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  • Migration and Henrik Ibsen's Fruen fra havet
  • Magdalen Ki

Fruen fra Havet (1888; The Lady from the Sea [1890]) has been read in many ways.1 My aim is to analyze Henrik Ibsen's 1888 play through the lens of migration studies, arguing that the text can be read as a sociopolitical allegory that foregrounds Ibsen's concern with internal, international, and return migration in the late nineteenth-century context of Norwegianization. [End Page 411]

The period 1850–1913 marked the age of mass migration. Ibsen left his home country in the 1860s and was known thereafter for his skepticism regarding Romantic nationalism. However, he had good reasons to engage with the question of migration and Norwegianization in the 1880s. In "Becoming Norwegian," Terje Leiren points out that when Sigurd Ibsen, Henrik's cosmopolitan son, wanted to join the Italian Foreign Service in 1883, Ibsen actively intervened to make sure that Sigurd could be given a government position and retain his Norwegian citizenship.2 Sigurd began his diplomatic career in the Swedish Foreign Service, and dutifully wrote home several times a month after he was sent to America (1886–1888). The young man famously contested the inequality embedded in the Swedish-Norwegian Union; he used only Norwegian at work, even though the Union's official language was Swedish. In 1886, he reported to his father that one of his tasks was to write "reports on the American laws with regard to immigration as compared with the European, while examining, specifically, the impact of immigration on the United States" (Leiren 1996, 196).

The Lady from the Sea is a story about Ellida's "America fever" as well as Bolette's migration decisions, highlighting the connection between macroeconomic factors such as economic cycles, employability, and micropolitical reasons such as class, age, ethnicity, gender, and personal networks. In 1885, Ernest G. Ravenstein published "The Laws of Migration." In the same year, Henrik Ibsen was in Norway for the second time in over 20 years, and spent the summer in Molde, a small town widely thought to be the setting for The Lady from the Sea (Meyer 1971, 581). Dwelling as it does on the mermaid mythology, this play reflects the pros and cons of different forms of migration. The ending celebrates the necessity of migratory freedom in tandem with stable alliances. Without the illusion of romantic love, the play's emphasis on self-determination also hints at a new chapter in Norwegianization. [End Page 412]

Norway is known for its mountain landscapes, fjords, and midnight sun. However, local people have different reasons for yearning to emigrate. In Brand, Ibsen discusses the issue of working-class poverty: Brand's hometown is suffering from famine, and a father kills one of his children to avoid starvation. The Pillars of Society highlights middle-class corruption and the flight from vulture capitalism. Ellen Rees (2014) notes that Peer Gynt explores structural problems such as inheritance, herding, farming, and emigration. In The Lady from the Sea, Arnholm praises the town in this way: "Her er jo nu om dagene netop ligesom et slags mødested for verdenslivet. Næsten et knudepunkt—sådan i forbigående" (Ibsen 1888, 99) ["Nowadays it seems like this place is a rendezvous for the whole live world, almost the social capital for tourists" (Ibsen 1978, 635)]. However, Bolette disagrees:

Hvad nytter det os, at den store fremmede verden kommer her forbi for at rejse op og se på midnatssolen? Vi selv får jo ikke være med på det. Vi får såmæn ikke se nogen midnatssol. Å nej, vi får nok pent leve livet her i vor karudsdam.

(Ibsen 1888, 100)

What good is it to us if the great, strange world goes by on its way up to see the midnight sun? We never go along. We never see the midnight sun. Oh, no, we live our snug little lives out here, in our fish pond.

(Ibsen 1978, 635)

Tourist attractions are good for holiday-makers, but many locals fault the fjord town's parochialism. The only exception is Dr. Wangel, a physician who is so established in the parish that he embodies the "here born...


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