Ibsen’s Master Builder

By Susan J. Fleck.  November, 2001.

Never mind your happiness; do your duty. --Will Durant


There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. --Robert Louis Stevenson


Man is born to seek power, yet his actual condition makes him a slave to the power of others. --Hans J. Morgenthau



Power does not corrupt man; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power. --George Bernard Shaw



There is nothing enduring in life for a woman except what she builds in a man's heart. --Judith Anderson


Alienation and the Self

The overriding theme in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “The Master Builder,” is alienation and the self.  Although this play was written in Ibsen’s last phase of his career, it carried on themes portrayed in his first drama, “Catiline,” which exhibited Ibsen’s concern with the conflict between guilt and desire.  Another similarity with “Catiline” is the portrayal of “two female prototypes—one conservative and domestic, the other adventurous and dangerous.”  During the second phase of his career, Ibsen shifted “from an emphasis on grandiose plot structures to characterization and interpersonal relationships [. . .] [with] emphasis on psychological tension rather than external action” (Gale “Henrik”).  This shift is clearly demonstrated in “The Master Builder.”  Ibsen uses his characters, their dialogue, and subtle symbolism to explore the intricacies of human psychology and social mores.  This sometimes comic play is overall a tragedy: a tragedy of unfulfilled, self-absorbed lives.   This paper will explain how Ibsen weaves social and religious commentary throughout this play while his characters’ self-identities unfold and evolve, leading to the inevitable, but tragic, conclusion.  

Ibsen's Life

In what way might this play be about Ibsen’s own life?  Some critics suggest that the three phases of the Master Builder’s building-art represents Ibsen’s three phases of play-art.  The churches built in the early stage of Solness’ career correspond to Ibsen’s early romantic plays.  Solness’ “homes for human beings” signify the author’s middle period social plays.  The “Castles in the air,” that Solness intended to build are comparable to Ibsen’s later period of symbolic, spiritual dramas (Monarch).  Critics have also considered that additional autobiographical themes in this work are about an aging artist who is both self-doubting the worth of his art and fearful about being displaced by the new generation (Feldberg).  Some think that The Master Builder is Ibsen’s response to Knut Hamson, a Norwegian writer, who asserted that Ibsen should give up his influence in Norwegian theater to the younger generation (Gale Group “Henrik”).

Protagonist Halvard Solness

It appears that all of the main characters in this drama are cut off from humanity: they are isolated within their own self-delusions.  None is more paranoid than the protagonist Master Builder, Halvard Solness.  He is paranoid in both senses of the word: he shows unreasonable suspicion of those around him—particularly of the younger generation, and he has an exaggerated sense of his own importance.  Afraid that “some day the luck must turn,” Solness is sure that “the younger generation will come knocking on my door” demanding of him to “Make room!” (Ibsen 140-1).[1]  He accuses his employees, Knut and Ragnar Brovik of conspiring against him: “[. . .] they’re really a clever pair of fellows [. . .].  But then the son chose to go and get engaged.  And then, of course, he wanted to get married—and to begin to build on his own” (136).  Defiantly, and from his position of self-importance, Solness declares:  “I’ll never retire!  Never give way for anyone!  Never of my own accord” (128)!  But he is concerned that he may be forced to step down: Doubting his sanity, he is sure that Dr. Herdal is “keeping an eye” on him because Aline, Solness’ wife, must have confided in the doctor that Solness is mad (138-9).

Solness: Ruthless

Solness is an archetypical ruthless person who tramples on, or otherwise uses, people along the way of climbing to the top of one’s career.  This theme is underscored throughout the play with dialogue about building high towers and climbing those heights.  The setting for Act Three contrasts the height and grandeur of Solness’ home compared to the “low, dilapidated little houses” surrounding his home: he is set apart and above his neighbors.  However, Solness is hampered by vertigo: he gets dizzy and disoriented while climbing.  This disorientation symbolizes all of the self-doubt, the guilty conscience, and paranoia prevalent in his thinking.  He was able to conquer this fear once, in the early, idealist phase of his career when he built churches. 

Solness: God's Plan

Solness held the common religious belief that God has a plan for individuals’ lives.  He concluded that God allowed his house to burn and his children to die so that Solness would not be attached to any earthly thing; so that he would then focus solely upon being a master builder of churches for the greater glory of God (204).  In anger and defiance, he rejected God’s plan and was determined to be his own “free” master builder—to build “[o]nly homes for human beings.”  It was Solness’ words of anger to God that Hilde mistook for a song that she heard when the master builder climbed to the top of the tower that first time (205).  When Solness was talking angrily to God, Hilde, in her own delusional world, had a different religious experience when she saw her master builder high in the sky: it was one of ecstasy.  The song she thought that she heard “sounded like harps in the air” (147).

Solness blamed God for his controlling and manipulative personality:  “He, who gave the troll in me leave to domineer, just as it liked.  He who told them to be on hand night and day to serve me [. . .]” (Ibsen 204). Continued use of the metaphoric “troll” in the play underscores Solness’ sense of self-importance:  a troll, used in this context, is both a giant and supernatural (American Heritage).  He exclaimed to Brovik while rejecting Brovik’s dying plea for compassion and validation of his son’s worth:  “Don’t you understand, I  can’t do anything else?  I’m what I am.  And I can’t make myself anything else” (129).  Solness uses this “devil made me do it” rationalization to justify most of his despicable behavior toward others—others he claims are there merely to serve him.  When Hilde declares that she will leave and that he should devote his life to his duties toward his wife,  Solness proclaims that it is “[t]oo late. These powers—these [. . .] Yes, devils! And the troll in me too.  They’ve sucked all the life-blood out of her. [. . .] And now she’s dead—for my sake.  And I’m living, chained to the dead. [. . .] I—I who can’t live without joy” (194).  He fails to convince us that he is truly sorry for Aline’s plight in life; rather, we are supposed to feel sorry for him because his conscience robs him of joy.

Destiny, or fate, Solness thinks, is the cause of his success and, subsequently, the cause of his loneliness and unhappiness, along with the unhappiness of others around him.  Because of the fire, when his home burnt down, he was able to subdivide the land and was given the chance to build homes.  But the price an artist like him must pay for shaping things “into beauty and security, into cheerful comfort—into splendour, too” is too much for him to bear.  For one thing, he bears the guilt of causing Aline to sacrifice her own ambitions and life so that his career “could break its way through to—to something like a great victory.”  He blames himself for the tragic fire that took everything dear away from Aline; the fire that gave him the opportunity he needed to get started with his career  (171-2).  This theme is similar to one in “Love’s Comedy,” a drama written in Ibsen’s first, romantic historical phase, in which he exposed the conflict between an artist’s calling and his obligations to others (Gale “Henrik”).

Solness: Delusions of Grandeur

When Hilde presses Solness for an explanation about how he could be responsible for the fire, he exposes his delusions of grandeur.  He explains to her how he must be one of those “few, special, chosen people who’ve been graced with the power and ability to want something, desire something, will something—so insistently and so—so inexorably—that they must get it in the end” (176-7).  So, even though the house fire did not come about as Solness had wanted it to, nevertheless, his very desire must have caused it—just as his desire to have Kaja work in his office must have brought about the same idea of this arrangement within Kaja’s own thinking (137).  The artist in Solness must strive for and desire excellence, regardless of his own happiness or that of others around him.  This theme was portrayed earlier, during Ibsen’s second phase of dramas concerned with social realism, in “The Pillars of Society,” a drama that depicted what Ibsen called a “contrast between ability and desire, between will and possibility” (qtd. in Gale “Henrik”).

In the beginning of this drama, Solness’ character was stuck in a role of building homes that he felt were “not worth talking of [. . .].  Nothing really built” (205).  Then, Hilde came along and she caused him to reevaluate his life: he gained hope for his future.  However, his introspection is not aimed for true personal insight and subsequent positive change.  Rather, he reinforces his glorified view of himself, one that pushes him to climb to the top again in order to grasp at the chance for happiness with Hilde, and to grasp for grand art with his “castles in the air.”  Because he learned nothing about being human, i.e. being a mere mortal, and loving among humans, and because he remained alienated from humanity, it was inevitable that this petty, selfish, womanizing, small-time, small-town, big shot would fall down and perish.  Solness does not realize that castles in the air are impossible to build, since they could have no foundation.  He fails to base his life on solid foundations, so he is bound to fail and fall from his last climb. 


We will move on now to discuss the women in this play and their roles as co-dependents in relationship to Solness.  “Dear little Kaja,” as Solness calls her in Act I, is a “little” figure in this drama, but one that demonstrates the Master Builder’s fickle temperament.  Kaja is young, “a little over twenty,” and very naïve.  Solness has led her to believe that he reciprocates her deep emotional love for him, but she is full of self-doubt.  Even after Solness expresses “I can’t do without you, you see.  I must have you with me here every single day (131),”  she is terrified when she suspects that Solness only wants her to stay so he can keep her fiancée, Ragnar, within his control.  Although Solness is clearly the controlling member of this duo, Kaja is a willing partner in his scheme to keep Ragnar in his employ:  “Oh yes, how lovely that would be, if it could be managed” (131).  However, near the end of Act II, Solness dismisses Kaja from his life, as like a piece of discarded furniture.  Wrapped up in his new dreams of joy and grandeur with Hilde, the Master Builder tells Kaja coldly, addressing her by her last name:  “And tell him [Ragnar] at the same time that I don’t need him in future.  Nor you either. . . . Well, go along home with the drawings, Miss Fosli.  At once!  Do you hear” (184)!

Aline Solness

Aline, Solness’ wife, certainly suspected that there was something going on between her husband and Kaja.  However, her whole identity is wrapped up in the words: “duty” and “sacrifice.”  Being the ever-dutiful wife and housekeeper, for example, she apologizes for barging in on Solness and Kaja “at an inconvenient moment” (131), and she tells Hilde, a guest, that she will dutifully “do the best” she can to help her put her clothes in order and to “getting a room made comfortable” for her (143).  Although she is bound by duty, she is a martyr in the sense that she intends for others to be reminded how much she has suffered and sacrificed.  For example, she still wears black clothes of mourning, even though her children died about twelve years ago.  They died because of her sense of duty: duty to feed them after the fire in spite of the fact that she had a fever and could not produce adequate milk for them.  Instead of taking action to keep them alive, she adhered to the strict law of duty. 

She keeps nurseries in her home as monuments to the children she lost and to future children that she will never have.  The empty nurseries signify the emptiness that both he and Aline feel.  Solness, burdened by guilty feelings toward Aline for many years, finally expresses to her that he is “[b]oundlessly in debt” to her.  But he does not know exactly why since he has never “knowingly and intentionally” caused her any harm.  Nevertheless, “it feels as if a crushing debt” lay on him (162).  Rather than supporting her husband’s career and success, Aline can not bear the thought of Solness rising to the top.  She even denies that he was ever on top before: “Yes, I hear people talk about that.  But it’s utterly impossible [. . .].”  When Halvard Solness indicates that she may see such a thing soon, Aline replies, in dread:  “No, no, no!  Please God I shan’t ever see that” (185-6)!  Near the end of the drama, when Solness tells Aline that he is going down below to be with his people, she responds:  “Yes, down below.  Only down below” (Ibsen 207).  She tries to use Hilde to have her “keep hold of him,” thinking that Hilde can do this better than she can, to keep him from climbing up (202).

Ibsen demonstrates Aline’s conservative nature in her grief that her home, which had been her Mother’s and Father’s home, had burnt down—had been destroyed.  She hates the fact that the land was carved into lots and that strangers now live there; strangers that “can sit and look in at [her] from their windows” (189).  Although she gives the appearance of a noble and stoic woman, Aline is quite shallow on the inside.  She is not only jealous of Kaja and Hilde, she places herself far above them on the social scale.  She tells Hilde that “people would look at you a little” if she were to go out into the streets dressed as she was (163).  Aline was shattered when the fire took all of her possessions, especially because she lost her precious dolls: she never got over that.  However, when Hilde assumed that the loss of Aline’s children was much worse for her, Aline could not figure out what Hilde meant when Hilde referred to something worse than the loss of her possessions (190).  The dolls symbolize Aline’s two main traits: emotional immaturity and conservatism:  She is controlled by dead ideas and beliefs and cannot experience any of the “joy of life” that Solness and Hilde desire (Monarch “Works”). 

Cold and detached are other adjectives to describe Aline.  Hilde picks up on this right away when Aline uses duty for the reason to do things instead of having genuine warm feelings toward others (Ibsen 164).  Solness, trying to atone for his guilt and trying to make up for Aline’s sacrifices for his career, wants to cheer her up by looking forward to the future in their new home.  But Aline reproves his offer and declares “Halvard—you’ll never manage to build a real home again for me” (159)!  Aline continues to reinforce her identity by keeping Solness “down,” where she thinks he belongs.


In so many ways, Hilde is the opposite of Aline.  Hilde enters the play, knocking on Solness’ door, just when the Master Builder lamented to the doctor that “[s]ome day the younger generation will come knocking on my door” (141).  These are some of Hilde’s qualities we find during Act I and in the beginning of Act II: cheerful (“laughing,” “delighted” (141)); flirtatious, as Dr. Herdal indicated (141); adventuresome—she comes to Solness, broke, for him to make good on a promise to her when she was but a young girl; a dreamer—“It’s simply lovely to lie and dream” (144); enthusiastic—“full of life” (147), “full of joy and wonder” (156); idealistic—“It sounded like harps in the air” (147); innocent—“You said I was lovely in my white dress” (148); romantic—“you said that you would come again in ten years’ time—like a troll—and carry me away” (148); a thrill seeker—“I dreamt I was falling [. . .] It’s very exciting—when one falls and falls” (163);  affectionate—she hugs Aline for buying things for her (163), and she can not “bear that horrid, ugly word [duty])” (164); and, finally, unpretentious—she does not care what others think about the way she dresses (163).  

In many ways Hilde seems to be a Pollyanna.  But we have already noted some traits that present a more complex personality.  To choose one concept to describe Hilde’s persona and identity, that would be man-worship.  She needs a hero, a man to look up to, to fulfill her life.  She worships Halvard Solness, as the Master Builder: “If you could build the highest church tower in the world, I thought you must surely be able to produce a kingdom too” (151).  Old enough to know what she was doing, naively, she just marches right into the Master Builder’s life, expecting him to carry her off, even though he is married. When Solness recalls stories of old where Vikings plundered and “carried off women,” Hilde professes: “that must have been exciting” (179).  The highlight of her life had been to see the Master Builder climb to the top of the church tower he built when she was a young girl.  As pathetic as that sounds, she is seeking a repeat of that very experience—to see Solness once again on high. 

Hilde Grows Up

Hilde begins to “grow up” during Act II, when she begins to see flaws in the man she worships.  She has enough integrity to push Solness for answers to unexplained things and events.  For example, what about those empty nurseries; why is he putting empty nurseries into their new home (167)?  She finds out that the Master Builder did not have proper training, and thus why Solness was not an architect “like the others” (169).  Assuming one as great as he should be happy, she finds out otherwise: Solness took no satisfaction even in providing homes for others to be happy in (171).  She sees for herself how mean he is when he would give no words of approval to Ragnar upon Ragnar’s report of his father’s impending death:  “you shouldn’t be like that,” she says to Solness (174).  With insight, she listens to his story about why he thinks he caused the fire.  She knows something is wrong with him; maybe he has a “sickly conscience” (177).  

Even though Solness is now less than perfect in her eyes, she nevertheless sticks with her romantic dream and declares that she could live with a scoundrel who may carry her off “[i]f the scoundrel was one [she’d] got really fond of” (179).  Solness likens Hilde to a wild bird, but she plays on the metaphor comparing her to a bird of prey (180).  She realizes that she must take an active role in her own seduction to be carried off by her Master Builder.  First, she must persuade Solness to give Ragnar the recognition and chance he deserves.  Only after that noble deed can the Master Builder realize that he can get along by himself. 

Hilde has the utmost confidence in Solness’ ability to climb back up to the top.  The Master Builder’s spirit is renewed after his encounter, or re-acquaintance, with Hilde.  He views her as a different kind of youth—one that he need not be afraid of; one that may help protect him from the “other” kind of youth that is out to replace him.  John Bemrose reflects about Hilde:  “When she batters down his defenses and enters his inchoate, infantile emotional life, he quickly becomes a prisoner of her fantasized vision of him.”  Bemrose offers a provocative idea that Solness himself is to blame for Hilde’s unbalanced state because of his treatment of her when she was only twelve: his playful courting and kissing of her was a form of “a spiritual rape for which she is now, unconsciously, demanding retribution” (“Master”).  Hilde persuades Solness to confront his fear of heights and to “climb as high as he builds” (186).  She becomes the impelling force that entices him into his fatal attempt to aspire again to heights.

Before that final scene, however, Hilde has second thoughts.  By the end of Act II and into Act III, Hilde matures considerably.  Realizing that these are real people and lives she has been toying with, and that she has been embracing a less-than-perfect hero, her mood is subdued—“with a shade of bitterness,” and whispering “terribly exciting” to Solness’ proclamation that they shall hang the wreath this evening (186-7).  She has a heart-to-heart talk with Aline and feels great compassion.  She determines that she must leave, because, she states: “I can’t do any harm to a person I know!  Not take away something that belongs to her” (194).  However, she quickly gets over these noble feelings when she is consoling the Master Builder.  He reminds Hilde of  his need for her and of the benefits of a “robust conscience.” 

Hilde: Unrealized Dream

Hilde springs to life again and proceeds to dream of the Master Builder making her castle.  After building that, he should then construct “the most beautiful thing in the world,”  “Castles in the air” (197).  In a symbolic way, Hilde is “the projection of Solness’ desire to prolong his youth and to continue in his work, building higher and higher monuments to his own glory” (Monarch “Works”).  She may also represent one of the bad devils Solness was worried that would get hold of him (178) and, in this case, compel him to defy God once again.  In any case, she persuades him to stand free and high one more time.  He climbs up to place the customary wreath upon the tower.  Hilde is “terribly” excited.  She grabs the white shawl, waves it and shouts upward.  Even upon learning of the Master Builder’s demise, she still triumphantly brandishes the shawl and cries:  “My – my master builder” (211).  Once again she has seen her hero on high and she heard music in the air.

“The Master Builder” is an excellent example of what Martin Esslin describes:

Ibsen can . . . [sic] be seen as one of the principal creators and well-springs of the whole modern movement in drama, having contributed to the development of all its diverse and often seemingly opposed and contradictory manifestations: the ideological and political theatre, as well as the introspective, introverted trends which tend towards the representation of inner realities and dreams.  (Qtd. in Gale “Henrik”)

Works Cited

Bemrose, John. “The Master Builder. (The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ontario) (theater reviews). Vol. 109, Maclean’s, 01-29-1996, 61.  Electronic Library database. <http://www.elibrary.com>

Feldberg, Robert. “An Architect’s Undoing.” The Record. Bergen County, NJ. 03-20-1992, 7.  The Electronic Library database. <http://www.elibrary.com>

The Gale Group Database. A Thomson Corporation Company. <http://www.galenet.com>

Ibsen, Henrik. The Master Builder and Other Plays. Trans. Una Ellis-Fermor. London: Penguin Books, 1958.

Monarch Notes. “Works of Henrik Ibsen: The Master Builder. 01-01-1963. The Electronic Library database. <http://www.elibrary.com>

“Henrik (Johan) Ibsen.”  Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2000. Gale Database. <http://www.sdcl.org>

“troll.” Def. Noun. The American Heritage Dictionary. Release 1.1 (software). Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992. Writing Tools Inc. 1992.

Opening quotes: “Correct Quotes 1.0” software. Copyright © 1990-92. WordStar International Inc.  Software published by: WordStar International Incorporated.

Home E-Mail Next

Copyright 2002 by Susan J. Fleck.
*** All rights reserved. ***