Another excerpt from an undergraduate paper, this one on the buried Romantic symbolism in Ibsen’s “realistic” plays. I was lucky enough to take a course in which we read all of Ibsen’s early works, from Catiline to The Emperor and Galilean, and in which we were exposed to Brian Johnston’s Hegelian analysis of the Ibsen Cycle. -DL
Ibsen’s work often concerns grand, buried struggles between dialectically opposing forces. One notable antithesis in his work is the pull between the north and the south, associated in Ibsen’s work with divergent philosophical connotations. The north typically symbolizes Scandinavian harshness, Protestant austerity, the repression of profligate personal urges. The south, alternately, is associated with warmth, sexual liberation, and freedom from responsibility. The north and south, symbolized scenographically within Ibsen’s plays, can be seen in his mountains (the northern “heights), and his fjords (the southern “depths”), suggestive of the bottomless pull of the sea. Theoretically, the heights and the depths ought to stand in diametric opposition, but in Ibsen’s dramatic conception, characters who hail from the mountains and the sea often share similar characteristics. These characters are usually female, with enchanting qualities, possessing a supernatural allure. For example, Ellida – the title character in Lady from the Sea – has an otherworldly obsession with the sea. Rosmersholm’s Rebecca West, hailing from the northern mountains, shares Ellida’s foreign and supernormal aura. Both are magical, exotic, and, most importantly, enticing.
The enticing female is a stock character throughout Ibsen’s plays, from Furia of his tragic first play Catiline (1849), to Irene in his “dramatic epilogue” When We Dead Awaken (1899). In contrast to the supernatural figures found in Ibsen’s early, saga-inflected Romantic works (which include vikings, trolls, and valkyries), the enticing females of his realistic plays are always human-scaled. If Ibsen’s enticing women are supernatural in their exaggerated psychoses, their avenues of recourse are those of the ordinary realistic person. This conflict, between the demands of superhuman psychological conflict and the limits of the human form, is exemplified by how often Ibsen’s females choose suicide as a means of expressing their powerlessness within contemporary society and, in a larger sense, the real world. Hedda Gabler shoots herself rather than conceding defeat to Judge Brack; Rebecca West also commits suicide, jumping off a bridge with John Rosmer to prove her love and free him from the oppressive shackles of family tradition. In Ibsen’s conception of the enticing female archetype, suicide is the great societal equalizer, a self-willed deus ex machina used to overcome the physical limitations which are placed upon the desires of the will.
Ibsen’s last second- and third-to-last plays, John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and Little Eyolf (1894), represent a partial paradigm shift back toward a more openly Romantic dramaturgy, as the playwright introduces non-realistic character types unseen since Peer Gynt (1867). Disruptive spirits such as Little Eyolf‘s Rat Wife and John Gabriel Borkman‘s Fanny Wilton invade the realistic settings of his plays, pagan mythology translated into folklore. Unlike Hedda Gabbler and Rebecca West, Ibsen endows these characters with supernaturally alluring qualities: the Rat Wife lures Eyolf to his death in the depths of the nearby fjord, and Fanny Wilton, associated with the mountains, draws the son Erhart Borkman out of his father’s house to freedom with her jingling sleigh. By endowing his minor characters with the ability to effect the fabric of social and physical reality, as in his early plays, Ibsen created a new archetype, a combination of the new and the old. Theyare “third women,” standing in contrast to the standard Ibsenian duality of the “enticing” and the “pure” woman, reflecting aspects of both.
Both Fanny and the Rat Wife assume the guise of witches, one malevolent and one benign. This new kind of character type functions in a twofold manner. As plot devices, the Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton disrupt the traditional static unit of the family and provide a catalyst for the dramatic action of the play. Psychologically, they serve as divisions of the two main female characters. With this return to earlier dramatic devices, elements of Ibsen’s abandoned style of grand Romanticism returned, creeping into the fabric of his so-called realistic plays. In these last plays, Ibsen realized once more the imaginative dramaturgical form he achieved in Brand and Peer Gynt, fusing high Romanticism and mythic/folkloric landscapes with newfound mastery of prose and psychological symbolism, thus bringing his art full circle.
In some respects, the Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton are uncanny cognates. Each appears at a similar juncture early within the plot of both plays and exhibits magical qualities, “casting” spells that physically remove the central and only child of the family from the play’s action. To signify Fanny and the Rat Wife’s magical characteristics, Ibsen uses their elemental associations. Identifying each with metaphorical motifs tied to the realms of the heights and the depths, he reinforces their mystical nature. The Rat Wife, associated with the fjord depths, is a character sprung directly from Norse-Germanic folklore, representing the destructive and violent pull of the north. John Gabriel Borkman’s Fanny Wilton is identified with lush nature imagery of the earth, and is an example of the south’s enticing, no-less-potent allure. The Rat Wife symbolizes a threatening, violent image of repression, both sexually and emotionally, who brings death. Fanny Wilton represents the opposite: an image of sexual liberation and social freedom who offers a life free from repression and guilt. In the case of the Borkmans’ son, Erhart, Fanny Wilton represents the freedom to break loose from an oppressive familial environment. To the crippled child Eyolf, the Rat Wife is a lure towards his doom in the drowning depths of the fjord. Fanny is an instrument of liberation, the Rat Wife a symbol of eternal imprisonment through death. Although Ibsen frames Fanny Wilton as a more positive figure, however, it is important to note that Fanny also paradoxically represents moral laxitude, and encourages Erhart to forsake familial and personal responsibilities. The Rat Wife, likewise, punishes Asta and Rita for their moral cowardice and inability to perceive their own true condition. The Rat Wife could thus be perceived as a figure reacting to the impulses of excess encouraged by Fanny Wilton, and vice versa. The two characters represent opposite ends of a dialectical spectrum, equally liberating and constricting, life-giving yet fatal, creating through destruction: figures representing the eternal twin pitfalls of Ibsen’s philosophical construction.
The first character appearing chronologically and the more mysterious of the two is the Rat Wife. The Rat Wife is always a significant figure within a reading of Little Eyolf due to her effect on the dramatic action of the play, but scholarly opinion over her function remains confused. Barry Jacobs refers to her as “that most portentous of all of Ibsen’s representatives of Fate,” while Brian Johnston calls her “a conscious agent of animal and human death.” Both critics agree on the Rat Wife’s status as a figure of immense danger, uniquely endowed in the play with the ability to cause death. Jacobs sees her as a folkloric pastiche, calling her “that half-mythical old crone, part Pied Piper, part Circe.” The Rat Wife’s “half-mythical” nature places her in a similar evolutionary vein to Peer Gynt’s Button Moulder, Ibsen’s most famous “agent of death.” Both are nameless characters, known only by titles that suggest a folkloric or vernacular origin, and both cause the death of the title characters in their respective plays.
In Little Eyolf, the Rat Wife foils the two main female characters, Asta and Rita, serving as a possible doppelganger for both. The similarity between the Rat Wife and Asta is one of dramatic function, as they both “kill” Eyolf in the play. James E. Kerans notes this similarity:
“Each comes and goes by sea, carrying a “little black bag” in which is concealed the death of Eyolf, and while this one association must carry the persuasion of several others, it at least undermines their relation to the sea.” [emphasis mine]
In this example, Kerans compounds the two Eyolfs suggested in the play: the physical one presented onstage in the figure of the crippled child, and the metaphoric one represented in the figure of Asta, who has a symbolic double-nature that identifies her as an alternate Eyolf.
Asta’s metaphorical killing of Eyolf is a suicide, for she carries within her symbolic “black bag,” her briefcase, letters revealing her as illegitimate. Asta, Allmers’ younger sister in the play, was mistakenly believed to be male before her birth by the family, who christened her as Eyolf. Born female, Allmers held on to Asta’s “Eyolf” identity instead of abandoning it, using it as her pet name. When Allmers’ son is born and named Eyolf, the identity bifurcates between the child and Asta. The revelation of illegitimacy in the letters represents Asta’s threefold failure in continuing the “Eyolf” identity, and thus his symbolic death:
1) As a female, Asta is unable fully to realize her intended destiny as the male child of the family, the “Eyolf;”
2) As an illegitimate child, Asta is cast out of the Allmers family, destroying the “fiction of brother and sister” and thus Allmers’ ongoing illusion of her as Eyolf;
3) As a non-family member, Asta becomes a possible sexual partner for Allmers, destroying her status as child/little brother and threatening the psychological foundations of the family unit.
“Eyolf is the name or sign of non-sexual relationships, and when a relationship becomes sexual, or is threatened with sexuality, then Eyolf, as the symbol of the relationship, ‘goes.’” The Eyolf identity is a symbol of childhood and innocence, killed by the adolescent awakening of the sexual appetite. This fluctuating nature is reflected in the symbolic death of Eyolf through Asta’s true illegitimate nature, and the physical death of Eyolf, through the violent sexuality of the Rat Wife.
The childishness of the Eyolf identity also assumes a psychosexually incestuous tone from events happening in the play. During an episode set nine years before the beginning of the play, while Allmers and his wife Rita were making love, he called out the surrogate name “Eyolf” during climax. The ramifications of this action are again twofold, tying the psychological realm with the physical. Psychologically, it is evidence of the fusing within Allmers’ mind of Asta’s “Eyolf” identity with an incestuous physical desire for her; physically, the real Eyolf, a baby at the time, falls from the crib during the act, crippling his leg. Eyolf’s physical crippling, a wound that eventually leads to his drowning at the hands of the Rat Wife, is directly connected to the symbolic wound of Allmers’ incestuous desire. Allmers’ desire for Asta is a form of psychological crippling which leads to the symbolic death of Eyolf when Asta reveals her illegitimate nature. Ibsen marries the physical to the metaphorical in the “ominously ingrown” Allmers family through his distortion of identity in the play and establishment of the dialectical Eyolf name motif.
The Rat Wife complements Asta’s symbolic murder of Eyolf with her physical murder of Eyolf. Unlike Asta, who carries the significant dramatic object of the letters in her “black bag,” the Rat Wife carries with her a strange companion: the dog, Mopsemand. Mopsemand, like the letters, is an ominous figure suggesting death. Together, the old witch and the black dog magically lure rats out to sea, thereby drowning them.
Mopsemand also functions as a microcosm of its owner, the Rat Wife, in its unexplored metaphorical meaning within the play. Despite an obvious association with death and the magical, Mopsemand and the Rat Wife remain murky figures, largely unexplained by Ibsen. The reasons for confusion over the meaning of the Rat Wife and Mopsemand as characters in their own right is an issue of context, obscure to the non-initiate, and will be explored later. Although Eyolf’s drowning occurs offstage, it is clear from the Rat Wife’s appearance early in Act One, her “openly sinister double entendres,” Eyolf’s fascination with her, and the drowning of Eyolf at the end of the first act, all of which are given significant dramatic weight by Ibsen, that she is the dominant force responsible for Eyolf’s drowning. The Rat Wife physically murders Eyolf; Asta metaphorically murders Eyolf, thus both are agents of death within the play.
Kerans sees the Rat Wife as a reflection of Asta, and the two as being “two sides of the same coin.” Stephen S. Stanton allows for Kerans’ association as “circumstantially similar,” but dismisses deep comparison of the Rat Wife with Asta, focusing instead on the connection between The Rat Wife and Alfred Allmers’ wife: “Rita’s relationship to the old woman is that of an obverse twin.” Stanton sees the Rat Wife as a reflection, the “antipodal opposite,” of Rita. In “Trolls in Ibsen’s Late Plays,” Stanton makes the case for the Rat Wife as a troll figure, a projection of Rita’s unconscious that “carries out her evil wishes with the help of a small dog she keeps in a bag.” As Rita’s troll self, the Rat Wife is the physical and metaphorical image of her murderous jealousy and eventual hatred of Eyolf. The mother despises the son for the creation of impotence in the father. Motivated by her sexual frustration, which amplifies into feelings of hatred, Rita subconsciously wills Eyolf’s death through the appearance of an evil alter ego, or troll, in the form of the Rat Wife. Trolls appear in much of Ibsen’s work, both blatantly and implicitly. Stanton suggests that Mademoiselle Diana from Hedda Gabler is a similar figure, an evil troll who carries out Hedda’s primal subconscious desires. The Rat Wife is a more important “troll” in Ibsen’s work, though, for in her we see the first physical manifestation of an obviously supernatural being bearing a direct antecedent in Norwegian folklore since Peer Gynt.
Rita and the Rat Wife share a seductive and sexually carnivorous nature. In this case, the Rat Wife is a dark reflection of Rita’s nature as one of Ibsen’s archetypal enticing woman. In Rita, sexuality is associated with the earth. Allmers refers to his wife’s “green and gold forests” as a sort of associative kingdom, one connoting her character’s material wealth and her alluring sexuality, both themes that would appear again in Ibsen’s next play, John Gabriel Borkman. The metaphorical realm of the “green and gold forests,” once entered into, is the backdrop for Rita’s sexual seduction of Allmers. Allmers has forsaken this aspect of their life by the beginning of the play, his personal and oedipal guilt over the crippling of Eyolf rendering him psychologically impotent. Echoing Rita’s murderous frustration with Allmers from his rejection of her sexually, the Rat Wife cast her own respective sweetheart “down among the rats,” into the vasty deep of her fjord domain. In the figure of the Rat Wife, Ibsen transforms Rita’s elemental association with the earth into an association with the sea. Rita’s sexuality, merely insatiable, becomes a vengeful and dangerous one in the Rat Wife because of Ibsen’s elemental transference from the placid and most importantly mortal associative kingdom of the earth into the stormy and magical realm of the fjord.
The Rat Wife only appears in Little Eyolf for about four pages of the play, but she dominates the dramatic action as perhaps no other character. In this case, Ibsen is working in opposition. He establishes a series of interlocking dialectical relationships between one character – (the Rat Wife) – and two or three other characters – (Asta, Rita) – that connect within the action of the play. The result is a complex web of metaphorical overtones, greatly enriching the depth of the two main characters. The dramatic device of the Rat Wife clarifies Asta and Rita, acting as a foil to both, and completing the new female archetypal character triad developing in Ibsen’s late drama.
The association of a female character with the earth element, as in Rita’s “gold and green forests,” and the resultant intimations of sexual desirability reappear forcefully in the character of Fanny Wilton in John Gabriel Borkman. Brian Johnston notes Fanny’s association with the earth in Ibsen’s description of her:
(S)he is extremely attractive with a ripe (yppig) figure, full red lips, playful or mischievous dark eyes, and rich, dark hair. The word for “yppig” can be applied to vegetation with the meaning of lush and luxuriant, to the earth meaning fertile and rich, and to a woman, carrying the meanings over in the terms “buxom” and “ample.”
Fanny Wilton is successful in establishing her sexual control over Erhart where Rita is unsuccessful in retaining an air of sexual superiority over Allmers. Johnston suggests that Ibsen intentionally portrays Fanny as an apparition: “a nature deity from the south,” invading the cold northern abode of the Borkmans. Fanny’s association with the earth as a sort of earthly sex goddess, and her eventual removal of Erhart to the warmer clime of the south, signify her as a positive figure within the play, one of sexual freedom and personal liberation from the pressing demands of familial duty. This positive association contrasts Fanny with the Rat Wife, who is a symbol of mortal dread.
In this, the penultimate play within the Ibsen cycle, Fanny Wilton serves a function similar to her archetypal predecessor, but not identical. Fanny, while performing a similar function in the dramatic action, and sharing many structural similarities, is an inversion of the character qualities found in the Rat Wife. Both characters are set up in opposition to the main female characters of the play. The Rat Wife suggests both Rita and Asta in theme, and Fanny accordingly reflects upon Ella Rentheim and Gunhild Borkman. The Rat Wife represents the evil flipsides of the two characters that she mirrors. On the other hand, Fanny Wilton stands as a beacon of light, set in sharp contrast to the dark shadows cast by the warring twin sisters of Ella and Gunhild, both of whom fight over the fate of their mutual loves: John Gabriel Borkman, the clan patriarch, and the son of the family, Eyolf. Brian Johnston notices the archetypal Ibsenian duality at work between the characters of Gunhild and Ella: “The two rival women, Gunhild and Ella, resemble Ibsen’s perennial female duality of Furia-Aurelia . . . Hedda-Thea, Rita-Asta: a duality that is found in northern saga.” By adding a third character to his typical mythic dichotomy of the light and dark females, Ibsen found a way to highlight aspects of both through contrast. It is significant that the Rat Wife, a drastically darker character than Fanny, appears in the less dark of the two plays. Fanny, lighter in tone from her structural antecedent, exists within the tragic dramatic world of John Gabriel Borkman. As minor characters, the Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton mirror the atmosphere of the play, providing a contrast atmospherically as well as thematically.
There are more inversions between the two characters. The Rat Wife is an old crone, much older than the adult characters in Little Eyolf. Fanny, on the other hand, is noticeably younger than the elder trio of Borkman, Ella, and Gunhild. The disparity in age between Fanny and her male target, Erhart, is much closer than it is between the Rat Wife and hers, the “little” Eyolf. Eyolf and the Rat Wife share the relationship of a child and an old woman, possibly an evil grandmother. Erhart and Fanny share the more equitable relationship of a young man, about twenty-one, with “the beginnings of a moustache,” (JGB 331), with a relatively young divorcee, “a full seven years older” (JGB 373). Where the suggestion of sexual attraction is a perversion between the Rat Wife and Eyolf, it is entirely understandable in the comparatively young and attractive figures of Fanny and Erhart. In addition, the nature of the relationship between the son and the magical female changes from the familial in Little Eyolf to the connubial in John Gabriel Borkman. The Rat Wife is a projection of Eyolf’s mother and aunt, while Fanny stands in contrast to the ties of Erhart’s relatives. Fanny’s ringing metal sleigh bells even carry the added connotation of metaphorical wedding bells, in celebration of her union with Erhart.
No adult character in Little Eyolf notices the attraction between Eyolf and the Rat Wife. The atmosphere is one of neglect. Allmers, Rita, and Asta all allow the crippled child to go swimming unwatched, and he drowns due to their inattention. In John Gabriel Borkman, the attitude the adult characters adopt towards Erhart, with the exception of Fanny Wilton, is one of suffocating need. The three adults line up in a panoramic climax to Act Three, appealing to Erhart’s sense of filial duty in what Johnston terms: “the implorations of his elders to join them dutifully in love (Ella), honor (Gunhild), and power (Borkman).” In Little Eyolf, the title character, despite Allmers’ feelings of guilt and the extreme thematic importance placed on his character, is physically an afterthought. Erhart, despite the extreme lack of concern felt by his three elders for his personal needs, is the center of the action until he departs in Fanny’s metal sleigh.
If the Rat Wife is a reflection of Rita, then Fanny Wilton evolves out of her character. Rita’s golden forests become the silver bells on Fanny’s sleigh, as Ibsen’s metallic imagery develops, becoming more elaborate. Fanny appropriates and augments Rita’s earthy, sexually enticing aura, complementing it with a benignity unseen in Rita’s character until the final act of Little Eyolf. Rita, through suffering, “takes the loss of Eyolf as retributive punishment for her former selfishness,” at the end of the play. Fanny Wilton, as if carrying out Rita’s atonement process, harbors the good health of the next generation in her pilgrimage south with Erhart and Frida Foldal, the nineteen year old daughter of Borkman’s close friend Vilhelm. Fanny safeguards the two innocents from the Nordic spirits of Borkman, Ella, and Gunhild, even implying that Erhart will eventually take Frida as a sexual partner. “When Erhart is tired of me,” she says shortly before they leave, “and I of him, it will be good for both of us that he should have someone to fall back on, poor boy”. Erhart and Frida suggest an evolutionary Adam and Eve, rising from the ashes of the fallen pagan spirits presented in John Gabriel Borkman, the wolf of Norse mythology, and his two mates, the sisters Ella and Gunhild. The folkloric elements of the characters are another evolving thread between the two plays, and will be explored in more depth shortly.
The Rat Wife and Fanny both manifest magical properties, but their most important shared quality is distinctly non-magical, and an important aspect in distinguishing them from the two dialectical female characters whom they reflect: their foreignness within the setting of both plays. Both characters are clear outsiders within the dramatic landscape. Fanny Wilton is an English name, and she whisks Erhart off to the foreign land of the south in her sleigh. The Rat Wife, another traveling figure, roaming from town to town, also has a vehicle, her magic boat, with the trailing Mopsemand. The metaphorical importance of Fanny’s sleigh and the Rat Wife’s boat is talismanic, signifying their magical natures.
The accessories of the bells and the dog also reinforce the metaphorical associations Ibsen has given each character. The dog is an extant fragment of the Rat Wife’s original animal nature, and the silver bells are further evidence of Fanny’s correlation with the mineral properties of her associative earth element. Johnston outlines the original animalistic association Ibsen had designated for the Rat Wife:
In the early drafts of the play, the Rat Wife’s name, ‘Varg’ – a Germanic form of ‘wolf’ – better suggests this taking on the form of a ferocious animal: in northern folklore the Devil came to call for souls in the form of a wolf, often accompanied by a black dog like the Rat Wife’s black dog.
Ibsen married Norse-Germanic folklore with the Judeo-Christian in this early draft through use of the character name, Varg. Considering this original title, the Rat Wife and her dog are no longer mysterious in meaning, but take on quasi-religious, Germanic overtones. Again, Ibsen appears to hearken to his previous work in Peer Gynt, specifically in the folkloric apparition of the devil found late in its final act. Interestingly, Ibsen ultimately chose to submerge the animalistic title and overtones of the Rat Wife character in his final draft of Little Eyolf, allowing it to reappear instead within his next play as an obvious metaphorical feature in the character of John Gabriel Borkman.
Tracing a clear line from the Rat Wife, imagery of the animalistic and of the folkloric surfaces within John Gabriel Borkman, most clearly in the title character. John Gabriel Borkman is referred to in the first act by his wife, Gunhild, as, “a sick wolf padding in a cage up there in the great room (JGB 332)” Here, the identification lies foremost with the Norse-Germanic, as, “the wolf is one of the identities, or manifestations, of the god Odin.” Ibsen forsakes the previously held satanic overtones of the wolf in the Rat Wife, making use instead of Viking or Germanic ones in the construction of John Gabriel Borkman. Brian Johnston notices the similarity in the atmosphere of John Gabriel Borkman to Ibsen’s Viking plays: “it is the heroic mode of The Vikings at Helgeland transposed almost without change to a modern bourgeois drawing-room where it can be both mocked and honoured.” Just as Hedda Gabler may resemble Hiordis in her Viking nature, the characters of John Gabriel Borkman resemble Ibsen’s Vikings in their grand Romantic style and metaphorical associations.
The earth kingdom previously hinted at in Rita’s character is embodied with full force in John Gabriel Borkman in the contrasting figures of Fanny Wilton and the title character. As Stephen Stanton says, “Fanny Wilton rescues Erhart from the clutches of the patriarchal code, metonymized in the subterranean dwarfs of the gold whom his father has epitomized and worshipped.” Borkman repeatedly invokes iron ore as another kingdom, buried deep in the earth. The vision of his kingdom is fully synthesized during Borkman’s tremendous speech at the close of Act Three, shortly before he dies. In the second act of the play, which Borkman completely dominates, he first expounds on his ambitions of worldwide industrialization. “Think of all the mines I could have brought under my control, the shafts I could have sunk. I would have harnessed cataracts – hewn quarries” (JGB 344). Borkman’s sympathies lay deep under the ground, as he firmly identifies himself with the mineral properties of the earth. According to Brian Johnston, the dialectical development from Little Eyolf to John Gabriel Borkman is one of a “Pantheistic ‘plant and animal’ religion,” into “Religious consciousness expressed through mineral forms.” This change is reflected perhaps most drastically in the differing scenic environments of the play.
In John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen abandons the motif of the sea realm, or fjord, for the kingdom of the earth, much as Allmers abandons it at the close of the final act in Little Eyolf. The setting of John Gabriel Borkman is divided between the insular Borkman house and the outdoors, upon a “small clearing high up in the forest” (JGB 386). Both of these are familiar Ibsenian settings, but unfamiliar in juxtaposition with each other. By confining his characters in John Gabriel Borkman to the poles of the home and the heights, Ibsen strips the play of the lush nature imagery found in Little Eyolf. The flowers, water, and warm atmosphere of the previous play are gone, replaced by the hardness of wood floors, austerity of the heights, and the coldness of the winter.
Folkloric and mythic imagery, as reflected through changing religious metaphors, also affects the nature of the two plays. Eyolf is a Christ figure, a martyr who dominates the actions of others in death, his crutch intended as a symbol of the crucifix. John Gabriel Borkman hearkens to an older religious pantheon, one suggested by the wintry setting of the play. This depreciation in religious iconography from the Christian to the Nordic to the Proto-religious would culminate in Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken, which points towards a godless future of spiritual awakening found in death. Gerald Dugan notes the scenographic progression of Ibsen’s three final plays:
“The last act of the late plays all take place outdoors, at higher and higher elevation . . . . The characteristic dramatic action of these works is the Faustian attempt by their mature philosophical protagonists to cast off the accumulated shackles of the past by reaching out for more life, one last scaling of the heights which ends in a fall to the death.”
Ibsen consistently depicts the attainment of spiritual peace through the physical metaphor of the mountain realm. One of Ibsen’s constant themes is the struggle between the urge to scale the heights towards a celestial glory and the inexorable pull downwards of the material world and its attendant responsibilities. Even in Little Eyolf, a play dominated by images of the fjord, characters are drawn towards the heights.
In the climactic fourth act of Little Eyolf, Rita notes with muted resignation that she and Allmers are “earthbound,” as opposed to sea-bound (LE 508). This significant comment marks a point of realization and regretful uplift in the play through the symbolic and elemental association of the characters. Allmers and Rita are reconciling themselves to a lesser fate, constricted by the reality of the contemporary world. Their son, Eyolf, has passed into a spiritually transcendent death, swallowed by the depths, leaving them starkly aware of the difference between his otherworldly status in death and their mundane earthliness in life. As in Lady From the Sea, Little Eyolf ends with the mutual agreement of a married couple to shake off the dangerous temptations of the foreign and sea-bound in favor of the more difficult and subtle demands of responsibility in the earthbound. There is the suggestion of a final reckoning, however, as Allmers ends Little Eyolf by gazing up “Towards the mountains. . . Towards the stars” (LE 509), in order to reclaim the spirits lost to them. Here, as in John Gabriel Borkman, the allure of possible redemption found in the mountains is never far away.
Ibsen links the elemental associations of his drama to new archetypal female characters in these last plays, in what James E. Kerans terms the “lure.” The lure of the feminine is a device that appears in Little Eyolf with extreme regularity, most prominently in the figure of the Rat Wife, and is reiterated by Ibsen in the form of Fanny Wilton. The two defining characteristics of the lure, as Kerans says, are as follows, it “always works upon a male figure,” and “seems to fall into three modes, ‘earth,’ ‘sea,’ and ‘stars.’” Here we see the evolution of Ibsen’s art, in his sophisticated and complex pairing of metaphoric elemental associations with the invention of a new stock character. For Allmers, the lure always takes on a sexual form as well as a feminine one: in Asta who comes from the sea domain with implied incest, in the earthy “forests” of Rita with sexual seduction, and in the female companion Death, another supernatural apparition, who “walks” with Allmers in the mountains.
The earth element of the feminine lure is the most suggestive of sexual desire and physical attractiveness, as evidenced by the characters of Rita and Fanny Wilton. The sea kingdom symbolizes the allure of childish ignorance and resistance to change which Eyolf naturally succumbs to and which Allmers would bask in: Allmers out of his desire to keep Asta a member of the family as a sister, thereby satiating his underlying incestuous desire. This sexual desire is also represented in the sea realm, by the undertow in which Eyolf drowns. The theme of incest does not exist in John Gabriel Borkman, nor does the theme of the childish stasis that Allmers seems to foster. If anything, the youngest characters in the play are symbols of adolescence. Erhart and Frida strike out in open denial of a parental regime in the form of sexual and social rebellion. Hence, the metaphor of the fjord, and its ensuing overtones of childishness and incest, does not exist within the play.
In both plays the stars, or mountains, symbolize relief from the strain of earthly duties and a blank canvas upon which the protagonists project their dreams and desires. Allmers identifies the mountains with intellectual freedom. It is from a mountain pilgrimage that he has returned at the beginning of the play, and he ends the play gazing up at them once more. John Gabriel Borkman synthesizes his Napoleonic ambition of a metal kingdom with the climbing of the mountain. It is tellingly only when he climbs the peak at the close of the play that he is able to “see” and fully vocalize his grand ambitions.
In Little Eyolf, Ibsen invokes the earth element as a medial point in between the dangerously fatal and magical realms of the mountain and the fjord. Allmers and Rita end the play in an earthbound status, rejecting both the fjord and the heights for the security of the material. Both rejected realms are associated in Little Eyolf with death: the sea with the Rat Wife, and the mountains with the literal personification of Death as Allmers’ partner on a mythic quest. These associations are reversed in John Gabriel Borkman, as it is “a hand of iron” (JGB 389), sprung from the earth kingdom, which is responsible for Borkman’s death, gripping his heart at the climax of the last act. If an earthbound nature is a tentative one for Allmers and Rita, and one that John Gabriel Borkman aspires to dominion over, then it is a much-desired middle ground for Erhart, an escape from the extreme demands of the three family characters of his father, mother, and his aunt Ella.
In Ibsen’s late plays, any time a non-magical character strays too far from their earth nature, they walk with Death, as does Allmers on his mountain pilgrimage, or they actually find it. Eyolf, drawn to the sea, drowns, and John Gabriel, drawn upon the heights, has his heart stopped. Erhart, by reveling in the benign nature divinity of Fanny Wilton, and spurning the metaphorical heights that his father climbs, is saved. This pattern of death upon the heights repeats in Ibsen’s next and final play, When We Dead Awaken. At the end of this last and deeply strange play, Rubek and Irene, fundamentally earthbound mortals, are swallowed up by an avalanche in the heights, while the magical/religious figure of the Nun, the evolutionary cognate to the Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton, remains untouched.
Allmers’ correlation of the mountains with the stars indicates the obvious symbolic significance in the climbing of the heights: the attainment of godhood. In Ibsen’s mythic arc, the physical scaling of the heights is associated with the metaphysical attainment of the astral plane. The further removed John Gabriel Borkman is from his fundamentally terrestrial and mortal nature, the more he is able to piece together a godlike vision of his kingdom. This attainment of godliness, however, comes at the price of mortality, as all of Ibsen’s characters who attempt to scale the heights lose their lives in the process. An avalanche crushes Brand; Solness topples from the top of one of his own towers, a self-made Icharus; the iron hand of the earth stops John Gabriel Borkman’s heart; and another avalanche destroys Rubek and Irene.
The depths of the fjord, like the heights of the mountain realm, signify death. Eyolf drowns in the fjord. John Rosmer and Rebecca West of Rosmersholm, anticipating Rubek and Irene’s coupling in death, jump from a symbolic bridge to their watery deaths. Ellida is saved from the menace of the seafaring Stranger in Lady from the Sea. Finally, steamers upon the open sea are associated with mass death in the first play of Ibsen’s realistic cycle, The Pillars of Society. If the climbing of the mountains leads to death because of the fulfillment of godhood and an ensuing abandonment of the mortal sphere, then immersion in the sea realm leads to death because of the primal temptations of the flesh. The sea, a symbol of the warm sexuality of the south, represents the dangers of succumbing to the primal, particularly when seen in perverted form. Eyolf, the oedipal reflection of Allmers, is punished for his father’s incestuous longings, drowning in the undertow. Ellida shuns the seductive appeals of the Stranger to destroy the bonds of family, and in her rejection of his associative sea element finds safety in an earthbound nature.
The Stranger from Lady from the Sea, a character heavily associated with an element that has alluring and seemingly supernatural properties, is one of the prototypes for Ibsen’s new archetypal characters as embodied in The Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton. Ibsen’s determiners of fate, these characters conform to his symbolic conception of the elements. Fanny Wilton offers safety, in keeping with her association with the earth realm. Interestingly, in the character of Fanny, Ibsen divorces the qualities of the sexually liberal south from the dangerous realm of the fjord. Fanny tenders sexual and social asylum to Erhart and Frida, saving them from the northern kingdom of austerity and religion as represented by the Borkmans. The Rat Wife, according to her nature, offers an alluring doom in the depths of the fjord.
In the shift from the psychosexual inwardness of Little Eyolf to the portrayal of godlike ambition found in John Gabriel Borkman, it is easy to see why Ibsen eliminated his references to the mythic and folkloric in the previous play and injected them into the other. Little Eyolf gains in its iterative power from Ibsen’s tight introspective psychological focus on the personal whereas John Gabriel Borkman becomes an epiphanic work of drama through the author’s use of mythic construction in his characters, what Brian Johnston calls “the ‘demonic’ and archetypal drama.”
Fanny and the Rat Wife, elemental creations, complement the mood of their respective plays, mirroring their surrounding atmospheres. The mythic death in John Gabriel Borkman comes not from Fanny, a symbol of health and regeneration, but from the title character’s own ascent of the heights. Likewise, Little Eyolf ends in a spiritual rebirth for the characters of Allmers and Rita, cleansed from the experience gained in the physical and symbolic death of Eyolf caused by the Rat Wife. The actions committed by the Rat Wife and Fanny early in both plays are reversed by the end. Fanny saves the younger generation, resulting in the death of the elder. The Rat Wife destroys the play’s lone symbol of youth, and by the end of the play, the elder generation is symbolically resurrected.
In these characters, Ibsen created a new device in his drama. The Rat Wife and Fanny Wilton combine the elemental symbolism found in Ibsen’s Romantic works with the psychological introspection and complexity of his later realistic plays. The Rat Wife harkens to past creations: the apparitional characters from folklore found in Peer Gynt and the magical persona of the traveling Stranger in Lady from the Sea. Fanny Wilton is a step forward in the evolution of Ibsen’s art, a magical character tied not to the poles of the heights and the depths, but a benign, socially radical witch found in the common earth element, among the mortal. These two great creations in miniature encompass all of the elements previously found in Ibsen’s work, from the mythic to the personal. After the creation of these contrapuntal twins, Ibsen would move towards the last arena of his drama, the godlessness of When We Dead Awaken, which finally synthesizes all of the elements of his works, offering hints at a new symbolic vision. Ibsen suffered a stroke shortly after the composition of that last play and was unable to compose for the remaining six years of his natural life. As readers of dramatic literature, we are left to ponder over the intricacies found in these late plays and wonder at the avenues glimpsed as the author lay in his prolonged deathbed; the doors to the human consciousness that he left unopened.
Barry Jacobs “Ibsen’s Little Eyolf: Family Tragedy and Human Responsibility.” Modern Drama v. 27 (Dec. 1984) p. 604.
Brian Johnston. The Ibsen Cycle. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1992. p. 165
Barry Jacobs “Ibsen’s Little Eyolf: Family Tragedy and Human Responsibility.” Modern Drama v. 27 (Dec. 1984) p.606
James E. Kerans. “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 201
Stephen A. Stanton. “Trolls in Ibsen’s Late Plays.” Comparative Drama. v. 32 (1998) p. 568
James E. Kerans. “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 197
James E. Kerans. “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 193
James E. Kerans. “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 196
James E. Kerans. “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 201
Stephen A. Stanton. “Trolls in Ibsen’s Late Plays.” Comparative Drama. v. 32 (1998) p. 568-9
Stephen A. Stanton. “Trolls in Ibsen’s Late Plays.” Comparative Drama. v. 32 (1998) p. 568-9
Henrik Ibsen. Trans. By Michael Meyer. Little Eyolf. The Plays of Ibsen. Vol. IV. New York: Washington Square Press, 1986. p. 453
For the reader’s convenience, this text will be referred to hereafter in the text parenthetically as LE.
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 19
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 19
Brian Johnston. The Ibsen Cycle. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1992. p. 170
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 27
Barry Jacobs. “Ibsen’s Little Eyolf: Family Tragedy and Human Responsibility.” Modern Drama v. 27 (Dec. 1984) p. 613
Henrik Ibsen. Trans. By Michael Meyer. John Gabriel Borkman. The Plays of Ibsen. Vol. I New York: Washington Square Press, 1986. p. 375 Henceforth denoted in the text parenthetically as JGB
Brian Johnston. The Ibsen Cycle. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1992. p. 166
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 18
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 20
Stephen A. Stanton. “Trolls in Ibsen’s Late Plays.” Comparative Drama. v. 32 (1998) p. 545
Brian Johnston. The Ibsen Cycle. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 1992. p. 41
Dugan, Gerald. “The Cycle Returns.” Modern Drama. v. 37 (1994) p. 670
Kerans, “Kindermord and Will in Little Eyolf.” Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1965. p. 199
Brian Johnston. “The Demons of John Gabriel Borkman.” Comparative Drama. v. 13 (1979) p. 26