The chief protagonist, Ellida, is the daughter of a lighthouse keeper in one of the beautiful and mysterious Norwegian fjords. One day, when she is still a young girl, a visiting ship needs some repair and moors at a nearby fishing village. The second officer, wanting to pass the time on his free day, visits the lighthouse. There, he meets Ellida and is captivated by her beauty. Sometime later, while his ship is still undergoing repairs, he has a quarrel with his captain and, in the ensuing fight, he kills him. He flees the scene of the crime and returns to the lighthouse. He then forces Ellida to assist in his flight. Before leaving, in a strange ceremony of betrothal, he fastens their two rings and casts them into the sea. After he leaves, Ellida writes to him saying she will not consider the engagement binding, effectively setting him and herself free. But the sailor responds that one day he will return and claim her back. She must wait for him.
Ellida does not wait for her demonic sailor and instead marries Dr. Wangel, a widower with two daughters of almost her age. Perhaps, having lost her father, she is seeking the security of a father figure and resigns herself to being yet another daughter in the man’s household. Wangel is an embodiment of bourgeois respectability, a symbol of Kantian reason and duty. But Ellida finds herself increasingly alienated from life and from herself. Enveloped in melancholy, she often ponders what her life would have been had she remained faithful to her youthful dream and waited for her wild sailor. And then the unthinkable happens; the sailor returns and reclaims her soul. Ellida, lured by her unfulfilled dream come true, entreats her husband to set her free. After some considerable inner struggle, Wangel magnanimously consents. And here comes a moment of peripeteia, as if from a Greek tragedy: Ellida rejects the terrifying freedom of the unknown and decides to remain with her husband.
Spending many hours at the edge of the sea, her soul became its reflection; it became like the sea itself – wild, unpredictable and free. In Jungian psychology, the image of the sea is often interpreted as a symbol of the unconscious, a Dionysian murky unconscious. Certainly, it was not Freud who discovered the unconscious. One can discern it in the writings of ancient Greek masters such as Homer and the great tragedians, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles. The Delphic motto ‘know thyself’ can be interpreted as the birth of psychoanalysis.
Ibsen could be considered as a direct descendent of Greek tragedians. He was well versed in philosophy, especially that of Hegel. Hegel believed that the sufferings of a tragic hero were the consequence of being forced to choose between opposing moral claims. The pivotal conflict in tragedy was not between good and evil but between two opposing ethical systems, with both having a valid claim on the heroine. Antigone would have been a personification of such conflict. The dialectic of the opposites was far more important for Hegel than the character traits of the protagonist, e.g. the so-called ‘fatal flaw’. And so it was for Ibsen. Shakespeare, considered by some commentators, perhaps blasphemously, to be a lesser dramatist than Ibsen, was largely oblivious to this dialectic. But then, he had no chance to read Hegel! The ‘fatal flaw’ theory implies that a hero, by virtue of his personality traits, particularly his hubris, brings about his own downfall. Unless the audience shares this flaw, it is impossible to identify with the protagonist and hence the impact of the play is much diminished. On the other hand, the moral dilemmas of Sophocles’ and Ibsen’s tragedies, which centre on moral choices, have a perennial significance and deeply penetrate our psyche.
The dilemma at the heart of The Lady from the Sea is between unbridled freedom, the allure of the unconscious and a sense of moral duty and responsibility. As Hegel pointed out in his Phenomenology of Spirit, absolute freedom leads to destruction and death, and this was the choice that Hedda Gabler made in Ibsen's play named after her, a demonic femme fatale who despised any form of conformism and domesticity. By contrast, Ellida is a Kantian heroine and chooses duty and responsibility over absolute freedom. She shows that ultimately we do not have to be driven to destruction by some unconscious, wild passions, but we can pause and decide to take control of them. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is her bourgeois husband who enables her to do that. He serves as her anchor to the real world; he is Ariadne’s thread to reason. Only after this freedom of individual choice is bestowed on her by his redeeming love, can she make a wise choice. And only free choice constitutes a real, lasting commitment. At the end of the play, Ellida exclaims: “Yes, my dear, faithful Wangel!—I’m coming back to you now. I can now, because I come to you freely—and on my own.”
However, this dilemma did not leave Ibsen’s mind and resurfaces two years later in the form of Hedda Gabler, that archetypal femme fatale. But more on this in another of my entries.