“I don’t see much difference between our life and the life of the carp in the pond there. They have the fiord close beside them, where the great free shoals of fish sweep out and in. But the poor tame house-fishes know nothing of all that; and they can never join in.” – Henrik Ibsen, The Lady From the Sea (40)
This spring I was deeply engaged in making an impassioned argument for the inclusion of literature in philosophical inquiry. One of the texts that I cited in my final paper used Ibsen’s plays- in particular The Lady From the Sea as a source. I had never read that particular play, but I was intrigued on two accounts. One was that the text that was included in the source described an artist that tries to convince a young girl to bind herself to him, with a promise to “think of him.” He would go off and develop his art, but her thoughts would be a muse for him. Callously disregarding what effect this might have on her life- emotionally (as well by antiquated ideas of a betrothal’s fetters) to be pledged to a man that had no intention of fulfilling her desires.
Lyngstrand: She too must live for his art. I should think that must be such happiness for a woman.
Boletta: H’m–I’m not so sure–
The second account was that it was argued that this play did not entail moral reasoning and therefore could not seriously be considered ‘philosophical.’
I promptly added it to my summer reading list.
Ellida: [looks after him a while] Of my own free will, he said! Think of that – he said that I should go with him of my own free will (56).
While writing the paper, as well as subsequently, I have yet to discover any piece of literature that does not involve moral reasoning – in fact, I enlisted all of my friends in the pursuit, and if you can name one, I would be most interested.
But, meanwhile, The Lady By the Sea…oh Ibsen…what a wonderful humanitarian, feminist, and writer…
Ellida: You call that my own life! Oh no, my own true life slid into a wrong groove when I joined it to yours (76).
The play, while ever so slightly too neat, is an extraordinary anachronism. Ibsen was writing, through the telescope of a female perspective the true meaning of ‘freedom.’ An internal state that is stronger than any temporal ‘moral’ strain imposed from an ‘authority.’
The Stranger: Do you not feel as I do, that we two belong to each other?
Ellida: Do you mean because of that promise?
The Stranger: Promises bind no one: neither man nor woman. If I hold to you persistently, it is because I cannot do otherwise (87).
The distortions of subjugation is the theme of this play. No life is complete, fulfilled, or worthy of sharing, without complete freedom. Ellida must be free, as a woman, as a human, to choose her destiny…it seems a problem of the past, but in fact, it is not. Societal ‘norms’ dictate what is valued, who gets to choose, what is ‘moral.’ But individuals don’t stop feeling just because they ought not, or are perniciously told not to. Ellida insists her husband (a marriage, she feels, that was of mercenary convenience) must release her, just so that she can decide for herself if she must leave him for The Stranger. She can’t know while she is bound.
Wangel: [looks anxiously at her] Ellida! I feel it – there is something behind this.
Ellida: All that allures is behind it.
Wangel: All that allures–?
Ellida: That man is like the sea (53).
Det grufulde: ‘the terrible,’ what frightens and fascinates. Ellida cannot understand her own life until it is truly her own life. Ibsen had a genius for understanding the subtle but very real harm experienced by the lack of freedom women experience.
Ellida: You can never prevent my choosing; neither you nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go away with him– to cast my lot with him – if I should choose that. You can forcibly detain me here, against my will. That you can do. But the choice in my innermost soul–my choice of him not you,–in case I should and must choose so,–that you cannot prevent (75).
Ibsen bravely expresses the force of one’s heart. It never yields, it only buries itself far away from anyone’s touch. Once free to choose, a true love will out. Rather than forced to react like a caged animal, Ellida, as her own woman, can give her whole heart, at last, to the husband she’s come to love, because she is finally free to choose that love for her free heart’s content.
*title from footnote on pg. 70.
*The Eleonora Duse series of plays, translated by Mrs. Frances E. Archer.