If Ibsen’s Wild Duck set my mind puzzling over nuanced dilemmas of truth and dreams, it didn’t prepare me for the greater enigmas of Peer Gynt, for which Ibsen leaves the realistic renditions of middle-class drawing rooms and enters a world of legend and fantasy. This lengthy play has the boyhood pranks of Huck Finn, the trolls of Tolkien, the mystical encounters of Faust, and the spiritual journey of Pilgrim’s Progress. It all seems like a crazy quilt of haphazard episodes for 95% of the way. But then Ibsen surprises the reader with a theme. And, as Peer himself says in the play, “It’s the end of the ditty that all depends on.”
Peer says consistently that he always and only wants to be himself. But then he lies about his adventures (riding a stag over a cliff, for instance) and takes on the roles, at various times, of sultan and prophet. Like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Peer tries comfort, power, sex, and wealth, but he doesn’t see until the end of his life that this search for a self has precluded actually being himself.
As his life draws to a close, Peer meets a button-molder, who is something like an angel of death with a giant spiritual ladle. The button-molder says that Peer, far from distinguishing himself over the course of his life, has been just like every other average person, and decrees that when when Peer dies, he will melt him down and blend him with all the other ciphers. Terrified by this doom, Peer asks what he could have done differently. The button-molder responds by saying that being oneself means “to slay oneself” and “to stand forth everywhere with Master's intention displayed like a signboard." And with that, suddenly the play takes on a specifically Christian character. Of course this solution to one of the puzzles of the play only defers the enigma to Jesus’ teaching that one must die in order to live and lose one’s soul in order to gain it.
Not wanting to lose his identity in the ladle, Peer begs for the chance to prove that he has been himself, but comes up short three times. Then he meets a parson who may or may not be Satan. Evidence for: the parson has a horse hoof in the place of one foot. Evidence against: he gives Peer some helpful advice. The weird parson tells Peer that a person can be himself in a negative way and can be recovered, just as a photographer can recover an image from negative film. (The idea that one might fulfill his special design in a negative way by sinning in a way special to himself reminded me of a passage in Kierkegaard, who influenced Ibsen, where he says that choosing evil at least represents the choice to leave the aesthetic world and rise to the ethical world, where God can convict with the heart.) Perhaps the parson is indeed Satan, tempting Peer into a life of unremitting sin through the offer of his life’s goal of being himself. But from the exchange, Peer decides that he wants to recover his positive image and discovers that in order to do so, he must admit that he is utterly sinful instead of confessing to half sins.
After Peer’s confession, a more simplistic author might have had Peer go to Heaven (or at least to church). But Ibsen lays on more riddles in the person of Solveig. Peer first meets Solveig when, as teenagers, he sees her walking in the village, carrying a psalm book wrapped in a handkerchief. Solveig disappoints Peer by not dancing with him that day, but at the end of the play we find that she has waited for him all of their lives. Peer leaves his confession to find Solveig, singing from her psalm book in a cabin she has kept prepared for him for decades. She tells Peer that the Self he so highly treasured has remained safely in her heart since the day they met. He calls her wife and mother (Solveig is clearly not Peer’s biological mother), and the play ends with Solveig comforting Peer. What is the handkerchief? Is Solveig the Church? How did she know to wait for him? This ending offers the reader many facets, but viewed from any angle it seems that the mysterious scene refracts the light of a saving Mystery.