When Jill and I were in high school, there were still a few movie theatres that showed double features. Tthey paired two movies, and you could see one or the other or both for the cost of one ticket. For a while we thought it was fun to go to these, although we stopped after two or three double features because we found that no matter what the movies were, we tended to get punchy once the second one began and laugh at it, no matter what it was. Most memorable was the time we saw the horrible John Travolta film White Man’s Burden followed by Seven, the Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman thriller about a serial killer who kills one victim for each of the seven deadly sins, and, well, we just couldn’t stop laughing at Seven, in spite of all the grisly murders. We may even have thrown popcorn – but only at each other. We are hardly the type to throw popcorn at strangers.
The Wild Duck is not officially part of the AP Challenge, but I read it anyway. One of the rules for my own personal reading challenge is that I must read a book in its entirety if I am going to put it on my list and count it toward my annual total. Our Ibsen text from AP English includes four plays, only two of which we were assigned to read. So my choices as far as the management of my own challenge were either to read only the plays we read in high school – A Doll House and Hedda Gabler – and then not add the book to my list or to read all four plays, and I chose the latter. I read The Wild Duck immediately after I finished writing my review of A Doll House, and I both loved it and also found it wholly absurd. In other words, I reacted to it much as Jill and I reacted to Seven. We’ll call it Second-Movie-In-A-Double-Feature syndrome.
But seriously – this play is very good and also very weird and disturbing. Its plot may be the most outlandish one I’ve ever encountered – and I’ve read Pudd’nhead Wilson, for God’s sake. Its raw materials are not unlike those of A Doll House, but Ibsen uses these ideas in very different ways in this play. A Wild Duck is more about relationships between parents and children than about relationships between husbands and wives, but many of the larger ideas – secrets, guilt, forgiveness, people trying to “save” and protect each other, and the idea of trying to create a “true marriage” of absolute honesty and equality – are the same in both plays. Except in this one an old man shoots bunny rabbits in the attic.
Here’s a summary: The plot surrounds two families, the Werles and the Ekdals. The patriarchs of these families are elderly and were once business partners, but a scandal of some kind brought down Ekdal and made him dependent on his son and on his former partner Werle, who now shuns him in public but secretly overpays him for menial work so he can make some semblance of a living. The sons of these families, Gregers Werle and Hjalmar Ekdal, were friends as boys and young men but have grown apart, largely due to the public estrangement between their fathers. In Act I, Gregers and Hjalmar meet again at a party thrown by the senior Mr. Werle, and they compare notes about what has been going on in their own lives and the lives of their families. Both are troubled but trying to hide it: Gregers is extremely distant from his father and sometimes seems to hate him, and he is angry when he learns that his father financed Hjalmar’s training as a photographer and also arranged a marriage between Hjalmar and Werle’s former servant Gina – all of which is news to Gregers in this opening scene. Other important details revealed in this opening scene is that the elder Mr. Werle has a habit of sleeping with the servants and is about to marry a servant named Mrs. Sørby and that he also once himself had an affair with Gina, who is now Hjalmar Ekdal’s wife. At the end of Act I, Werle also tries to mend his broken relationship with his son and offers to let him join his firm as a partner, an offer that Gregers refuses in an explosive exchange with his father on the heels of everything he has just learned from Hjalmar Ekdal: “and there [Hjalmar] sits, right now, he with his great, guileless, childlike mind plunged in deception, living under the same roof with that creature, not knowing that what he calls his home is built on a lie… When I look back on all you’ve done, it’s as if I’ve looked out over a battlefield with broken human beings on every side” (135).
There is also some heavy-handed foreshadowing in Act I when several guests at the party remark that there were thirteen people at the dinner table – a fact that leads many to comment that Gregers Werle only recently arrived in town and was a last-minute addition to the guest list. More on that later.
So far I guess I really haven’t delivered on the absurdity I promised, but don’t worry. I’ll get there. Act I is the only one set in the elder Werle’s house, and it’s the only one in which that character appears. Acts II-V (At five acts and 97 pages, The Wild Duck is the longest of the four plays in this volume) take place in Hjalmar and Gina Werle’s home, which includes both a photography studio and the family’s living quarters. Hjalmar and Gina live there with the elder Mr. Ekdal and with their daughter Hedvig (you’re picturing the owl in Harry Potter, aren’t you? Stop it! Stop it now! The last thing you want to do in this play is visualize owls, trust me – there’s enough weird shit going on with birds without throwing owls into the mix), who is about to celebrate her fourteenth birthday (her age is significant – more on this later). The family also rents out several rooms in their house to bring in additional income.
Hjalmar is a different person in this act than he is in Act I, and it becomes clear that he habitually lies to his family. His lies range from telling them that there were fourteen people at the party (to spare them from worrying because of the superstition surrounding the number thirteen, presumably) to exaggerating his own role among the guests at the party, claiming that he was the center of attention among the “nobility” present at the party and pronouncing as his own some judgments about the qualities of various wines that he overheard from a servant at the party. It is clear also that Hjalmar is passive and evasive with his family, regularly changing the subject or becoming cranky to avoid their questions, and it is also clear that Gina and Hedvig have developed the habit of concealing facts from him; in this case, they have decided not to tell Hjalmar that they recently found a renter for one of their spare rooms (“It’s not necessary tonight because Daddy’s feeling good. It’s better we have the news about the room some other time” ). It seems that in this family truth is treated as currency, to be saved when it is not urgently needed and then “spent” sometime in the future.
It seems that Hjalmar is so incompetent as a parent that he reneged on his promise to bring Hedvig home some sweets from the party. It is not clear whether he forgot this promise or whether he never should have made it in the first place because he was so low on the social hierarchy at the party that he would not have been welcome to ask for a doggy bag (either is possible), but regardless, he comes home empty handed and instead of apologizing tells Hedvig that he has arranged an alternate “treat” for her: he has brought the printed menu home and says to her, “If you’ll sit down at the table and read the menu aloud, I’ll describe for you just how each dish tasted” (144).
See? He’s an idiot – an absolutely sniveling, pathetic idiot. This alternate “treat” causes Hedvig to throw a tantrum, which is a little excessive for a fourteen year-old, but I guess kids didn’t grow up quite so fast in the 1880’s. That was before they started putting growth hormones in milk.
Moving on… it turns out that in addition to the living space and the photography studio and the extra rooms for rent, there is another part of Hjalmar Ekdal’s apartment that’s worth mentioning. Adjacent to the living quarters, there is “an extensive, irregular loft room with many nooks and corners, and two separate chimney shafts ascending through it” (151). What do they do with this space, you ask? Well, this is the place where Hjalmar Ekdal’s father “hunts.”
Like so many Ibsen characters, Hjelmar Ekdal’s father lives in the ruins of his glorious past. At one time he was a lieutenant, and he was also famous for hunting bears. He was also a business associate of the elder Mr. Werle’s, but he was brought down in some kind of a scandal, and the play strongly hints that this scandal was not exclusively Ekdal’s fault but that Ekdal took the blame while Werle continued to prosper. This coverup helps to explain why Werle has continued to find secret ways to help the Ekdal family, and it also provides one good reason for Gregers’ contempt for his father. But you don’t really want to know about that, do you? You want to know about the old guy who hunts in the attic.
It appears that the Ekdals keep a bunch of old, dried-up Christmas trees in their attic, along with a lot of chickens and rabbits. When the elder Ekdal goes hunting, he apparently forgets that he is an old man living in shame and roaming around in his son’s attic looking for bunnies – instead, he believes that he is reliving his glory days of bear hunting. And yes, every so often throughout the middle acts of the play, a shot does ring out from the attic.
The only thing that could have made me enjoy this play any more would have been if Lennie from Of Mice and Men had made a cameo appearance.
In addition to the chickens and the rabbits that serve as Ekdal’s indoor “prey,” the family has one more Avian American (excuse me, Avian Norwegian) housemate of which they are extremely proud: the wild duck of the title. And you’re not going to believe this, people, but the wild duck is a METAPHOR. I know – you never saw that one coming, did you? In fact, the wild duck in The Wild Duck may be the single most obvious metaphor in all of Western literature. I know, I know, there are plenty of other contenders – the fence in Fences, the yams in Things Fall Apart, the turtle in The Grapes of Wrath – but this duck is certainly poised to compete with all of the above. And Ibsen wastes no time at all in introducing the symbolic aspects of the duck. Just a few moments after we become aware that the duck exists, we are treated to lines like this: “Can it survive up there indoors? And do well?”(152) and “And now she’s absolutely thriving in that attic room… She’s gotten fat. I think she’s been in there so long, too, that she’s forgotten her wild life” (153).
You see, it turns out that the elder Werle was the one who shot the wild duck. He was trying to kill it, but he only “winged” it, meaning that he shot it right under the wing, just beside the breast, and therefore did not kill it but forever prevented it from flying. Clearly aware of the symbolic potential of the incident, Werle brought the duck to his former business partner and fall guy Ekdal, who now protects the wild duck during his occasional breaks from hunting chickens and rabbits in his son’s attic. And Hedvig, who also loves the duck, cares for it when her grandfather is too busy dodging chimneys and Christmas trees.
I can already tell that I’m not going to be able to tell you everything there is to say about The Wild Duck, so I’ll summarize a bit. The family has recently learned that Hedvig is losing her sight, and Hjalmar and Gina are grieving the fact that she will one day go blind, but they really shouldn’t worry about that, because there is plenty of foreshadowing as early as Act III that Hedvig will die of a gunshot wound long before she ever goes blind naturally (literary characters would save themselves so much heartache if they would just learn to pay attention to the foreshadowing, wouldn’t they?). Hjalmar, as it turns out, devotes almost no time to his photography business (which Gina is effectively running), but instead devotes almost all his time to a “secret invention” that he won’t tell anyone about. And Gregers Werle, who has rejected his father’s offer of a partnership, rents a room from the Ekdals and moves in, determined to “save” the Ekdal family from everything Gregers’ father has done to them, both directly and indirectly. Full details are never really given, but it seems as if Gregers at one time was part of some kind of organization or cult in which one of his responsibilities was “going around to all the farms and cabins with copies of something he called ‘Summons to the Ideal’” (172). It appears that Gregers has some spiritual beliefs of some kind that involve absolute loyalty to this “ideal” or to pursuing the truth at all costs. This loyalty seems to be a large part of the reason that Gregers has so much trouble getting along with his father (well, that, along with the fact that his father is an asshole – but mostly that). So once Gregers moves in, he starts scheming to make sure everyone in the Ekdal family learns the truth about everything that the elder Werle has done to them.
If I were an Ibsen character, I think I would learn quite quickly to fear the mailman. Mail delivery means nothing good in an Ibsen play. The letter that arrives for Hedvig on her birthday from Mr. Werle and his bride-to-be Mrs. Sørby announces that Werle will provide a monthly income for Mr. Ekdal for the rest of his life and that after Ekdal’s death that income will revert to Hedvig. Having just learned from Gregers that Werle and Gina were lovers in the past (exactly fourteen years and nine months ago – dum dum DUM), Hjalmar assumes that this bequest means that Werle, not Hjalmar, is Hedvig’s father. At this point, Hjalmar renounces Hedvig and refuses to have anything else to do with her. She, of course, is horrified, and her tantrum this time is fairly well justified.
What happens next, you ask? The wild duck becomes a Christ figure, of course. Gregers gets Hedvig alone and convinces her that her father will forgive her for having been conceived by another man if she goes into the attic and kills the wild duck. The idea is that she has to show “a sacrificing spirit” and “[give] up the dearest thing [she owns]… in the entire world” (198), to which Hedvig “softly, with shining eyes” says, “Yes, I’ll try it” (198).
There’s more on that page, but it’s hard to read the words through all the vomit stains.
The thing is, it works. Hedvig does eventually go into the loft under instructions to shoot the wild duck, and when the shot is fired her father does in fact immediately forgive her and decide to love her again (the ability to turn one’s love for one’s family members off and on like a water faucet seems to be a common superpower in Ibsen’s plays. Can all Norwegians do that?), but whoops – it turns out that Hedvig was so distraught that she shot herself – right to the side of the breast, in the same spot where the wild duck was shot, and because she’s human and not a duck, of course, the bullet goes right into her heart and she dies.
Of course I would prefer not to snicker at the suicide of a fourteen year-old girl. But this play is just so ridiculous. It’s ridiculous and… well, and it’s also great. Everything I’ve told you about the heavy-handed symbolism and the obvious foreshadowing (HOW do actors play these roles with straight faces??) is true, but there’s something absolutely brilliant about it too. Maybe it’s the unrestrained eccentricity of the old man’s attic hunting grounds. Maybe it’s the presence of Dr. Relling, one of the Ekdals’ tenants, who exists in the play to counter Gregers’ idealism and as a sort of voice of reason. Maybe it’s the fact that so many of the themes and even the exact phrases (“a true marriage,” for example) that are present in A Doll House reappear here but are used in such different ways, and maybe it’s the way this play makes “idealism” and the idea of a “true marriage” look so corrupt, forcing us to question whether Ibsen really intends us to see Nora as the heroine in A Doll House. And then there’s the ending, which is fabulous:
RELLING. Oh, life would be good in spite of it all, if we only could have some peace from these damned shysters who come badgering us poor people with their “summons to the ideal.”
GREGERS (staring straight ahead). In that case, I’m glad my destiny is what it is.
RELLING. Beg pardon – but what is your destiny?
GREGERS (about to leave). To be the thirteenth man at the table.
RELLING. Oh, the hell you say. (216)