Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch > Text of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt"

An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Ibsen's "Peer Gynt"

Title:     Ibsen's "Peer Gynt"
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Oct. 7, 1892. A Masterpiece.

"_Peer Gynt_ takes its place, as we hold, on the summits of literature precisely because it means so much more than the poet consciously intended. Is not this one of the characteristics of the masterpiece, that everyone can read in it his own secret? In the material world (though Nature is very innocent of symbolic intention) each of us finds for himself the symbols that have relevance and value for him; and so it is with the poems that are instinct with true vitality."

I was glad to come across the above passage in Messrs. William and Charles Archer's introduction to their new translation of Ibsen's _Peer Gynt_ (London: Walter Scott), because I can now, with a clear conscience, thank the writers for their book, even though I fail to find some of the things they find in it. The play's the thing after all. _Peer Gynt_ is a great poem: let us shake hands over that. It will remain a great poem when we have ceased pulling it about to find what is inside or search out texts for homilies in defence of our own particular views of life. The world's literature stands unaffected, though Archdeacon Farrar use it for chapter-headings and Sir John Lubbock wield it as a mallet to drive home self-evident truths.

Not a Pamphlet.

_Peer Gynt_ is an extremely modern story founded on old Norwegian folk-lore--the folk-lore which Asbjörnsen and Moe collected, and Dasent translated for our delight in childhood. Old and new are curiously mixed; but the result is piquant and not in the least absurd, because the story rests on problems which are neither old nor new, but eternal, and on emotions which are neither older nor newer than the breast of man. To be sure, the true devotee of Ibsen will not be content with this. You will be told by Herr Jaeger, Ibsen's biographer, that _Peer Gynt_ is an attack on Norwegian romanticism. The poem, by the way, is romantic to the core--so romantic, indeed, that the culminating situation, and the page for which everything has been a preparation, have to be deplored by Messrs. Archer as "a mere commonplace of romanticism, which Ibsen had not outgrown when he wrote _Peer Gynt_." But your true votary is for ever taking his god off the pedestal of the true artist to set him on the tub of the hot-gospeller; even so genuine a specimen of impressionist work as _Hedda Gabler_ being claimed by him for a sermon. And if ever you have been moved by _Ghosts_, or _Brand_, or _Peer Gynt_ to exclaim "This is poetry!" you have only to turn to Herr Jaeger--whose criticism, like his namesake's underclothing, should be labelled "All Pure Natural Wool"--to find that you were mistaken and that it is really pamphleteering.

Yet Enforcing a Moral.

To be sure, in one sense _Peer Gynt_ is a sermon upon a text. That is to say, it is written primarily to expound one view of man's duty, not to give a mere representation of life. The problem, not the picture, is the main thing. But then the problem, not the picture, is the main thing in _Alcestis_, _Hamlet_, _Faust_. In _Peer Gynt_ the poet's own solution of the problem is presented with more insistence than in _Alcestis_, _Hamlet_, or _Faust_: but the problem is wider, too.

The problem is, What is self? and how shall a man be himself? And the poet's answer is, "Self is only found by being lost, gained by being given away": an answer at least as old as the gospels. The eponymous hero of the story is a man essentially half-hearted, "the incarnation of a compromising dread of self-committal to any one course," a fellow who says,

"Ay, think of it--wish it done--_will_ it to boot,
But _do_ it----. No, that's past my understanding!"

--who is only stung to action by pique, or by what is called the "instinct of self-preservation," an instinct which, as Ibsen shows, is the very last that will preserve self.

The Story.

This fellow, Peer Gynt, wins the love of Solveig, a woman essentially whole-hearted, who has no dread of self-committal, who surrenders self. Solveig, in short, stands in perfect antithesis to Peer. When Peer is an outlaw she deserts her father's house and follows him to his hut in the forest. The scene in which she presents herself before Peer and claims to share his lot is worthy to stand beside the ballad of the Nut-browne Mayde: indeed, as a confessed romantic I must own to thinking Solveig one of the most beautiful figures in poetry. Peer deserts her, and she lives in the hut alone and grows an old woman while her lover roams the world, seeking everywhere and through the wildest adventures the satisfaction of his Self, acting everywhere on the Troll's motto, "To thyself be enough," and finding everywhere his major premiss turned against him, to his own discomfiture, by an ironical fate. We have one glimpse of Solveig, meanwhile, in a little scene of eight lines. She is now a middle-aged woman, up in her forest hut in the far north. She sits spinning in the sunshine outside her door and sings:--

"Maybe both the winter and spring will pass by,
And the next summer too, and the whole of the year;
But thou wilt come one day....
* * * * *
God strengthen thee, whereso thou goest in the world!
God gladden thee, if at His footstool thou stand!
Here will I await thee till thou comest again;
And if thou wait up yonder, then there we'll meet, my friend!"

At last Peer, an old man, comes home. On the heath around his old hut he finds (in a passage which the translators call "fantastic," intending, I hope, approval by this word) the thoughts he has missed thinking, the watchword he has failed to utter, the tears he has missed shedding, the deed he has missed doing. The thoughts are thread-balls, the watchword withered leaves, the tears dewdrops, etc. Also he finds on that heath a Button-Moulder with an immense ladle. The Button-Moulder explains to Peer that he must go into this ladle, for his time has come. He has neither been a good man nor a sturdy sinner, but a half-and-half fellow without any real self in him. Such men are dross, badly cast buttons with no loops to them, and must go, by the Master's orders, into the melting-pot again. Is there no escape? None, unless Peer can find the loop of the button, his real Self, the Peer Gynt that God made. After vain and frantic searching across the heath, Peer reaches the door of his own old hut. Solveig stands on the threshold.

As Peer flings himself to earth before her, calling out upon her to denounce him, she sits down by his side and says--

"_Thou hast made all my life as a beautiful song.
Blessed be thou that at last thou hast come!
Blessed, thrice-blessed our Whitsun-morn meeting_!"

"But," says Peer, "I am lost, unless thou canst answer riddles." "Tell me them," tranquilly answers Solveig. And Peer asks, while the Button-Moulder listens behind the hut--

"Canst thou tell me where Peer Gynt has been since we parted?"


Peer.-- With his destiny's seal on his brow;
Been, as in God's thought he first sprang forth?
Canst thou tell me? If not, I must get me home,--
Go down to the mist-shrouded regions.

Solveig (smiling).--Oh, that riddle is easy.

Peer.-- Then tell what thou knowest!
Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?
Where was I, with God's sigil upon my brow_?

Solveig.--in my faith, in my hope, in my love.

A Shirking of the Ethical Problem?

"This," says the Messrs. Archer, in effect, "may be--indeed is--magnificent: but it is not Ibsen." To quote their very words--

"The redemption of the hero through a woman's love ... we take to be a mere commonplace of romanticism, which Ibsen, though he satirised it, had by no means fully outgrown when he wrote _Peer Gynt_. Peer's return to Solveig is (in the original) a passage of the most poignant lyric beauty, but it is surely a shirking, not a solution, of the ethical problem. It would be impossible to the Ibsen of to-day, who knows (none better) that _No man can save his brother's soul, or pay his brother's debt_."

In a footnote to the italicized words Messrs. Archer add the quotation--

"No, nor woman, neither."

* * * * *

Oct. 22, 1892. The main Problem.

"Peer's return to Solveig is surely a shirking, not a solution of the ethical problem." Of what ethical problem? The main ethical problem of the poem is, What is self? And how shall a man be himself? As Mr. Wicksteed puts it in his "Four Lectures on Henrik Ibsen," "What is it to be one's self? God _meant something_ when He made each one of us. For a man to embody that meaning of God in his words and deeds, and so become, in a degree, 'a word of God made flesh' is to be himself. But thus to be himself he must slay himself. That is to say, he must slay the craving to make himself the centre round which others revolve, and must strive to find his true orbit, and swing, self poised, round the great central light. But what if a poor devil can never puzzle out what God _did_ mean when He made him? Why, then he must _feel_ it. But how often your 'feeling' misses fire! Ay, there you have it. The devil has no stancher ally than _want of perception_."

And its Solution.

This is a fair statement of Ibsen's problem and his solution of it. In the poem he solves it by the aid of two characters, two diagrams we may say. Diagram I. is Peer Gynt, a man who is always striving to make himself the centre round which others revolve, who never sacrifices his Self generously for another's good, nor surrenders it to a decided course of action. Diagram II. is Solveig, a woman who has no dread of self-committal, who surrenders Self and is, in short, Peer's perfect antithesis. When Peer is an outlaw she forsakes all and follows him to his hut in the forest. Peer deserts her and roams the world, where he finds his theory of Self upset by one adventure after another and at last reduced to absurdity in the madhouse at Cairo. But though his own theory is discredited, he has not yet found the true one. To find this he must be brought face to face in the last scene with his deserted wife. There, for the first time, he asks the question and receives the answer. "Where," he asks, "has Peer Gynt's true self been since we parted:--

"Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?
Where was I with God's sigil upon my brow?"

And Solveig answers:--

"In my faith, in my hope, in my love."

In these words we have the main ethical problem solved; and Peer's _perception_ of the truth (_vide_ Mr. Wicksteed's remarks quoted above) is the one necessary climax of the poem. We do not care a farthing--at least, I do not care a farthing--whether Peer escape the Button-Moulder or not. It may be too late for him, or there may be yet time to live another life; but whatever the case may be, it doesn't alter what Ibsen set out to prove. The problem which Ibsen shirks (if indeed he does shirk it) is a subsidiary problem--a rider, so to speak. Can Solveig by her love redeem Peer Gynt? Can the woman save the man's soul? Will she, after all, cheat the Button-Moulder of his victim?

The poet, by giving Solveig the last word, seems to think it possible. According to Mr. Archer, the Ibsen of to-day would know it to be impossible. He knows (none better) that "No man can save his brother's soul or pay his brother's debt." "No, nor women neither," adds Mr. Archer.

Is Peer's Redemption a romantic Fallacy?

But is this so? _Peer Gynt_ was published in 1867. I turn to _A Doll's House_, written twelve years later, and I find there a woman preparing to redeem a man just as Solveig prepares to redeem Peer. I find in Mr. Archer's translation of that play the following page of dialogue:--

_Mrs. Linden_: There's no happiness in working for oneself, Nils; give me somebody and something to work for.

_Krogstad_: No, no; that can never be. It's simply a woman's romantic notion of self-sacrifice.

_Mrs. Linden_: Have you ever found me romantic?

_Krogstad_: Would you really--? Tell me, do you know my past?

_Mrs. Linden_: Yes.

_Krogstad_: And do you know what people say of me?

_Mrs. Linden_: Didn't you say just now that with me you could have been another man?

_Krogstad_: I am sure of it.

_Mrs. Linden_: Is it too late?

_Krogstad_: Christina, do you know what you are doing? Yes, you do; I see it in your face. Have you the courage--?

_Mrs. Linden_: I need someone to tend, and your children need a mother. You need me, and I--I need you. Nils, I believe in your better self. With you I fear nothing.

Ibsen's hopes of Enfranchised Women.

Again, we are not told if Mrs. Linden's experiment is successful; but Ibsen certainly gives no hint that she is likely to fail. This was in 1879. In 1885 Ibsen paid a visit to Norway and made a speech to some workingmen at Drontheim, in which this passage occurred:--

"Democracy by itself cannot solve the social question. We must introduce an aristocratic element into our life. I am not referring, of course, to an aristocracy of birth, or of purse, or even of intellect. I mean an aristocracy of character, of will, of mind. That alone can make us free. From two classes will this aristocracy I desire come to us--_from our women and our workmen_. The social revolution, now preparing in Europe, is chiefly concerned with the future of the workers and the women. On this I set all my hopes and expectations...."

I think it would be easy to multiply instances showing that, though Ibsen may hold that no man can save his brother's soul, he does not extend this disability to women, but hopes and believes, on the contrary, that women will redeem mankind. On men he builds little hope. To speak roughly, men are all in Peer Gynt's case, or Torvald Helmer's. They are swathed in timid conventions, blindfolded with selfishness, so that they cannot perceive, and unable with their own hands to tear off these bandages. They are incapable of the highest renunciation. "No man," says Torvald Helmer, "sacrifices his honor, even for one he loves." Those who heard Miss Achurch deliver Nora's reply will not easily forget it. "Millions of women have done so." The effect in the theatre was tremendous. This sentence clinched the whole play.

Millions of women are, like Solveig, capable of renouncing all for love, of surrendering self altogether; and, as I read Ibsen, it is precisely on this power of renunciation that he builds his hope of man's redemption. So that, unless I err greatly, the scene in _Peer Gynt_ which Mr. Archer calls a shirking of the ethical problem, is just the solution which Ibsen has been persistent in presenting to the world.

Let it be understood, of course, that it is only your Solveigs and Mrs. Lindens who can thus save a brother's soul: women who have made their own way in the world, thinking for themselves, working for themselves, freed from the conventions which man would impose on them. I know Mr. Archer will not retort on me with Nora, who leaves her husband and children, and claims that her first duty is to herself. Nora is just the woman who cannot redeem a man. Her Doll's House training is the very opposite of Solveig's and Mrs. Linden's. She is a silly girl brought up amid conventions, and awakened, by one blow, to the responsibilities of life. That she should at once know the right course to take would be incredible in real life, and impossible in a play the action of which has been evolved as inevitably as real life. Many critics have supposed Ibsen to commend Nora's conduct in the last act of the play. He neither sanctions nor condemns. But he does contrast her in the play with Mrs. Linden, and I do not think that contrast can be too carefully studied.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Ibsen's "Peer Gynt"