Litt 507 - Psychological Analysis of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea (paper)
Bernard M. Paderes
Litt 506 (Literature and Psychology)
Prof. M.C. Raymundo
The Lady from the Sea: A Dilemma on Freedom Vs. Security
The play opened with people in Dr. Wangel’s house preparing for the visit of Dr.
Arnholm, the former family tutor. On the same day, the elder daughter Bolleta was also
preparing flowers to commemorate her late mother’s birthday. Lyngstrand, a patient of
Wangel’s, was staying over for summer as he was being treated by Dr. Wangel – he had
been suffering a lung illness due to a shipwreck accident.
Arnholm arrived and was having a conversation with Ellida, Wangel’s new wife.
Ellida was having a strange connection with the sea and would often take a swim
everyday. Lyngstrand arrived with flowers for Ellida. He greeted her, mistakenly thinking
it was her birthday. He was talking to Ellida where he mentioned his experience during a
shipwreck in which he met a man whose wife had remarried while he was away. Ellida
later realized that the man she married to was the same man that Lyngstrand was with in
Ellida disclosed Wangel her sentiments: about her delusions, anxieties, and her
former marriage to a man whom she thought to be dead.
One day, the man (the stranger) came to see her and offered her to choose
between her life with Wangel or to go with him. In the end, Ellida chose to stay with
Wangel. She had finally made a decision when Wangel freed her from their marriage
contract. Surprisingly, she dismissed the man and chose to live with Wangel.
A. The Analysis of the Writer
Henrik Ibsen was a 19th
century Norwegian playwright and theatre director. He is
often referred to as “the father” of modern theatre and his works are regarded as
scandalous during his era. He moved away from unmasking the romantic hero to
exploring the moral problems of the society onto the theatre stage. He challenged the
notion of a Vcitorian Theatre where a morally appropriate conclusion was always
When Ibsen was 8, his father had problems with their business. They had to sell
their properties and moved to a rundown farm in a nearby town. There, Ibsen spent
much of his time reading, painting, and performing magic tricks. At the age of 15, he had
to stop schooling to work. He became a pharmacy assistant in Grimstad. He worked there
for six years, spending his free time writing poetry. His experience of poverty interrupted
his education and gave Ibsen a sense of distrust towards the society. In addition to this,
he was compelled to support an illegitimate child who was born to a servant girl.
In 1850, he went to Christiana (an old name for Oslo) to prepare for the university
entrance examinations of the University of Christiana, hoping to become a physician, but
failed. However, living in the capital gave him the opportunity to meet a lot of writers and
artists. One of these was Ole Schumelud who later paid for the publication of his first
major work his first play Catalina but failed to get noticed.
The following year, Ibsen met Ole Bull, a theater manager. Bull liked Ibsen and
offered him a job as a manager of the Norweigian Theater in Bergen. The job gave him an
opportunity to learn more about theatre. The following year, he got married Suzannah
Thoresen. Their only child, Sigurd, was born the following year. In 1857, he went back to
the capital to run another theatre but he did not succeed and was even ousted taking him
back to the Christiana Theater. However, Ibsen’s career as a playwright encountered a lot
of public humiliations as it failed to attract audiences. In 1862, despite his difficulties, he
wrote Love’s Comedy, a satirical look at marriage.
Ibsen’s most important pieces deals with the main charcater’s psychological
conflict. His works central theme such as The Emperor and the Galilean (1873), a drama
about Christianity and paganism; Pillars of Society (1877), which dealt with a hypocrisy of
a businessman; and probably one of his most cited play A Doll’s House (1879), which is a
social drama about a woman struggles between her traditional role as a wife and her
need for self-exploration. This play was even cited in the dissertation of the famous moral
and feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan In A Different Voice (1982).
His impoverished lifestyle, his failure to study his initial choice of becoming a
physician, and the failure to attract audiences to some of his plays may have cause a
feeling of inferiority on his part. However, he probably had channelled this feeling
positively, or to what Alfred Adler called compensation, or the attempt to overcome real
or imagined inferiorities. According to Adler, the feeling of inferiority is a driving force in
human behaviour. “To be human is to be inferior,” (Alder, 1939 as cited in Schultz, 2005).
The feelings of inferiority become the source of all human striving, and such striving
results to individual growth.
B. Analysis of the Characters
Ellida is the central figure in the story. She could also be the one that the title is
pertaining to as the lady from the sea, or a mermaid. In Jungian psychology, a mermaid is
a combining symbolism of fish and femininity. It is a powerful image that haunts and
fascinates the male psyche. In dreams, the mermaid represents the Anima, a seductive
temptress, that lures male energies (Fontana, 1994). Even though it was not explicitly
stated that Ellida was a mermaid, it was still essential to refer her to such because it
created a strong desire to keep her for both men, Wangel and the stranger.
In this dialogue, Ellida was portrayed as someone who used to live with the sea
and it creatures. As someone who was taken away from her natural environment, she
expressed her longing and deep attachment to the sea and so as her lost love.
Ellida: About the storms and calm, Of dark nights at sea. And the sea in
the glittering sunshiny days we spoke also. But we spoke most of
whales, and the dolphins, and the seals who lie out there on the
rocks in the midday sun. And then we spoke of the gulls, and the
eagles, and all the other sea birds. I think – isn’t it wonderful?—
when we talked of such things it seemed to me as if both the sea
beasts and sea birds were one with him.
Wangel: And you?
Ellida: Yes, I almost thought I belonged to them all, too.
Ellida’s longing for the sea suggested her need for security. According to Erich
Fromm, the less freedom people had, the greater their feelings of belonging and security.
Being away from the sea and apart from her lost love had caused her anxiety. This ironic
dilemma was stated through the following dialogue:
Ellida: No; I don’t believe so. I think that if only men had from the
beginning accustomed themselves to live on the sea, or in the sea
perhaps, we should be more perfect than we are—both better
Arnholm: Well, perhaps! But it can’t be helped. We’ve once for all entered
upon the wrong path, and have become land beasts instead of
sea beasts. Anyhow, I suppose it’s too late to make good the
EllidaL: Yes, we’ve spoken a sad truth. And I think men instinctively feel
something of themselves. And they bear it about with them as a
secret regret and sorrow. Believe me- herein lies the deepest
cause for the sadness of men.
When Ellida was comfronted with a choice between her former love and her
present husband, she expressed her feeling of choicelessness over the situation.
Wangel: But you mustn't think of that any more. Never again--
never! Promise me that, my dear, beloved Ellida. Now we must try
another treatment for you. Fresher air than here within the
fjords. The salt, fresh air of the sea! Dear, what say you to
Ellida Oh! don't speak of it! Don't think of it! There is no
help in this for me. I feel that so well. I can't shake it off--
not even there.
Wangel What, dear?--What do you really mean?
Ellida I mean the horror of it, this incomprehensible power over
In this dialogue, Ellida expresses her feeling of dread due to
In the last part of the play, the Stranger (Ellida’s lost love) had come to take her.
Wangel had given her his consent of choosing whether to go with the stranger or to stay
with him on the island. However, in the end she confronted the stranger and surprisingly
chose to live with Wangel. In this dialogue, she expressed her need for freedom in order
for her to make wise decisions.
Ellida: Your will has not a shadow of power over me any longer.
To me you are as one dead--who has come home from the
sea, and who returns to it again. I no longer dread you.
And I am no longer drawn to you.
The Stranger: Goodbye, Mrs. Wangel! (He swings himself over the
fence.) Henceforth, you are nothing but a shipwreck in
my life that I have tided over. (He goes out.)
Wangel: Ellida, your mind is like the sea-- it has ebb and flow.
Whence came the change?
Ellida. Ah! don't you understand that the change came—was
bound to come when I could choose in freedom?
This simply shows that freedom is a given of existence—as well as
death, isolation, and meaniglessness. Experiencing freedom would call for
anxiety as they would be tied to the consequences of their choices. As human
beings, people do not have choice but to acknowledge that they are free, or to
how some existentialist would call it “groundless.”
C. Analysis of the Creative Process
Ibsen wrote the play in Munich in 1888. It was said that he was inspired by a
couple of legends. First is the a creature (a Norwegian of Finnish Stock) whose magically
compelling eyes would lure a person’s wife away from her husband. The other one was a
story of a seaman who had been away from home for too long that he was thought to be
dead, until he finally appeared and found his wife married to another man.
The year before he wrote the play, Ibsen spent near the open sea. He spent six
weeks in the coast of Denmark where he found his inspiration for the play (Fanshawe,
As cited in Fanshawe (2008), in one of his notes dated June 5th 1888, Ibsen writes:
"The lure of the sea. Longing for the sea. People's affinity to the sea.
Tied to the sea. Dependent on the sea. Compulsion to return to it. A species of
fish forming a prototype in the development of species. Are there still rudiments
of this in the human mind? In the mind of some individuals?...The sea has
power over moods, has its own willpower. The sea can hypnotize.”
Corsini, J.C. and Wedding, D. (1989). Current Psychotherapies 4th
Edition. IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.
Fanshawe, Katie. (2008). REP Insight Teachers’ Resource Pack on
The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen. UK: The Birmingham Repertory
Fontana, David. (1994). The Secret Language of Dreams. SF:
Schultz, D. and Schultz, S. (2005). Theories of Personality 8th
Schultz, D. and Schultz, S. (2005). Theories of Personality 8th