Ibsen’s plays have a few things in common: they tend to realistically depict the psychological complexities and contradictions of the individual; they focus more on character rather than plot; they feature character whose drive to attain spiritual and moral purity conflicts with the society in which they live; and they were unconventional by the standards of the day. They explored the concept of the “life-lie,” in which people dealt with the miseries of life by masking it with idealism and creating a new, false life. Self-deception was oftentimes necessary but dangerous. Many of the plays ended on ambiguous notes –they were not tidily wrapped up or comforting to audiences. Oftentimes his lyricism was not as apparent as the force of his ideas. Arthur Miller believed Ibsen valuable for his striving to “make understandable what is complex without distorting and oversimplifying what cannot be explained.” He also admired how the subject matter was often worked out on a symbolic level while his characters seemed wholly realistic. Writer C.D. Merriman notes, “societal breakdown, stereotypes, class struggle and issues of morality dominate his characters,” while scholar Martha Fletcher Bellinger writes, “The principles of Ibsen's teaching, his moral ethic, was that honesty in facing facts is the first requisite of a decent life. Human nature has dark recesses which must be explored and illuminated; life has pitfalls which must be recognized to be avoided; and society has humbugs, hypocrisies, and obscure diseases which must be revealed before they can be cured.”
Brand (1866) is a poem, later turned into a play, featuring man giving up everything in his life –wife, child, friends –in adherence to his personal philosophy of “all or nothing.”
Peer Gynt (1867) is the story of a young man who spends his days indulging in immoral behavior. His journey through the world is fantastical and varied; he is, at times, a slaveholder, a prophet, and a lonely wanderer. He repents of his immoral behavior and is saved by the love of a woman named Salvig, whom he had abandoned earlier.
A Doll’s House (1879), one of Ibsen’s most well-known and oft-performed works, concerns a woman who is treated like a doll by her husband and realizes she is profoundly dissatisfied with her life and must leave. Unsurprisingly, this work was very controversial during its day.
In Ghosts (1881) Ibsen dealt with themes of self-sacrifice in the face of adherence to social norms, drunkenness, and venereal disease. A mother trapped in an unhappy marriage witnesses her son beginning to act like his dissolute father, and must decide whether or not to administer poison to him to save him from a painful life suffering from syphilis.
An Enemy of the People (1882) shows how one man’s concern with exposing and upholding the truth about his town’s revered Springs leads him into bitter conflict with bureaucrats and weak-willed men. The individual against the tyranny of the ignorant majority is the main theme of the work.
Hedda Gabler (1890) features the titular character seeking spiritual fulfillment in her life of bourgeois convention. This work was also controversial, as many critics could not stomach Ibsen’s depiction of his female character and her flouting of gender roles.