‘Symbolism means a veiled or oblique mode of communication.’ A play may have deeper meaning which is understood only by interpreting the deeper significance of the words and phrases used.
In “The Wild Duck” Ibsen made use of symbolism on an elaborate scale than in his earlier plays. The chief symbol in this play is the wild duck. The play dependent on and held together by a symbol as if the wild duck were a magnet and all the characters are iron filings held together by the centripetal force. For the first time in Ibsenian drama, the symbol is a physical reality or near enough to it to suggest an actual presence.
Though the wild duck is not the only symbol in the play yet it is an all-important symbol. The wild duck symbolizes the kind of life which Hjalmar, his father and Hedvig is leading and besides, it symbolizes Ibsen’s own life at the time he wrote this play. All this symbolizes is the hub and heart of the play.
Mr. Werle while hunting saw a wild duck and shot it. The wounded duck dived down into the sea and tangled to the weeds to never come up again. Mr. Werle’s clever dog dived after the wounded wild duck and brought it up again.
In Act III, Gregers finds that the wild duck has a damaged wing and is a little lame in one foot. These wounds are symbolic. Gregers tells Hjalmar that Hjalmar has, like a wild duck, dived down and taken firm hold of the sea-weeds. What Gregers means is that Hjalmar is hiding himself from the reality of life like the wild duck. Gregers knows that Gina had been seduced by Mr. Werle before her marriage to Hjalmar. Gregers feels sorry that Hjalmar is still ignorant about Gina’s past. The wild duck thus symbolizes Hjalmar’s life of ignorance while Mr. Werle’s clever dog symbolizes Gregers who has resolved to awaken Hjalmar to the reality that he is leading an incomplete life for he is ignorant of Gina’ past. In this respect also the lame wild duck symbolizes Hjalmar’s incomplete life.
The wild duck symbolizes Hedvig too. The wild duck, wounded by Mr. Werle while enjoying the sport of shooting bird, is an alien in the garret. Hedvig too is an alien in this household and is a product of Mr. Werle’s sport of flirting with Gina. Like the wild duck, Hedvig too is leading anarrow and limited life because she has no ambition to see the world and mainly because she has weak eyesight and would soon become blind. Her approaching blindness symbolizes her approaching death.
The wild duck symbolizes Old Ekdal’s life also. When he was living at Hoidal, he was as free as the wild duck was before it had been shot at by Mr. Werle. And now he is living in a stuffy and congested city shut in by four walls like the wild duck, away from the natural life.
It is possible that the wild duck, consciously or unconsciously, also reflects Ibsen’s own life when he wrote this play. Ibsen own world does not seems to be very different from Ekdals garret. Both Hjalmar and Gregers signify different aspects of Ibsen: on one hand the evader of reality, and in contrast, an idealist who bothers mankind with his claims of the ideal because he has a sick conscience.
The dark menagerie in the Ekdal’s house symbolizes the thick forest where Old Ekdal used to hunt wild animals. It is a symbol of protective fantasy for Old Ekdal. This is an illusion which Old Ekdal has built up for himself. This is “the saving lie” which keeps him alive.
Ibsen has superbly employed the symbol of light. The impact of light in the garret is different in the daylight and in the moonlight. Taking garret as human life, the daylight as reality and the moonlight as illusion, we can conclude that the life looks beautiful and relaxed in moonlight which is an illusion of life. Whereas, the reality, the daylight has totally opposite impact on the garret. Reality makes the things clear which tortures the life making it dull and miserable. It means illusions make our life sustain in a better way than the reality.
In Act II, Old Ekdal says:
…Because the forest, you know … the forest … the forest … !
Old Ekdal’s splitting, breaking speech is also symbolic. It symbolizes the incomplete and damaged life of Old Ekdal. It also reflects the impact of forests on his life. This is why he, in another speech, says:
The forests avenge themselves.
Old Ekdal’s lieutenant’s uniform is also symbolic. He is not entitled any more to wear it but he puts it on to recall the days when he was a lieutenant. He lives in a world of illusion, created by himself, in which he finds sufficient satisfaction.
In Act II, Gregers says:
If I had the choice, I should like most of all to be a clever dog.
Gregers saying himself a clever dog is also symbolic. He thinks himself to be a great savior and a great ‘help’ for the Ekdal family and is on his mission to take the Ekdals from ignorance to the light. But this absurd insight leads them to the disastrous consequences. In Act III, Hedvig says that the clock in the menagerie is still and doesn’t go anymore. It is symbolic as it is concerned with the wild duck. Time has no value for the wild duck because his life has confined to this menagerie. There is also a picture about the Death of a girl. This death is symbolic to the approaching death of Hedvig. Hedvig says:
I think that’s awful.
There are some other aspects of symbolism in the play. For instance, alcohol for Molvik is symbolic because it is an illusion for him which gives him a kind of escape from his dull life. Art of photography is symbolic. It is an image of reality but not the true reality. Here Ibsen is giving an importance to the necessity of illusive life. Hjalmar’s proposed invention is symbolizing ‘a saving lie’ for him. This is a hope for Hjalmar towards a better future for him.
Characters in the play are also symbolic representing average human beings and illusion for them is an important thing on which their whole life is built. The house of Ekdals symbolizes the whole society which needs a saving lie.
There are also Christian symbols in the play. Gina and Hjalmar symbolize Eve and Adam living in their Paradise and whose comfort is disturbed by the intrusion of the devil, the Gregers. They have to face a hope lose in the shape of the death of Hedvig. The thirteenth person at the party is also a Christian symbol. Judas was thirteenth who betrayed Christ and here Gregers is playing the role of Judas. The Christmas tree is symbolic from Christian point of view.
We can conclude that Ibsen has beautifully employed the device of symbolism to make sure the necessity of illusion in the life of average human beings. In Act III, Gregers says:
The wild duck is the most important of all the things in there.
No doubt that the wild duck is the most important symbol in the play which makes the play one of the great plays of Ibsen.