The Master Builder

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The Master Builder












Initially, the response to Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness in Norwegian) was mixed. The play received overwhelming praise when it was published in Scandinavia in 1892, but the demands it placed on actors made it difficult to stage, and as a result, the early performances of the play were criticized. As the actors and audience became accustomed to the play’s innovative technique, however, audiences began to applaud Ibsen’s creative mix of realism and expressionism in his compelling portrait of a middle-aged architect who assesses his obsessive drive to succeed.

The Master Builder chronicles the career and personal relationships of Halvard Solness, a man who has not let anything stand in the way of his rampant ambition. As he struggles with the destructive consequences of his monomaniacal pursuit and his growing fear that he has lost his creative powers, a mysterious young woman appears. She will help Solness gain a glimpse of his former robust self as she leads him to his tragic fate. In The Master Builder, Ibsen paints an intriguing portrait of one man’s consuming desire for success.


Henrik Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, to Knud (a businessman) and Marichen (Altenburg) Ibsen. His wealthy family was thrown into poverty in 1834 when his father lost his store. As a result, Ibsen was forced to leave school at age fifteen and accept a position as a pharmacist’s assistant. The humiliation his family suffered as they sold off most of their property to pay off debts became a dynamic in his later plays, especially in A Doll House(1879) and John Gabriel Borkman(1896). Fire, which was a constant threat to Skien’s wooden shacks, was another subject in some of his plays, including Ghosts(1881) and The Master Builder(1892).

In the early 1850s, Ibsen attended Christiania University in what is now Oslo and began writing poetry. In 1850, he wrote his first play, Catiline, but it did not appear on the stage for several years. Soon after completing the play, he began a stint as stage manager for the Norwegian Theater in Bergen, where he was required to write and stage a play each year. These plays were not well received; however, they helped Ibsen fine-tune his dramatic skills. The plays explored the intricacies of human behavior against the backdrop of a repressive society, a theme that would reemerge in his later work. His fears that he was illegitimate, coupled with the birth of his own illegitimate child, surfaced in his characters, including Dina Dorf in Pillars of Society(1887), Regine in Ghosts, and Hedvig in The Wild Duck(1884).

In 1864, Ibsen left Norway after suffering severe mental stress brought on from overwork. Assisted by government grants and scholarships, he traveled through Italy and Germany for the next few decades, continuing his play writing, which became increasingly well received. By the production of Master Builder in 1892, Ibsen’s reputation as one of the world’s leading dramatists was cemented. Although he never completed his degree at Christiania University, he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Uppsala in 1877. After suffering a series of strokes, Ibsen died on May 23, 1906, in Oslo, Norway.


Act 1

The play opens in a workroom in Halvard Solness’s house where his assistant, Knut Brovik, and his son Ragnar are working on blueprints, and Kaja Fosli is tending the books. Knut, who is having difficulty breathing, declares, “I can’t go on much

longer,” noting that his health is quickly deteriorating. His son shows great concern over his father’s condition. Knut refuses to go home and rest until he has tried to convince Solness to recognize his son’s drafting abilities and to allow him to head a project. Solness, however, insists that Ragnar is not yet talented enough to work independently. Knut admits that Ragnar drew up plans for one of Solness’s clients who considered them new and modern, an assessment that angers Solness.

Solness accuses Kaja of being behind Knut’s request, so that she and Ragnar could marry. Kaja, however, insists she has had no part in it, although Ragnar and her uncle have been pressuring her to marry soon. She admits that she has fallen deeply in love with Solness. The master builder pretends to return her affections in an effort to make sure she, and thus Ragnar, does not leave.

During a visit, Dr. Herdal, the family doctor, tells Solness that his wife, Aline, suspects that he has feelings for Kaja. Solness admits that Kaja has fallen in love with him but insists that he wants her to stay only to keep Ragnar, whose work is valuable to him. He recognizes the fact that he is exploiting her but claims that he cannot prevent it. When Dr. Herdal suggests he tell his wife that he is not in love with Kaja, he declines, admitting that he wants his wife to think badly of him, finding “a kind of beneficial self-torment” in letting her think that he is guilty. Solness expresses his fear that he may be losing his mind.

The doctor admits that Solness has had a lot of bad luck, beginning with the burning down of Aline’s family home, where they used to live. He notes that the builder began as a poor country boy and now he is at the top of his profession. Solness expresses a Faustian dread that he will have to pay for his good fortune. He is certain that the young will cause great changes, which will make him obsolete.

Hilda, a young woman dressed in hiking clothes and “shining with happiness,” appears at the Solness home. She explains that Aline had invited her to visit after the two met at a mountain lodge last summer. Her true motive, however, begins to emerge when she reminds Solness that ten years ago, when she was twelve, she had met him when he built a tower on the church in her hometown. The doctor tells Solness that he must be able to predict the future since youth has indeed come knocking at his door.

As Hilda describes the moment when Solness climbed to the top of the tower during a wreathing ceremony, she admits that he became a thrilling, godlike figure to her. She then reminds him that when he came back to her family home that evening after the celebration, he called her his princess. He insisted that he would come back in ten years and buy a kingdom for her, and then kissed her several times. She declares that it has been ten years to the day, and she has come to claim her kingdom. Solness cannot remember the incident but thinks he might have willed it to happen.

Solness admits to her that he does not build church towers any longer, only homes “for human beings,” but he has built a new home with a tower for himself. After telling her of his present discontent, he notes how happy it makes him to talk to her.

Act 2

Later that day, Solness promises Aline that they will be happier when they move into the new house, but she notes that the house is not important to her. She has never recovered from the loss of her parents’ home and the death of their two children, for which she blames herself.

Solness explains the past to Hilda, telling her that after the fire, Aline was so despondent that she could not properly nurse her babies and she refused to let anyone else care for them. They died as a result. After the fire, he subdivided the land on which it had stood, and built homes that were quite lucrative for him. After the death of his sons, he could not build another church, only homes.

Solness admits that he knew there was a crack in the chimney in their old house but did not fix it, knowing a fire would allow him to build on the land. The fire broke out in a closet, though, not the chimney. Solness suspects that he has special powers; when he desires something, he gets it, which proves, he claims, that he is one of the chosen. Yet he blames himself for the children’s death and Aline’s condition.

Hilda convinces Solness to write some encouraging words on Ragnar’s drawings, since his father is dying. He is convinced that change is coming and retribution is inescapable. When Hilda shares her vision of him placing a wreath on a high church tower, he asks her what she wants from him, and she replies, “her kingdom.” Later, Solness tells Kaja that he will not be needing her or Ragnar’s services any longer. When Aline discovers his plan to place the wreath on the tower of their new home, she fears for his safety, but Hilda urges him on.

Act 3

That evening on the veranda, Aline shares her pain with Hilda and her guilt over the death of her children. She then expresses her hope that they can be friends. Hilda is moved by her talk with Aline and tells Solness that she should leave. However, when Solness admits that he no longer cares about his craft, Hilda tries to convince him that he should not be held back by guilt. She implores him to build a castle with a high tower. He agrees to construct a real castle in the air with solid foundations.

Ragnar arrives with the wreath and announces that his father is in a coma and never was able to read Solness’s comments on his work. When he claims Solness will be too afraid to climb the tower, Hilda professes her love and confidence in the master builder. Later, Aline expresses her fears that Solness will become dizzy and will fall.

Before he climbs the scaffolding, Solness tells Hilda that he is afraid of retribution. Yet, he reiterates his promise to build a castle for them. He claims that he will climb the tower so that he can talk to God and tell him he will build a beautiful castle “together with a princess that I love.”

Ragnar and his friends come to watch Solness, sure that he will not have the courage to climb up the tower. He does, however, and Hilda declares him “great and free again.” She sees him struggling on the tower with someone. He waves, then falls with some planks and splintered wood. Refusing to acknowledge the fact that he is dead, Hilda fixes her vision on the tower, crying with wild intensity “my—my master builder!”


Knut Brovik

Formerly an architect, Knut Brovik is now an assistant to Solness. At the beginning of the play, his deteriorating health prompts him to confront Solness over the lack of support Solness has shown Ragnar. He admits that his confidence in his son has been shaken by the fact that Solness has never appreciated his son’s work. Calling on the little strength he has left, Knut demands that Solness evaluate and appreciate Ragnar’s drawings. Solness responds too late, however, and Knut falls into a coma before he reads his employer’s comments.

Ragnar Brovik

Knut’s son Ragnar works as a draftsman for Solness. He appears stooped in the play, which reflects his inability to stand up to his boss and demand recognition. When his resentment over Solness’s refusal to recognize his talent prompts him to confront the older man, he quickly backs down when he is told his drawings are worthless. Yet, he becomes for Solness the symbol of youth—everything of which Solness is afraid.

Ragnar’s lack of perception surfaces when he determines that Solness has not allowed his father or himself any measure of independence because Solness wanted to keep Kaja close to him. His bitterness emerges in the final scene when he comes to the celebration of Solness’s new home so that he can see his employer fail in his attempt to climb the tower. Ragnar notes “how horrible” Solness’s fall is, yet his final words in the scene reinforce his employer’s failure.

Kaja Fosli

Kaja works as Solness’s bookkeeper. She has fallen desperately in love with him, even though she is engaged to Ragnar. Ibsen never develops her character, using her, for the most part, as reinforcement of Solness’s power and status.

Dr. Herdal

Dr. Herdal serves as the family doctor and advisor. He councils Solness about his wife’s condition and offers her comfort and support.

Aline Solness

Aline Solness, Halvard’s wife, has become barren physically and emotionally, due to the tragedies that she has experienced. When her parents’ home and everything in it went up in flames, Aline could not get over the loss of her possessions and mementos. The mental and emotional strain that resulted prevented her from adequately nursing her babies, and her stubbornness caused her to refuse anyone’s help. She admits that she did not have the strength of character to endure the fire, and she determines that she was punished for this through the death of her children.

The sense of duty she displayed regarding the nursing of her children has been magnified during the ensuing years. Her daily activities center on her duties to others. When Hilda appears at the house with few possessions, Aline promptly buys her enough items to make her feel comfortable. Yet, when Hilda thanks her, Aline responds that it was her duty to take care of her guest, removing all sense of spontaneity or real connection. She treats her husband in the same manner. She tells Hilda that it is “her duty to give into him.” She reveals her estrangement from him when she leaves the room each time he walks in.

She appears to take no pleasure in her tasks or her interactions with others, especially her husband. Haggard and depressed, Aline dresses in black, as if she were in perpetual mourning. She does however, show openness to Hilda toward the end of the play, when the young woman takes the time to talk to her about the past. Halvard suggests that his wife had the potential for living a life of fulfillment, noting that she had a talent for “building up the small souls of children,” but that potential was destroyed by the death of their boys.

Halvard Solness

Master builder Halvard Solness is a forceful, ambitious man, used to getting his own way. He has become successful through his drive to be the best in his field and through his ruthlessness. Knut Brovik insists that Solness’s ambition caused him to “cut the ground out from under” all in his way. Solness himself admits that he beat Brovik down and broke his spirit. He refuses to let Ragnar become independent, claiming that he will “never give ground” over to the young. His determination to keep Ragnar from succeeding springs from his fear that if the younger man gets a chance, he will “hammer [him] to the ground” and break him the same way he broke Ragnar’s father.

Solness tries to justify his ambition in his explanation of his initial goals. He tells Hilda that his dream was to build churches as monuments to God, determining that this activity would be the noblest thing he could do with his life. Yet, somehow, his plans went awry. He explains, “I built those poor country churches in so honest and warm and fervent a spirit that... He should have been pleased with me,” but for some reason, He was not. As a result, Solness insists, God “turned the troll in me loose to stuff its pockets, put devils in me,” which turned his ambition toward more selfish ends.

Solness feels that the house burning is evidence of God’s displeasure, and that God took his children to prevent him from becoming attached to anything except his mission. He claims that his life has been ruined as a result. Yet, he also blames himself for his and his wife’s tragic fate. He feels that he owes a debt to Aline since his desire to parcel the land on which her parents’ home stood caused his “troll” to burn down the house and so “suck all the lifeblood out of her.”

His spirit and confidence in himself returns, however, with Hilda’s arrival. She refocuses his attention on his craft when she begs him to build the two of them a “castle in the air.” She also reinvigorates him through her obvious sexual desire for him, which allows him to feel youthful and thus powerful again.

Hilda Wangel

Hilda is a mysterious young woman who comes to stay with the Solnesses after Aline invites her for a visit. The two had met at a mountain lodge the previous summer. Hilda’s real motive for the visit, however, is to seduce Solness and to convince him to fulfill his promise to build a castle for her, which he had made ten years earlier when she was twelve. He made such an impression on the young Hilda that she has become obsessed with the man she envisions as a god.

In her middle-class Victorian world, Hilda tries to absolve herself of responsibility for her desires, which threaten to break up a marriage. She insists that like Solness, she too has a “troll” and “devils” inside of her that have driven her to him. Solness admits that when these internal forces gain strength, “we have to give in—whether we want to or not.” This sense of Hilda’s possession by uncontrollable forces is reinforced by Solness’s description of her as a “little devil in white,” screaming his name as he climbed up the tower in her hometown.

Periodically, though, Hilda’s concern for others overrides her obsession with Solness. She insists that Solness find some words of praise for Ragnar’s drawings to help ease his father’s mind as he approaches death. Also, she shows compassion for Aline as the older woman describes her tragic life. At one point, Hilda is so overcome with sympathy for her that she tells Solness that she plans to leave. However, when Solness admits that he no longer cares about his work, she becomes incensed at the thought that anything would interfere with his artistry, and so her passion for him reasserts itself. When he falls from the tower at the end of the play, she cannot accept his fate, refusing to take her eyes off the heights he has attained.



Solness is aware of the suffering he has caused others, especially his wife, during his self-serving rise to power. In an effort to cope with the harsh consequences of this unchecked ambition, he tries to convince himself that he has not been completely responsible for his actions. He struggles to persuade others, as well as himself, that he is beset by internal devils, “players” that impose his will on others, without his consent. Solness insists that all he has to do is think of something he desires and immediately with no instruction from him, his devils carry out the deed. For example, the first time he meets Kaja, he thinks that he would like her to work in his office so Ragnar “would stay put too.” As he is telling this story to Dr. Herdal, he swears he “didn’t breathe a word” of these thoughts to anyone, but the next day, Kaja came back to the office, acting as if he had already given her the job. As a result of these thoughts, Solness admits to the doctor that he fears that he is going mad.

Hilda reinforces this self-deception when she insists that she also has a troll inside of her and that the trolls in each of them have brought them together. By absolving them of the responsibility of their desire for each other and their plans to run off together, Hilda tries to assuage their guilt over destroying Solness’s marriage and abandoning Aline.

Age versus Youth

As Solness struggles to cope with the consequences of his actions, he becomes obsessed with the idea that he is losing his creative edge. This obsession is compounded when Brovik tells him that Ragnar has drawn up blueprints for a young couple who have applauded his “new modern” ideas. Solness admits to Dr. Herdal that he harbors “a terrible fear” that an inevitable change is coming, heralded by the young, and as a result, he will become obsolete.

In an effort to stop this process, he tries to break Ragnar’s spirit and confidence in his abilities by refusing to allow him to work independently on a project. Solness cannot overcome his consuming fear even when Ragnar’s father, with his dying wish, begs him for a word of praise for his son.


Rejuvenation comes in the form of Hilda, a young woman who sparks Solness’s waning creativity and sexuality. When Hilda first comes to the house, Solness admits that he is no longer interested in building homes, for no one appreciates his work. When Hilda tells him that the sight of him climbing the tower in her hometown was “wonderfully thrilling” and “lovely,” and reminds him that he kissed her several times that evening, his pride in his work reemerges along with his sense of sexual prowess. After Hilda expresses unwavering confidence that he can again build and climb magnificent towers, he admits, “all these years I’ve been going around tormented by... a search for something—some old experience I thought I’d forgotten.” She helps him remember the passion and creativity of his youth and instills in him the belief that he can regain his old powers. Hilda convinces him that he can carry her off to a magnificent castle in the air that he will build for the two of them. As a result, he admits to her, “you are the one person I’ve needed the most.”

What Hilda helps him recapture during these musings is youth, the very thing that he thought would usurp his power and position. Solness, however, is ultimately unable to retain his sense of rejuvenation, and as his old fear of failure returns, he falls off the tower to his death.


  • How would you stage the last scene of the play? Consider how you would show Solness climbing up and falling from the tower. How would you direct Hilda in this scene?
  • Read Ibsen’s A Doll House and compare the theme of power to that of The Master Builder.
  • Research the causes and consequences of an overweening sense of ambition. What kind of counseling could Solness have received that might have helped change his behavior?
  • Investigate the class structure of Norwegian society at the end of the previous century. How difficult was it for those of the lower classes to become financially successful?


Realism and Expressionism

Ibsen combines elements of realism and expressionism in the play. Most of Ibsen’s plays can be grouped into the realist movement, the dominant literary form in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In The Master Builder, however, Ibsen experiments with expressionism, a new movement that was coming into vogue. Realist and expressionist techniques merge in his characterizations. As Ibsen charts the rise and fall of master builder Halvard Solness, he takes a close look at cause-and-effect relationships. As in most realist works, the main character in Ibsen’s play faces a moral choice, in this case whether or not to allow his ambition to run unchecked. When he decides that he will let nothing thwart his dream of rising to the top of his profession, he must face the destructive consequences. Ibsen presents a realistic depiction of the pain Solness’s choice has caused not only his wife but also, ultimately, himself.

Ibsen’s expressionistic techniques emerge in Solness’s insistence that he has devils and trolls that enforce his will. When Solness claims that these devils were responsible for the burning of his home and Kaja’s decision to seek employment with him, Ibsen suggests they are manifestations of Solness’s own guilt. Ibsen also employs expressionism in his depiction of Hilda, who reenergizes Solness’s creative spark and thus his confidence in himself, which provides him with the will to climb the tower again. Her mysterious arrival, just at the moment Solness needs to rejuvenate his creative energies, coupled with her unexplainable obsession for him, suggests that she may be a fantasy figure.


The dominant symbol in the play is the tower that Solness climbs on two occasions, a phallic structure that suggests his authority and sexuality. Hilda watches transfixed both times as he climbs the vertical edifices to the top, thrilled at the power and courage he displays as he rises high above the town. Her active observance of Solness’s physical prowess causes her to become obsessed with him, so much so that she is willing to break up his marriage to the long-suffering Aline.



In the late nineteenth century, playwrights turned away from what they considered the artificiality of melodrama to a focus on the commonplace in the context of everyday contemporary life. They rejected the flat characterizations and unmotivated violent action typical of melodrama. Their work, along with much of the experimental fiction written during that period, adopted the tenets of realism, a new literary movement that took a serious look at believable characters and their sometimes problematic interactions with society.

To accomplish this goal, realistic drama focuses on the commonplace and eliminates the unlikely coincidences and excessive emotionalism of melodrama. Dramatists like Henrik Ibsen discard traditional sentimental theatrical forms as they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people confronting difficult social problems, like the restrictive conventions nineteenth-century women suffered. Writers who embraced realism use settings and props that reflect their characters’ daily lives and realistic dialogue that replicates natural speech patterns.

Anna-Marie Taylor, in her overview on Ibsen for the Reference Guide to World Literature, comments that the author’s realism centered on middle-class manners. She argues that his plays effectively deflated “bourgeois self-confidence” as they suggested that the “cosiest and best furnished of drawing rooms could harbour grim secrets, dissatisfaction, and despair.” The exposure of deception and restrictions became a main focus of his social dramas, especially A Doll House and Pillars of Society. Later, when his plays became more experimental, Ibsen incorporated realistic techniques into a more symbolic structure.


Dramatists during the early decades of the twentieth century also adopted the techniques of another new literary movement. expressionism eschewed the realists’ attention to verisimilitude and instead employed experimental methods that tried to objectify the inner experiences of human beings. Influenced by the theories of Freud, playwrights like August Strindberg used nonrealistic devices that distorted and sometimes oversimplified human actions in order to explore the depths of the human mind.

Ibsen’s long career reflected the shifting styles of the theatre at the end of the nineteenth century that would continue into the twentieth. His early social dramas were realistic depictions of the interactions between family members and between men and women. In the later part of the decade, he experimented with more symbolic forms of drama, most notably in The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken. In the former play, the action is centered on the consciousness of the central character. Often viewers are not certain whether Solness’s life becomes a construct of his dreams and desires, especially his relationship with Hilda, who becomes a muse figure in the play.


When The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness in Norwegian) was published in Scandinavia in 1892, the public response was greater than for any other Ibsen play since A Doll House. Henrik Jaeger praises the structure of the play in Dagbladet, writing that it becomes “a dialogue” between Solness and Hilde “so powerful and brilliant that it is more gripping than the most exciting ’scene.’” Christian


  • 1890s: In the latter part of the nineteenth century, realism becomes the dominant literary movement in the Western world. In the last decade of the century, symbolism and naturalism emerge as important new movements.

    Today: Musicals, like The Producers, and reality based plays, like Rent, dominate Broadway.

  • 1890s: The Klondike gold rush begins in 1896 in northwest Canada. News of the discovery of gold there prompts thousands to rush to the area, hoping to strike it rich.

    Today: Eastern nations criticize what they see as rampant materialism in the Western world.

  • 1890s: Samuel Clemens dubbs this decade “The Gilded Age,” due, in large part, to the industrialization of the West. During this period, a handful of large industries gain control of the economy in the United States. Those industrialists who profited saw their fortunes grow at a rapid rate, while the working class suffered with low wages and dangerous working conditions.

    Today: Public awareness of major companies exploiting foreign workers has grown. Many fear that the current push for economic globalization will reinforce the imbalances between the rich and the poor.

Brinckmann, in his review in Nyt Tidsskrift, applauds the way “despair resounds like jubilation and madness sounds like wisdom” in the play.

Some reviewers, however, criticized what they considered obscure subject matter. George Gothe, in Nordisk Tidskrift, insists that the play presents “precious and pretentious abstract grandiloquencies.” He notes that solving riddles can “be amusing,” but “when the riddles are so complex that one suspects that even the riddler himself does not really know the answer, the game ceases to be amusing.”

The response to the initial stage performances of the play, which opened simultaneously in Berlin and Trondhjem, Norway in 1893, however, was mostly negative, due to its intricate structure, which placed heavy demands on the actors. Reviews of a later staging in London included one in the Daily Telegraph that claimed that in the play, “dense mist enshrouds characters, words, actions, and motives.” A writer for the Saturday Review called it “a distracting jumble of incoherent elements” and argued that “there is no story” and “the characters are impossible.” Appreciation of the play, though, has grown since its first productions. Most critics now consider The Master Builder to be one of Ibsen’s finest, echoing Edvard Brandes’s assessment in Politiken that the play blends “supreme craftsmanship” and “characteristic profundity.”


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is an instructor of twentieth-century literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines Ibsen’s adaptation of the Faust myth in Ibsen’s play.

The story of a man who sells his soul to the devil so that he can gain knowledge, power, and riches can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity. This tale has been told under various names until the Renaissance, when it became known as the Faust myth. A German history of Dr. Faustus, the first known written account of the legend, inspired Christopher Marlowe’s celebrated version, Dr. Faustus(1604). Since Marlowe’s play, the story has appeared in various forms including Goethe’s Faust(1808). In The Master Builder, Ibsen creates his own version of the myth as he weaves it into the thematic fabric of his play. Through the tragic Faustian tale of architect Halvard Solness, Ibsen

explores the nature and devastating consequences of unchecked ambition.

In Marlowe’s version of the Faust myth, the central character embarks on a quest for knowledge—in this case medical knowledge—so that he may “heap up gold” but also so that he can “make men to live eternally.” His monomaniacal pursuit of knowledge prompts him to enter into a pact with the devil, which fulfills his ambitions to acquire this godlike power. Ultimately, however, Faustus’s arrogance is punished when he must give up his soul at the end of the play and suffer eternal damnation.

In Master Builder, Ibsen’s central character, Halvard Solness, has been driven by overweening ambition to gain the position of “master builder.” He was able to achieve this acclaim after his inlaw’s home, in which he and his wife were living, burned to the ground, affording him the opportunity to subdivide the land and build on it. Initially, he had built country churches with a fervent spirit, but his ambitions turned him toward more selfish ends.

Solness believes that he willed the fire, aided by a personal troll and devils, “helpers and servers” whom he calls on incessantly to help him realize his ambitions. As a result, Solness has achieved a godlike status in his position as master builder, reinforced by the adoration of two young women: his bookkeeper Kaja, and Hilda, the mysterious guest who comes to stay with him and his wife. His superior position is symbolized when he climbs the church tower in Hilda’s hometown to place a celebration wreath at the top. It was then that Hilda fell in love with him, explaining how “wonderfully thrilling” it was for her to stand below, looking up and seeing “the master builder himself.”

In his ruthless climb to the top, he has ignored the needs of others, especially his wife, whose despair over losing her parent’s home led to the death of their two sons. Although he never imagined the tragic effects his ambition would have on Aline, he has been more pitiless with his employees. In an effort to guard his supremacy, he has “broken” Brovik, his assistant, and impeded his son’s development, fearing the young man will eventually surpass him. He also cruelly manipulates Kaja’s feelings for him, in an effort to keep Ragnar in his place.

As Faust must eventually relinquish his soul in payment for his success, so too must Solness, although the master builder has suffered during his entire climb to the top of his profession. He feels a great sense of guilt over the loss of his sons, which he directly attributes to his desire for power and position. This guilt is compounded by his acknowledgement that Aline’s despair stems from her inability to cope with the loss of their children. He admits that the devilish powers within him have “sucked all the lifeblood out of her,” that she is now emotionally dead, and so he has been “chained to the dead.” As a result, there is “never a touch of sun, not the least glimmer of light” in their home.

In her introduction to Mariowe’s Doctor Faustus, Sylvan Barnet discusses the problem of ambition in the play. She notes that while his “ideals are corrupted... they reveal an abundance of energy that makes Faustus indisputably greater... than any of the other mortals in the play.” The same can be said of Solness, who has risen to greater heights, as symbolized by his climb to the top of the tower, than has any other architect. He has been a commanding and dominant presence to those who come into his circle, cementing his reputation as master builder. Yet, at the beginning of the play, his position at the top has become undermined.


  • A Doll House(1879), Ibsen’s most celebrated play, uses the realist techniques to study the life of a woman repressed by the tenets of her society.
  • Dr. Faustus(1604) is playwright Christopher Marlowe’s rendition of the Faustian legend.
  • When We Dead Awaken(1899), Ibsen’s last play, presents an expressionistic view of the intricacies of the human mind and personality.
  • History of the Theatre(1998), by Franklin J. Hildy and Oscar Gross Brockett, presents a comprehensive view of theatre through history, including an examination of different types of drama.

Solness’s guilt and growing fear that he is losing his artistic abilities, and so will soon be overtaken by the young, paralyzes him to the point where he does not want to build any more. His lack of confidence in himself prevents him from recognizing the value of Ragnar’s work and causes him to deny the younger man’s request to build a home from his own “new, modern” plans.

Hilda’s adoration, however, gives him new confidence in his artistic abilities and his manhood. Her appreciation of his artistry, coupled with her obvious sexual attraction toward him, prompts her insistence that he carry her away and build them a castle in the air. In his guilt and despondency, Solness opens himself up to Hilda and accepts her fantasized image of him. As a result, she convinces him to again climb to the highest heights where she insists he belongs, this time to decorate the tower of his new home.

A consideration of Solness’s ultimate fate raises similar questions to that in the Faust myth. Barnet notes that Marlowe’s Faustus is responsible for the choices he makes, but those choices have been influenced by “a hostile cosmos that entraps him.” Barnet suggests the devils in his cosmos may be “not so much independent external creatures as they are aspects of himself, symbols perhaps of his pride.” In a similar way, Ibsen complicates the vision of Solness’s responsibility for his fate. Solness explains that his initial goal was to build “poor country churches in so honest and warm and fervent a spirit” that God would be pleased with him. However, he claims, he instead earned God’s displeasure and as a result, He caused his house to burn and his children’s death, so that Solness would not attach himself emotionally to anything except his work. When he climbed up the tower in Hilda’s hometown, successfully suppressing his fear of heights, he determined that he would be an independent creator, in his own realm. At that point, he swore that he would no longer build churches, but instead “homes for humans.” Yet, the achievement of his artistic goals resulted in the shattering of his personal life.

Solness insists that God has been aided in his plan to control and to punish him by influencing the “troll” and “devils” within him. He claims that God “turned the troll in me loose to stuff its pockets.” When Kaja appeared to read his mind as he was thinking that she should work for him, he determines that the “players” within him carried out his will and prompted her to ask for a position. Hilda confirms the existence of these internal devils when she insists that the trolls within each of them have brought them together.

Throughout the play, Ibsen suggests that the devils within Solness are most likely manifestations of the same pride that controlled Faust. Yet the final scene adds a note of ambiguity. At the end of the play, Solness’s fears that the younger generation will cause his downfall are realized in an ironic sense. He is destroyed not through the jealousy of the young, but through the worship of a young woman who encourages him to climb the tower one more time. After Solness moves up the side of the tower attached to his house, Hilda watches from


below. When he reaches the top, she insists that she sees someone up there struggling with him. Seconds later, he falls, along with “some planks and splintered wood,” suggesting the possibility that as with Faust, devils have come to demand the payment of his soul.

The final scene of the play reinforces the complex image Ibsen has created of his protagonist. As the others look at his broken body lying on the ground in a heap, Hilda keeps her steady gaze on the tower and on her vision of Solness as the master builder. Through this portrait of the driven architect in The Master Builder, Ibsen reinvents the Faustian myth of a magnificent, powerful man who is celebrated yet ultimately destroyed by the corruption of his ambitious vision.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Master Builder, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Margery Morgan

In the following essay, the author gives a good overview of Ibsen’s play The Master Builder.

Two different kinds of play are interlinked in The Master Builder. The first introduced is a naturalistic social drama concerning a successful, middle-aged man’s attempt to block the path of a potential younger rival (Ragnar Brφvik), whose father he himself displaced; working on the susceptible nature of Ragnar’s finacée, Kaia, Master-Builder Solness has created an infatuation with himself which will keep both young people, and Old Brφvik, working in his office. Still within Act I, a drama of the inner life—of fantasy, obsession, and neurosis—begins with the arrival of youth personified in Hilde Wangel and ousts the first level of the play from the centre of attention. The disturbing strangeness of the work as a whole springs from Ibsen’s maintaining and interrelating the two dramatic modes to the end, so that Solness’s inner renewal allows him to release Ragnar, and his death by falling from a tower suggests a multiplicity of meanings.

A direct reflection of Strindberg’s The Father appears in Solness’s suspicion that his wife, Aline, and Dr. Herdal believe him to be insane. The Swedish playwright’s example had undoubtedly encouraged Ibsen to tread more boldly in dramatic territory represented in all his plays after The Wild Duck(1884). This advance involves recognition that the human mind operates in stranger ways than the limited, naturalistic view that rationality admits, and that human motivation and action can have a mythic dimension. He uses the technique of intimate duologues, as developed in his social plays (especially Ghosts), as a method of tracing the influence of the past in the present, to explore the secret mind and the innermost nature of human relationships. One school of critics, clinging to the tenets of naturalism, interprets the play as a study in mental abnormality: Solness, Aline, and Hilde in turn qualify for the madhouse. It is more rewarding to move with the play into a more imaginatively conceived understanding of reality, not choosing between alternatives, but reaching out to encompass divergent views.

Ibsen is careful to locate Hilde in the social world: both Dr. Herdal (the confidant) and Mrs. Solness remember meeting her before, in mundane situations; it is Solness who does not recall her. She has a history outside the play: the younger daughter of Dr. Wangel of Lysanger, in The Lady from the Sea, has put on years and arrived unexpectedly at the Solness house, come like the devil cheerfully on cue. To all the other characters she appears an attractive, lively, unconventional young woman, spontaneously friendly, if self-willed; to Solness, in their long solitudes à deux, she is an enchanting inquisitor who draws out of him all his hidden fears, desires, and sense of guilt, opens the prison of his everyday life and gives him hope. He is not troubled to verify or reject the story she tells him of their earlier meeting and her reason for seeking him out. Its fairytale quality insulated them from actuality in a world of the imagination and provides a language of metaphor in which they can talk freely. An emotionally adult woman, Hilde uses her fantasy from the past as an erotic challenge to Solness which he finds irresistible.

Although each of the three main characters recalls memories, the past that they reveal is ambiguous and unstable, as they do not verify each other’s accounts. This is not the past as historical fact, but the fiction they each construct to live by. Ibsen has left it open to the actress playing Hilde to allow the character an awareness of the process that neither Solness nor Aline shares. The oddity of a mature young woman claiming a childish hero-worship of the Master Builder, and clinging to a pubertal fantasy of how, ten years before to the day, he chose her as his future princess, may be simply piquant. Solness, who spares scarcely a thought for the ruthlessness with which he treated Knut Brφvik in the pursuit of his own ambitions, and less for having failed to give his wife a love through which she might have blossomed as a woman, has attached his sense of guilt to the burning down of her home which he knows, rationally, he did not cause. Aline’s is the most horrifying displacement: grieving, not for the babies who died, but for her dolls and her own lost childhood. The obsessional symbols may have a deeper truth to tell.

An unnatural arresting of time emerges as one of the play’s themes through its repetition within each of the main characters: Hilde’s fixation on the day, ten years ago, when Solness climbed the church tower at Lysanger; Aline, who has grown old without growing up; and Solness, intent on resisting the process of change whereby men pass from youth to age and others take over from them. The “out-of-time” quality of the duologues is entirely apt. It is also a condition of contemplation in which the play’s poetic reach can be explored. As a psychological drama, The Master Builder testifies to the symbolic and superstitious modes of thinking sophisticated human beings still employ alongside the scientific and rational, and which poets utilise most deliberately. It is a kind of poets’ thinking that passes between Solness and Hilde, and it forces its way through into the action at the end of the play.

From the play’s first appearance it has been regarded as partly autobiographical, the various phases of Solness’s career as a builder corresponding to the major changes in Ibsen’s dramatic style from the great philosophical plays in verse onwards. Yet it has also taken its place among the supreme modern tragedies. The obvious, phallic symbolism is subsumed in the traditional tragic symbolism of the rise and fall of overweening ambition. Hilde’s recollection of the master builder, high in the air, challenging some invisible power and triumphing, is matched both by Solness’s terrified thought that he has called down fire from heaven and by his response to the lure of the impossible: building a new house for Aline and himself, unhappy though they are together, with three nurseries, though they neither have nor can expect to have any children, giving it a tower, and siting it vertiginously on the edge of a quarry, even though he has lost his head for heights. An impression of more than human stature attaches itself to the fault-ridden human figure, and the philosophical ideas are not far away: Aline has nothing to live by but the categorical imperative of duty, to which Ibsen opposes livsglede(the joy of living); and Solness, in going beyond his nature to achieve the impossible, takes on the quality of the Nietzschean vision of man becoming superhuman. Hilde, who has goaded him out of mere idealistic dreaming (building castles in the air) and waves Aline’s shawl at him in ecstasy, may be seen as his destroyer. But the Solness who takes the wreath to climb the tower is a better man than we have seen earlier in the play. He may not know that he is going to his death, but he is ready for it. The achievement is real.

Source: Margery Morgan, “The Master Builder,” in International Dictionary of Theatre–I: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 493–94.

Richard Hornby

In the following essay, Hornby examines The Master Builder as a “point of departure” from the realist dramas of Ibsen’s middle period to a combination of realism and romanticism that anticipated such twentieth-century movements as surrealism and expressionism.

It has long been known that Ibsen’s late plays—The Master Builder, Little Ejolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken—represent a departure from the famous realistic plays of his middle period. Even Bernard Shaw, who had been obsessively concerned with Ibsen the moralist, described Ibsen as now having “completed the task of warning the world against its idols and anti-idols,” and instead having written “tragedies of the dead.” But more than this, the late plays demonstrate Ibsen’s greatness, both as a significant (though independent) figure in the Symbolist movement of the 1890s, and as a significant precursor of twentieth-century literary movements. In his late plays Ibsen anticipates such twentieth-century concerns as the function of the artist, the use of personal experience in literature, and the importance of the inner life of both the conscious and the unconscious mind.

The Master Builder, published in 1892, shows all these concerns. Its hero is an artist, Halvard Solness, a successful architect (or “master builder,”

as he prefers). Perfection of the work seems to have blocked perfection of the life; his artistic success has coincided with contempt for his clients, ruthlessness toward his associates, the loss of his children, the mental breakdown of his wife. He is restless, alienated, and afraid of being superseded by younger architects. Into his life comes a strange, alluring, naive young woman, who seems to know his deepest secrets, and who claims to have had a near-sexual affair with him ten years before, when she had been little more than a child. In contrast to the drab, realistic world in which he works, she talks of trolls and magic kingdoms and harps in the air, fascinating him and ultimately leading him to destruction.

Solness’s psychological problems—a fear of growing artistic and sexual impotence, and a fascination with a young girl—reflect those of Ibsen himself at the time the play was written. The Master Builder is Ibsen’s most personal play. Indeed, it has become common for critics to compare the details of the play with the pattern of Ibsen’s career as a playwright: Solness began by designing churches, then shifted to houses, and now designs houses with steeples; Ibsen, at the time the play was written, had gone through three similar phases, first writing Romantic plays, then realistic plays, and finally realistic plays with Romantic overtones like The Master Builder itself. The shift in style in The Master Builder is not truly a reversion to Romanticism, however; the play instead looks forward to the work of the Surrealists and Expressionists of our century, in its exploration of inner psychological states.

The realistic plays of Ibsen’s middle period were far more than simplistic problem plays taking moralistic stands on social issues. Nevertheless, they did follow standard realistic conventions, which, I shall attempt to show, provide a point of departure for the pivotal late play, The Master Builder. In A Doll House(1879), for example, we find ordinary, middle-class characters inhabiting a mundane, realistic world. The setting is an ordinary bourgeois living room. The characters’ concerns are work, family, love, money. The action arises from conflicts between characters rather than within individual ones; Nora has forged a note to get money to treat her sick husband, Torvald Helmer, but this caused her no inner anguish—if anything, she is proud of it. Her problems arise when the loan shark, Krogstad, discovers the forgery and uses it to blackmail her. She fears being exposed (because she thinks that her husband will take the blame onto himself and go to prison), but she still feels no guilt.

All the information needed to drive the plot forward in A Doll House, as in Ibsen’s other realistic plays, is provided by an extraordinary amount of exposition, necessitated by the late point of attack of the plot—in A Doll House, long after the forgery, after the husband’s recovery, and just as the note is at last about to be paid off. A convention of this kind of realistic exposition is that it is always presented to the audience as factual; even though Nora has always cheerfully lied whenever it was necessary to cover up her scheme, when she explains it all to her confidant, Mrs. Linde, we take her every word for truth. This truth never comes into question, and is always perfectly clear. The play moves toward a climax in which Nora’s husband is exposed as a hypocrite (instead of taking on the blame himself, as she had always expected he would, he plots a coverup), and in which Nora herself, bitterly disappointed in Helmer and seeing her whole life in a new light, leaves him to cast out on her own. It is a powerfully dramatic conclusion, but it is not in any sense a psychological one.

Although Ibsen’s later realistic plays, such as Rosmersholm or Hedda Gabler, are decidely psychological, the psychology still exists within the same framework of realistic convention. The exposition, again, is presented as clear, uncontradictory truth. Thus when Rebecca West, in her famous speech, describes how she drove Rosmer’s wife mad, it comes out in a blunt, straightforward manner:

I wanted Beata out of here, one way or another. But even so, I never dreamed it could happen. With every step ahead that I gambled on, it was as if something inside me cried out: “No further! Not one step further!” And yet I couldn’t stop. I had to try for a tiny bit more. Just the least little bit. And then again—and always again—until it happened. That’s the way these things do happen.

Rebecca is describing her own psychological turmoil, but her tone is clinical, as detached as a doctor describing a patient. Her conclusion—“That’s the way these things do happen”—is a profound insight, but again, is meant to be taken as straight truth by the audience, as is her whole speech. The audience may well be shocked by Rebecca’s compulsion, but they experience no disorientation themselves. The psychology here is vivid, pitiable, even terrifying, but definitely understood. It is still realistic, in the sense of being clear and comprehensible.

The Master Builder, however, is in fact a “deconstruction” of realism. Using conventions


that would have been familiar to late nineteenth-century audiences, Ibsen first creates apparently realistic characters in a realistic situation. Gradually, however, he moves into his hero’s mind, to an inner world of unconscious desires and exotic symbolism. Written at the time of Freud’s early work, the play anticipates much of Freud’s theory, exposing the existence of the unconscious mind, the significance of dreams and mistakes, the ambivalence of emotion, and the unconscious belief in the omnipotence of thought. Nineteenth and twentieth-century techniques are thus combined in the play, which represents a major turning point in the history of dramatic literature.

The play opens in Solness’s “plainly furnished workroom,” immediately establishing a realistic, mundane atmosphere for the audience. Solness’s two assistants, Knut Brovik and his son Ragnar, are seated, busy with blueprints and calculations, while a young bookkeeper, Kaja Fosli, stands at her ledger. We are in the everyday world of work. Solness enters, and in a brief aside with the girl, Kaja, reveals that they are intimate. There follows a scene between Solness and Knut Brovik. Brovik is ill, and probably dying; he is concerned that his son be given a commission, to establish his career as an independent architect. Unaware of Solness’s relationship with Kaja, Brovik speaks of his son wanting to marry her. Solness is callous toward Brovik, and frightened of giving up a commission to a younger man.

Thus, all the materials for a realistic problem play are here: the realistic setting with a workaday atmosphere, the sexual hypocrisy, the problems of aging and loss of power. The audience would expect that young Ragnar would ultimately triumph, winning a commission and the girl, while, Solness would either die or somehow become reconciled to his loss. The audience would also expect to draw moral conclusions about the nature and abuses of power, the importance of kindness and fidelity, the limits of individualism. Instead, the trio of Brovik, Ragnar, and Kaja turn out to be relatively unimportant in the play. After a few brief scenes, Ibsen introduces a raisoneur, in the character of Dr. Herdal; in his scene with Solness, a major incident warns us that we are in for a very different experience from the realistic power struggle that we expected.

Dr. Herdal tries to get Solness to see that he really is very well established, with nothing to fear from young Ragnar, but Solness is vehement. “The change is coming,” he insists. “Someday youth will come here, knocking at the door—”, when lo and behold, there actually is a knock at the door, and youth does enter, in the person of Hilda Wangel, a girl whom Solness had met ten years earlier. The moment is one of the great coups de théâtre in the history of drama, grotesque, funny, shocking—and awkward. (It has often been ridiculed.) What critics have not recognized is that the literal representation of a metaphor, such as this one, is something that Freud was noticing, around the time the play was written, as a common element in dreams. In The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, Freud was to give many examples, such as the dream of a horse frolicking in a field of the finest oats being an obvious manifestation of the expression, “feeling one’s oats.” Expressionist playwrights, in the early decades of twentieth century, were often to use the concrete manifestation of aphorisms as a device for inducing shock and laughter; Ibsen uses it for the same purpose here, starting his deconstruction of the realistic atmosphere and action that he had so carefully established.

The scene with Hilda at first seems realistic, however. She is no imaginary construct of Solness’s, but a real flesh-and-blood girl, the daughter of a public health officer (a position of social responsibility, perhaps echoing Ibsen’s own An Enemy of the People). Even Dr. Herdal has met her before, and recognizes her now. She has real bodily needs, too: she mentions that her underwear needs to be washed, that “they’re real grimy.” The grimy underwear represents Ibsen’s sly evocation of naturalism, the extreme form of realism that depicted man in purely physical, animal terms. The audience seems to find itself on familiar ground once again.

The familiarity is an illusion, however, Dr. Herdal soon exits, leaving Solness and Hilda alone. Gradually, without a seam showing, the tenor of the scene changes. Grimy reality melts away, to be replaced by something like a dream. Hilda describes the occasion of their first meeting, when she was a girl of twelve or thirteen. Solness had built a church tower in her town, and dedicated it by climbing to the top and hanging a wreath on the weather vane. In the late twentieth century, we hardly need to be told the sexual symbolism of climbing a tower, but to the audience of the time it would have seemed evocative and disturbing. More important, however, is what follows: Hilda says that she and Solness met afterwards, alone, and that he first promised that he would come back in ten years, carry her off “like a troll,” and buy her a kingdom. Then, she says, he held her in his arms, bent her back, and kissed her—“many times.” Solness is shocked and dazed, first denying the incident, then saying, “I must have willed it. Wished it. Desired it. And so—Doesn’t that make sense? Oh all right, for God’s sake—so I did the thing too!” We have again left the external world of realism for the inner, dream world of Expressionism.

This passage is extraordinary in its anticipation of Freud’s theory of “the omnipotence of thought.” The infant cannot distinguish between dreams and reality, between wishing a thing and doing it. As adults, we continue to equate thought and reality in our unconscious minds, which is why we can feel guilty for something that we never did, but only wished. Here Solness cannot remember whether he actually kissed Hilda or not, but he realizes that he wanted to, which in his unconscious mind is equivalent to having done it. As for Hilda, she no longer seems the real live girl with the dirty underwear she was earlier. She has shifted to a mythic plane, describing herself as a princess and Solness as a troll, and demanding that he come up with the promised kingdom. Troll, princess, and enchanted kingdom show an obvious connection with the Symbolist movement, but we never leave the real world entirely. Ibsen’s purpose is not so much to evoke a magical, poetic vision as it is to explore, very precisely, his hero’s unconscious mind. Hilda now appears to be a fantasy, a projection of Solness’s desires and fears.

The second act begins the following morning; Hilda has spent the night at Solness’s house. She says that she dreamed the night before of falling over “a terribly high, steep cliff.” As in Freud, her dream seems charged with significance; it also foreshadows Solness’s own fall at the end of the play. In addition, however, it signals another deconstruction of realism to Expressionism. As in the first act, there is another long scene between her and Solness. He tells of a disastrous fire that consumed the house in which he and his wife lived early in their marriage. The fire helped make Solness’s reputation; he was then able to subdivide the land and build houses on it, which established him as an architect. As a result of the fire, however, Solness’s two children died. Here again we have the basis for a realistic struggle of career versus family (a distinct echo of the great neoclassical theme of honor versus love), but the details are odd: the children did not die in the fire itself, but rather because of Mrs. Solness having taken sick from the strain, which affected her milk. Instead of the kind of simple, surface causality that we would expect in a realistic play, the causality here is strangely oblique, as if some inner, unseen mechanism were operating. The information that follows is even stranger: it turns out that Solness had noticed a crack in the chimney of the house, long before the fire, and neglected to fix it. He sensed, even then, that if the house were to burn down, he would be given a wonderful opportunity to advance his career. Here, we might think, is the kernel of the play, the original sin. Solness’s neglect—a “Freudian slip,” fulfilling his wish to get rid of the house—brought him fame and fortune, but cost him his children. “What price glory?” But then, in another bizarre and cunning stroke, Ibsen destroys our standard reaction. Solness says that “It’s been proved without a shadow of a doubt that the fire broke out in a clothes closet, in quite another part of the house.” It seems that Solness had nothing to do with starting the fire at all!

Yet once again, Solness believes that his inner state at the time represented true reality. In a key speech, he reflects on the power of wishes:

Don’t you believe with me, Hilda, that there are certain special, chosen people who have a gift and power and capacity to wish something, desire something, will something—so insistently and so—so inevitably—that at last it has to be theirs? Don’t you believe that?

This is omnipotence of thought once again, which Solness is coming to think of as an actual reality. Such omnipotence is found elsewhere in the play. For example, Solness says that he has got Kaja to come to work in his office simply by wishing it one day; then, “in the late evening,... she came by to see me again, acting as if we’d already struck a bargain.” But Ibsen in the long run is not so crude as to suggest that thought is literally omnipotent; all the things wished for could have occurred by accident, or in this case, by Kaja’s sensitivity to nuances of expression and attitude in Solness. Ibsen’s focus is instead on Solness’s confusion and fear with regard to his inner life, on his awareness that it might have powers far beyond his conscious understanding, and on his guilt for the immoral desires that seem to come true. Freud maintained that unfulfilled desires actually make us feel more guilty than fulfilled ones; the undischarged psychic energy of the desire turns inward, against the self. This is the case with Solness. He is not at all guilt-ridden about his sexual affair with Kaja, but feels extremely guilty about his desires for Hilda, even though they were never actually consummated. In the same vein, Solness’s wife, Aline, feels more upset about the loss of her collection of dolls in the fire than about the loss of her two sons; her imaginary love for the dolls is more real to her than her ostensibly real love for her flesh-and-blood children. The pattern in the play is always that a character’s inner life is paramount; the outer, realistic world, while genuine enough (Ibsen is no solipsist), is not the world in which one actually lives.

Ibsen continues his exploration of the inner life in his depiction of Solness’s death. Solness, afraid of heights, no longer climbs towers to plant celebratory wreaths on them. Nonetheless, Hilda demands that he climb the tower on his latest building. Solness’s acrophobia is distinctly ambivalent, in keeping with Freud’s theory that strong conscious feelings of revulsion against something are always accompanied by equally strong unconscious feelings of desire for it. Solness unconsciously seems to yearn to climb and fall, just as he unconsciously wanted sex with the forbidden Hilda. In the end, it is the power of thought that again seems the catalyst: Hilda wishes his climb, twice saying, “I will see it!” At the ultimate moment, she excitedly snatches a white shawl and waves it at Solness, shouting from below to him high on the tower, “Hurray for master builder Solness!,” causing Solness to plunge to his death. Again, the exact nature of causality is ambiguous: did Solness fall because Hilda distracted him by shouting and waving, or because she willed him to fall? Is Hilda a real girl with an obsessive neurosis, who destroys Solness by palpable methods, or a witch, troll, a projection of Solness’s own fantasies, who destroys him by the power of the unconscious mind? The greatness of the play is that it explores the boundary between outer and an inner reality, deconstructing the former to bring us to the latter. At the final curtain, the audience is as confused and frightened as Solness, confronted with the power of the unconscious mind, and unable to determine its extent or its meaning. They have entered the twentieth century.

Source: Richard Hornby, “Deconstructing Realism in Ibsen’s The Master Builder,” in Essays in Theatre, Vol. 21, No. 1, November 1983, pp. 34–40.


Barnet, Sylvan, “Introduction,” in Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, Signet, 1969, pp. vii-xix.

Brandes, Edvard, Review of The Master Builder, in Politiken, December 22, 1892.

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Göthe, George, Review of The Master Builder, in Nordisk Tidskrift,1893, pp. 153–57.

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Taylor, Anna-Marie, “The Master Builder: Overview,” in Reference Guide to World Literature,2d ed., St. James Press, 1995.


Bentley, Eric, The Playwright As Thinker, Harcourt Brace, 1987.

This study examines the philosophical point of view in Ibsen’s works.

Egan, Michael, Ibsen: The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1972.

Egan traces the history of the critical response to Ibsen’s plays.

Haugen, Einar, Ibsen’s Drama, University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Haugen engages in a comprehensive examination of the themes and structure of Ibsen’s plays, including The Master Builder.

Meyer, Michael, Ibsen: A Biography, Doubleday, 1971.

Meyer presents a thoughtful analysis of Ibsen’s life, tracing “his development as a man and as a writer” and offering an assessment of his work, “both intrinsically and historically.” He also discusses Ibsen’s impact on the theatre.

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