The Gospel According to Ibsen

In order to keep on the right track and avoid the pitfalls of wandering into the highways and byways, and either getting lost altogether or finding only those things we wish to find, our first step must be to clarify  what we mean by the Gospel.

Primarily, it is Good News, and good news for a particular section of the community — the poor, people who are burdened, in slavery and waiting for freedom or emancipation.1 2How does it come? Initially, through one person, of uncertain origin and questionable connections, close enough to the people to know what is going on and detached enough to appreciate what is happening, who consequently arouses interest in those who hear what he is saying and welcome it, and strong conflicting emotions in those who see what he is saying and feel threatened by it. His influence is limited, by time and circumstance, his reign brief, costly and (for him) unsatisfying and unrewarding, but for others it can be refreshing and liberating for generations to come.

So what does this person do? Mostly he lives, talks and tells stories, but his stories alongside his way of life have a unique capacity to open blind eyes, to penetrate deaf ears, to enable the crippled to walk, the mentally disturbed to achieve balance and the dead to come alive. He enables people to know what they know, but don’t know they know. The effect is cathartic as lives are turned inside out and  people are never the same again. Those who see and believe find life. Those who walk away continue in limbo. Those who resist remain troubled.  In all three groups very many struggle as they seek to discover what is happening and to work out the implications whilst the bearer of the good news is crucified.

Having put it like that it is not my purpose in any sense to suggest that Ibsen is a Christ-figure, though there are obvious similarities between the two lives. Rather, it is to explore Ibsen’s life and work against the background of the Gospel and to do that we have to begin with Ibsen, the Man.

The Man

Henrick Ibsen was born in 1828, in a small Norwegian town. Little is known of his childhood except that apparently he had a flair for painting,3 4no capacity for sport and was reluctant to play with other children. He lived in a world of thought and dreams.56 Hebegan to read the Bible at the age of six or seven and it became his favourite book. Religion was his favourite subject at school. In his early teens he would spend hours looking up Bible passages.7 He was confirmed at 15 but he never became a Christian and religion was one of the things which led to separation from his family.

He left home at 16, giving as one of his reasons his desire 

‘to avoid contact with certain attitudes which prevailed there and with which I was out of sympathy’ . . . (and)  the unpleasantness or at least the bad feelings that might have resulted’.8

It is not clear what the ‘attitudes’ were but one biographer910  suggests it was something to do with a religious revival sparked off by an over-zealous priest who was busy ‘stirring up his congregation with revivalist sermons’ and who subsequently left the State Church to set up his own Meeting House.Ibsen found himself unable to believe in God except in general and atheistic terms,1112 but what he never doubted was the existence of trolls, White Horses and various kinds of superstition. Something akin to Paul’s ‘principalities and powers’, those hidden forces in life and society over which it seems we have no control.

From this point there is little reference to formal religion in his life but ‘there still remained a good deal of the Christian spirit in him’13 as he strove in his own way towards God, with a high sense of calling motivated by the stern Jehovah of the Old Testament and a Herculean determination to restore mankind.

This paper seeks to identify and locate that Christian spirit in Ibsen and to explore how his plays can help us to appreciate it in relation to our own society on the one hand and to the Christian gospel on the other. 

I began by clarifying the ‘gospel’. Clarifying ‘the Christian spirit’ is more difficult, so at the risk of over-simplification and somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, since no individual, church or independent grouping can embody the whole of the Christian spirit, I propose to focus on the two major biblical areas where that spirit manifests itself.

First, in embryo, in the Old Testament, and particularly in the prophetic search for truth and freedom, without which either there could never have been a gospel or it would have been a very different one. Second, of course, in all its fullness, in the life and ministry of Jesus, who took the heart of the tradition in which he grew up, related the ideals to the reality of daily life and offered them to individuals struggling to work out the tensions thereby created, and at the same time to keep alive some message of hope for tomorrow, and the day after. 

These two elements are, of course, not everything that is meant by ‘Christian spirit’ but take either of them away, or focus on one to the exclusion of the other, and the Christian spirit is either absent altogether or very different.

The Ibsen Spirit

To appreciate the Ibsen Spirit we have to begin with Brand, the principal character in one of Ibsen’s earliest works (1866), because Brand is a spokesman for much of the anger in Ibsen and a symbol of the man of pure motivation Ibsen wanted to be when he tackled the Norwegians on their conscience.

Like Kierkegaard Brand did not call himself a Christian, but Kirkegaard, Brand and Ibsen were all struggling for truth about Christianity and the need to sacrifice oneself for truth.14 15 So, for example, Ibsen made Brand a minister, a servant of God, with the line, ‘Victory of victories is losing all, the loss of all is greatest gain — what is owned for ever is what is lost’,which is not a million miles away from the one who said ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’.16

But Brand is also a development of an earlier character in a narrative poem by Ibsen and not unlike Moses and Elijah. He is a man with a mission, to whom God spoke on the mountain tops, not Sinai or Carmel but the great peaks that scraped the heavens in western Norway where Brand lived and whence he looked down on the cramped world below, knowing all the time that there was a path that led up to the heights.’ Brand is myself in my best moments’,17 Ibsen once said. Brand is the personification of the early Ibsen Spirit.

Like Moses, Brand was an unlikely antagonist: Moses, ostensibly a child of Pharaoh working alongside his kith and kin, Brand, a pastor, of farming stock, with a burning desire to wage war on the world. Both were held back by personal circumstances: Moses, by his peculiar position between the establishment and the natives, and  Brand, restrained by his family and the community and not least by officialdom which wanted to keep people in a state of immaturity and dependence.18 Both saw their role as delivering their contemporaries from slavery: Moses, from Egypt to the Promised Land, Brand from the social and national conventions of his time to a wholly different way of life.

Switch now from Brand to Ibsen and put Moses and the Israelites alongside Ibsen and Norway.

Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, like Israel 3,000 years earlier, was a tiny nation which had virtually come from nowhere. Ceded to Sweden a century before, the Norwegians saw themselves as slaves to Sweden. Change had been coming for over fifty years, with railways, factories, coastal ferries, post and telegraph, more liberal laws and the beginnings of capitalism.19  Norway had created its own liberal constitution to safeguard its independence but could never find its freedom. And though Norwegians struggled to achieve independence and recognition on the wider stage they never wanted to be infected by it. They were slaves not only to Sweden but also  to their culture and a way of life.

This was the source of Ibsen’s anger, reflected in Brand, and why he spent most of his life away from Norway in Italy. When he returned, like soldiers returning home after a war, or tourists after exploring foreign climes, or Jewish exiles hundreds of years later returning from Babylon, Ibsen was much more aware than most of the differences between the two worlds. He saw the limitations of those who had never set foot abroad and lived with limited horizons. He saw their slavery and set himself to tell stories to enable them to find their freedom. One by one, between 1877 and 1899, he exposed that slavery but in so doing discovered the depth and strength of the forces that held them in captivity — the trolls, the ghosts, the White Horses, however you describe them — ‘the principalities and powers’. 

Like many a prophet, his interventions were unwelcome and not entirely successful. After years of living in darkness late 19th century Norwegians found bright lights suddenly shining in their face positively frightening. 

The Trolls

So what are these trolls, ghosts, the White Horses, principalities and powers? What is this Norwegian way of life to which Ibsen takes exception?20 21 What is it he wants people to ‘see’? Answers vary but when you list them they all amount to much the same thing. MacFarlane describes them as slavery to the dead hand of convention, a compulsion to do the right thing, fear of what people will think, coupled with hypocrisy, commerce and the bigotry of institutionalised religion. In short, all the barriers to free, unfettered relationships and everything that destroys an individual’s natural personality and development.Jaeger22 sums them up as morality on the lips, not in deeds. Whatever it is, it is deep rooted in the Norwegian psyche. People are blind only because they don’t want to see. Only the truth will set them free. Only when free can they really live. Truth, freedom and enlightenment therefore are Ibsen’s watchwords.

To put flesh on these bones we need to take a closer look at some of his plays, plots and stories, and as we do you might imagine some of the Old Testament prophets sitting at the back of the room.

For five years, in the first four plays of the classical period, Ibsen goes on the attack hammering away at structures, all guns ablaze, true to the prophetic tradition (from Moses to Malachi) in the interests of truth and righteousness, and all the emotion of a hell-fire preacher. Let us see how he does it.23

His first attack, in Pillars of the Community, is on the superficial respectability and hypocrisy of people in public office.

Bernick is a highly respected ship owner and capitalist in a small Norwegian seaport whose undisclosed shady dealings and private life leave much to be desired. He sends out dodgy ships to collect insurance money, schemes to monopolise profits on a projected railway line, has an affair with an actress and leaves his brother to take the blame. Nobody knows — they all think he’s wonderful.

Enter his former lover and her brother after 15 years in the USA ‘to let some fresh air’ from the prairies into this stagnant society.24 Fearing the worst, Bernick plans to send the brother off on one of his dodgy ships, only to discover at the last minute that his own son is going to be on the same voyage. Fortunately the ship does not sail but Bernick sees the light and when the whole town turns out to honour this ‘honourable’ man with a torchlight procession, he is goaded to come clean. He publicly confesses that he is not what he seems. He has not been acting in the public interest but in his own, and he promises a new era in the life of the town, paying tribute to the women around him who have brought about his conversion when he says one of the things he has learned is that ‘women are the pillars of the community’, to which his former lover replies, ‘Then real wisdom has eluded you . . . the spirit of freedom and the spirit of truth — these are the pillars of the community.’

Ibsen's second attack, A Doll’s House, is on the family home with mysogynism and the hypocrisy of the married man, male domination and female subordination, and where self-serving  honour outshines love.25

Torvald is high up in the bank and ostensibly a loving husband in a good marriage. What he doesn’t know is when he was at death’s door, in a country where women were not even allowed to incur debts, Norah, his wife, had borrowed money to save him. One day Norah has a visit from the member of Torvald’s staff who had arranged the role and whose job is under threat, asking her to plead with her husband on his behalf. When she refuses he turns to blackmail, threatens to tell Torvald about the loan and reminding her that in order to acquire it she had also forged her father’s signature. 

Norah is anxious but confident that even if it comes to light Torvald will support her and take full responsibility, instead of which he flies into a rage and is manifestly concerned only for himself and his honour. Norah is shattered, but there is worse to come. When the blackmailer backs off Torvald’s mood changes as quickly as before, he heaves an enormous sigh of relief and all is sweetness and light.

Norah is mortified. The truth hits her between the eyes. All that ever mattered was what happened to him. She suddenly knows what it is to be a non-person —‘a doll in doll’s house’. Torvald cannot believe what he is hearing. There is just nothing he would not do for her. He says,

‘I would gladly work for you day and night, Norah — bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves.’

To which Norah replies, ‘Millions of women have.’

In his third play, Ghosts, his concern is much more directly with the trolls, the unacknowledged power of the past to control the present — the dead hand of convention — and the consequences of living in a society where the sins of the fathers are visited on the children.26

Captain Alving has just died and his widow is planning an orphanage as a memorial. Oswald (the son) has returned home after a questionable life style among the artists of Paris and wants to marry the maid, Regina, the daughter of Engstrand, a carpenter working on the orphanage who has his own scheme for a sailors’ hostel. Mrs Alving is opposed to the marriage. Pastor Manders, the epitome of convention and respectability, visits to try to persuade her to allow the marriage, only to discover that Regina is in fact not Engstrand’s daughter at all but Alving’s daughter by a former maid. Manders then goes for her for reading free-thinking books and chides her with questioning her religion. She retaliates by reminding him that when she discovered her husband was dissolute and went to him for help he did not want to know.

At that point, Oswald and Regina (who do not know that they are brother and sister) are heard flirting in the dining room and Mrs Alving hears the ghosts —  the same sounds years before between her husband and the former maid as history repeats itself. 

The end is tragedy all round. Fire destroys the orphanage, Engstrand blackmails Manders into supporting his sailors’ hostel, Regina rejects Oswald to live with Engstrand, Oswald (suffering from venereal disease) hands his mother a phial of morphine to administer to him when he can no longer take it himself, and Mrs Alving is left hovering over the dreadful choice she has to make as ‘the past haunts the present through dead ideas that live on past their time’.

By this time Ibsen was hardly the flavour of the month, but nothing daunted he discards the brakes and steps on the gas. Somebody of integrity had to stand his ground in a society so bare and paltry. So he creates Thomas Stockman, in Enemy of the People, in a situation by no means extreme and not all that uncommon. 

Stockman is the local doctor in charge of public baths in a small Norwegian seaport. Like Ibsen, he believes in personal integrity whatever the price. His brother, Peter, on the other hand, who is the local mayor and Chairman of the Baths Board, believes issues are never all black and white and there are times when you have to compromise.

When Thomas discovers that the water in the baths is contaminated he closes them until the source is identified and the press and most of the public are with him. Then economic factors kick in. A new commercial development just up the road is reported to be pumping out effluent. Brother Peter takes a different view. Science and health versus the economy and jobs. Press and people quickly switch sides. Thomas issues a statement. The press refuse to print it. He calls a public meeting. Peter hijacks it. 

Thomas charges them with cowardice, declares that ‘the minority is always right’ and says what most people call ‘truths’ are short-lived and quickly turn into  ‘lies’, but Thomas is rejected as ‘an enemy of the people’. They stone his house and his children are threatened at school. Determined to battle it out he sticks at his post, plans to start a school to bring disadvantaged children up in the spirit of truth and freedom, and the play ends with the assertion that ‘the strongest man in the world is the man who can stand alone’.

After four plays with a stern God and an angry, defiant Moses shouting from the mountain top and refusing to be silenced or distracted, we have a change of mood. Ibsen is feeling the strain. Moses is superseded by Elijah, and not a Moses-type-Elijah, doing battle with the prophets of Baal, but a chastened Elijah, sitting under his juniper tree, licking his wounds knowing Jezebel is waiting in the wings. Enemy of the People may have ended with the assertion that ‘the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone’, but Ibsen knew only too well that defiance of ‘the compact majority’27 comes at a price and it hurts. Retreating to the mountains Ibsen next wrestles with The Wild Duck.

The Wild Duck has two principal characters, Gregers and Ekdal, old friends from two quite different strata of society who suddenly find each after years of separation. 

Ekdal is a contented dreamer. He lives in relative poverty with a capable wife, a fourteen-year-old daughter, who has a damaged pet duck which she keeps in the loft. Gregers is an idealist, who returns home after a long absence to take over the family business and finds his old friend, Ekdal. 

In conversation with his father Gregers discovers how shabbily his father treated his late mother, that Ekdal’s wife (Gina) was a former maid to the family, and in all probability his father’s mistress, and that his father was responsible for ruining Ekdal’s father in engineering deals and therefore for the poverty in which Ekdal and his family are living. Sins of the fathers, yet again. 

On the strength of this Gregers rejects the family business and goes to live with the Ekdals, whom he sees as living in a world of lies and subterfuge, propped up by the local doctor in what Gregers regards as their ‘life-lie’, defined by one writer as ‘the self-delusion that buoys up hope’.28 Gregers (a bit like Ibsen) senses a mission to deliver them from their damaged world, into the real world with the light of truth. Slaves must be given their freedom.

The wild duck is a symbol of a damaged family in a wounded society, precious only to ‘an immature, if not equally wounded, child because the duck is all she has’.29  Real life will only begin when the duck is dead.

Never doubting that once Ekdal sees the truth he will welcome it Gregers persuades the young girl to shoot it, instead of which she shoots herself and the whole thing ends in tragedy, leaving the doctor to make the point that people like Gregers ‘should stop canvassing their ideals around everybody’s door’.30

The Wild Duck was a problem for Ibsen’s audiences.31 Up till then they may not like him but they knew where he stood. Black was black, white was white. Truth positive, the lie negative. Now he suddenly seems to be unsure as the truth that brings salvation in Pillars of the CommunityThe Wild Duck seems only to bring destruction in .3233 ‘Truth leads only to disaster’. The self-delusion that buoys up hope seems ‘a preferable alternative’, and ‘If you take the life-lie from an ordinary man’, says the Doctor, ‘then you take away his happiness as well’.

Ibsen suddenly seems to see the dangers of bringing people out of darkness into light. Perhaps people need their illusions. Maybe some even need falsehood. Is he beginning to wonder whether he may be wrong.34 35After a defiant Moses and a chastened Elijah do we now have a disillusioned Ezekiel looking out on a valley of dry bones.

Ezekiel seems to have overcome his despair by a miracle as life suddenly and unexpectedly rattled out of death though whether it was all as simple for Ezekiel then as it reads now to us is questionable. What seems more likely is that he went away in despair and only realised later what he had sensed but not fully appreciated in the valley. Something similar seems to have happened to Ibsen. Once you have sat in that valley things look different.

With the temple razed to the ground Ibsen moves from society and political structures to the more personal problems of the human psyche, from tradition and starry-eyed idealism to the closeness of a human relationship. The trolls are still there preventing us from living our lives to the full, from realising our true selves, finding fulfilment, and achieving what we have it in us to achieve, but they are not the whole story. 

The Wild Duck was a watershed. The end of Malachi. The beginning of Matthew. This is where Ibsen seems to move from the Prophet to the Master, from the prophetic voice and vision of the Old Testament to a man with a message no less firm and threatening but told in a different way, still raising crucial questions about our humanity but in a more personal context, with a potential for greater openness, inclusiveness, freedom and choice.

The question for Ibsen, as indeed for early Christianity cradled as it was in 2,000 years of Judaism, is what happens when two cultures collide like tectonic plates in a world where the pursuit of ideals comes up against years of crusted dogma. Is the ‘life-lie’ to be given free rein to roll on like a juggernaut, destroying everything in its wake? Or are the idealists to be allowed to scatter land mines on every highway, reeking destruction with one explosion after another? 

Ibsen’s next two plays, Rosmersholm and Lady from the Sea, address that issue but now in the context of a loving (or pseudo-loving) relationship and possibly come closer to the gospel as we understand it. 

Idealism is still there but is now something you have to search for rather than ‘a given’. No longer that external God laying down the law and beating people into submission but an idealism born of tension between where we like to think we are or feel we ought to be and where we really are. With two plays we have two answers, leaving us with the question as to which is nearer to the gospel as we understand it or would like it to be.

In Rosmersholm we have Johannes Rosmersholm and Rebecca West. Rebecca is a lively, free and open woman who has come from the north into Rosmersholm, a totally different kind of society on the west coast where all the old traditions (the trolls) still hold sway. 

Rosmer, a typical Norwegian aristocrat, has adopted a more liberal position but in the change has lost the will actually to do anything. Rebecca, on the other hand, is emancipated, hot-blooded, ruthless, lacking nought in will but poor in discretion. She came to care for Rosmer’s wife, to whom he was unhappily married, and as governess to his two daughters. 

So with Rosmer’s traditional ideals, partially reformed, and Rebecca’s impulsiveness, now somewhat restrained in her new environment, you might have expected things to work and to a point they did as the two of them developed a good, working, platonic relationship. 

Tradition, (‘the life-lie’) and change (the truth) support each other, feed on each other and influence each other. Rosmer comes to share Rebecca’s enthusiasms. Rebecca is softened and steered by his refining influence. But neither can really change, so you are left with two diverse life principles, each one-sided and inadequate. 

Together, in a way, they represent Ibsen’s ideal, now very different from Brand — not that stern God of thunder and lightning, but a single human being with a liberated mind and a purified will. 

But can it work? The play ends with a traumatic scene where Rosmer offers Rebecca marriage and she refuses. Why? Because though she has learned the value of the old Rosmer way of life she rejects it because she sees it as death to any joy or happiness in life. She then changes her mind and he withdraws the offer. Why? Because he is not convinced that her way of life can ever make the ultimate sacrifice that he is looking for. So, unable to become one and recognising that neither can survive without the other, far from each emancipating the other the play ends with traditional ideals and a happy carefree life dying hand in hand in the mill stream as they take their own lives together.36

Rosmersholm leaves us very much where the prophets of the return found themselves in post-exilic Judaism, with tension between those who had stayed behind, kept the ship afloat, held on to the traditions, and those who come from another world with a new wave of enthusiasm to blow it all away, clean everything up and start again, yet with precious little understanding of what it was all about, and apparently totally indifferent to the consequences. It is easy to say that each group needs the other but can the new day ever dawn unless both are prepared to die? And what then? In the case of the Jews the only answer seemed to be to move from the prophets to eschatology, looking for and waiting for a Messiah whom Simeon, waiting ‘for the consolation of Israel’, seems to think he has found with the coming of Jesus.37

Eschatology, however, is not Ibsen’s line, or if it is he is not quite ready for it, so two years later he returns to the theme with Lady from the Sea and here I suggest we begin to see signs of new birth.

We still have the clash of two worlds and two cultures. Ellida, also a second wife, is isolated in her marriage to a local doctor. Like Rebecca, she comes from another world, powerfully and almost mystically attracted to the open sea, and horribly confined by the small world in a narrow fjord where they live. Her heart is fixed on a young sailor to whom she was betrothed, now presumed to be drowned. Whether the sailor ever existed or whether he is a symbol of a way of life, with its freedom, openness, winds and waves which she once knew and loved so much, and which now clashes so terribly with the tedious monotony of being the wife of an uninteresting doctor in this isolated fjord is unclear, but I take it to be the latter. 

Things come to a head when her sailor turns up out of the blue to claim her, though it is still unclear whether his presence is reality or we are intended to see him as voices in her head or twinges in her heart. It is, after all, only a story. Her husband threatens him and tells him to go away but is well aware that he has no answer to his wife’s fascination with her ‘other life’ symbolised by this Stranger (as he is called). She is torn between the old life of openness and freedom and the restrictions imposed on her by that dreadfully narrow, restricting fjord. Time to make her choice between the two. The Stranger gives her 24 hours to make up her mind. 

When he returns the conversation is brief but tense. To Ellida the Stranger is her shadow (or alter ego) from which she cannot escape. The Stranger knows that too. Ellida’s husband has no understanding of it. The Stranger knows that in the end she will choose him. Her husband intervenes. She ‘has no choice . . . I choose for her. I protect her’.

Ellida tries to explain:

‘You can keep me here — you have the means to do it, and the power. You want to do that. But my mind — what I think—what I long for — die for —you cannot chain them up. They will break free out into the unknown, for that’s what I was made to do. And that’s what you have shut me away from.’

Slowly the penny is beginning to drop.

‘I see’, he says, ‘you’re slipping away. You need what’s infinite, beyond reach. You want what cannot be got, and that will beat you — your mind will fall into the blackness of night. So the deal we made is done — over. Choose your path. You’re free. Absolutely free . . . I can let it happen because I love you.’

When the Stranger returns next day she quickly sends him on his way. Still her husband doesn’t understand. ‘Where did this great change come from?’ he asks. It came, she says, once she was free to choose.

But then comes a line of dubious interpretation. In one translation the Stranger’s parting shot is ‘Now you are no more to me than a dead ship.’ In another it reads, ‘Now you are nothing, a ship lost in the sea of my past — nothing.’ The omission of the words ‘to me’ opens up a new way of thinking. In the first statement the Stranger is making a statement about himself and how he feels about her. In the second he seems to be making a statement about her. Ellida has chosen her new life but only at the expense of her old life which she has chosen to surrender. New life is only possible where old life is allowed to wither away. New life is born in a grave.

One commentator says Ibsen’s plays have no beginnings. You start with something inherited. The crucial event has always happened before the play begins38 and  all we can do is look at it and reflect on it. You could also say there are no endings. The curtain may come down. We have to write the next act.  

The questions linger long. What happens to the lost ship? What will happen to the new ship?  Will Ellida never be the same Ellida again? The popular interpretation of Lady from the Sea  is that the struggle ends in victory for freedom and victory for women, but others see it as defeat as Ellida fails to free herself from a Philistine, loveless environment.39

Can she really change to her new way of life, or will the old Ellida always be there? Will she pop up in expected situations and resume her old life? And if she doesn’t will not a huge part of the true Ellida have been destroyed? Will the real Ellida now please stand up?


Those who want a simple gospel with a simple solution to all our ills, personal and political, will find Ibsen very unsatisfactory. Those who are prepared to look at the gospel and the history of Christianity more closely may begin to feel that Ibsen opens up a huge debate that many believers would prefer not to have. It is a debate to which the New Testament has no answer though if you were to talk to Paul at the end of his life I think you may find him saying, ‘Man, this is just were I am’. I think he would have understood the choice Ellida had to make and what it cost and if Ellida knew her New Testament she might well have appreciated what Paul went through and found him comforting, but that is a subject for another paper.

© Alec Gilmore 2017