Ibsen and Darwin: A Reading of The Wild Duck

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Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Drama Criticism(Vol. 30)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,458 words

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[(essay date spring 2005) In the following essay, Aarseth notes the influence of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species on The Wild Duck, asserting that Ibsen adapted Darwin's theories to highlight his own ideas regarding the connection between captivity and degeneration.]

The question of the possible influence of Darwin's scientific ideas on Ibsen's plays, on The Wild Duck in particular, has been addressed more than once in Ibsen scholarship, and yet the answers produced so far are hardly exhaustive. The subject deserves attention by anyone interested in Ibsen as a mediator of modernity, since the works of Darwin, and particularly his most famous book, On the Origin of Species (1859), although controversial at first, came to acquire a central position in the modernization of European intellectual life at roughly the same time as the Norwegian playwright became famous in Europe for his works.

Two different questions present themselves in this connection. First, it is necessary to establish the channels of information through which Ibsen could have had access to any of Darwin's ideas. He did not read English and would have had to rely on translations, either Norwegian, Danish, or German if he wanted to read Darwin's writings. It is possible that he picked up some main points of the debate by listening to the conversations of learned friends, or by reading articles about Darwin's observations and theories in the periodicals of the time. The question is whether such publications can account for the details in a play such as The Wild Duck, which seem to suggest some familiarity with certain specific passages in Darwin's work.

Second, after we have identified some traces of Darwin's possible influence in Ibsen's play, we will have to consider the literary or philosophical purposes behind these Darwinian elements. It is not very interesting in itself to discover a literary loan, the debt of one writer to another. What makes this relationship important is the way it dramatizes how Ibsen worked with this material, how he recreated it to make it comply with his artistic or thematic needs.

It is well known how the new and daring theories about the biological relationship between humankind and the animal species provoked debate in learned circles as well as among artists and the general public. One of the most important consequences was to establish in the public mind the notion of a genetic connection between humans and animals. This new way of looking at the origin of the human species gradually cleared the way in the natural sciences and in art for a new attitude toward the place of the human as one among many earthly species. We can observe in literature a gradual change over time in the use of animal metaphors in the presentation of human characters. Ibsen's early works use animal metaphors for moral and satirical purposes, but as his plays develop, the relationship between the human and the animal becomes much more deeply woven into the thematic texture of the drama.

Darwin's way...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420082369