Mr. Werle was sailing a boat and seeing a wild duck, had shot at, and wounded, it. The wounded duck dived down to the bottom of the sea and tangle there to never come up again. But Mr. Werle’s clever dog dived after the wounded duck and brought it up again. The wounded wild duck was taken to Mr. Werle’s house but it did not thrive there. It was passed on to Old Ekdal where it became used to its present abode, and had forgotten its natural, wild life.
The wild duck as a symbol appears first in Mr. Werle’s speech with reference to the sad fate which had overtaken Old Ekdal. He says:
By the time Ekdal was released, he was a broken-down man, past help from anyone. There are people in this world who dive to the bottom the moment they are wounded, and never come up again.
Hedvig says on two occasions that the wild duck belongs to her though she would not mind her father and grandfather borrowing it from her. Hedvig also says that her father and grandfather look after the wild duck well and try to make it comfortable. Gregers thereupon says that the wild duck is the most important person in his house. Hedvig says that the duck is a real “wild” bird and the wild duck must be feeling sad and alien here because no one knows it and it knows no one. Gregers finds that the wild duck has a damaged wing and that it is a little lame in one foot which the dog had held between its teeth when dragging the duck back to the surface of the water.
Gregers tells Hjalmar that the latter has a strain of the wild duck in him. He elaborates that Hjalmar has dived down and taken firm hold of the sea weeds. He further says that Hjalmar has landed in a “poisonous swamp” and has got an “insidious disease”, and has dived to the bottom “to die in the dark”. So he should not worry about his miserable condition because Gregers would see that Hjalmar rises to the surface again.
Gregers means that Hjalmar is hiding himself from the reality of life like the wild duck by diving to the bottom and hiding form the real life. Gregers knows Gina past but Hjalmar was unaware. Gregers compares Hjalmar to the wild duck and himself to the dog. He aims to open Hjalmar’s eyes to those facts. The wild duck becomes a symbol of Hjalmar’s life of ignorance; while Mr. Werle’s clever dog symbolizes Gregers who has resolved to awaken the ideal. The wild duck, which is lame and has a damaged wing, also symbolizes Hjalmar’s incomplete life.
The wild duck symbolizes Hedvig too. Hedvig too is an alien in this house like a wild duck. Hedvig is a product of Mr. Werle’s sport of making love to Gina. Hjalmar has been thinking her to be his own daughter. Thus there is much in common between the wild duck and Hedvig: both are a product of Mr. Werle’s sporting nature. The wild duck is lame, has a damaged wing, and is leading an incomplete and unsatisfactory life, shut within the four walls of a dark garret. Hedvig too is leading a narrow, limited kind of life, partly because she has weak eyesight and would soon become blind. Just as the wild duck has got used to its new abode, so, Hedvig is perfectly contented with her inadequate life in this house. And yet she is leading a frustrated life like that of the wild duck.
The wild duck symbolizes Old Ekdal’s life also. He used to hunt into the forest when young. Overtaken by a disaster he was jailed for some years. After his release he finds life wretched. When in garret, he imagines himself in a forest with wild animals. The same applies to Ekdal's putting on his lieutenant’s uniform at times. He is not entitled any more to wear it but he puts it on to recall the days when he was a lieutenant. These illusions are sustaining him in life which would otherwise appear to him to be not worth living. He too has become averse to reality, like the wild duck.
Gregers plays the role of a saviour, but with disastrous results. Gregers reveals the secret of Gina’s past to Hjalmar. Hjalmar’s reaction to this discloser is one of shock. On his asking Gina about her past, she confirms everything. Hjalmar’s grief knows no limits. He scolds Gina for having kept him in the dark and accuses her of deceiving him. He also comes to know that Hedvig is not his own daughter but Mr. Werle’s. Hjalmar now cannot even bear to look at Hedvig and declares his intention to leave the house. Hedvig feels miserable when she finds that she has lost Hjalmar’s love. Gregers advises Hedvig to shoot the wild duck in order to make a sacrifice to please her father but Hedvig shoots herself. Gregers had aimed at a reconstruction of Gregers’ domestic life but he succeeds only in wrecking a young life.
The wild duck also reflects Ibsen’s personality when he wrote the play. Ibsen wants us to know that he has now forgotten to live a wild life; he has, like the wild duck, grown plump and tame and contented with his limited life. Ibsen must have asked himself at the time of writing this play how far the artist shuts himself off from life. Both Hjalmar and Gregers represent different aspects of Ibsen: on the one hand, the evader of reality, and on the other, the impractical idealist who bothers mankind with his claims of the ideal because he has a sick conscience.
The Wild Duck is a perfectly suitable title for this play. The wild duck is the most important person in the story; it is Hedvig’s dearest possession; it is looked after by Old Ekdal with great care. Old Ekdal has provided a water-trough for the wild duck to splash about. Hjalmar too is deeply attached to the bird till he learns that the man to whom it had originally belonged had seduced Gina. Hedvig’s sacrifice would have been great if she had shot the wild duck, but Hedvig makes an even greater sacrifice of her own life. In any case the wild duck is the central symbol in the play, and round the wild duck the plot hinges.