Hjalmar Ekdal’s Subconscious Feelings in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck

In Henrik Ibsen’s famous yet controversial play The Wild Duck, most of the significant events are mental and psychological. Specifically, it is the subconscious thoughts of Hjalmar Ekdal that construct the play. As the protagonist of the play, Hjalmar Ekdal is seemingly living a lie. He does not know about his wife’s affair along with the illegitimacy of his daughter until the end of the play. Although Ibsen subtly hints throughout the play that he might know the truth, Hjalmar never reveals it through fear that it might be true. Hjalmar is also subconsciously trying to revenge himself upon Old Werle through his daughter Hedvig. Even though at times it seems as though he truly loves her, he never treats her as if he really does. Hjalmar is a very complex character and, by understanding him, the audience can understand the play. Through Hjalmar’s awakening and his final acceptance of his subconscious thoughts and feelings, Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck unfolds and provides for the audience a sense of excitement, suspense, and climax. Through clever use of dramatic irony, Ibsen informs the audience of knowledge that Hjalmar himself is not aware of. For one, the audience knows of the affair that Hjalmar’s wife Gina had while she was a house keeper at the Werle’s house. Supposedly, Hjalmar is unaware of this. However, in Act II, Hjalmar demonstrates that maybe he does know of the affair. In Act II, Gregers, the son of Old Werle, enters the Ekdal household. As he settles in, Gregers asks seemingly innocent questions about the Ekdal’s. These questions include the age of Hedvig along with the length of Hjalmar and Gina’s marriage. In this short interrogation it is clear that Gregers suspects Hedvig of being his half-sister. Before the conversation lengthens though, Hjalmar quickly changes subjects: “Yes, that it is. Fifteen years all but a few months. (Changes subject) They must have seemed long years to you up at the works, Gregers (II). Hjalmar does this possibly to save his wife, Gina, of unnecessary embarrassment about talking about her premarital relations. Moreover, Hjalmar does not want to speak about Hedvig’s earlier childhood, because it might bring up the risk of talking about who her “real” father is. Although it is Hjalmar with whom Hedvig spends her life, it is likely that Old Werle is Hedvig’s biological father. Hjalmar wants nothing to do with Old Werle. Throughout his life, his main goal was to try and maintain the illusion that he does not need Old Werle and is in fact independent of him. Hjalmar has never been able to accept the fact that Hedvig really loves him. Hjalmar feels that Hedvig, just like the wild duck, is a cast-off, handed down by Old Werle. In order to justify himself, Hjalmar constantly tests Hedvig to prove her love for him. Throughout the play, Hjalmar treats Hedvig not as a daughter but more of a tool, telling her to do things for him and to get things for him. Unfortunately, Hedvig does not see this and is determined to earn Hjalmar’s love. Hjalmar’s revenge against Old Werle is this mistreatment of his “true” daughter, Hedvig. In Hjalmar’s subconscious, he does not want Hedvig around and ultimately wants to end her life. In Act IV, Hjalmar states, “As for that confounded wild duck, I should have great pleasure in wringing its neck!” (IV). Hjalmar compares the wild duck to Hedvig and in that statement it is clear that he wants to kill them both. It is also stated that he would have “great pleasure” in doing it. After Hjalmar says this, Hedvig replies by saying that it is “her wild duck” (IV). The wild duck is not only “her” possession but is also a literal representation of “her.” In response to what Hedvig says, Hjalmar replies, “That is why I won’t do it. I haven’t the heart- haven’t the heart to do it, for your sake, Hedvig. But I feel in the bottom of my heart that I ought to do it. I ought not to tolerate under my roof a single creature that has been in that man’s hands” (IV). Hjalmar does not want to kill the wild duck, because on the surface he does not desire to murder Hedvig. However, he states that “in the bottom of his heart, he ought to do it.” Deep down, Hjalmar wants to end Hedvig’s life but does not, “for her sake.” Hjalmar also said that “he does not want to tolerate under his roof a single creature that has been in that man’s hands” (IV). This demonstrates his hate towards Old Werle but even more, it hints that Hjalmar sees a connection between Old Werle and Hedvig. Nearing the final act of the play, Hjalmar truly awakens and his character emerges. Throughout the play, Hjalmar never actually states that he does not want Hedvig and continues trying to believe that Hedvig is his true daughter. However, after he finds out that she is not, his subconscious feelings awaken and he reacts in an almost violent manner: “Hjalmar: I have no desire for that. Never! Never! My hat! (Takes his hat.) My home has fallen into ruins round me. (Bursts into tears.) Gregers, I have no child now!Hedvig: (who has opened the kitchen door). What are you saying! (Goes to him.) Father! Father! Gina: Now what’s to happen!Hjalmar: Don’t come near me, Hedvig! Go away- go away! I can’t bear to see you. Ah—her eyes! Good-bye. (Goes towards the door.) Hedvig: (Clings to him, screaming). No, no! Don’t turn away from me. Gina: (crying out). Look at the child, Hjalmar! Look at the child!Hjalmar: I won’t! I can’t! I must get out of here—away from all of this! (He tears himself away from Hedvig and goes out by the outer door.)Hedvig: (With despair in her eyes). He is going away from us, mother! He is going away! He will never come back! (IV)In this scene, Hjalmar has finally accepted the truth and his reality. Hjalmar tells Gregers that “he has no child now” (IV). In all the years that Hjalmar was unable to accept Hedvig’s love, his true character is finally revealed. When Hjalmar says, “I can’t bear to see you. Ah—her eyes!” Hjalmar is showing that not only does he want to push Hedvig away, because she is not his biological daughter; he wants to push her away because of the fact that she is probably Old Werle’s daughter. By seeing the hereditary similarity between Hedvig and Old Werle, Hjalmar notices the relationship between them and this ultimately leads to Hjalmar despising both Old Werle and “his” daughter Hedvig. This awakening of Hjalmar is the climax of the entire play. The ultimatum of Hjalmar’s acts is Hedvig trying to prove her love for Hjalmar, which is as the audience knows her act of self-sacrifice. The suspense that the audience feels throughout the entire play is at last concluded; Hjalmar finally knows the truth. Through the culmination of Hjalmar’s subconscious feelings, The Wild Duck comes to an incredible yet unexpected end. Hjalmar being able to push Hedvig out of his life shows that he can finally take revenge against Old Werle. Throughout his life, Hjalmar has never been able to accept Hedvig as his true daughter and has never treated her right. This is due to his subconscious feelings that tell him Hedvig is not his true daughter. Hjalmar’s act of leaving Hedvig is actually demonstrating that Hjalmar is able to leave Old Werle. Hjalmar’s dependency on Old Werle is no longer in existence, so Hjalmar is able to leave Hedvig. The play focuses resolutely on the psychological terrain traversed by its characters, and, for Hjalmar Ekdal, it is his subconscious that ultimately leads to resolution. Works CitedIbsen, Henrik. Four Great Plays. New York, New York: Bantam, 1958.