The Master Builder

This month for the Great Books reading project, we plunge head first into the modern before cycling back around to the ancient Greeks once again with the new year. Our first, comparatively short, reading is Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” This was my first read of this particular play and, in fact, of anything by Ibsen.

In many ways, “The Master Builder” reminded me a great deal of the works of Kafka. As in many of Kafka’s novels, “The Master Builder” presents us with an allegory of original sin as well as a modern take on the possibility (or not) of salvation from it. The eponymous primary protagonist is in some sense guilty of, yet not directly responsible for, the destruction of his family’s home and the deaths of his two young children. That event, which precedes the events of the play by more than a decade, has entirely shaped the course of his life since its occurrence.

Spurred on by a young lady, Hilda, who plays the dual role of muse and temptress, the Master Builder, Solness, seeks to build a “castle in the air.” The final result of this is his all too preventable death. It seems to me that there are two possible interpretations here. Either he did indeed find his “castle in the air,” and so salvation from the original sin, through an escape from this life or his attempt to gain a “castle in the air” was a great failure.

While the ambiguity is undoubtedly an intentional feature of the play, one could probably easily answer this question by appealing to Ibsen’s biography. I believe it is best, however, to let a text speak for itself and in this case I tend toward the latter interpretation as the more likely of the two. It is not only the more typically modern approach to the subject, but, more importantly, it seems to better fit the nature of the play itself. Solness’s attempts to climb higher than his constitution allows for brings to mind the story of the Tower of Babel. Solness, like the builders of the tower, is attempting to reach the “castle in the sky” through his own effort and on his own impetus; in other words, he wants to climb to heaven without God, as other features of the play make clear. The result in both cases is that Tower, and Builder, must fall.

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