If not all, the majority of the characters in Henrick Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman is presented to be morally blind and thus they are unable to recognize the flaws in their own characters, nor they could identify what the truth really is. It seems that Ibsen’s play asks the general question concerning human existence. Similarly, Miller’s play deals with this same universal issue and pays much attention to the idea about life without lies and illusions. The question of the truth and ideals, therefore, is a topic that is considered both by Ibsen and Miller. Throughout the courses of the plays, we, as the audience or the reader, not only witness the characters’ inner conflict, but also how they are defeated by the moral standards and values of the societies they live in.
In The Wild Duck, Gregers believes that he is a man with a mission, that is, to pass his idealistic perspective of human perfection on others. His idea of integrity is unfortunately false and he cannot comprehend the fact that his seemingly good intentions may bring destruction to others. He genuinely believes that his conception of the truth will bring good to the Ekdals. He says to Hjalmar “you’ve landed in a poisonous swamp, Hjalmar. You’ve got an insidious disease in you, and you’ve dived to the bottom to die in the dark”(94). So, Gregers sees himself as a savior, but what he doesn’t see is that Hjalmar is not strong enough to handle the truth. Although different in nature, Willy Loman, in The Death of a Salesman, has got a mission to accomplish too, just like Gregers. That is to achieve success which is defined in terms of money and fame. He constantly encourages his sons to believe that being “well-liked” is the one and only way to be successful in life: “Be liked and you will never want” (507). This seems to be his philosophy of life and it is exactly what brings his destruction. In contrast to Gregers, Willy seems to be aware of the fact that something is not quite right, but he never really understands what is wrong. He desperately tries to impose his own ideas to his older son, Biff, but he is unable to recognize that Biff, like himself, does not fit in the society. Ironically, Biff gets to see that they, as a family, have deceived themselves all their lives.
Realism, as a genre, renders reality closely with an emphasis on verisimilitude or lifelikeness, and objectivity becomes important. W.B. Worthen, in his “Modern Drama and The Rhetoric of Theater”, states that “the aim of realism is to produce an audience to legitimate its private acts of interpretation as objective”(127). The idea is that the audience views the stage from an objective standpoint, that is, “from a position of unstaged freedom”(126). However, it is hardly true that viewing is objective. It seems that Ibsen questions Realism’s claim to truth or objectivity in The Wild Duck and mainly, he shows his lack of trust with the thematic discussion around photography. According to him, looking or viewing is never objective and thus, his play appears to be sceptical of the claim to truth. Similarly, Miller pays attention to the ways of looking and whether or not his characters are able to identify the truth or to recognize the lies that they have been telling themselves for so long. Miller focuses on Willy Loman’s memory sequences in order to demonstrate Willy’s subjectivity. It is fair to say that mental blindness comes into question at this point since the perceptions of the characters in both plays often seem to be very limited. Moreover, it seems that each character is lost in their own delusional world. Taking all these into consideration, in this paper, I will argue the different forms that the playwrights use, namely realism and expressionism, to depict this state of mental blindness of the characters in each play and how the truth is unraveled in the eyes of the characters. I will also discuss the contribution of the audience, who looks at the stage from both objective and subjective point of view.
In The Wild Duck, Ibsen seems to be interested in the social realities of life and he employs the plot devices of the well-made play in order to show his realistic aims. A well-made play is logically constructed and it contains a secret, which is known to the audience but unknown to some of the characters in the play. In the first Act, the audience finds out about these hidden truths, one of which is the fact that Greger’s father, Old Werle, is the one who is responsible for having Hjalmar’s father imprisoned for a crime himself committed. However, the secret that later results in tragic consequences for the Ekdal family is that Greger’s father got his old housekeeper and mistress, Gina, pregnant and he managed to marry her to Hjalmar. Gregers understands his father’s duplicity and is convinced of his dishonest designs for the Ekdals in order to protect his own reputation. Gregers is not only convinced of the way Old Werle used Hjalmar for his own benefit, but he also believes that “at last see a purpose to live for”(73), that is, in his own words, to “free Hjalmar from all the lies and deceptions he’s sinking under”(97). This way, he believes, Hjalmar will be able to start a new and truthful life. However, this revelation does not change things the way Gregers imagined it would, but instead it brings catastrophe for the Ekdal family.
Although Gregers is able to realize the truth that has been hidden, he never comes to any significant degree of insight throughout the play. He does not see the fact that no one can ever live in the perfect state that he imagines. When he looks at Hjalmar, he sees this higher being, “a shining light”, who is capable of transformation and thus, he expects Hjalmar to come out of that “poisonous swamp” once he finds out about the affair his wife had with Old Werle. What he fails to see is that this affair does not, in fact, effect the Ekdals’ present life. Gina and Hedwig do everything they can to keep Hjalmar happy and they themselves seem to be satisfied with the way they live their lives as a family. Gregers, with his conception of the truth, or “the claim of the ideal”, brings trouble into the lives of the Ekdals.
It seems that Dr. Relling is the only character who is able to see things through. He knows what Hjalmar really is: a man, who has “a charming way of declaiming other people’s verse and other people’s ideas”(113). He describes what Hjalmar is after in life, that is his “great invention”, as “the saving lie”, which Relling believes to be important for happiness. He says that the saving “lie is the stimulating principle of life”(113). For Relling, everyone, but especially a weak character like Hjalmar, does not need to know what is real but instead he needs some kind of a life-illusion in order to be happy. With his realistic way of looking at life, Relling further states that if you “take the saving lie from the average man… you take his happiness away, too”(114). He perceives Hjalmar as “the average man” and he sees what Gregers fails to see. That is, the truth and ideals may be harmful to people like Hjalmar as he will highly likely fail to live up to such ideals. So, In contrast to what Gregers think of Hjalmar, Relling recognizes his weakness and he knows that he hasn’t got the vision to handle the truth.
One of the ways Ibsen allows the audience to see inside the characters and how they repeatedly deceives themselves, which refers to their mental blindness, is the simple and realistic language the characters use. This is another convention of realism that is explicit in The Wild Duck. It seems that all the dialogs are lifelike and spontaneous to the point that they get quite blunt. Through these dialogs, we, as the audience, manage to recognize the characters’ true nature. For example, it becomes clear that Gregers has been obsessed with idealism since he was young. We understand this through Relling who seems to have known him for a very long time. Relling confronts Gregers with his obsession of “the claim of the ideal” and how he has been unsuccessful in making people believe that he has a solid “mission in life”. Expecting or wishing that Gregers has stopped going after this ideal, Relling states: “Well, I expect you’ve got enough sense now to reduce the amount a little”(95) to which Gregers reply as “Never, when I come upon a man that is a man” (95). In other words, Gregers believes that Hjalmar is the right man, to whom he thinks he can transmit his idealistic vision. However, through the use of simple language, the audience interprets this scene as Gregers’ ultimate failure in his mission. Gregers has not found “the man” he has been loooking for as it is clear that Hjalmar is not someone who can gather the seemingly deepened implications of Gregers’ idealism, nor Gregers is a man who is capable of understanding what the truth really is.
Ibsen’s skepticism about the claim to truth and his treatment of the theme of reluctance to face the truth becomes concrete with the presence of the camera. The playwright presents photography as an enterprise which seeks for nothing but profit. The play mainly takes place in the studio and home of Hjalmar, who became a photographer with the opportunity provided by the man who seduced his wife in the past. In theory, Hjalmar is the business owner but in reality the job is done by his wife Gina. In this sense, Gina appears to be the practical worker of the household while Hjalmar remains as the dreamer who goes after his empty ideals. As an idea, photography is a mediator of truth since it reproduces certain vision, that is to say, it representts the tourth. It appears that photography, for Hjalmar, is a way of making a living despite the fact that he does not do the job. Ironically, he claims that he devoted himself to photography, but he just boasts about this “notable invention”, which, he thinks, will raise photography “both to an art and a science”(92). He believes that this is his purpose in life and, this way, he trusts that he will become the hero of his own story. It is paradoxical, though, that what he really does is “retocuhing”, or otherwise stated, manipulating the truth. Therefore, photography in this play seems to be a metaphor for truth. Ibsen, through this metaphor, shows that photography works to conceal the lies in general. He also indicates to that fact that vision is, indeed, unstable and subjective like photography itself.
Like Ibsen, Arthur Miller, in The Death of a Salesman, focuses on the psyche of the characters who struggle to see what the truth really is. The play’s main character, Willy Loman, like Hjalmar in Ibsen’s play, never comes to discover anything of importance. He simply lives in his delusional world where he believes himself to be a great salesman. However, his extreme pride blinds him from seeing the reality and eventually brings his downfall. Having said that, we, as the audience, see the living standards in 1940s America and the devastating effects of the capitalist system on people’s life. So, it is fair to note that it is not only Willy’s blindness that brings his ruin, but also the conditions of the comtemporary American society that destroys Willy’s dreams and expectations.
Throughout the course of the play, the audience comes to understand why the various characters have failed or succeeded. Willy Loman is depicted as a common man, who has devoted his entire life to his work with the hope that one day he will become wealthy, like his dead brother Ben did. He doesn’t see that the wealth or success he has imagined for all his life is now beyond his reach. However, he refuses to admit his failure and tells lies about how he is “well-liked”, which is his hypotheses for a person’s success. In his dialogue with his son, Biff, about whether or not Bernard is “well-liked”, he tells Biff, “take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. >>Willy Loman is here!