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Illusions and Realities in Ibsen’s Plays The Wild Duck and Ghosts


In this thesis, Ibsen’s plays, The Wild Duck, and Ghosts are considered in relation to themes of illusions and realities. In both plays, families are held together by illusions, yet torn apart by truths that have been concealed to protect the children. Ibsen’s use of artistic realism is an ironic art form where illusions and realisms are contradicted to reveal the deeper conflicts of ordinary lives. Ibsen presents the complicated realities of ordinary lives and emphasizes the fact that there are always many realities -- just as there are many illusions.


Illusions and Realities in Ibsen’s Plays The Wild Duck and Ghosts


     In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, illusions and reality are set into a conflict within the story of a son’s personal desire to confront idealism. Throughout much of the play, the son, Greger, argues the value of truth with the reluctant Dr. Relling. Relling insists on the importance of illusions, but fails to discourage Greger’s intentions and a play that begins as a comedy quickly turns into a tragedy because of these conflicts.  At the heart of the illusions in this play are the ways that people assume many roles in a family, impersonating multiple ideals as ways for managing their relationships. This theme of impersonation is also developed in Ibsen’s Ghosts, where family relations are slowly undone as the illusions and deceptions are stripped away.   In both plays, deceptions are strategic and designed to protect the children from the pains and struggles of their families’ histories.  Ultimately, in these plays, families are held together by illusions, yet torn apart by truths that have been concealed to protect the children.

Illusions and Realism

     In The Wild Duck, as Relling continues to discourage Greger from revealing damaging truths about family secrets, Relling insists, "If you take away make-believe from the average man, you take away happiness as well" (Ibsen, 294). Relling is referring to the ways the Ekdal family is structured on particular deceptions; however, these are designed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty. Hedvig, the fourteen year old daughter, represents one of the innocents, and Greger’s father, Old Werle, represents a part of the guilty side. The key to these dualisms of false and truth, innocent and guilty, illusion and reality, lies in Ibsen’s art of realism, which was a staging of the complicated threads that hold ordinary lives together.

     Within the ordinary lives of the families in Ghosts and The Wild Duck are tales of infidelity, corruption, greed, lust, disease, and other afflictions that characterize family secrets. For example, in Ghosts, the mother, Mrs. Alving, reveals the ways she has protected her son Oswald from the truths of her unhappy marriage. She tells her friend and priest, Manders, “…Yes, I was always swayed by duty and consideration for others; that was why I lied to my son, year in and year out. Oh, what a coward I have been” (315).

     Manders responds, “You have built up a happy illusion in your son’s mind, Mrs. Alving – and that is a thing you certainly ought not to undervalue,” (315) echoing Dr. Relling’s belief that illusions are sometimes more than a question of reality. In both plays, the deeper questions are about whose reality matters, and who may determine another person’s reality.

     Relling accuses Greger of having a plague of “…integrity-fever; and then -- what's worse -- you are always in a delirium of hero-worship; you must always have something to adore, outside yourself,” which Greger agrees to, without considering the consequences of this claim (297).  In fact, Greger’s certainty about the dangers of illusions provokes the young Hedvig into an emotional despair, and she kills herself.  The issues presented in this play are not about what is true, or false, but about the ways people build their lives on the past. Hedvig’s father, Hialmar, protects his daughter from truths that concern the actions of others, with consequences that have indirectly affected her life.  In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving is protecting her son from truths that, in the end, have consequences on Oswald’s life, as he has inherited syphilis from his philandering father.

     The climaxes of these two stories result in the deaths of Hedvig, and Oswald and both deaths come about as a result of their learning the truths of their pasts. In each of these plays, the reality is what destroys the characters.  Once the life illusions are taken away, there is nothing for the individuals to hold onto. As the illusions are shattered, reality becomes impossible to endure.

     Ultimately, by using realism to portray the value of illusions, Ibsen produces complicated questions about what is real and what is sometimes a necessary illusion.


     Both The Wild Duck, and Ghosts are tragedies that involve what might be understood as “the sins of the fathers;” however, Ibsen seems to suggest that some truths are better maintained as illusions. In both plays, the truth destroys the lives of those who have been protected from the past and in both cases the past involves relationships that have indirect consequences on the children’s understandings of their lives.      In the end, whether it is right or wrong to maintain the illusions is not as significant as the question of who has the right to determine what is real, and what is true for others.

Works Cited

Henrik Ibsen, “The Wild Duck,” Four Great Plays by Henrik Ibsen, NY: Bantam Books.

Henrik Ibsen, “Ghosts,” Playreader’s Repertory, M.R. White and F. Whiting, Eds., London: Foresom and Company.

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