The first act opens with a dinner party hosted by Håkon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. The gathering is attended by his son, Gregers Werle, who has just returned home following a self-imposed exile. There he learns the fate of a former classmate, Hjalmar Ekdal. Hjalmar married Gina, a young servant in the Werle household. The elder Werle had arranged the match by providing Hjalmar with a home and profession as a photographer. Gregers, whose mother died believing that Gina and her husband had carried on an affair, is horrified by the thought that his old friend is living a life built on a lie.
The remaining four acts take place in Hjalmar Ekdal's home, where Gregers has gone. The Ekdals seem to be enjoying a life of cozy domesticity. Hjalmar's father makes a living doing odd copying jobs for Werle. Hjalmar himself runs a busy portrait studio out of his home. In addition to keeping house, Gina helps him with the business. They both dote on their daughter Hedvig. Hjalmar tells Gregers that Hedvig is both his greatest joy and greatest sorrow, because she is slowly losing her eyesight. The family eagerly reveals a loft where they keep various animals like rabbits and pigeons. Most prized is a wild duck they rescued.
Gregers decides to rent a spare room in the Ekdal residence. The following day, he begins to realize that there are more lies hanging over the Ekdals than Gina's affair with his father. Gina explains that Hjalmar keeps Hedvig from attending school because of her eyesight, but he has no time to tutor her, leaving the girl to escape into imaginary worlds through pictures she sees in books. During their conversation, Gregers hears shots in the attic, and the family explains that Old Ekdal entertains himself by hunting rabbits and birds in the loft, and Hjalmar often joins in the hunts. The activity helps the senior Ekdal to cling to his former life as a hunter. Hjalmar also speaks of his forthcoming “great invention,” which he never specifies. It is related to photography, and he is confident that it will enable him to pay off his debts to Werle, finally making himself and his family independent. In order to progress on his invention, he often needs to lie down on the couch and ponder it.
Doctor Relling, a family friend, reveals that he long ago implanted the idea of the invention in Hjalmar's mind as a "life-lie" to keep him from giving in to despair. The idealistic Gregers, his polar opposite, strongly disagrees with this approach: he believes that people are better off when they discard illusions. Yet the Ekdal family has achieved a tolerable modus vivendi by ignoring the skeletons in the closet (among the secrets: Gregers' father may have impregnated his servant Gina then married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child; and Hjalmar's father has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle committed). This implicit understanding enables each member to live in a dreamworld of his own—the feckless father believing himself to be a great inventor; the grandfather dwelling on the past when he was a mighty sportsman; and little Hedvig, the child, centering her emotional life around an attic where a wounded wild duck leads a crippled existence in a make-believe forest.
It would seem that the obvious remedy would be to face facts, to speak frankly, to let in the light. However, in this play the revelation of the truth is not a happy event because it rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family. Once the skeletons are brought out of the closet, the whole dreamworld collapses; the weak husband thinks it is his duty to leave his wife; and the little girl, after trying to sacrifice her precious duck, shoots herself with the same gun (having overheard the fatal words from Hjalmar: "Would she lay down her life for me?").
The cynical doctor Relling, who fostered and maintained the lies the family is founded on, offers a telling observation: "Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.”
The doctrine of the life-lie is a hard truth to embrace, especially for thinking persons who pride themselves on having labored long and hard to expunge such illusions from their own consciousness. For as long as Western civilization, probably any civilization, has existed, a central component of critical thinking has been this tenacious effort to escape from illusions, however much they may seem to promise immediate comfort.
For a long time I sought to trace the origin of the insidious but probably necessary concept of the life-lie. Something similar is found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, though he too ends up with the counsel that it is best to renounce such fantasies.
I have now found the answer to my quest in a most surprising text, the Republic of Plato. How can that be, one asks, since Plato created such a powerful image of the dangers of ignorance and illusion in the parable of the Cave? Wasn’t Plato always firmly opposed to lying? Well, not always. Plato insists that the Guardians, his ideal rulers, must be allowed to promulgate “Noble Lies” among the masses in order to control them. Indeed, it is their obligation to muster this device in the interest of the overall good of the commonwealth. The Greek philosopher specifically compares the administration of such falsehoods to a physician giving out medicine (compare Dr. Relling in Ibsen’s play). Needless to say, this privilege is not universally granted. The Guardians should not lie among themselves, and of course the lower orders must be taught not to lie. (See Republic, 382c-d, 389b-d, 459c-e).
Following the example of breeding livestock, Plato advocated eugenics for human beings. In his ideal state the lower orders must be discouraged from having children by restricting their access to sex. Publicly, these unfortunates will be told that the right to have intercourse is randomly assigned by lot. In reality, though, the Guardians control the access by secret conclave. The lot notion is a Noble Lie. These ideas are revolting, to be sure. Yet they also illustrate the fact that Plato--especially in The Republic--is a polyphonic thinker, advocating one principle at one point and a contrasting one at another. His favored use of the dialogue form fostered this seeming cognitive dissonance.
Postscript. A reader has kindly informed me of a recent offshoot of The Wild Duck on American television: http://americandad.wikia.com/wiki/Dr._Klaustus