Plays by Henrik Ibsen: Themes & Writing Style

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  • 0:01 Brief Biography
  • 1:30 Ibsen's Works
  • 1:55 Peer Gynt
  • 3:33 A Doll's House
  • 5:23 Writing Style
  • 6:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote some of the world's most enduring, modern plays. However, his life was anything but easy. In this lesson, we will look at the life of Ibsen, his plays, and observe Ibsen's writing style.

Ibsen

Brief Biography

Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, Norway, in 1828. He was one of five children, and at first, his life was stable. However, his father lost their money, and the family toppled into poverty. His once-happy home radically changed. At age 15, Ibsen quit school to find work. He left home shortly afterwards, apprenticed as a pharmacist's assistant and continued in that work, although it did not bring in the money he really needed to survive.

Ibsen had a son out of wedlock in 1846, but there is some doubt as to whether he ever met him, although he sent the necessary child support. Ibsen moved to Christiania and attempted to attend school. He began writing, but none of his early works received much attention.

Around this time, he met Ole Bull, who managed theaters and offered Ibsen a job both writing and managing theaters, as well. Ibsen learned much through this experience, but it was difficult. In 1858, he married Suzannah Daae Thoresen. They enjoyed a long, happy marriage and had one son.

In 1862, Ibsen left Norway for Italy, and later, Germany. It was during these years abroad that he produced his most critically-acclaimed plays. When he returned to Norway in 1891, he was famous. Ibsen died in 1906, and oddly, his final words were 'To the contrary!' This formerly poor, obscure boy received a state funeral.

Ibsen's Works

When we understand a person's life, what that writer produces makes more sense. Although Ibsen wrote 300 or so poems, he is most famous for his plays. We will look at two of Ibsen's well-known works and examine their story lines. Then, we will move on to explore common themes in the plays. The two plays we will examine are: Peer Gynt and A Doll's House.

Peer Gynt Summary

By way of summary, Peer Gynt is a self-centered, lazy young man who lives to break rules and moral codes. He ruins one wedding by stealing the bride and then abandons her. He marries an elf princess, has a child by her and abandons her, as well. He gains the love of a woman who waits for him all of her life. Gynt commits such acts as pushing another sailor overboard to save himself and slave trading. In addition he peddles idols, rum and, of all things, Bibles. Gynt lives a life of wild abandon and only lives for himself. However, he honors his mother.

He even meets a monster who lets him go because he hears women singing and bells ringing. The monster believes Gynt has defeated him because he has women who back him up. Finally, he meets a Button-moulder who tells Gynt that because he is not good enough for Heaven, nor evil enough for Hell, he will melt him down to nothingness. Then, the Button-moulder tells him he may choose between absolute nothingness or Hell. Somehow, Gynt redeems himself enough to live a little longer by returning to the woman he abandoned long ago.

Peer Gynt Themes

If you are thinking that this is one strange story, you're in good company! However, let's dig a little deeper into possible themes.

Ibsen seems to point out that although women are often misused by careless and sometimes evil men, men are saved by women from evil lives. Ibsen also portrays a more universal theme of alienation and isolation of the individual. In addition, Ibsen points out that society expects conformity, which, in turn, keeps one from expressing individuality.

A Doll's House Summary

In this play, Ibsen portrays a seemingly happy couple, Nora and Torvald. Torvald naively believes that his wife is childish, someone who has an empty head, who just loves to play house. He loves to see her dance for him and refers to her as his 'little lark,' or 'bird.' He calls her a 'spendthrift,' assuming she wastes money. Torvald has strict standards and his views are very black and white.

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