An Inward Turning Eye: an analysis of Peer Gynt
By Shawna L. Millard
“Purgatory was abandoning your vision of honor and knowing you’d done it.” (Dick Francis)
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a tale that leads and mocks us simultaneously, pointing toward one meaning but whispering another behind our backs, a theme of double meanings. One needs to view Peer Gynt in a variety of ways in order to find what some seek, an interpretation. There is no question that Ibsen has intent in making some sort of point yet the art of the piece may hide his true intention leaving the reader or viewer to un-puzzle a more personal discernment. Peer Gynt, on the simple side, is the tale of a man who like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz finds “there’s no place like home” (Frank L. Baum). His searching for fame and fortune driven by his fear of commitment or of being tied down results in his running amok around the world taking on different faces as a player in many plays. The culmination being a realization of a life poorly lived and therefore no ‘real self’ but an offering of redemption through the devotion of Solveig resulting in the staying of the Button Moulder’s hand.
His discovery of no ‘real self’ is shown dramatically in his peeling of the onion, he peels off all the layers of what he pretended to be and there is nothing left, no self. He never searches for himself because he has never lost himself through his lack of desire to be more and he cannot forge any depth of character. He takes on many roles until he tires of them like an actor in many plays. Continually putting on another face or act but never being anyone in particular for any length of time; a prophet, a slave trader, a trapper, Self-Hood’s Kaiser. He cannot lose himself because he was never really himself. The Button-Moulder even goes so far as to say, “Yourself you never have been at all.”
Peer is constant in his inconsistency, another double meaning. His inability to act on his dreams of finding an easier way leads him in circles. He stays until it becomes too hard to do so and then escapes over and over again. The Bøyg taught him thus; if things become too hard just go around them. Rules need not be adhered to when it’s easier to disregard them. The Bøyg as interpreted by Georg Brandes is said to be the spirit of compromise but this does not ring true since the Bøyg is a serpent-like troll from Scandinavian folklore of Gudbrandsdal and Telemark. He has no compromise in these legends but is a traveler’s obstacle, ‘not angry,’ ‘conquers all things without it (force),’ and ‘as bad as to battle.’
The Bøyg is just one character Ibsen draws forth from Scandinavian folklore. However, Peer Gynt is not a folktale. Many have struggled with exactly what genre Peer Gynt is. It appears to be an upside down folktale falling outside the definitions of Vladimir Propp’s folktale units and Olrik’s laws by being a folktale of a villain and not a hero and not adhering to the basic principles and structure of folklore. The use of such fancies as trolls and hulders throughout without actually following an Asbjornsen trueness is a clue that Ibsen’s intents tend toward mockery. A ‘red flag” indicating that one must look beyond the simplistic telling of Peer Gynt (that can confuse in its ‘seeming’ randomness) and wonder why and what Henrik Ibsen is ‘poking fun at, is yet again Ibsen’s theme of double meaning, simple but not at the same time.
Dissection of Peer Gynt gives one an unmerciful list of Ibsen’s jests, the first and foremost of these being his own countrymen, the character Peer being a representative of the worst of Norwegian traits. Peer’s ‘art of hedging’ is indicative of Ibsen’s political views of Norway’s shirking of its responsibility in regard to Denmark’s call for aide, “a compromising dread of a decisive course of action” (V Schatia – 1938). Peer is portrayed as a man deep-rooted in his selfishness with an inability to commit. Peer’s idle dreams of the future and celebration of supposedly past family grandeur are indicative of Norway’s romanticism of its past, glorifying in its stark nature and its ruthless Vikings. Peer states that “calculating selfishness is the annihilation of self” in a jab at Norwegians. Preaching of their inability to be more than what they are because they are unwilling to help others followed closely by his comment that “all defects in his countrymen can also be found in him” (meaning Peer).
The next rash of attacks is aimed at the Christian ideals of people, those that say they believe but do not live like they believe, Peer being an excellent example of this. Ibsen portrays Peer as a believer from his praying on the shore to his seeing the Button Moulder, a servant of God, and the Lean One, known to be the devil by his cloven hoof, yet Peer doesn’t believe in obeying God’s laws. Thinking his good deeds like given missionaries passage will rule out any bad deeds such as his selling humans as slaves. Furthermore, Solveig’s father is shown as having all intentions of good by saving Peer’s soul but to do so he would have to transgress God’s law of ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Believers are painted as hypocritical but in a more deep sense having two meanings. Real intent or presence with a subversive one, an opposition to what reality is, in other words two objects or intentions.
This theme of two of everything is prevalent throughout Peer Gynt. Peer Lives his life as in a day dream, believing his fantasies (riding reindeer) to be truth and not seeing the reality of how others see him. Even his escape is an impractical, romantic, and pointless act resulting in ruin of himself and his mother. When in reality he could very well have married her and had it all, wealth and family and the saving of his soul.
In the beginning of his journey Peer is aware of his lying as in his story to Ase in the beginning and to the people of the village. Yet this becomes more a dream-like state mixing idealism with romanticism upon his manifestation of the trolls.
He is continuously mixing reality with his imaginations only periodically waking to proclaim that ‘deeds is better than that of dreams’ whilst being chased by the entire village bent on his destruction. This short relapse is followed by even more intense dream states of trolls and imaginary kingdoms. Ibsen even goes so far in his double meaning theme as to give the trolls both a pleasant and grotesque appearance along with the food being both delicious and excrement, the drink both mead and urine.
This state of double meaning, of decisiveness and indecisiveness allows Peer to ‘go round about and not straight through’ as he states in relation to his countrymen. Even when confronted with his mother dying he refuses to accept reality and till her dying breath spirits her away into his fantasies not allowing her to be in the right frame of mind for death and blocking her own redemption.
Peer in his later years loses his distinction of what is unreal and what is real. Even those that view the play or read it can no longer distinguish from what is imagined and what is real as they are portrayed by Ibsen as being both. The ‘Other Passenger’ on the ship, The Lean One, the Button Moulder, the Old Man – characters that we know to be fantasies or beings from idealism but are there in reality having conversations with Peer making one doubt not only Peer senses but our own. It is therefore accepted by Peer that they may or may not exist but they are there none-the-less.
In this way the audience emerges from the darkness of the playhouse (or from the depths of the pages) with an inward-turned eye. Ibsen’s employment of entertainment and moralistic education through mockery disembowels the viewer of enjoyment and pomposity leaving only room for deep thought in double meaning. One would be wise to look to Peer Gynt as an example of what we could be but do not have to be. “Man to thyself be true” or “troll to thyself be enough.”