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Theatre / The Wild Duck

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The Wild Duck (Vildanden in Norwegian) is a stage play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1884. Psychology is an essential part of the plot.

The plot revolves around two intertwined families: The Werle family, consisting of the rich merchant Håkon Werle; his oppositional son, Gregers; the new fiancée of old Werle, Mrs Sørby; and Gregers' absent/dead mother.

The Ekdal family, on the other hand, has fallen on hard times, and the head of the family, Hjalmar Ekdal, makes a living on the generosity of Old Werle, who has supposedly taken them in pro bono. Hjalmar is married to Gina, a former housemaid of the Werle household, and they have a daughter, Hedvig, who loves her father dearly. The Ekdals have two houseguests paying rent in the lower floor: Relling, a psychiatrist, and Molvik, a theologist. It is apparent that Relling is sustaining both Molvik and Hjalmar with various delusions as a way to shield them from their serious emotional problems. Also living in the Ekdal house is Hjalmar's father, Old Ekdal, former officer and former business associate of Håkon Werle who makes a modest living doing copying work for the merchant.

This order is disrupted when Gregers comes to town, has a standoff with his father concerning his dead mother, and moves in with his childhood friend Hjalmar Ekdal. Gregers is justly cross with his father because of the death of his mother, and wishes to reveal to Hjalmar that he has been tricked. Old Werle is the man behind the misery of the Ekdal family, and he is also the father of Hedvig, concealed in marrying away Gina to Hjalmar to avoid scandal. Old Werle has a personal interest in keeping the secrets hidden. In a ruthless pursuit of the truth, it all spills out, and tragedy ensues.

Hidden in a lumber room in the Ekdal household is a stock of animals, some rabbits and a wild duck. Old Ekdal enjoys the feeling of hunting there, to remind him of better days. Hedvig is especially fond of the wild duck. The bird was found crippled after a hunting incident (involving old Werle, it seems), and was taken in.

When meeting Hedvig, Gregers finds a fellow soul, and Hedvig seems to understand his modes of speech instantly. This reveals that they in fact are siblings. Gregers wishes his friend Hjalmar all the good in the world, but believes a marriage must be based on truth, not lies. When Hjalmar finds out he is not Hedvig's father, he violently disowns her, and Gregers tries to make amends by proposing that Hedvig sacrifices the item most dear to her, the wild duck. Hedvig steals into the attic with a gun, only to hear Hjalmar state that she should prove her love by sacrificing herself... And she does.

This play contains examples of these tropes:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Hjalmar Ekdal, though an (aspiring) inventor rather than a professor, is definitely absent minded to the point where he forgets his promises to Hedvig.
  • The Alcoholic: Relling's roommate Molvik appears briefly in Acts III and V; in the former, he is so badly hung over that he has to leave lunch at the Ekdals' to be sick, while in the latter, he is still drunk from the previous night's carousing with Hjalmar and Relling and begins reciting a garbled benediction for the dead Hedvig until Relling tells him to shut up. Hedvig also reveals to Gregers that Molvik is her private tutor, but is often drunk during their lessons. The likely cause of his alcoholism is the self-loathing that Relling tells Gregers would surely destroy him were it not for his "daemonic" diagnosis.
  • Arc Symbol:
    • Blindness. Hedvig's eyesight is fading, and so is the eyesight of old Werle, her true father. This point is made to make the audience take the clue of their relationship. Taking it further, Gina works on "editing" the photos Hjalmar has taken, "photoshopping" the harsher details out of the picture. Disturbed sight is a leitmotif in the play, and Gregers finds that his task is to restore it. Relling, on the other hand, works on obstructing this. This is also a subtle Shout-Out to Peer Gynt, where the Mountain King prepares tools to obstruct the eyesight of the title character, to make him think that Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair.
    • The second obvious Arc Symbol in this play, is the Wild Duck itself. It seems to be a tight connection between this duck and the Ekdal family (both old Ekdal and the Duck are "wounded" by old Werle). This is adapted by Hedvig, who chooses to sacrifice herself on a symbolical (and quite literal) level. Old Werle lampshades this early on, mentioning people who "sink to the bottom when they get wounded by a shotgun" - referring to old Ekdal.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Gregers has a knack for these.
  • Batman Gambit: The play seems to be structured around a big one, concerning the life of Hjalmar Ekdal, and played out by old Werle. The only flaw in his plan seems to be Gregers, whom he held out of the loop by misinforming him, although he tried to set Hjalmar and Gregers up against each other. When Gregers eventually finds out, he tries to break the gambit, resulting in the death of Hedvig. It seems that Hjalmar was manipulated all the way, and that Relling is placed in the apartment below him on purpose, to keep Hjalmar in a kind of happy delusion.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The party held at the Werle mansion, with a lot of nobles (stated to be "chamberlains") present. In this environment, Hjalmar is clearly a Fish out of Water, but he tries to get along. Note that chamberlains usually were appointed to wait on the king. Hence, Werle, being a grocer and factory owner, has powerful friends for sure.
  • Break the Cutie: Hedvig is the apple of her father's eye, despite his sorrow over her failing eyesight... until Gregers takes him for a walk and tells him that Hedvig is not his daughter at all. When he gets Gina to confess that she cannot say for certain that Hedvig isn't Håkon Werle's daughter, Hjalmar can't even bear to look at the child he thought was his. And when she tries to act on Gregers' advice that she sacrifice the wild duck to prove her love to the man she still thinks of as her father, she instead overhears him scoffing at the idea that she would rather stay with him than with her richer biological father, and that if he asked her to lay down her life for him, he'd get an answer loud and clear. This pushes her over the edge, and she shoots herself through the heart.
  • Brick Joke: A dark one. One of the first lines in the play is old Werle's statement that the party had 13 guests at dinner. The penultimate line of the play is Gregers, lamenting that his fate is to always be the thirteenth guest.
  • Butt-Monkey: Hjalmar Ekdal at the Werle party. When the upper class gentlemen give him attention, it is to ridicule him. The only one to act fair against him, is Gregers.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Gregers calls his father out on his schemes, including marrying Gina off to Hjalmar Ekdal after getting her pregnant, and letting Old Ekdal take the fall for the financial misappropriations for which Werle alone was responsible. Werle remains unrepentant.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Played Horribly straight, as the gun on the shelf used for fake hunting early on is used on Hedvig by herself at the end of the play. A trope example that may precede Chekhov himself.
  • The Chessmaster: Old Werle, first setting up Old Ekdal for a white-collar crime and having him jailed, then fathering Hedvig by Gina and having her married to Hjalmar to conceal the fact, and thereupon convincing Hjalmar for years that he is the real father. Manipulative Bastard should also fit him well, as he allegedly drove his wife to suicide.
  • Childhood Friends: Gregers and Hjalmar. It becomes clear in a throwaway line that old Werle tried to obstruct the friendship by telling Hjalmar that Gregers was cross with him, and then "advising" Hjalmar not to write any letters.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Old Ekdal spends many hours living in a fantasy world where he is still a great hunter and soldier, the threadbare Christmas trees kept in the loft representing the forests of Højdal, the scenes of past triumphs.
  • Cryptic Conversation: Gregers becomes more and more cryptic as he starts to figure things out. Hedvig lampshades it, by saying that he "says one thing and means another". When Hedvig and Gregers have a chat all by themselves, the conversation gets... interesting. This scene alone has been the subject of de-crypting for a hundred years.
  • The Cynic: Doctor Relling, who is opposite Gregers in all respects, believing that keeping delusions alive in fact keep people sane. The two have a long quarrel on the subject, also prior to the play. The final exchange between the two concerning the fate of Hjalmar is the last set of lines in the play; Gregers believes that Hedvig's death will finally awaken greatness in Hjalmar, while Relling believes that he will instead descend into maudlin alcoholism within a year.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Both Relling and Gregers at times. Relling probably the most.
  • The Everyman: Hjalmar Ekdal.
  • Fish out of Water: Hjalmar at the Werle party. He is there solely at the request of Gregers, who wished to see his childhood friend. The other guests clearly mock him, and Hjalmar tries to act above his position. It does not end well.
  • Genre Savvy; Gregers. He takes the point of Hjalmar's tale better than Hjalmar himself, also because he knows the ways of his father. But he is not prepared for Hjalmar's reactions later on.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Hjalmar on Old Werle until Gregers sets him straight. Then again when he takes it out on Hedvig.
  • The Idealist: Gregers Werle, who strongly believes in the power of truth over concealment. He has made a point in going around to families working at the Werle plant, speaking to them of "the ideal pursuit".
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Lampshaded by Gregers. Old Werle is going blind, after having led a lot of other people into (symbolical) blindness.
  • Manufacturing Victims: The profession of Relling, to the disgust of Gregers. He claims that Molvik is "daemonic", but openly admits that this is a meaningless label intended to keep Molvik from collapsing under the weight of his own self-loathing (if his alcoholism doesn't kill him first). Hjalmar believes in an "invention" he shall create, but he never actually works on it, instead spending long hours lying on the sofa supposedly thinking about it.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Hjalmar. He may have felt rather uncomfortable at the Werle party, but safe at home, he is quick to embellish his feats, making it seem like he owned the place and put the others to shame. On that note, he often talks in a broad and hammy manner. For instance, when reminded that he has gained some weight, he corrects it - he has become "more manly" in appearance!
  • Missing Mom: Gregers' mother has died by the time the play begins; it is implied she was Driven to Suicide by the discovery of Håkon Werle's affair with Gina.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Gregers when he realizes that the outcome of his wish was worse than he had imagined. Far from the truth setting the Ekdals free, it causes their entire world to collapse.
    • Hjalmar when the gunshot stops his rantings and Hedvig lies dead in his arms. He learns too late that she really did love him enough to lay down her life for her, and that it was his mocking laughter at the idea that actually made it happen.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Old Werle when he notices Old Ekdal. His initial reaction can surely be translated with this trope. His verbal response is "uff da" (English: "ouch!"). Soon after, he visually gnashes his teeth.
    • Hjalmar when his father suddenly shows up at the elite party. He is embarrassed out of his wits, and has another moment minutes later when he returns home, realizing that he forgot what he had promised to Hedvig. It is implied his father put him out of balance.
    • Gina, when Gregers visits the Ekdals at home. She has her reasons not to be comfortable around him.
    • Later, Gregers had a similar reaction when he realizes that Hjalmar is about to go over the top.
  • The Pawn: Inverted by Gregers, when he states quite clearly that he is through being a pawn in his father's games. Hjalmar, on the other hand...
  • Pet the Dog: Old Werle assigned Hjalmar a job as a photographer, and saw to it that he received enough money to provide for Gina and Hedvig. The play starts out with Hjalmar naively expressing his gratitude towards Gregers for Old Werle's good deeds towards his family. Gregers, however, is quick to deduce that his father's charitable acts are not selflessly motivated...
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Once again, Ibsen used his father's bankruptcy as a plot point. On a more touching note, Ibsen had a sister named Hedvig, said to be the only sibling he really cared about.
  • Really Gets Around: Old Werle, and possibly Mrs Sørby. A nice match. It is implied that Hedvig was conceived before Mrs Werle died.
  • Retired Badass: Old Ekdal is said to have shot no less than nine bears in his prime (unless he also is a Miles Gloriosus).
  • Rule of Symbolism: In-universe. Gregers speaks in certain metaphors and symbols, and the only person to take this instinctively is Hedvig, his half sister.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Old Werle.
  • Shadow Archetype: Relling is the Shadow to Gregers.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The Herring Salad Gina prepares for Relling and the others. Vaguely Played for Laughs when Hedvig announces that her mother is "standing with her feet in it". In Ibsen's time, "herring salad" was the common nickname for the Union mark of Norway and Sweden.
    • The title of the play shouts out to The Sea Bird (Søfuglen), a poem written by poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven, telling the story of a wild duck which is shot, wounded, and then sinks to the bottom of a lake, and holds fast to the seaweed with its beak. Old Werle almost quotes this passage verbatim. In Ibsen's time, this poem had become a popular song.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Hjalmar Ekdal, and by default Hedvig. Gina, who actually knew the truth and held it from Hjalmar, seems to have been in on some of the gambit.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Old Werle again.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Gina scolds Gregers when Hjalmar goes batshit on Hedvig.
    I know you did it with the best intentions, but God forgive you anyway.