 1884 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Oslo (then known as Christiania), Norway. It debuted on the stage in January 1885 at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen, Norway.

Language: Dano-Norwegian

.......Ibsen wrote the play in Dano-Norwegian, a mixture of the Danish language and Norwegian dialects. Dano-Norwegian evolved from Danish while Norway was a province of Denmark. Although Norway gained its independence in 1814, Norwegians continued to speak and write in Dano-Norwegian, also known at that time as Riksmål. Beginning in the middle of the 19th Century, Norway began developing a new Norwegian language, Landsmål (the language of the land or country), free of Danish influence. Eventually, Landsmål became known as Nynorsk. Meanwhile, Riksmål developed further and in 1929 became known as Bokmål, the language of books. Today both Nynorsk and Bokmål are written and spoken in Norway. The Dano-Norwegian of Ibsen is simple, concise, to the point. However, it takes a talented translator to capture the subtleties of the language and the nuances written into the dialogue. Therefore, English-speaking students of Ibsen should choose their translations carefully. One highly respected Ibsen translator was William Archer (1856-1924), a Scottish-born London journalist, drama critic, and playwright who translated many of Ibsen's works. 

Setting

.......The time is the early 1880s. The action takes place over three days in an unidentified town in Norway. Act I takes place in the home of Håkon Werle, a wealthy businessman. The rest of the play takes place in the apartment of photographer Hjalmar Ekdal and his family. 

Characters

Protagonists: Gregers Werle, Hjalmar Ekdal
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Håkon Werle: Wealthy businessman whose affair with a young woman in the distant past sets in motion the action of the play.
Mrs. Werle: Late wife of Håkon Werle. The memory of her plays a role in the rancorous relationship between Håkon and his son, Gregers Werle.
Gregers Werle: Son of Håkon Werle. Young Werle is petty, mean-spirited, and vengeful. Rather than right wrongs, he creates them. In his pursuit of truth and idealism, he alienates himself from his father, precipitates turmoil in the Ekdal household, and indirectly causes the death of Hedvig Ekdal. Although he has laid bare a shocking truth about his father—namely, his dalliance with Gina Ekdal in the distant past—his vision of reality blots out the good that his father has done to redeem himself. It also fails to acknowledge the damage his meddlesome fact-finding could and did do to the Ekdal family. His only motivation is to expose he truth, whatever the cost. Ironically, he remains blind to the truth about himself to the very end of the play.
Old Ekdal: Disgraced former business associate of Håkon Werle.
Hjalmar Ekdal: Son of Old Ekdal. Hjalmar is self-centered, lazy, and laughably mediocre. As a family man and provider, he relies on the benefactions of Werle, the hard work of Gina, and the quixotic dream of a revolutionary invention to get from one day to the next. His character begins to reveal itself early on, in Act 1, when he is too ashamed to acknowledge the presence of his father at the Werle dinner party. Although he feels awkward and tongue-tied at the gathering and keeps to himself except for his conversation with Gregers, he tells his family after he arrives home that the guests coaxed him to recite something but that he denied them the pleasure. “One mustn’t be at everyone’s beck and call,” he says. Then he pretends that it was he who enlightened the guests about the qualities of Tokay when in fact it was they who enlightened him after his display of ignorance about vintages. As his wife and daughter help him remove his overcoat (which he borrowed from Molvik, an alcoholic tenant who lives on the floor below them), they compliment him on his ability to wear fine clothes and on his ability to set people straight on such subjects as winemaking. “Why, you know everything, Ekdal,” Gina tells him. Hedvig has been waiting to see the goodies he promised to bring her from the party. She has been so looking forward to them. When he tells her he forgot all about them, he brings her to tears and later says, “It’s monstrous what absurd things the father of a family is expected to think of; and if he forgets the smallest trifle, he is treated to sour faces at once.” The playgoer then learns, in this and other acts, that Hjalmar not only neglects his work—Gina does a good deal of the photography and retouching work—but also neglects his daughter. He has promised to read to her but never does, for he is too preoccupied with his invention, which he believes will restore respectability to the Ekdal name, and with his puttering in his father’s garret menagerie.
Gina Hansen Ekdal: Wife of Hjalmar Ekdal. She is practical, hard-working, down-to-earth, and forgiving. Although homespun and unsophisticated, she has common sense and a firm grasp on reality. She is several years older than Hjalmar.
Hedvig: Daughter of Hjalmar and Gina Ekdal. Hedvig is about to turn fourteen.
Mrs. Bertha Sørby: Håkon Werle's housekeeper and wife-to-be. 
Doctor Relling: Physician who lives in an apartment on the floor below Hjalmar Ekdal's apartment. 
Molvik: Alcoholic and failed theology student who lives with Relling.
Pettersen: Servant in Håkon Werle's house.
Jensen: Hired waiter in Håkon Werle's house.
Gråberg: Håkon Werle's bookkeeper.
Chamberlain Balle: Guest at Håkon Werle's dinner party.
Chamberlain Flor: Guest at Håkon Werle's dinner party.
Chamberlain Kaspersen: Guest at Håkon Werle's dinner party.
Gentlemen: Guests at Håkon Werle's dinner party.
Porter: Doorkeeper at the apartment building where Hjalmar and Gina Ekdal live.
Porter's Wife: Woman who cleans the apartment of Gregers Werle after he throws water on a stove fire. 
Madam Eriksen: Keeper of a tavern frequented by Old Ekdal.
Ship Captain: Seaman called "the Flying Dutchman," although he was not Dutch. He once lived in the Ekdal apartment. Hedvig plays with curios he left behind after he drowned at sea. 
Two Sweethearts: Couple whose photograph Gina Ekdal takes while her husband is out (referred to in Act III and at the beginning of Act IV).
Aunts Who Reared Hjalmar Ekdal
Mrs. Sørby's Former Husband, a Veterinarian Who Beat Her

The Ibsen Stage

.......In keeping with his realistic plots and dialogue, Ibsen's stage sets attempt to capture the atmosphere of the everyday life of his characters. On the Ibsen stage, actors did not embellish their lines with broad flourishes of a hand or other exaggerated body movements. They became ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. The proscenium arch was important, however. This arch, from the sides of which a curtain opens and closes, acts in an Ibsen drama as a frame for the realistic portrait painted by Ibsen, a portrait that moves. The proscenium arch became a doorway or window through which the audience—peeping through the arch—could eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the illusion of reality. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Act I

.......In the handsome study of widower Håkon Werle's house, a servant named Pettersen and a hired waiter named Jensen tidy up while a fireplace warms the room. From the dining room come sounds of conversation, laughter, and clinking glasses as Werle, a wealthy businessman, toasts Mrs. Bertha Sørby, his housekeeper and wife-to-be. The dinner is in honor of Werle's son, Gregers. 
.......A man known as Old Ekdal—dressed in a frayed overcoat, mittens, and a fur cap—appears at the doorway of the study. He obtains Pettersen's permission to enter Werle's private office, accessible by a door in the front of the study, to see Werle's bookkeeper, Gråberg. Ekdal does odd jobs for Werle as a copier. After Ekdal goes in, Pettersen tells Jensen that Ekdal is a former army officer and business partner of Werle who served time in prison. Before he can explain Ekdal's crime, the diners begin passing through the study on their way to the music room. Mrs. Sørby directs Pettersen to serve coffee there. She exits and turns right while Pettersen goes off to do her bidding. 
.......A flabby gentleman and a thin-haired gentleman—both with the same first name, Chamberlain—enter the study while discussing the dinner, which was three hours long. A third gentleman informs them that the “coffee and maraschino” will be served in the music room, and the flabby man expresses the hope that Mrs. Sørby will play for them. Håkon Werle then passes through with his son, Gregers, noting that there were thirteen at the dinner table. Counting himself and Mrs. Sørby, he was expecting a total of twelve. Gregers works for his father at the out-of-town site of the Werle business, called the Hoidal works, while his father oversees the financial aspects of the business in town. Gregers' attendance at the dinner party is his first visit to his father's home in many years.
.......When the elder Werle leaves for the music room, a guest named Hjalmar Ekdal (Old Ekdal’s son) comes over to speak to Gregers. Having overheard Håkon Werle's comment about the thirteenth guest and believing himself to be that unwelcome guest, he says, “You ought not to have invited me, Gregers.” Gregers assures Hjalmar that he is indeed welcome and says he invited him because he wanted to talk with his old school chum. After all, it has been at least sixteen years since they last talked. When Gregers remarks that Hjalmar looks well, Hjalmar says he does not feel well inside because of the “catastrophe” that befell his father during his partnership with the elder Werle. Hjalmar's father now lives with him because he has no one else to turn to. 
.......Hjalmar then thanks Gregers for inviting him to the dinner party, “for I take it as a sign you have got over your feeling against me.” Gregers denies that he had been upset with Hjalmar, but the latter says Gregers' father told him otherwise. After all, the “great misfortune” suffered by Hjalmar's father almost undid Mr. Werle as well. When that misfortune struck, the elder Werle told Hjalmar it would probably be best not to write to Gregers. So Hjalmar refrained from communicating any news to him, even that he had become a photographer after his father's “utter, irretrievable ruin” forced him to leave college. Hjalmar then surprises Gregers when he tells him that it was Mr. Werle who provided him money to go into photography and open a studio. Moreover, he says, it was the elder Werle who “put me in a position to marry.” Gregers asks him whether he is happy as a married man.
.......“Yes, thoroughly happy,” Hjalmar says, noting that his wife is a good a woman and "not without culture." When he mentions her name, Gina, Gregers remembers her: Gina Hansen, “who kept house for us the last year of my mother’s illness.” He also recalls that his father had mentioned Gina's marriage to Hjalmar.
.......After Gina left her job with the Werles, Hjalmar says, he met her when he rented a room at her mother’s house, where Gina also lived. Mr. Werle had recommended the room to him. After they became engaged, Hjalmar took up photography. He and Gregers’ father had agreed that the occupation was a way to make quick money to support his future wife.
.......Mrs. Sørby enters with Håkon Werle and calls out to the guests in the other room that punch will be served in the study. At the fireplace moments later, Werle tells the flabby gentleman that the Tokay (a sweet but dry wine made near Tokay, Hungary) served at dinner is “one of the very finest seasons.” Hjalmar shyly asks what the difference is between seasons. The question sets off further discussion in which Hjalmar is mildly scolded for his ignorance of wines. Mrs. Sørby points out that “old vintages are the finest.”
.......The bookkeeper, Gråberg, looks in from the door of Werle’s private office and tells Werle that he cannot leave from within the office because Flakstad walked off with the keys. Werle gives him permission to leave through the study. When Gråberg emerges, Old Ekdal is with him.
.......“Ugh,” says Werle, and the room goes silent.
.......Old Ekdal apologizes for the intrusion. Werle is upset, and the guests ask questions. When Old Ekdal passes through, Hjalmar keeps his distance. Mrs. Sørby whispers to Pettersen, “Give him [Old Ekdal] something to take with him.”
.......Gregers, aware of who the man was, asks Hjalmar how he could ignore his own father.
.......“Oh, if you were in my place—,”says Hjalmar.
.......When Hjalmar decides to go home, Mrs. Sørby tells him to give her regards to his wife.
.......After Pettersen informs Mrs. Sørby that he gave Old Ekdal a bottle of cognac, the flabby gentleman proposes that he and Mrs. Sørby play a duet. Everyone except Werle and Gregers then goes to the music room. Gregers asks his father why Old Ekdal—calling him “Lieutenant Ekdal”—and his family have been treated so badly. It was because of Ekdal, Werle answers, that his own reputation has suffered. Gregers then notes that Ekdal was not acting alone in “that affair of the forests”; Werle had been part of the scheme. Werle counters that it was Ekdal who prepared “the fraudulent map” and illegally had timber cut on government property. 
.......“[H]e was found guilty and I acquitted,” Werle says.
.......“Yes, I know that nothing was proved against you.”
.......Irritated, Werle chides Gregers for bringing up the matter after so many years. He also maintains that he did what he could for the Ekdals when the old man got out of prison—short of calling down suspicion on himself. Moreover, he says, he now gives Ekdal copying work and pays him well for it. Gregers surprises him by asking him whether he has kept account of what he paid to set up Hjalmar Ekdal in photography. Werle simply answers that the money for Hjalmar is proof that he has acted on the Ekdal family’s behalf. Gregers then asks his father to confirm that he helped young Ekdal just before his marriage to Gina Hansen. When Werle does so, Gregers accuses his father of having had an untoward interest in the young woman when she worked in the Werle home. 
.......“[H]ow dare he [Hjalmar] go making such insinuations!” Werle says.
.......Gregers says it was not Hjalmar who insinuated it: “My poor unhappy mother told me.”
.......Werle dismisses the charge, saying that Gregers and his mother had always conspired against him. He describes his late wife as a “morbid” and “overstrained.” He also says Gregers should find something better to do with his time than “burrowing into all sorts of old rumours and slanders against your own father!” Werle then tells his son he is foolish to continue to plod away at the Hoidal works “like a common clerk.” He says he realizes, though, that Gregers wants to be independent, his own man, then adds that he knows of a good opportunity for him, one that will enable him to remain independent. The reason he asked him to come to dinner was to tell him about it. 
.......“I want you to enter the firm, as a partner.”
.......Because his eyesight is failing, he wants Gregers to run the business in town while he looks after business at the works. He also says he would like to marry Mrs. Sørby. Gregers does not object to the union, but he says he now sees why his father invited him to dinner: to get him to approve of a relationship that “would get up the pretence of a family life in the house—a tableau of filial affection!” In other words, people will think that Gregers’ approval of the marriage would obliterate all the old rumors about the “wrongs the poor dead mother had to submit to.” Gregers again accuses his father of having had an affair with Gina, whom he “palmed off upon Hjalmar Ekdal.” They then exchange bitter words. Gregers leaves, saying he now has a “mission” in life.

Act II

.......In Hjalmar Ekdal’s studio his wife, Gina, and daughter, Hedvig, are reviewing the cost of food supplies as Gina adds up the sums in an account book, noting that she received received eight crowns fifty for taking photographs to help offset household costs. 
.......Old Ekdal enters with the cognac in his pocket and a parcel under his arm. When Hedvig asks her grandfather whether he received more copying to do, he shows her the parcel and tells Gina that the contents will “keep me going a long time.” Ekdal opens a sliding door on one wall, looks in, and comments, “They’re fast asleep, all the lot of them.” Then he goes to his room. 
.......Gina and Hedvig are pleased that he has a lot of work to occupy him.
.......“And he won’t be able to sit the whole forenoon [drinking] down at that horrid Madame Eriksen’s,” Hedvig says.
.......Ekdal comes out, goes to the kitchen, and returns to his room with a glass. Gina and Hedvig now realize he has a bottle with him. When Hjalmar comes in, Gina and Hedvig help him remove his overcoat as Gina asks, “Is Gregers as ugly as ever?” Hjalmar confirms that he is still “not very much to look at.” After Hjalmar learns that the old man has a bottle, he says, “[L]et him sit and get all the enjoyment he can.”
.......Old Ekdal comes out again, smoking a pipe, and asks his son, “Who were they, all those fellows [at the dinner party]?”
.......Hjalmar recites names, and Gina says, “[T]hey’re terrible genteel in that house nowadays.” Hjalmar also says he discussed Tokay with the guests. But instead of admitting that the guests instructed him on vintages, he reports that he instructed them. Old Ekdal praises him for speaking up to them face to face.
.......When Hedvig then asks Hjalmar for the goodies he promised to bring her from the dinner, he disappoints her to tears when he tells her that he forgot about them. Her reaction angers Hjalmar, who says, “It’s monstrous what absurd things the father of a family is expected to think of; and if he forgets the smallest trifle, he is treated to sour faces at once.”
.......Hjalmar asks Gina whether anyone has ordered new prints or inquired about the extra room they have to rent. The answer is no on both accounts, Hedvig suggests that he have a bottle of beer, and he consents. When she runs toward the kitchen to get it, Hjalmar stops her and embraces her. She loves the attention.
.......“My dear, kind father!” she says.
.......Touched, he says he will play the flute instead, and Hedvig fetches it from the bookcase. While Gina and Hedvig sit at a table, he plays a Bohemian dance—but slowly and sentimentally. There’s a knock at the door. Gina goes out through a passageway to answer it while Hjalmar puts the flute down. She returns to the studio with Gregers Werle, who tells Hjalmar he has taken a hotel room instead of remaining at his father’s. Hjalmar invites him to sit on the sofa, noting that the family spends most of its time in the studio because it is so large. When he mentions that they have “capital outer rooms,” Gina points out that they also have a room to let on one side of the passageway. Hjalmar sends Hedvig for beer.
.......While she is gone, Hjalmar tells Gregers that the girl “is the joy of our lives” and their “deepest sorrow,” for their doctor has told them Hedvig has the first symptoms of an eye disease that leads to blindness. Hedvig brings a tray of beer and glasses and sets it on the table. When Hedvig returns to the kitchen for bread and butter, Gregers says the girl, who will turn fourteen in two days, seems to take after Gina. He then asks how long ago she and Hjalmar were married, and Gina says “just on fifteen years.” 
.......Old Edkal comes in a bit tipsy, and Hjalmar introduces him to Gregers. When Hedvig brings in a plate of buttered bread, Gregers asks Lieutenant Ekdal whether he remembers the times when he and Hjalmar would visit him in the summer and at Christmas at the Hoidal works. Edkal says he cannot remember but notes that he was a good bear hunter in his day.
.......“I’ve shot nine of ‘em, no less,” he says.
.......Calling Ekdal a man of the outdoors, Gregers invites the old man up to the works so he can enjoy “the free life in the woods and on the uplands . . . .” Ekdal turns to Hjalmar and says, “Shall we let him see it?” Embarrassed, Hjalmar says no, but his father rises and takes Gregers behind the sliding door. There, in a dark room, are poultry, rabbits, pigeons, and a wild duck in a basket.
.......“My wild duck,” Hedvig says.
After they return to the studio, Old Ekdal says Håkon Werle shot the duck while he was hunting but only wounded it. When it was sinking in the water, his dog retrieved it, and Werle took it home. Because it failed to thrive, Pettersen was told to kill it. However, Old Ekdal, after hearing about the duck, persuaded Pettersen to give it to him. Now it is thriving.
.......Gregers gets up to leave. Before he goes, he asks to rent Hjalmar’s spare room, saying he would take it over in the morning. Gina expresses concern that the room may not be big and bright enough for him and notes that two noisy tenants—Mr. Molvik and Doctor Relling—live in rooms just below it. But Gregers insists on taking it and remaining in town. Hjalmar asks what he will do for his livelihood. 
.......“Ah, if only I knew, Hjalmar. . .But when one has the misfortune to be called Gregers . . .  and the Werle after it; did you ever hear anything so hideous?”

Act III

.......In the morning, Gina comes into the studio from shopping while Hjalmar is retouching photographs. Gregers has moved in but is out for the morning after smoking up his room while building a fire in the stove. He made matters worse by dowsing the fire and getting water all over the floor. 
.......“I got the porter’s wife to clear up after him, pig,” Gina says.
.......Hjalmar, who has invited Gregers for lunch, tells Gina that there will be two more guests—Relling and Molvik— and suggests a herring salad for the meal. After Gina goes to the kitchen, Hjalmar’s father comes out, and the two of them open the sliding doors and enter the garret to complete a project. While the pigeons and hens are rustling about, they lower a curtain made of a fish net and an old sail that hides the floor. Old Ekdal then says the water trough will have to be relocated. 
.......There is a knock at the door—Gregers Werle. Hedvig invites him in, and he waits while Hjalmar and his father finish their work. While conversing with Hedvig, he learns that she does not go to school because Hjalmar does not want her to strain her eyes. Although her father has promised to read to her, she says, he has not yet found the time. When he asks what she does with all of her time, she tells him about wonderful things to do in the room where her father and grandfather are working. She notes, for example, that it has a cupboard full of books, many with pictures.
.......“And there’s an old bureau with drawers and flaps, and a big clock with figures that go in and out . . . [and] an old paint-box and things of that sort; and all the books.”
.......She says a ship captain who once lived there left all of these objects behind after drowning at sea.
.......Her great ambition, she says, is to engrave pictures for books but says her father would not approve. He prefers that she make baskets or plait straw. However, she notes that if she knew how to weave baskets she could have made one for the duck. Proudly, she points out that it is her duck. She pities it, she says, because “she has no one to care for, poor thing.” She adds, “Nobody knows her, and nobody knows where she came from either.”
.......When Gina comes in to set the table, Gregers apologizes for arriving early and compliments her on her ability to retouch photos. Hedvig tells him that her mother takes pictures too. 
.......A shot rings out from the garret, startling Gregers. Gina and Hedvig tell him that Hjalmar and Old Ekdal are just shooting for sport. Hjalmar then comes out with a double-barreled pistol, and Gina tells him, “You and grandfather will do yourselves a mischief some day with that there pigstol.”
.......Irritated, Hjalmar reminds her that it is a pistol, not a pigstol. Moments later, Gina says, “Men are such strange beings; they must always have something to pervert theirselves with.”
Hjalmar puts the pistol on the top shelf of the bookcase and tells Hedvig not to touch it, for one of the barrels is still loaded. Gregers looks in at the duck and notes that one of its wings droops and that “she trails one foot.” Hedvig informs him that her wing had been broken and that her foot suffered an injury when the dog bit on it while retrieving it.
.......Hjalmar closes the sliding doors. When the conversation turns to Hjalmar’s photography, he tells Gregers that he is working on an invention, a photography device, that promises to uplift the Ekdal name and restore the honor of his father. He notes that after his father was sentenced, he had in hand the same pistol that Gregers just laid down. But he could not use it. Then, when his father went to prison, Hjalmar took up the pistol himself. “At the decisive moment I won a victory over myself. I remained in life.”
.......When Gregers asks how long it will take to perfect the invention, Hjalmar says he cannot predict when he will finish it but says the project preoccupies him. Gina and Hedvig bring in ale, brandy, and glasses just as Doctor Relling and Molvik enter. Relling says, “Molvik and I live right under you; so you haven’t far to go for the doctor and the clergyman, if you should need anything in that line.” 
Everyone begins eating except Old Ekdal, who will be taking his lunch later. Relling tells Gina that Molvik was “frightfully screwed” (drunk) the previous evening. Then he turns to Hjalmar and says, “It comes over him like a sort of possession, and then I have to go out on the loose with him.” To Gregers he says, “Well, so you still stick up there at those horrible grimy works?” Relling himself had once worked there. Gregers answers, “I have stuck there until now.”
.......They make further small talk, and then Old Ekdal comes out with a rabbit skin, saying, “Shot a big one. . . It’s good tender meat, is rabbit. It’s sweet; it tastes like sugar. Good appetite to you, gentlemen.” He goes to his room. Molvik, who has a hangover, suddenly gets up, excuses himself, and goes down to his room.
.......Relling says to Gregers, “[D]on’t you find it pleasant . . . to sit at a well-spread table in a happy family circle?” But Gregers says, “I don’t thrive in marsh vapours”—a reference to the Hoidal works. “[M]ay it not be you yourself,” Relling says, “that have brought the taint from those mines up there.” A bit of a spat develops, and Relling says, “But I must say, Mr. Werle, it ill becomes you to talk about vapours and taints, after all the mess you made with your stove.”
.......There’s a knock at the door, and Gina answers it. It’s Mr. Werle, who tells Gregers he wishes to speak with him. Hjalmar and Relling go into the parlour, and Gina and Hedvig go to the kitchen. Werle came by, he says, because he is convinced that his son plans to make trouble for him. Gregers, saying he has a guilty conscience about withholding information from the past,  acknowledges that he plans to enlighten Hjalmar Ekdal about Gina and adds, "I ought to have taken a stand against you when the trap was set for Lieutenant Ekdal.”
.......Werle tells Gregers that his guilty conscience is a “legacy from your mother . . . the only one she left you.”
Gregers snaps back, “Have you not yet forgiven her for the mistake you made in supposing that she would bring you a fortune?”
Gregers then refuses to return home with him and refuses the offer to make him a partner in the firm. Seeing it is useless to argue further with Gregers, Werle says that since he will probably marry Mrs. Sørby he shall arrange immediately give him his share of the property. Gregers refuses that, too, and also refuses to go take employment at the works.
.......Werle leaves. When the others return to the studio, Gregers asks Hjalmar to go for a long walk. He has things to tell him.

Act IV

.......After Hjalmar returns late that afternoon, he says he will begin doing all the photography work himself. Surprised, Gina says, “I can manage the photography work all right; and you can go on working at your invention.”
.......Hedvig says, “And think of the wild duck, Father—and all the hens and rabbits—!
.......“I should almost like to wring that wild duck’s neck,” Hjalmar says.
.......Hedvig shrieks.
.......Hjalmar says he will not do so, of course, for her sake. But he would like to because of where it came from—Håkon Werle's house. He then tells Hedvig to go for a walk. After the girl is gone, Hjalmar tells Gina he will also do all the accounts himself—or at least check the receipts. He also questions her on how she manages to keep the household going on so little money. He probes further until he finally accuses her of having “an understanding” with Mr. Werle when she worked for him.
.......Gina denies the charge, although she acknowledges that Mr. Werle did make advances toward her. Mrs. Werle then made such a fuss that Gina quit. Later, after he became a widower, “He gave me no peace until he had his way.” She admits that it was wrong to hide this information from him, but she says she was afraid that Hjalmar would not have married her. She does love Hjalmar, she says.
.......Hjalmar rants on about her deception and says he no longer has the spirit to carry on with his invention. Gregers comes in, smiling in the belief that he has done a great service for the Ekdals and that they can now start “an entirely new life.” But Gina lashes out at him, and Hjalmar says he needs time to “throw off the bitter cup I have drained.”
.......Relling enters just then and calls Gregers a “quacksalver” bent on ruining Hjalmar and Gina’s life. He tells the two men there is no such thing as a perfect marriage in the first place. Besides, they have the child, Hedvig, to consider. She is at a sensitive age, and quite vulnerable.
Another visitor enters, Mrs. Sørby, who exchanges greetings with Gina and says she was hoping the men were out so she could chat with her and say good-bye. She is going up to Hoidal in the morning; Werle has already left for the place. 
.......“He asked me to say good-bye for him,” she says.
After Gregers notes that Werle and Mrs. Sørby are going to be married, Relling says, “You are going to marry again?”
.......She says yes, at the works. Gregers wishes her happiness.
.......Relling comments that to Werle’s credit he never gets drunk and probably will not beat her as did her former husband, a veterinarian. He then leaves. Gregers observes that Mrs. Sørby seems to know Relling quite well, and she says she knew him well enough years ago to consider marrying him. 
.......She says Werle is already aware of this fact, pointing out that she believes in being candid. She says Werle has been frank with her as well, and she plans to stand by him always—especially “now that he is getting helpless.” Gregers tries to stop her from saying more, but she continues.
.......“There is no disguising it any longer, however much he would like to. He is going blind.” 
.......Before leaving, she tells Hjalmar that if there is anything Werle can do for him, he is to see Gråberg. Gregers says Ekdal will refuse the offer. Taking the cue from Gregers, Hjalmar then says he will see Gråberg soon to arrange for paying off his debt to Werle—with interest. When Gina protests that they do not have enough money, he says he will use the proceeds from his invention. Mrs. Sørby then leaves, saying she will speak to Gina privately at another time. 
.......Gregers commends Hjalmar for his decision. Hjalmar then notes how ironic it is that Werle and Mrs. Sørby will have a “true marriage” based on candor and forthrightness. Taken aback, Gregers says Hjalmar and Gina cannot be compared “with those two.” But Hjalmar adds that his blindness will be “righteous retribution” for having “hoodwinked a confiding fellow creature in days gone by.”
.......After returning from her walk, Hedvig says, she ran into Mrs. Sørby, who gave her a present for her birthday. When Hjalmar asks what it is, she says, “Mother is to give it to me to-morrow morning before I get up.” However, she says Hjalmar may see it. She withdraws a letter from her pocket and gives it to him. It is in the hand of Mr. Werle.
.......Werle writes that Old Ekdal need not do any more copying, for he is granting him 100 crowns a month. After he dies, Hedvig is to receive the same amount for the rest of her life. Hjalmar is overjoyed. Hedvig says she will turn over all the money to her father and mother. 
.......“Hjalmar, this is a trap he is setting for you,” Gregers says, adding that on his visit to the studio earlier his father told Gregers that “Hjalmar Ekdal is not the man you imagine him to be.” Hjalmar says he thinks the remark meant that he could not “be bought off.” When Hedvig asks what is going on, Gina sends her out of the room to remove her coat. She leaves by the kitchen door, crying. Hjalmar then turns to Gina and asks why Werle wanted them to marry. When she is evasive, Hjalmar says, “Does Hedvig belong to me—or—?” Gina says she does not know. Hjalmar puts on his coat and says he is leaving her. Gregers intercedes: “You three must be together if you are to attain the true frame of mind for self-sacrifice and forgiveness.”
.......Hjalmar replies, “Never, never! . . . I have no child.” 
At the kitchen door, Hedvig says, “What is that you’re saying? Father, Father!” She goes to him, but he tells her he “cannot bear to see her.” She screams. Gina shouts, “Look at the child!” He pulls away from Hedvig and leaves. Gina tries to comfort her by saying that Hjalmar will return, but Hedvig says he will never return. Gina then goes out to bring Hjalmar back.
.......“Perhaps I’m not really Father’s child,” Hedvig tells Gregers. “Mother might have found me.” 
.......However, she also says that Hjalmar might love her more than he would if she were his own. After all, she says, she received the wild duck as a present, and she loves it dearly. Gregers then makes a startling proposal: that Hedvig kill the duck for the sake of her father “as a free-will offering . . . of the dearest treasure you have in the world.” Hedvig says she will have her grandfather shoot it in the morning, and Gregers cautions her not to tell her mother of the plan. 
.......Gina returns with news that Hjalmar went out with Relling and Molvik. She assures Hedvig that he definitely will come home.

Act V

.......The next morning brings a snowstorm. While Old Ekdal is in the garret and Gregers is visiting Gina, Relling comes in to tell her that Hjalmar is in his place sleeping on a sofa. Relieved, Gina and Hedvig go to the sitting room to begin chores. Gregers ask Relling for his assessment of Hjalmar’s “spiritual tumult,” but Relling says he has noticed no such problem with Hjalmar. When Gregers asserts that a man of Hjalmar’s “individuality” must be going through a crisis, Relling says that if Hjalmar ever had any individuality his “two high-flown hysterical aunts” uprooted it when they were rearing him. Gregers disputes this observation, saying, “Look at the depth of his mind.” 
.......“I have never discovered it,” Relling says. 
.......Hjalmar’s father thought he had such depth, Relling notes, “but the old lieutenant has been an ass all his days.”
.......With his good looks and “his talent for declaiming other people’s verses,” Hjalmar fooled his classmates too, Relling says. The doctor then criticizes Gregers, saying he has “integrity-fever” and that “you must always have something to adore, outside yourself.” When Gregers asks Relling why he bothers with Hjalmar, Relling says that as a doctor he has an obligation to help “poor sick folk.” However, he says, Old Ekdal needs no help because he has come up with his own remedy for his problems. 
.......“Just think of the old bear-hunter shutting himself up in that dark garret to shoot rabbits! . . . The four or five withered Christmas-trees he has saved up are the same to him as the whole great fresh Hoidal forest. . . .”
.......Hedvig enters from the sitting room, and Relling goes down to his place to check on Hjalmar. Hedvig tells Gregers she has decided not to kill the duck. He says he disagrees with her decision, then leaves. Old Ekdal comes out of the garret, saying he was not having much fun in there alone. Hedvig asks him how one would go about shooting a wild duck.
.......“I don’t mean my wild duck,” she says.
.......He says to kill a duck properly one must shoot it in the breast against the flow of the feathers. After he goes into his room, Hedvig takes down the pistol. When Gina comes in, she quickly puts it down. Her mother tells her to check on the coffee in the kitchen. Gina plans to take a breakfast tray down to Hjalmar. However, Hjalmar enters just then to pick up his technical magazines.
.......When Hedvig comes in, Hjalmar shouts, “Keep her away from me, I say!” 
.......Gina sends Hedvig into the sitting room, then gets the technical magazines from the bookcase and puts them on the table. When she asks him what is to become of Old Ekdal, Hjalmar says he will take him with him but first must arrange for a place to stay. Hjalmar looks through drawers for his diary and certain documents while Gina fetches him a tray with hot coffee and breakfast. When he enters the sitting room to search further, Gina follows her husband.
.......Hedvig takes up the pistol and enters the garret while Hjalmar moans about what a job it is to move. He takes off his coat. When Gina asks what is to be done with the rabbits, Hjalmar says he is not taking them; his father will have to get along without them. Then he asks for his pistol. Gina tries to convince him to stay with Relling and Molvik, but he is bent on going out in the snowstorm to look for another place. He begins eating bread and butter, and Gina pours him more coffee. He sits on the sofa awhile, then asks whether he may stay in the sitting room for a day or two while he gathers his father’s things. He also says he noticed that “that paper” (the letter from Werle) is still “lying about.” 
.......Gregers comes in and asks why Hjalmar is sitting on the sofa having breakfast. Hjalmar says he is just getting up his strength while he gathers his things, which takes time. Gina then asks whether she should get the sitting room ready or pack his belongings. 
.......“Pack—and get the room ready,” he says.
When Gregers asks him what will become of his invention, Hjalmar says he does not care about it anymore. 
.......“It was that blackguard Relling that urged me to it,” he notes.
.......They talk about Hedvig, and Hjalmar says he thinks the girl was only pretending to love him.
.......“What would you say if she gave you a proof of her love?” Gregers asks.
.......They hear the duck quacking within the garret. Moments later, they hear a pistol shot. Gregers says Old Ekdal just killed the duck on behalf of Hedvig.
.......“She wanted to sacrifice to you her most cherished possession; for then she thought you would surely come to love her again.”
.......Old Ekdal opens the door of his room and says, “So you go shooting alone, do you, Hjalmar?”
.......Hjalmar, Gregers, and Gina then go immediately to the garret. There, they find Hedvig on the floor. Gina runs out to fetch Doctor Relling. Hjalmar and Gregers carry Hedvig to the sofa. When the doctor comes in with Molvik, he examines her and pronounces her dead.
.......“The bullet has gone through her heart. Internal hemorrhage. Death must have been instantaneous.”
.......Hjalmar, deeply remorseful, sobs while shouting cries of regret for his behavior. 
.......“Hush, hush, you mustn’t go on that awful way,” Gina says. “We had no right to keep her, I suppose.” She and Hjalmar carry the body to the girl’s room. Relling tells Gregers that powder burns on her body reveal that she shot herself. Gregers think the death “has set free what is noble” in Hjalmar, but Relling says the nobility will not last.
......."Before a year is over, little Hedvig will be nothing to him but a pretty theme for declamation.
.......If the doctor is right, Gregers says, then life is not worth living. The doctor says it is worth living as long as people stop foisting their idealism on others. In that case, Gregers says, he is happy that his destiny is what it is—“to be the thirteenth at the table.”
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Climax

.......The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of The Wild Duck occurs in Act IV, according to the first definition, when Gina admits that she had a sexual encounter with Håkon Werle before her marriage to Hjalmar and that she does not know whether Hjalmar or Werle is the father of Hedvig. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Hedvig commits suicide.

Source of Conflict

Håkon Werle is the main source of conflict in the play. Consider that, preceding the action of the play, he 

  • Fathered Gregers Werle, who dedicates himself as a young adult to revealing ugly truths that cause domestic turmoil.
  • Had an antagonistic relationship with his wife, which helped motivate Gregers to turn against his father.
  • Took part in a business deal that disgraced and sent to jail Hjalmar Ekdal's father.
  • Had an affair with a housekeeper, Gina Hansen, then arranged her marriage to Hjalmar Ekdal. During her first year of marriage, Gina Hansen Ekdal bore a child, Hedvig. Whether Håkon Werle or Gina's husband, Hjalmar, fathered it is unknown. When Hjalmar learns of his wife's past and his daughter's dubious parentage, he rejects Gina and Hedvig. 
  • Provided money for Hjalmar Ekdal's photography training and began employing Hjalmar's father after his release from prison, gestures that Gregers Werle believes were intended to buy the silence of the Ekdals regarding Håkon Werle's past behavior. 
  • Shot and wounded the wild duck that his servant gave to the Ekdals. Hedvig and Old Ekdal nurse the duck back to health and prize it as a pet. Hjalmar curses the animal after he learns about his wife's past. Gregers attempts to persuade Hedvig to shoot the duck as a way to win back the affection of her father.
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Style

.......Because Ibsen wanted to make his plays uncompromisingly realistic, he wrote the dialogue in simple, everyday, middle-class language rather than elegant, lofty, or trope-laden language characteristic of romantic plays. But in mimicking vernacular speech, he chose and arranged his words carefully; every word and every sentence counted. Thus, the dialogue in A Wild Duck is spartan but powerful; little by little, it bares the human psyche.

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Themes

Self-Delusion

.......Gregers Werle sees himself as a man of character, noble and incorruptible, whose mission is to right wrongs and champion the cause of truth. Hjalmar Ekdal sees himself as a good husband, father, and son, as well as a brilliant inventor. In short, these two men are heroes to themselves. But neither recognizes his own shortcomings; neither sees himself as he truly is. Both men's visions of reality are no less faulty than demented Lieutenant Ekdal’s, who goes on hunting expeditions amid old Christmas trees in the garret. Rather than face the reality of his business scandal, he escapes it entirely to live in an illusory world. And then there is Molvik. He repeatedly deludes himself into believing that alcohol will cure his ills, whatever they are. 

Concealing vs Revealing the Truth

.......In his extreme idealism, Gregers Werle believes in revealing the truth whatever the cost. In his extreme pragmatism, Doctor Relling believes in hiding the the truth whenever it has the potential to  cause harm. Ironically, while laying bare the truth about his father and the Ekdal family, Gregers fails to recognize the truth about himself—that he is a meddlesome, vengeful snot. And, just as ironically, in recommending the concealment of truth, Relling presents the truth to Werle—round, unvarnished, and naked. 
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Revenge

.......Revenge taints the actions of Gregers Werle. Although he declares that his conscience and his idealism drive his mission to expose the truth about his father, clearly his overriding goal is to punish his father. Gregers' animosity is a legacy of his childhood days, when he and his mother sided against Mr. Werle in a bitter rivalry. As the elder Werle tells Gregers in Act I, "You and she—you always held together. It was she who turned you against me, from the first."

Extremism

.......Gregers Werle fancies himself a crusader for truth. But in his zeal to reveal the truth, he is willing to ruin lives, even little Hedvig's. In his commendable effort to help people, Doctor Relling goes wrong when he recommends that Old Ekdal, Hjalmar, and Molvik must not be deterred from chasing the illusions that sustain them against the harshness of reality. Gregers Werle and Doctor Relling are antipodes. The one person in the play who seems able to follow the advice of the ancient Greeks—all things in moderation, nothing in excess—is Gina. She sees both sides of every argument and realizes that the best way to cope is to walk a middle course between extremes.

Shame

.......Shame motivates Hjalmar Werle on several occasions. In Act I, for example, he avoids acknowledging the presence of his disgraced father when the old man passes through Håkon Werle's study 
while Hjalmar is there after the dinner. On the same occasion, when he speaks with Gregers Werle for the first time in at least sixteen years, he depicts his wife as "by no means without culture," inasmuch as she has learned from him as well as from the "remarkable men" the Ekdals know. The fact is that Gina is common and unsophisticated and frequently mispronounces even simple words. When Hjalmar returns home from the dinner, he is ashamed to admit to his family that a dinner guest embarrassed him in front of others by exposing Hjalmar's lack of knowledge of wines. Instead, Hjalmar pretends that he enlightened the guests about wine vintages. 

Foreshadowing

.......Many events in the play foreshadow what follows them. For example, the mess Gregers makes of his room while building a stove fire foreshadows the mess he makes of the Ekdals' life. Perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing in the play occurs when Hjalmar emerges from the garret with a doubled-barreled pistol and warns Hedvig not to touch it because it still has a bullet in one of its its barrels.

Examples of Symbols

Gregers Werle's Smoky Room: After renting a room from Hjalmar Ekdal, Werle builds a fire in the stove and smokes up the room. Then he throws water on the fire, leaving a puddle on the floor. The mess he has made of the room appears to symbolize and foreshadow the mess he will make of the Ekdal family's life.
The Wild Duck: While hunting, Håkon Werle shoots a wild duck but only wounds it. Werle's servant, Pettersen, later gives the duck to Old Ekdal, who takes it home and, with the help of his son and granddaughter, Hedvig, cares for it in the garret. Hedvig is especially fond of it. The duck symbolizes Hedvig, an innocent victim of the strife in her home, as well as others in the play who—like the duck—have been wounded by the circumstances of their lives. Håkon Werle alludes to the duck when he tells his son, Gregers, "There are people in the world who dive to the bottom the moment they get a couple of slugs in their body, and never come to the surface again" (Act I). An observation of Hedvig in Act III indicates that the duck also symbolizes Hedvig's parentage—that is, whether she is the daughter of Håkon Werle or Hjalmar. Hedvig tells Gregers Werle: "[T]here is so much that is strange about the wild duck. Nobody knows her, and nobody knows where she came from either."
Borrowed Overcoat: When he attends Håkon Werle's dinner party, Hjalmar Ekdal wears a fashionable overcoat he borrowed from Molvik. The coat appears to symbolize Hjalmar's use of others to advance his goals or enhance his image. For example, in his photography business, he uses Håkon Werle's money and the talents of his wife to make his modest living. When he was in college, Doctor Relling notes, he had a "talent for declaiming other people's verses and other people's thoughts" (Act V).
Garret: In this dark room behind sliding doors, Old Ekdal spends time hunting in a "forest" made of old Christmas trees. He and his son have stocked the room with rabbits to serve as bears that Old Ekdal shoots on his hunting expeditions. Hjalmar helps his father maintain the patch of "wilderness," which also contains pigeons, hens, and the wild duck. The garret symbolizes Old Ekdal's illusion of himself as a great hunter.
The Invention: Hjalmar's unfinished invention symbolizes his illusion of himself as a great man. Working on it enables him to entertain his heroic vision of himself; finishing it would force him to expose to the world the mediocre quality of his ideas. 
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Imagery: Darkness and Light

.......Ibsen uses darkness and light to underscore themes and motifs. Darkness or dimness generally occurs in scenes in which at least one character is attempting to escape reality or preserve an illusion. The garret of the Ekdal apartment, where Old Ekdal and Hjalmar spend a good deal of time in an imaginary forest, is always dim and shadowy. The sloping panes of glass in the photo studio—where the Ekdals, eat, entertain guests, and work—are half-covered with blue curtains. These images suggest that the Ekdals are leading an illusory life. 
.......Light, fire, or brightness generally occurs in scenes in which at least one character is revealing, or planning to reveal, the harshness of reality to another character; is probing for the shocking truth about a character; or is exposing a character's ignorance of a fact. In Act I, for example, a conversation near a fireplace with a "glowing coal fire" reveals Hjalmar's ignorance of the qualities of Tokay and other wines. Before the same fireplace, Gregers questions Hjalmar as part of the former's campaign to get at the truth about Håkon Werle and his relationship with the Ekdals. In the same place, Gregers then talks with his father, raking over ugly truths about his father's past. In Act II, the smoky fire that Gregers builds in the stove of his rented apartment, then dowses with water that covers the floor, foreshadows the light of truth that he casts on the Ekdals, thereby making a mess of the their life—just as he made a mess of his room. 

Satire 

.......In portraying Gregers Werle as an extreme idealist and Hjalmar Ekdal as a melodramatic fool, Henrik Ibsen was satirizing literary works of his time that romanticized its characters and their actions. Gregers and Hjalmar both see themselves as men with special missions in life. Gregers' mission is to pursue and reveal the truth; Hjalmar's is to invent a revolutionary photography device. One may compare them with knights on quests. But they are bungling Don Quixotes, not Lancelots. Gregers cannot even build a proper stove fire. And Hjalmar gets his wife and daughter to do his photography work for him while he sallies forth with his father in a forest of old Christmas trees. Gregers ends his quest by attempting to get a little girl to shoot a duck. Hjalmar ends his by walking out on his wife, then coming back and having breakfast. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1...Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which character is the least admirable?
2...Write an essay that compares and contrasts Gina Ekdal and Gregers Werle.
3...Why did Gregers Werle continue to work for his father all those years?
4...Does Hjalmar Ekdal truly love Gina and Hedvig?
5...If Hedvig were your daughter, would you inform her of the physician's finding that she is going blind?
6...Write a psychological profile of Gregers Werle or Hjalmar Ekdal. Document your findings with passages from the play, quotations from scholarly essays, textbooks, and other reliable sources. 
7...Write an essay explaining how the past haunts the present in The Wild Duck
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