Born as a son of a miner, Borkman grew up with steel all around him, and it made him tough. He became a self made man, with great economical ambitions, started a bank, and wished for national dominion, if nothing else. In his youth, he was enamoured by two sisters, Ella and Gunhild. Ella was the one who warmed up to him most, but he chose the other one, and Ella seemingly never got over him. Borkman and Gunhild had a son, Erhardt, a boy Ella took a shine to.
Then it all fell apart. The bank collapsed, and with it all the great ambitions of John Gabriel Borkman. He was left bankrupt, but Ella Rentheim intervened, saw to it that he and his wife kept their estate, although she was the actual owner from that point. Furthermore, because Borkman had to go to jail because of accusations of fraud, she raised Erhardt Borkman as her own child for some years. Later, Borkman was released from prison, and returned to his mansion, where he restlessly brooded in the upper floor for eight years, hardly seeing his son, let alone his wife. All his friends abandoned him, except one, an old copyist and poet named Wulhelm Foldal, who regularly showed up to comfort him.
Erhardt Borkman became a student, and took a shine to Fanny Wilton, a widow somewhat older than he. She also cared for Frida, daugher of Foldal. Ella shows up at the mansion to claim her right and to set things straight, because she is terminally ill. In the process, she confronts Borkman in his room, and his wife follows suit - underlining an old Love Triangle between them. Borkman decides to leave his room, for the first time in years, and goes out with Ella. At the same time, his son Erhardt decides to leave for Europe with mrs Wilton and Frida. The old ones are left alone, and Borkman goes out in a cold winter night, seemingly restored. Then, his heart gives in, and he dies in the snow. The two sisters are left alone with the dead old man, settling every score between them.
- Ambition Is Evil: Played with. Borkman was ambitious and strived for more economic and even political power. People even thought of giving him a position in government. Then he fell from grace and got a sentence instead. Whether or not this made Borkman "evil" is a moot point, but he is clearly not that sympathetic.
- The Antagonist: The lawyer Hinkel, named but never seen, is, according to Borkman, responsible for his fall.
- Anti-Hero: Borkman himself.
- Author Avatar: Borkman, but also Foldal. Note that the latter one is a kind poetic nature, while Borkman is hard, introvert and broody. Both sides were to be found in the nature of Real Life Ibsen.
- The Chosen One: Borkman lampshades his role as the chosen one more than once. He even states that he and Foldal are "chosen" in different ways. And boy, isn`t Borkman a jerkass because of this...
- Foil: Gunhild Borkman and Ella Rentheim, Foldal and Borkman. Gunhild is a stern, bitter woman, while Ella is compassionate and active. Foldal is sympathetic to Borkman, acts friendly and has a poetic leaning, while Borkman is a stern businessman seemingly without any compassion at all.
- Grumpy Old Man: Borkman is old and grumpy, and has several meanings on what society would be like, if only he was in charge.
- The Ingenue: Frida Foldal.
- It's All About Me: Borkman acts and speaks after this principle.
- I Was Quite a Looker: Ella Rentheim certainly was. Both she and Borkman has a memory lapse on her former beauty.
- Hidden Depths: Borkman is a hardliner, but softens up to the young and innocent Frida Foldal.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Borkman has feelings, and actually encourages Frida to get a better life. He also bends to the wishes of his son.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Frida Foldal plays the piano for Borkman to cheer him up. The tune she plays is - Dance Macabre! And he likes it.
- Love Triangle: The sisters Gunhild and Ella towards Borkman. Also towards Erhardt.
- Momma's Boy: Erhart Borkman has been this, up to his meeting with Fanny Wilton. He has actually had two "mom"s, as his aunt Ella also took part in his upbringing. Whether or not Fanny also takes a motherly role, can of course be a matter in interpretation.
- Mrs. Robinson: Fanny Wilton clearly is - to Erhardt. Subverted because she is merely seven years his senior, but she acts accordingly.
- The Pollyanna: Wilhelm Foldal has this, at least at the end of the play. His plight is not good, but he is thankful for every kind act towards his daughter.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The story of the mighty businessman who goes bankrupt, is based on the experience with Ibsen`s own father, Knud Ibsen, who had to live through a tragedy of the same magnitude.
- Really Gets Around: Fanny Wilton lampshades this herself! No female character in the Ibsen Canon did ever act more freely.
- The Resenter: Borkman after five years in prison and eight years of walking in his chambers, resents society, and waits for "them" to come crawling back to him.
- Screw This, I'm Out of Here!: Erhardt Borkman invokes it in spades when he leaves with Fanny Wilton.
- Snow Means Death: Borkman perishes in the snow.
- Spiritual Successor: To The Pillars of Society. The main character of that play, Bernick, also chose between two women and preferred the less exciting one. Bernick is, of course, a businessman of the same magnitude as Borkman.
- Straw Nihilist: Borkman has a sorry view on the rest of humanity - all the other people who aren`t him.