The Wild Duck: Essays and Questions
1. Describe the relationship between Werle and Gregers.
The connection between this father and son is fraught to say the least and it comes as no surprise that Gregers was always closer to his mother while growing up. His affiliation to her and his distance from his father smacks now, post-Freud, of a pre-Oedipal bond where the father and son are rivals until the son learns to identify with his father and move on from the mother.
The difference between Werle and Gregers is also made evident in their separate views of wealth and honesty. Whereas Werle represents a perhaps stereotypically patriarchal magnate, his son is idealistic and prone to honesty and hero worship. It should be pointed out, though, that Gregers is seen to be as capable as his father in being manipulative, as it is he who tries to persuade Hedvig to sacrifice her wild duck to gain her father’s love.
2. Analyze the role of the wild duck and explain what it represents.
The eponymous duck is both an emblem of captivity and of a restricted life, yet paradoxically is also a figure of joy and freedom. As with the attic, according to Gregers and Hedvig, the duck means different things at different times.
It signifies restriction in that it is kept in the attic. It is also of note that its way of swimming to the bottom of the lake after being injured may be interpreted as a form of passivity, and yet also a bravery in suicide.
It becomes a more life-affirming figure, however, when one remembers that it is a much loved gift that belongs to Hedvig and comes to symbolize love in an otherwise loveless world.
3. Discuss the sacrifice made by Hedvig, and make reference to the eponymous wild duck.
The death of Hedvig is the ultimate sacrifice as she has given her life in a development of Gregers’ notion that Hjalmar will love her again when she sacrifices the duck she cherishes. Gregers’ argument is that this will allow her to demonstrate, therefore, how much she loves him.
Her suicide is a surprising final note to the play, however, and yet on hindsight the precedent is set with the story of how the wild duck stays at the bottom of the lake when injured. Her suicide is in parallel with this behavior as she too turns away from life.
4. Consider the contrast between idealism and pragmatism, and notice how these points also overlap.
Gregers is the most vocal about idealistic concerns and tries to convince Hjalmar about the importance of truth as a foundation in a marriage. Gregers’ perspective is somewhat diminished, though, when one notes that his father (whom he detests) is beginning his marriage to Mrs Sörby with the honesty he has proclaimed.
This previously condemned capitalist and patriarch is used to demonstrate how morality is not necessarily tied to Christianity, and honesty in marriage may after all allow for a happier relationship. The overlap between idealism and pragmatism means that their honesty has become a practical tool that makes us question the need for moral self-righteousness and sermons.
5. How does this play discuss heredity?
Biological relationships and disputes over paternity are central reasons why Hjalmar turns away from Hedvig. He comes to believe that her impending blindness has been inherited from Werle, and the associations this ailment has with syphilis means that heredity in this case is tainted by notions of sin and shame. Syphilis is not mentioned overtly, but it is implied through the invocation of ‘disease’ as an insult in several instances in the play, and in the implied view of Hjalmar that sexual transgression is a sin. From the moral high ground, inherited syphilis may be seen as a punishment for the sins of the father (although this is never made explicit in the play).
Heredity is also envied, though, as Hjalmar’s anger is based on a form of jealousy and on what appears to be a fear that his masculinity and self-worth have been attacked. This is all because he now doubts Hedvig is his daughter. For Hjalmar, the belief that Hedvig might not be his biologically is enough to make him spurn her despite her tears.