John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen.

It's been about a month since I last read any Ibsen as, after Little Eyolf and quite a few more before it, I felt I needed a little break from the bleak and (largely) tragic Henrik Ibsen. I decided however to return and finish one of the Ibsen I have: The Master Builder and Other Plays. I think I may have returned a little too early.

John Gabriel Borkman is Henrik Ibsen's second-last play and was written in 1896 (his final play was When We Dead Awaken, 1899). It's a fairly simple plot: Ibsen tells the story of John Gabriel Borkman, a former bank manager who used investors' money to speculate. He was imprisoned despite believing himself to be innocent, and the play begins some eight years after his release. The family's money and position is very low, but he and his wife Gunhild have hopes for their son Erhart Borkman, now a student living in the city.

As is typical of Ibsen's plays, however, things become more complicated when a face from the past returns and brings bitter old memories back to the surface. Gunhild's twin sister Ella appears: despite sharing the same property she and Gunhild have not spoken in years. We learn that Erhart lived with her during Borkman's imprisonment, and that Ella and Borkman were once sweethearts: it was Borkman's friend Hinkel who reported him because he too was in love with Ella.

Whilst Borkman leads a rather solitary life, encouraged by his friend Vilhelm Foldal (who lost his money because of Borkman's speculations) to believe that he may one return to his former life we also learn of how he came to have the job: by leaving Ella and marrying Gunhild. Ella however has become very close to Erhart since she raised him and wishes him to return and thus improve his prospects. Erhart, therefore, is caught up in his parents' drama and feels the pressure of fulfilling all of their expectations. 

It is quite a claustrophobic and suffocating play and this atmosphere shows Ibsen at his best. He portrays a family conflicted by ruin and ambition, but I think, however, I've just been reading too much Ibsen of late - I've noticed a few 'formulas' Ibsen uses for his plots, and once seen they cannot be unseen! I may need a longer gap before I read my final Ibsen collection - Ghosts and Other Plays (Ghosts, A Public Enemy, and When We Dead Wake). Perhaps it can be an autumn project...


  1. the inbreeding and contorted relations are a bit off-putting for me: as Edmund Gosse, in his long essay (in Northern Studies) about Ibsen said, "perhaps better critics than myself, if they read Danish, would say that they found Ibsen provincial, sometimes obscure, often fantastical and enigmatical"... this is from the last paragraph... i recommend the essay if you can find it: Edmund Gosse, i've thought, is a pretty good critic and raconteur...

    1. I'll look for it. I think I've read Father and Son by Gosse and liked it. I may be tempted to agree with Gosse's statement there... As I say there's a very definite formula to Ibsen's plays and it's slightly irritating once I've noticed it.


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