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Ibsen’s "Peer Gynt"
by [?]

Peer.– Then tell what thou knowest!
Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?
Where was I, with God’s sigil upon my brow?

Solveig.–in my faith, in my hope, in my love.

A Shirking of the Ethical Problem?

“This,” says the Messrs. Archer, in effect, “may be–indeed is–magnificent: but it is not Ibsen.” To quote their very words–

“The redemption of the hero through a woman’s love … we take to be a mere commonplace of romanticism, which Ibsen, though he satirised it, had by no means fully outgrown when he wrote Peer Gynt. Peer’s return to Solveig is (in the original) a passage of the most poignant lyric beauty, but it is surely a shirking, not a solution, of the ethical problem. It would be impossible to the Ibsen of to-day, who knows (none better) that No man can save his brother’s soul, or pay his brother’s debt.”

In a footnote to the italicized words Messrs. Archer add the quotation–

“No, nor woman, neither.”

* * * * *

Oct. 22, 1892. The main Problem.

“Peer’s return to Solveig is surely a shirking, not a solution of the ethical problem.” Of what ethical problem? The main ethical problem of the poem is, What is self? And how shall a man be himself? As Mr. Wicksteed puts it in his “Four Lectures on Henrik Ibsen,” “What is it to be one’s self? God meant something when He made each one of us. For a man to embody that meaning of God in his words and deeds, and so become, in a degree, ‘a word of God made flesh’ is to be himself. But thus to be himself he must slay himself. That is to say, he must slay the craving to make himself the centre round which others revolve, and must strive to find his true orbit, and swing, self poised, round the great central light. But what if a poor devil can never puzzle out what God did mean when He made him? Why, then he must feel it. But how often your ‘feeling’ misses fire! Ay, there you have it. The devil has no stancher ally than want of perception.”

And its Solution.

This is a fair statement of Ibsen’s problem and his solution of it. In the poem he solves it by the aid of two characters, two diagrams we may say. Diagram I. is Peer Gynt, a man who is always striving to make himself the centre round which others revolve, who never sacrifices his Self generously for another’s good, nor surrenders it to a decided course of action. Diagram II. is Solveig, a woman who has no dread of self-committal, who surrenders Self and is, in short, Peer’s perfect antithesis. When Peer is an outlaw she forsakes all and follows him to his hut in the forest. Peer deserts her and roams the world, where he finds his theory of Self upset by one adventure after another and at last reduced to absurdity in the madhouse at Cairo. But though his own theory is discredited, he has not yet found the true one. To find this he must be brought face to face in the last scene with his deserted wife. There, for the first time, he asks the question and receives the answer. “Where,” he asks, “has Peer Gynt’s true self been since we parted:–

“Where was I, as myself, as the whole man, the true man?
Where was I with God’s sigil upon my brow?”

And Solveig answers:–

“In my faith, in my hope, in my love.”

In these words we have the main ethical problem solved; and Peer’s perception of the truth (vide Mr. Wicksteed’s remarks quoted above) is the one necessary climax of the poem. We do not care a farthing–at least, I do not care a farthing–whether Peer escape the Button-Moulder or not. It may be too late for him, or there may be yet time to live another life; but whatever the case may be, it doesn’t alter what Ibsen set out to prove. The problem which Ibsen shirks (if indeed he does shirk it) is a subsidiary problem–a rider, so to speak. Can Solveig by her love redeem Peer Gynt? Can the woman save the man’s soul? Will she, after all, cheat the Button-Moulder of his victim?