Characters and Symbols in The Wild Duck
As in all of Ibsen's plays, the characters in The Wild Duck reflect each other and by mutual comparison amplify the dramatic theme and hasten events to their conclusion. In this play, however, the characters are not only related among themselves; they each bear relation to the integral symbolism of the play, especially the image of the wild duck. Only old Werle and Mrs. Sorby are excepted. Facing realities in their past and present, these pragmatic individuals successfully begin to build a life based on mutual trust and truthfulness. Werle, in fact, desired that his servant get rid of the wounded bird: He has no need of a wild duck.
Hedvig, the innocent victim of the tension between the two men who stand for the "lie" and the "truth" has much in common with the wild duck. Too inexperienced to recognize the shallow affection Hialmar accords her, she is happy at home, for, like the wild duck who has forgotten the freedom of sky, sea, and woods in captivity, she has had no contrasting experience in life to provide her with perspective on those she lives with. Moreover, since she is Gina's natural daughter, she, like the wounded bird, is an indirect present from old Werle to the Ekdals. When Hedvig realizes that her father rejects her, she plans to sacrifice the wild duck to show her love and recall his. This is her attempt to adjust to the new truth Gregers has revealed. Finding her free will offering insufficient, however, Hedvig goes one step further and kills herself. With this suicide, the wild duck and Hedvig become joined: She dies in lieu of the bird as if to prove Gregers' warning that the wild duck, after once glimpsing the blue sky, will pine for her former freedom. Hedvig, with a glimpse of the truth of her father's feelings for her, dies because she cannot bear to live with the knowledge of her origins.
Gregers Werle, appearing as a bird of ill omen, tries to rescue the Ekdals from the swamp of their self-deception. He thinks Hialmar a wounded bird who will drown in the depths of the sea unless Gregers, like his father's "amazingly clever dog," will dive to retrieve him. However, he soon discovers his own self-deception. Encountering failure at proclaiming the truth, discovering his admired friend Hialmar to be a hollow-souled egotist, Gregers recognizes that lies are necessary to existence. Unwilling, however, to accept this pragmatic solution to life, Gregers himself becomes like the wild duck, who, when wounded, bites fast to the underwater seaweed and drowns: Despite the ruined dreams, he still clings to the illusory "claim of the ideal." Despairing to find a worthwhile way of life, he dooms himself to be "thirteenth at table" — an uncompromising tenacity to principle which can only end in suicide.
Where Gregers proves to be an unsuccessful retriever, Dr. Relling is successful. Like Werle's "amazingly clever dog" the physician rescues individuals from the "marsh poisons" of their unfulfilled desires. By providing these wounded "wild ducks" with a new environment in their imaginations, he encourages his friends to adjust to the unsatisfactory circumstances of life. His romanticism thus generates the very force for men of weak character to maintain their hold on reality.
Another significant symbolic idea in The Wild Duck is that of photography. That Hialmar Ekdal is a photographer underscores the imitative nature of his way of life. Taking ideas and ideals from other sources, Hialmar presents an image of nobility and an appearance of character depth he does not really possess. In the course of the play, Hialmar is busy at retouching — we never see him take any pictures. By the same token, Ekdal retouches his own self-image, minimizing his character blemishes until his whole life is a distortion of the truth.