Book Review: “The Stranger from the Sea”

At a time when European playwrights extolled the virtues of propriety and traditional family life, Henrik Ibsen sought to penetrate them. “If we look beneath the façade,” he asked in such plays as An Enemy of the People and A Doll’s House, “would 19th-century Europe like what it finds?”

Paul Binding’s reimaging of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea is a worthwhile choice. The narrator of The Stranger from the Sea inhabits a setting that, like those in Ibsen’s plays, suppresses its truths through propriety and etiquette. Having relocated to the seaside town of Dengate to work at a newspaper, aspiring journalist Martin Bridges feels unsettled by a refrain: “Would you say that you are cheerful?” This ethos guidesthe lives of Dengate’s townspeople, including Martin’s over-dramatic landlady and his gregarious editor. Martin struggles to assimilate. Through a budding friendship with Norwegian sailor Hans Lyngstrand, who was shipwrecked in the English Channel by a deadly springtime storm, Martin comes to realize where he stands in opposition to Dengate’s social doctrine. Martin must face the unresolved anguish of his past.

And where, exactly, does he stand? A reader will find it difficult to answer this question. Binding too often relies on Martin’s journalism assignments to propel the plot forward instead of a palpable yearning to discover identity or belonging. At times, the intimate interactions between Martin and Hans lack emotional impact. One can’t help but wish our protagonist would oppose his circumstances more vigorously like Ibsen’s characters do. The playwright’s [Ibsen’s] frank depictions of adultery and syphilis were once derided for their violation of cultural norms, and he faced intense criticism from European society. Unlike Ibsen, Binding seems resistant to explore such norms beyond the surface level, much less violate them.

Binding is most renowned for his scholarly work and literary criticism. He has written studies on Hans Christian Andersen, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Ibsen himself. The scope and rigor of his historical research is a true accomplishment. He renders 19th-century Dengate colorfully, and his period dialogue scans as believable, but it yields a tepid reading experience. 

Ironically enough, The Stranger from the Sea arrives at a time in which global capitalism destabilizes the traditional values of Martin’s Dengate. Perhaps Ibsen is not the artist we should revive for our bizarre cultural circumstance, and perhaps Binding is not the writer we should seek for relevant social critique. But it wouldn’t hurt to consult “the father of modern drama” for more pressing questions—it wouldn’t kill us to dig a little deeper.