A Critical Review of a Classic Drama in Literature

Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), a Norwegian born dramatist and poet wrote plays that can arguably be said to have revolutionized Europe. From 1864-1891, he was forced into exile because of opposition to his satirical Love's Comedy. Additionally works by Ibsen include the verse dramas Brand and Peer Gynt, the realistic Pillars of Society, A Doll's House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and Hedda Gabler. By the time he returned to Norway, he was recognized as the country's greatest living writer. His later plays were more symbolic and included The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken. Ibsen is credited with strongly contributing to European drama by giving it a "vitality and artistic quality comparable to the ancient Greek tragedies" (Hemmer). The last plays of Ibsen's life made significant use of the idea that, as Inga-Stern Ewbanks states it, "one kind of evidence challenging another." Or simply, there are at least two views (interpretations) to each story. Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder is one of those dramas that create an environment for the audience to participate in the discovery process. This article will look into an interpretation of The Master Builder,its meaning and how Ibsen uses words to express his feelings, as well as the feelings of others.

Henrik IbsenCredit: Eilif Peterssen 1895

Key Characters

The Master Builder develops in a logical sequence of events focusing on two key characters: Halvard Solness and Hilde Wangel. The character of Halvard's wife, Aline Solness, helps to develop the characters of both Halvard and Hilde. The language is generally smooth and uncomplicated; the scenes simple. The play takes place primarily in the residence of Solness and concludes at a new home. Halvard Solness is a successful "Master Builder", a title he prefers to use as opposed to architect. Hilde is a young woman from Halvard's past. She is determined to see Solness as she had in the past; aloft a high tower. Solness is determined to be who he is and cling too yesterday. Hilde has the ability to influence others and endears herself to others; her talents bring about the string of events that create this tragedy.

Hilde, as stated by Gail Finney, represents the "emancipated woman" (McFarlane, 93). Finney defines the emancipated women as a character distinguished by her rejection of divisions between conventional masculine and feminine behavior by her disdain for public opinion and by rejecting the status quo (McFarlane, 93). Hilde's emancipated status is "reflected in her appearance, language, and behavior" (Ibsen, 141). She appears in Solness's office dressed in "walking clothes with her skirt hitched up, complete with rucksack, plaid and alpenstock and slightly tanned by the sun (Ibsen, 141)." Hilde, in her manner and demeanor, represents a disregard for the traditional standards of the time. She represents newness, freedom, and youth, all elements both desired and feared by Halvard Solness (Ibsen, 154). In Act II, Solness begins to describe Hilde as a bird; Hilde's description of herself is as a "bird of prey." This becomes descriptive of her actions as she continually urges him throughout the play, to climb the tower and give her the castle and kingdom of her dreams. She claims that she has spent ten years "anticipating the moment when she would be reunited with him and become his 'Princess' and he her 'King' (Ibsen, 150-4). Finney presents the idea that this image and desire creates a contradiction of Hilde's otherwise emancipated women characteristics.

Aline Solness is the contradiction to Hilde: she represents tradition, age, complacency, and part of the social conscious of the time. In Act I, Aline offers to buy suitable clothing for Hilde so her (Hilde) can avoid any unwanted stares and comments from the town. Aline states that, "it is my duty." Aline's response is the same as to her efforts to make Heline comfortable in her home, "it is my duty" (Ibsen, 163). As seen by Halvard Solness in ACT II, Aline is also seen as an anchored debt around his neck. This is because his good fortune and career began with the fiery destruction of her (Aline's) family home and the loss of their twin sons as the indirect result of that blaze; thus, Aline is a symbol of guilt to her husband. Solness reveals to Hilde that she in fact grieves not for the babies, but for her nine dolls lost in a blaze, which she had carried under her heart "like little unborn children" (McFarlane 102). Aline has her own private drama and denial internalized in her life that she keeps from her husband. Hilde provides the first and only time Aline speaks openly about her feelings.

Other Characters

Other characters, such as Kaja, Ragnar, Knut, and Dr Herdal, are simply tools to facilitate the presentation of Solness's state of being (McFarlane, 138). Knut represents Solness's feelings about his own past. Ragnar represents Solness's fear of the future. Kaja brings out the present for Solness's infatuation, desires, and his sexuality which he ties to his "will to power" (McFarlane, 138).

The tower of the new home that Solness climbs at the end of the play serves each character differently. It can be argued that it is a symbol for Solness's youth, independence, and in later life, his fear. The tower references his earlier projects and helps to reestablish his earlier architectural works. For Aline and Hilde the tower and the quarry are metaphors of their own imaginary world of a fictitious kingdom, and of Aline's climb (Lyons, 18). The conclusion of the play leaves the audience with a "mixture of perceptions, each of which interprets the value of the physical object of the tower and Solness's ascent (Lyons, 19). Ibsen creates, what Lyons terms, "submerged religious metaphors" within individual lines. When The Master Builder arrives at the top of the tower, Hilde's speech – "For now, now it's done," is made to resemble Christ's last words on the cross (Lyons, 73). In Hilde's line, "to return to it at last - the Biblical echo achieved a full symbolic, rather than allegorical, effect: Solness is seen neither as a parallel of Christ nor as a fiendish blasphemer, but the blasphemy and triumph, the death and the victory, are the rich associations simultaneously evoked” (Lyons, 74). This submerged metaphor, evokes meaning and does not define it (Lyons, 74).

As a side note: Ibsen is also seen drawing an analogy between dramatic situations, the characters, and Christ's temptation (Mathew, iv. 1-11 and Luke, iv. 1-13) (Lyons, 74). As interpreted by Ewbanks, there are undertones of this analogy in the form of the first and last episodes of Solness standing on top of the spires. Images are invoked of the temptations of "both Christ and the devil (Lyons, 74)".


Ibsen has created a metaphor with the name Solness. Solness, as translated by Ewbanks, evokes the myth of god-like or near-god. Norwegian 'Sol' means 'sum', and 'ness' means 'isthmus', which places Solness "half-way between gods and men". Solness challenges God from the Lysanger church tower and intends to do so again from the top of his own homes tower. Ibsen may be creating the "image of a Lucifer, a Faust, a Prometheus, or Apollo challenging a god or the heavens (McFarlane, 133)." Ibsen does not lock the reader or audience into this mind-set, but tries to provide the opportunity to participate in the discovery of possibilities. In this play, we can see Solness as a kind of god to Hilde's fantasy, and to his own narcissism.

Oliver Gerland describes Aline's climb as representing the attempt made by the protagonist to "write his self-anew, to shed an old identity and to reform the self." Solness's alienation is a product of his paranoiac fear of youth and of change (McFarlane, 128). He alienates others and himself by his staunch resistance to his wife's true feelings, the desires and dreams of those around him, and his own denials and guilt. Gerland states that "Solness has established an identity for himself, which he self-consciously enacts: Solness as the Master Builder. The fall and death which follows his climb is ambiguous may be interpreted as a victory for the new life, or to imply a freedom, failure, or "an utter end" (Lyons, 234).

The Master Builder - Henrik Ibsen - Leo Mckern - 1988

The stage play: Duration 2 hours and 17 minutes

Time, Space and the Individual's Viewpoint

The Master Builder uses the dimensions of "time and space" to control our responses to the events in this drama (McFarlane, 141). We are taken back to the fire that took the family home and indirectly Solness's children. Ewbanks points out that it's not the fire itself that matters; it is how each character remembers it and perceives its significance (McFarlane, 141). Hilde continually takes us back to the church tower ten years earlier, which represents the second turning point in Halvard Solness's life. The tower that represents Solness's fear of heights and his challenge to the heavens, and possibly his declaration of freedom from the church and God in the end marks his death.

Aline as the protagonist, is obsessed with the idea that he must remain, as he has always been, the absolute master builder, unchanging, and unwavering. Solness finds that he is desperate to explain why he is unable and unwilling to give Ragnar the chance to build:

"I am what I am! And you can't expect me to change myself!” (Ibsen 129)

This may also lead to Ibsen's view of how we, as individuals, discern our identity from our tendency to choose how we see ourselves regardless of who we really are or how we are. Ewbanks describes this in terms of Nietzsche's insistence that "all truly noble morality grows out of triumphant self-affirmation." Ibsen presents his protagonist as strongly affected by his relationships with others; thus, "Solness climbs heroically alone at the end, but it is to affirm Hilde's image of him (McFarlane, 134)." And it is Hilde's desires and Solness's that bring the play to its tragic conclusion. Solness does climb the tower and Hilde cries out the line that exemplifies the play, "My, -- My Master Builder!" Her Master Builder reached the top and she again heard harps in the air and the others saw him fall to his death. Hilde never recognized or accepted the image of his fall (Ibsen, 211). And so we have triumph and tragedy within one ending.

Final Word

The conclusion was inevitable because of Ibsen's presentation of two sides and two views as seen by the characters throughout the play; thus, he had to provide an ending with two aspects. The play The Master Builder demonstrates character illusions conveyed thru individual circumstance and the players beliefs based on different perceptions of reality. As stated in the beginning, in the last plays of Ibsen's life, he made significant use of the idea that "one kind of evidence challenges another." Thus, the final contradiction, Solness's death is presented as neither triumph nor defeat, but both. Lyons stated that, "The formal representation of reality is hardly the assembling of unmediated, unstructured material, the formal presentation attempts to obscure the aesthetic mechanisms that select and emphasize the significant details."