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The major theme of the play is realism vs. idealism. From the very
first act, the antagonism between the two concepts is established.
Hakon Werle, the father, is a realist about life, love, and business.
He has allowed Old Ekdal to take all the blame and go to prison for
their scheme to cut down timber from public lands. He has
encouraged Hialmar to marry Gina, Werle's mistress, so that he
can extricate himself from the relationship. He is also able to see
the worth in Ms. Sorby, his housekeeper, who is equally as realistic
and truthful about life as he is.
In contrast to his father, Gregers is a total idealist. He has
romantic, pre-conceived notions about how life, love, and business
should be, and he believes that his father has broken all the rules.
He is horrified that Hialmar, his friend, is married to Gina without
knowing the truth. Wanting him to have a more ideal marriage,
Gregers decides to tell Hialmar the truth about Gina; but Hialmar
did not want to know the truth. He is not noble enough to forgive
Gina for her past and even turns against Hedvig, convinced that
she is Werle's daughter.
Relling, an ironic realist in the play, knows that people need their
illusions to cope with the world. Hialmar has to believe that Gina
is the perfect wife; Molvik's illusion is that he is a drunk in order to
hide the fact that he is really a demon; Hedvig must have the
illusion that her father, whom she adores, is a worthy dreamer who
will produce great things in the future. Relling knows that if these
illusions are taken away, the person behind them will be destroyed
by the truth.
When Gregers, the idealist, wants to make Hialmar's marriage
more ideal by telling his friend the truth, he destroys Hialmar's
illusion. Hialmar cannot cope with the truth and turns on his wife
and daughter. In turn, Hedvig is destroyed when she learns that her
father has rejected her. She listens to Gregers' noble words about
the beauty of self-sacrifice and takes her own life, trying to prove
her true love and devotion to her father. As a result of her death,
Hialmar realizes that he was wrong not to accept what is real; at
the same time, Gregers accepts that he cannot impose the ideal on
other people. In the end neither realism nor idealism is extolled.
Instead, Relling's concept seems the most accurate; people do need
to have illusions to cope with life.
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