The Country of the Blind

A New Interpretation of the Plays of Henrik Ibsen

by Burton Blistein (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVIII, 148 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 33


The Country of the Blind challenges the reigning conception of Ibsen as social critic. It offers new and unique interpretations stressing his preoccupation with the limitations and failings of humankind that do not change, in particular one’s reluctance or inability to confront unpleasant truths about one’s self and the consequent attempts to conceal those truths from self and from others. The result, in the plays considered, is that his personae are not what they appear to be. We shall observe that Mrs. Alving is not an heroic figure who has sacrificed all for her beloved son; that the "virtuous" parson Manders may in fact be the father of Oswald; that neither Gregers Werle nor Dr. Thomas Stockmann are the idealists they profess to be; that Hedda Gabler and Halvard Solness are the very antitheses of the persons they imagine themselves. This gulf between illusion and actuality is evident even in the case of secondary agents, confirming the supposition that Ibsen believed self-deception inseparable from the human condition. The protagonists’ stratagems necessarily interact, forbidding each knowledge of each and all knowledge of the meaning of external circumstance. They are, and they remain, ignorant of their own nature, and of the character of their closest associates, imprisoned by the maze they have jointly fashioned. The book should be of interest to the general reader, to companies interested in performing the plays analyzed, to Ibsen scholars, and as a text for courses in Ibsen.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1: Alternative Realities in Ghosts
  • Prefatory
  • Act I
  • Act II
  • Act III
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2: Who Is Ibsen’s Enemy of the People?
  • Prefatory
  • Act I
  • Act II
  • Act III
  • Act IV
  • Act V
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: De Profundis
  • Prefatory
  • Act I
  • Act II
  • Act III
  • Act IV
  • Act V
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Hedda’s Revenge
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5: The Master Builder
  • Prefatory
  • Notes
  • References
  • Select Bibliography
  • Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Speeches and Letters
  • Biographies
  • General Studies

| xi →


The following essays deal with an aspect of Ibsen’s plays frequently noted but rarely given the sustained attention, in English, it deserves: the reluctance or inability of his protagonists to confront unpleasant truths about themselves and their consequent attempts to conceal those truths from themselves and from others. His characters grope for the ideal, for happiness, for truth, or for supremacy as the blind might for light, with as little chance of success; hence the title of my book. Ibsen is of course not the only dramatist about whom this might be said. But in the dramas we shall consider the interactions of the various conscious and unconscious avoidances and subterfuges evince a complexity that is unique.

Ibsen employs this ubiquitous human failing much as a great composer might the simple motif that forms the basis for increasingly intricate and innovative variations. The consequence, in the plays considered, is that his personae are not what they appear to be. We shall observe that Helen Alving is not an heroic figure who has sacrificed all for her beloved son; that the “virtuous” Parson Manders may in fact be the father of Oswald; that neither Gregers Werle nor Dr. Thomas Stockmann are the idealists they profess to be; that Halvard Solness and Hedda Gabler are the very antithesis of the persons they imagine themselves. This gulf between appearance and reality is evident even in the case of secondary agents, confirming the supposition that Ibsen believed self-deception inseparable from the human condition. ← xi | xii →

There are obvious implications for production. It will clearly make a difference if the director and/or actor regards Thomas Stockmann as an idealist committed to Truth at any cost, or as what he actually is—a consummate egotist engaged in a battle for supremacy with his equally egocentric brother. In this connection it is important to note that Ibsen’s settings and stage directions, which frequently have symbolic significance, are an integral part of the dramatic structure. They cannot be substantially altered without affecting the intended meaning.

There are implications for interpretation as well. Ibsen’s inferred and suppressed meanings constitute a complex web of relationships that can only be adequately revealed through close analysis of the words and actions of his characters, minor as well as major. To omit any component of this complex is to distort and misrepresent the whole.

We have been given several Ibsens over the years: “the realist, the iconoclast, the successful or failed idealist, the poet, the psychologist, the romantic, the antiromantic.”1 Those various reincarnations required different approaches to the interpretation of Ibsen’s works. For the most part, however, certain assumptions persisted throughout. These were: that we could rely upon the known facts of Ibsen’s life as aids in interpretation; Ibsen was then frequently identified with certain of his protagonists; that, as a rule we could accept his protagonists’ words, in particular their self-evaluations, as truthful; and that Ibsen meant by “realism” chiefly modifications or innovations in setting, stagecraft and language.

The controversies that still surround some of the works with which this book deals—Ghosts, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler, and The Master Builder—testify to the inadequacy of those assumptions. The remaining play, An Enemy of the People, is relatively straightforward. It has nonetheless often been misinterpreted because of the identification of Dr. Thomas Stockmann with Henrik Ibsen. That has frequently been the fate of other “problem” plays. An author concerned with issues of permanent interest was thereby transformed into one no longer entirely relevant with the amelioration or resolution of the “problems” which, it was assumed, preoccupied him. Some who admired Ibsen, such as the playwright Arthur Miller, felt obliged to bring him up to date by modifying the text, corrupting and vitiating the original.

Such difficulties can in part be traced to a misconception of what Ibsen meant by “realism,” and to a consequent failure to perceive apparent inconsistencies and ambiguities as evidence of unifying, intelligible dramatic schemas. ← xii | xiii →

It is clear that Ibsen strove for realism, as usually understood, in the later plays. “Do we not know that Ibsen repeatedly spoke of his main purpose in writing dramatic dialogue as being to make it ‘completely faithful and realistic?’ ‘The effect of the play,’ he writes to the first Swedish producer of Ghosts, apropos of the translation of the dialogue, ‘depends to a large extent on the audience imagining it is sitting and listening and watching something actually going on in real life.’”2 That illusion was essential if Ibsen was to depict characters that existed independently, apart from their creator and the audience, or, in John Northam’s words “to emphasize the real existence of creatures as real people.”3 Hence the care he took in providing his personae with a history:

So intimate had Ibsen become with Nora while at work on a A Doll’s House that when John Paulson asked him why she was called Nora, Ibsen replied in a matter-of-fact tone ‘She was really called Leonora, you know, but everyone called her Nora, since she was the spoilt child of the family.’ … Once he suddenly remarked to his wife: ‘Now I have seen Nora. She came right up to me and put her hand on my shoulder.’ ‘How was she dressed?’ asked his wife. ‘She had on a simple blue cotton dress,’ he replied without hesitation.4

When Ghosts first appeared Ibsen was charged with advocating incest and euthanasia of the unfit.5 He strenuously objected: “I write a play with five characters and they insist on putting in a sixth—namely Ibsen.”6 “They endeavor to make me responsible for the opinions which certain of the personages of my drama express. And yet there is not in the whole book a single opinion, a single utterance, which can be laid to the account of the author.”7

Ibsen naturally drew upon his own experience when he created his extraordinary personae. To that extent they resemble him. But they are not to be confused with the author, just as we are not to be confused with friends with whom we share certain confidences and opinions. And when he speaks of such resemblances he is careful to attribute them to beings that exist independently and are not mere “mouthpieces” of their creator. Of Dr. Stockmann, typically regarded as such a surrogate, Ibsen said:

“Dr. Stockmann and I get along so splendidly with one another; we are so much in agreement on many things; but the Doctor is more muddle-headed than I am, and he has besides several other peculiarities which have the effect that people will tolerate hearing from his mouth various things that they perhaps would not have accepted nearly as well if they had been said by me.” Years later “Ibsen is said to have told a German friend, after seeing a production of An Enemy of the People in Berlin, that Dr. Stockmann ‘ist zum Teil ein grotesker Bursche und ein Strudelkopf’ (‘is to some extent a grotesque kid and a hothead’).”8 ← xiii | xiv →

Such remarks are cited by some as evidence that certain characters are “Ibsen disguised.” In fact they reveal that Ibsen thought of his creations as separate beings with whom he agreed about some matters, disagreed about others, and criticized when appropriate. That independence was necessary to facilitate “realism” of a very different sort. Like their flesh and blood brethren his protagonists harbor undisclosed thoughts, agendas, desires, which are often the result of experiences predating their appearance on stage. As Daniel Haakonsen perceptively notes:

It is not unusual for authors to regard their creations as independent, living entities. However, in Ibsen’s dramas that independence is extreme. Many of his protagonists, unwilling to confront their shortcomings, deceive not only their associates but themselves. To their conscious or semi-conscious prejudices intentions and practices we must add their unconscious or suppressed impulses. The result is a dramatic structure of extraordinary complexity and depth.

In the plays we shall consider none of the participants can be relied upon for a truthful or accurate assessment. They prefer to think the truth what they would have it rather than what it is. They believe their actions justified and themselves honest even when this is demonstrably false. They are in effect descendants of Peer Gynt, “the embodiment of … compromise, hypocrisy, irresponsibility, and self-delusion.”10 The drama as a whole consists of a complex of stratagems devised by the participants to forestall self-knowledge and to conceal from others the truths they reject. The consequence is that there are no “heroes” or social reformers. They only appear to be such.

The protagonist’s stratagems necessarily interact, forbidding each knowledge of each and all knowledge of the meaning of external circumstance. They are, and they remain, ignorant of their own nature, and of the character of their closest associates. None can ever awaken from the dream to which each has contributed. All are forever imprisoned in the maze they have jointly fashioned. Ibsen’s “realism”—for which the superficial likeness to “real life” or mimesis as usually understood is a necessary preliminary—calls into question the very meaning of “reality” and “truth.” It becomes whatever his ← xiv | xv → protagonists refuse to acknowledge; and that varies from person to person and from moment to moment.

The falsehoods, “life-lies” or “dreams” in which they consciously believe are as a rule the antithesis of their unconscious, suppressed, unacknowledged impulses, fears and desires. There is always the potential for inner, self-destructive conflict between the corrupt, defective actual self, and the perfected imagined, illusory self, and so always the necessity for self-deception. In that unconscious, amidst the “facts” one prefers to ignore, lurks the conviction one is in actuality another, very different, decidedly unpleasant individual. This alter ego always threatens to become manifest, and must be actively, continuously, concealed from oneself and one’s associates.

Amidst such shifting sands, the protagonists’ dreams, longings, ideals necessarily lack a “firm foundation.” Success—if one can call it that—is reserved for the few who, like Hilde Wangel, are completely immersed in the dream.

Such dramas will necessarily be full of apparent inconsistencies and unresolved issues resulting from equivocation, concealed motives, and the like. The participants will disagree in their account of events, contradict themselves, offer only partial explanations of their actions, refuse to speak about certain issues, and so forth. To grasp the meaning of the whole we must compare their stated intentions with their actions at any given moment and at successive moments, and their different interpretations of the same events. The tension between the immediate effect of the staged play and its meaning upon reflection and analysis gives to the whole a shifting, ambiguous character somewhat akin to the optical illusion known as a Necker Cube, which appears to alternately advance and recede as one views it. In consequence, “the real meaning of Ibsen’s plays cannot be comprehended by a theatre audience: ‘Hidden from even the most perceptive theatergoers, this meaning exists only for the reader, who can leaf back through the pages, read again, and thereby disrupt the passage of time.’”11


XVIII, 148
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVIII, 148 pp.

Biographical notes

Burton Blistein (Author)

Burton Blistein received his degree in English literature from the University of Chicago; he has a background in both liberal arts and fine arts. Blistein has taught at numerous universities, among them the Layton School of Art (Milwaukee, Wisconsin); Shimer College (Mount Carroll, Illinois); and St. John’s College (Annapolis, Maryland). His previous publications include The Design of The Waste Land and Image and Word, a catalogue for an exhibition at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College. He is also a sculptor, and examples of his work can be found at www.burtonblistein.com.


Title: The Country of the Blind
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