Peripheral Characters By Buchner And Ibsen English Literature Essay

How are peripheral characters developed by Buchner and Ibsen to repudiate the prevailing social conditions in their respective milieus?

Fundamentally, the portrayal of peripheral characters by Buchner and Ibsen in the plays Woyzeck and Ghosts respectively, remains inherently different. Ultimately however, both authors use peripheral characters to serve a similar range of purposes. In both plays, as literary constructs peripheral characters serve to act as symbols of prevalent ideas/beliefs in the milieus of the plays, as foils to contrast the ideals and character of protagonist with, as catalysts to drive the plays towards their final denouements, as tools to induce tension with, and in microcosm, as stereotypes representative of the ideologies and behavior of people of different classes in society in the milieus of the plays.

The differences in the portrayal of the characters in the two plays may possibly be explained by the differences in the authors’ intentions with their plays. Set in the late 1800s, in the bleak and gloomy milieu of one of the large fjords of Western Norway, Ibsen’s Ghosts is a vituperative examination of the prevailing social morality. Ibsen castigates the ideas of duplicitous private and public existence where the outward "façade" [1] and "reputation" [2] is more important that the inner convictions. Buchner, with Woyzeck, in a play grounded in realism and naturalism yet including elements of both expressionism and nihilism is more concerned with exposing the reality of the iniquitous socio-economic conditions during the early 1800s in Germany. Buchner delineates the emotional, intellectual and physical oppression and alienation created by false notions of social, economic and intellectual superiority and argues that society may be turning anomic.

This difference in intention between the plays leads to the authors developing peripheral characters in highly different manners. Buchner, to highlight the importance of economic status in society, presents his characters as being manifestations of their economic occupations. Peripheral characters are characterized by their professions. The doctor is christened "Doctor", the captain "Captain", the drum major "Drum Major". This highlights their social status but also implies their one dimensional nature. The lack of personal identity, caused by the lack of names ensures that the audience is unable to identify or empathise with these characters. These characters are developed to be symbols, representative of one particular ideal/outlook. For example, the doctor presented to be symbol of the enlightenment; he attempts to "proceed empirically" [3] and "demonstrate conclusively" [4] and is existential in outlook. He is contrasted with the Captain who is symbolic of the ignorant, self-absorbed bourgeois, believing himself to be the epitome of the "virtuous man" [5] . Buchner therefore constructs characters that are unambiguous in nature and to a certain extent hyperbolises their characteristics so the reader is able to comprehend his outlook on their ideals unequivocally. Ibsen, too, creates characters that have their own resolute ideals, principles and convictions. However, unlike Buchner’s, Ibsen’s characters are not necessarily representative of the ideals of particular social classes and statures. The peripheral characters serve mainly to reinforce the ideas presented by Ibsen in the play either by providing a contrast to them or by being analogous with them. To elucidate, for example, when Pastor Manders, who is symbolic of the hypocritical self-delusional morality of the time, applies his sanctimonious judgement on Engstrand for having gotten "married to a fallen woman for three hundred miserable dollars" [6] , Mrs Alving retorts "What do you say about me, then, going and letting myself be married to a fallen man" [7] . In this scenario, Ibsen uses Engstrand to provide an analogy between two characters of dichotomous social status yet both who serve to oppose Manders’ ideals and hence reinforce and give credibility to Ibsen’s ones. Moreover, Ibsen creates characters that are multi-dimensional and multi-faceted. Unlike Buchner, he does not enhance and hyperbolise the beliefs of his characters, choosing instead, to leave them implicit. However, he does present them in a way that the audience is able to comprehend. When Engstrand tries to spin a tale of how "he’s a man" [8] who tries to "raise the fallen" [9] , Pastor Manders believes him completely saying "Give me your hand, Jacob Engstrand" [10] . The dramatic irony in that the audience is able to see Engstrand’s real character and that the Pastor cannot, further decreases Manders’ credibility with the audience and hence that of his beliefs. To a certain extent, this way of presenting characters is arguably more effective than Buchner’s in that it aids in the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Ultimately however, both authors develop peripheral characters such that they serve their purpose effectively.

Buchner and Ibsen both use peripheral characters to provide a foil/contrast with the central character but also with other characters in the play. This foil is presented in varying manners by the two authors. Buchner contrasts Woyzeck with all the peripheral characters in the play, showing the differences in diction, discourse, register but also the mentality under different contexts. Buchner illustrates the effects of the oppression on Woyzeck showing his "wrought" [11] nature around the Captain and Doctor and contrasts it with the humane and affectionate nature of Woyzeck with Marie and his child as he gently moves the child’s "arm so he doesn’t get a cramp" [12] . This humane part of Woyzeck is then immediately contrasted with the Doctor and Captain, highlighting the anxious and irresolute nature of the Captain as he obfuscates himself, pondering "Eternity…is eternity – you can see that, but it’s also not eternity, it’s a single moment, Woyzeck, yes, a single moment" [13] and the inhumane nature of the Doctor as he views Woyzeck an "aberration" [14] who is just "another demonstration subject" [15] . At certain moments, to further emphasis this contrast, Woyzeck’s discourse is elevated to that of poetic discourse, for instance as he proclaims to the Doctor "when nature’s out, that’s – when nature’s out. When the world gets so dark you have to feel your way round it with your hands, till you think it’s coming apart like a spider’s web" [16] , his portentous tone, and the diction of "dark" and his having to "feel [his] way around" could possibly be a metaphor for his sense of alienation and oppression, as created by his social class and the oppression by those above him in the hierarchy – predominantly the Doctor and the Captain. The smile of the "spider’s web" could arguably be suggesting the beginnings of social anomie caused by the self-superior and self-absorbed nature of people, as exemplified by peripheral characters such as the Doctor and the Captain. This elevated language with the ominous diction evokes tension and pathos in the audience and foreshadows the tragic end of the play. Ibsen, too, uses his characters as a foil to the central character but also to each other, highlighting the dynamics between people with different morality. Rather than developing the contrast as Buchner does with Woyzeck by presenting him under a variety of situations in presence of different characters, Ibsen leads the audience in media res into a portentous situation and displays the contrast between all the different characters who each have their own morality rather than just Mrs Alving with each of them. For instance, he contrasts Oswald, symbolic of the bohemian ideology who believes in the "glorious free life" [17] with Pastor Manders who believes that to be "blatant immorality". He also uses peripheral characters such as Oswald and Regine to act as the "Ghosts" [18] in the play. Their interaction in the play is symbolic of the relationship between Captain Alving (Oswald’s father) and the servant (Regine’s mother). Ibsen develops it to be not only symbolic but also eerily similar wherein Regine’s sharp whisper of "Oswald! Are you mad? Let me go" [19] is analogous to her mother’s whisper of "Let me go, Mr. Alving! Leave me alone!" [20] many years previously. This symbolic similarity created by these peripheral characters also serves to induce dramatic tension and catalyses the play towards its denouement.

Ultimately, Buchner and Ibsen portray, develop and utilise and peripheral characters in fundamentally different ways. Buchner develops characters as hyperbolised symbols of different professions and social classes; he uses them to decry the prevailing socio-economic conditions in the milieu of 1800s Germany by constructing peripheral characters that have no identity, whose ideals conflict with those of the protagonist and evoke negative emotions and tension in the audience thus aiding the play in reaching its climax. Conversely, Ibsen constructs characters whose social class and standing are essentially identifiable but whose ideals, motivations and morals are presented implicitly as Ibsen contrasts these beliefs against each other and the protagonist’s beliefs while disparagingly examining the propagated beliefs on social morality and righteousness in the milieu of Norway in the late 1800s.