Peer Gynt and the journey to hell

Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt remains my all-time favourite play. At one of the crossroads toward the end of his journey, Peer meets Button Molder, whose commission it was to melt down souls in preparation for death; and more particularly, those whose sins hadn’t been significant enough to qualify them for Hell but significant enough to disqualify them for Heaven. Peer, who was on Button Molder’s list, was challenged by the latter in the very thing that Peer had prided himself on all his life – being himself – which was, Button Molder contended, ‘just what you’ve never been’. Preparing to melt Peer down, Peer hysterically concluded that he’d rather go to Hell than become a non-entity boiling in a vat, and pleaded for time to locate witnesses to testify how iniquitous and worthy of hell his life had been. His search was unsuccessful, Peer finding that none of his past enemies would testify against him.

At the next crossroads, Peer testified against himself, desperately seeking to convince Button Molder that his kidnapping, his slave-trading, his cheating and lying, his drowning of another to save his own life indisputably qualified him for Hell! ‘Mere trifles!’, Button Molder replied. In desperation, the humbled and frightened Peer asks, ‘What’s it mean, to be yourself?’ The reply: ‘To be yourself is to destroy your Self.’ – Henrick Ibsen, Peer Gynt (trans. K. McLeish; London: Royal National Theatre/Nick Hern, 1990), 95.

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