Peer Gynt Literary Analysis
Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867, he never intended that it should be performed as a play, but rather as a work of poetic fantasy that should be read. However, the book became increasingly popular and in 1876 it was adapted to be performed on stage. Ibsen wrote the poem without any concern for its length as when he wrote it he had no desire to turn it into a play. When he adapted it for performance he cut lines from every section rather than cut out entire scenes. One of the reasons for its great popularity was that it made use of a number of Norwegian fairy tales. However, Ibsen also used the text to satirise the recent trends of getting back to nature and simplicity.
Peer Gynt is a character who runs away from commitment, he is also someone who is selfish and has little concerns for the sacrifices that others have to make in order for him to continue on his adventures from the Norwegian mountains to the North African Desert. Ibsen’s choice to write a satire revolving around a self-centered protagonist implies that he is writing with social implications for nineteenth century society, in mind.
The origins of the style that the story is written in are Romantic, but the play also includes early Modernism’s fragmentation. There are a number of metaphors of isolated individuals within society. The play’s two protagonists and lovers, are incompatible. Solveig is very committed, while Peer is a superficial person, but a character that allows for others’ projections on him, rather than a coherent character.
He is also a very vital character, and has been written about as one of the grandest characters of the nineteenth century, yet it is understood that Peer’s life is one of procrastination and avoidance. He is a character who suffers from arrested personality development, or even from a Peter Pan complex in that all he desires to do is seek adventure rather than work or commit to Solveig.
At the time, while some critics described the play as being brilliant, and as a satire to Norway’s egotism, self-sufficiency and narrowness, other notable figures of the time, including Hans Christian Andersen (who also wrote about fairy tales), Clemens Petersen and Georg Brandes, joined together in a hostile manner against the play. Ibsen defended the play greatly, stating that it was a book or play of poetry and that Norwegian poetry will shape itself after Peer Gynt. However, the play was the last of Ibsen’s to use poetry or verse and from then on, the author only wrote in prose.
Peer Gynt was an act of rebellion in some ways as Ibsen wrote it without regard to the limitations of stagecraft of the nineteenth century and he didn’t adapt it to consider stagecraft. All 40 of the scenes of Peer Gynt move between time and space and between the conscious and the unconscious, between folkloric fantasy and realism. It is a very difficult play to produce and yet in the 20th and 21st century it was performed again and again and was one of the most popular plays to be performed in Norway.
Raymond William has compared Peer Gynt with August Strindberg’s drama ‘Lucky Peter’s Journey’, which was written in 1882. He writes that both of these plays search for a new kind of play where the dramatic action required was beyond the capacity of the nineteenth century theatre. Williams writes that both plays proposed a sequence of scenes that were only possible with the advent of film later.
So, in conclusion to this literary analysis, Peer Gynt is first and foremost a satire of the Norwegian character of the time, and Ibsen sought to bring to the fore what he felt was a lack of personality and half-heartedness. Which is why he positioned Peer as a misguided soul and that individuals living in every country can identify with him. Peer has been spoiled by his mother and leads a wild, irresponsible life because of it. This irresponsibility and self-satisfaction dominate the plot. Even when he goes off to live with the mountain trolls he still cannot commit to living with them forever.
He tries to return to his people, but they ultimately exile him. He returns later in the story to witness his mother’s death. He wanders the world and returns later to Norway as a rich merchant prince, but he is still unsatisfied and seeks the love of his youth. Finally, at this point near the end of the play Peer finally realises that he has misspent his life. He is redeemed at the end by the love of a good woman.