The scene takes place in Ekdal's studio. Gina is sewing; her daughter Hedvig peers at a book on the table. They talk desultorily, recounting the costs of food items, the major part of their budget going for butter and beer. Their conversation shows how frugally they live, keeping luxury items for Hialmar's consumption and sacrificing their own cravings for delicacies. Hedvig hopes her father will return soon, for he promised to bring her "something nice" to eat from the dinner party.
When Lieutenant Ekdal returns with a package under his arm and asks no one to disturb him in his room this evening, mother and daughter exchange knowing smiles; they realize the old man intends to spend the evening with his cognac. Hialmar appears and his father emerges to greet him. While the women eagerly help him take his overcoat, they admire how handsome he looks and ask many questions about the party. Hialmar names the guests he consorted with — "Chamberlain Flor and Chamberlain Balle and Chamberlain Kaspersen" — and they are all very impressed. Carried away by his sense of importance, Ekdal represents himself as the most intellectual and vivacious man at the party. He concludes by treating his family to a lecture about the vintages of wine.
Hedvig expectantly eyes her father, but he has not the slightest idea at what she is hinting. Finally she asks him to bring forth the good things he promised. Hialmar confesses that he forgot all about it. "But wait, Hedvig, I do have something for you," he says digging in his pockets while she jumps up and down in happy anticipation. To her disappointment, he brings out the menu, announcing he will read the bill of fare and describe all the rich dishes to her. Seeing how she gulps back her tears, he interrupts his menu reading, angrily complaining about "the absurd things the father of a family is expected to think of" and being treated to "sour faces" when he forgets the smallest trifle.
The wife and daughter dutifully change the subject, but Hialmar still feels like a martyr. To further fill "his cup of bitterness," Ekdal supposes that no one has yet rented their spare room, and he supposes that no new customers have shown up for portrait sittings, and, sighing, concludes he is willing to work "so long as my strength holds out." Hedvig humbly offers him some beer. Waving her away, he says, "I require nothing, nothing." Adding at once, "Beer? Was it beer you were talking about?" Hialmar accepts and all four are happy again. Glass in hand, surrounded by his family, Ekdal pronounces his forgiveness. "Our roof may be poor and humble, but it is home," he says. "And with all my heart I say: Here dwells my happiness."
There is a knock on the door, and Gina admits Gregers Werle. During their talk, Hialmar lowers his voice to prevent Hedvig from hearing. The child is in danger of losing her eyesight, he informs Gregers, although only the first symptoms have appeared as yet. The blindness will inexorably develop, for it is a hereditary disease. "Yes," Gina quickly avers, "Ekdal's mother had weak eyes," but Gregers is suspicious. Gregers turns to greet Lieutenant Ekdal, reminding the old man how he used to be an avid hunter in the days when he worked in the forests. "How can a man like you — such a man for the open air — live in the midst of a stuffy town, boxed within four walls?" asks Gregers. In reply, Ekdal draws young Werle to the door of the garret where skylights admit beams of moonlight to illuminate the darkness of a large room.
Proudly the old man shows his guest the barely discernible pigeons, rabbits, especially pointing out their favorite treasure asleep in a basket — a wild duck. Quietly closing the door, old Ekdal tells Gregers that the wild duck was an indirect present from his father, for Werle brought it back wounded from a hunting trip and had asked a servant to get rid of it. After the duck had been shot, Werle's "amazingly clever dog" dived to retrieve it from the depths of the lake: They always do that, wild ducks do [continues the old man]. They dive to the bottom as deep as they can get, sir — and bite themselves fast in the tangle and seaweed. And they never come up again.
She thrives wonderfully well in the garret, Hialmar proudly relates. By now the wild duck is so used to it that she has forgotten her natural wild life and "it all depends on that." Nodding, Gregers counsels them to "be sure you never let her get a glimpse of the sky and the sea" for then she will pine for her former freedom.
He surprises them by asking if he may rent their spare room. Hialmar agrees and asks what Gregers plans to do in town:
I should like best to be an amazingly clever dog [answers young Werle], one that goes to the bottom after wild ducks when they dive and bite themselves fast in tangle and seaweed down among the ooze.
Gregers bids them good-night, proposing to move in the next morning. Old Ekdal has fallen asleep by this time and Gina and Hialmar carry him to bed as the curtain falls.
In the first act, Ibsen describes the world of Hakon Werle. Not only does the transition to the setting of the second scene provide interesting contrast with the wealthy industrialist's circle, but it implies that Hialmar Ekdal's household is a direct offspring of old Werle's achievements. The Ekdal ménage is possible only because Werle subsidized Ekdal's professional training, provided Hialmar with a wife and child, and even furnished the precious wild duck. This relationship between the two worlds — that of old Werle and that of Hialmar — is significant for it underscores the imitative nature of Hialmar Ekdal's life.
More specifically, the important discovery the audience makes in this act about Hialmar's character is his relationship to Hedvig. Feeling deep love for her father, the child believes he is the great man he pretends to be. However Hialmar is too self-involved to return this love. When he tries to compensate Hedvig's disappointment by presenting her with a bill of fare from the dinner party rather than bringing her a promised tidbit from the table, Hialmar symbolizes his entire way of life. The menu as a substitute for the food, represents how Ekdal substitutes high-sounding phrases for a depth of feeling he cannot achieve.
Having established this point, Ibsen now feels his audience is ready to accept the wild duck, and he introduces the bird as a symbol which gains in complexity as the drama develops. In the first place, the wild duck represents the world of fantasy through which Hialmar and his father compensate for the drabness and mediocrity of their lives. She is the final touch, which, like a work of art that requires at least one realistic detail to make it appear real, brings their hunting ground in the garret to a state of perfection. Gregers, however, has a different interpretation of the wild duck myth. He believes that the bird symbolizes the entire Ekdal family who will drown in the ooze of fantasy and self-delusion. He feels it is his mission to rescue the Ekdals from these dangerous depths, just as his father's dog retrieved the duck from the suffocating seaweed.