On this day…23 May

On 23 May 1906 Henrik Ibsen died.

One of the greatest influences on the young James Joyce came from the life and works of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. From him Joyce got ideas about exile and the role of the artist in society, and many of the themes of Ibsen’s plays became important also in Joyce’s work. Joyce started learning Norwegian in order to be able to read Ibsen, and he wrote a letter to Ibsen on the occasion of Ibsen’s seventy-third birthday in 1901.

After living in self-imposed exile in Dresden, Munich and Rome for more than twenty years, Ibsen and his wife Suzannah returned to Kristiania (now Oslo) in Norway in 1891. In 1895 they moved into an apartment on the second floor at Arbins gade 1 where Ibsen lived the rest of his life.

He became a well-known figure on the streets of Kristiania, taking a daily walk from his apartment to the Grand Hotel for his morning coffee, and stopping en route to check his watch against the clock at the University. His seventieth birthday in 1898 was widely celebrated, and he published his last play, When We Dead Awaken, in 1899.

After this his health began to decline. He suffered his first stroke in 1900, and a second stroke in 1901 left him with difficulty walking, though he still went out for daily rides in his carriage accompanied by his doctor. In March 1903 he suffered a third stroke after which his speech was slurred. As the stroke affected the right side of his body, Ibsen tried to learn to write with his left hand. He suffered a heart attack in November 1904, and by July 1905 he no longer left the apartment.

Eleanora Duse, a world-renowned actress in Ibsen roles, went to Kristiania to see him in February 1906, but Suzannah decided her husband was too ill for visitors. Duse went to Arbins gade and stood outside, looking up at the window in which Ibsen had often been glimpsed, in the hope of seeing even his silhouette at the window.

He lived past his seventy-eighth birthday on 20 March 1906, but by the middle of May he was unable to stand and was confined to bed. On 22 May, when his nurse claimed that he seemed better, Ibsen from his bed loudly said the word ‘Tvertimod!’ (‘on the contrary’). It was his last word. He passed into a coma and died at 2.30pm on Wednesday 23 May 1906. The official cause of death was arteriosclerosis.

His daughter-in-law, Bergliot Ibsen, who was among those present at his death, said that the severity and tightness that had characterised Ibsen’s face during his life disappeared and he looked beautiful and serene.

A motion was passed in the Norwegian parliament to approve a state funeral for him. It took place at the Trefoldighets Church in Kristiania, and he was buried at Vår Frelsers Gravlund. The funeral was filmed (see the Exploreibsen website below). His son Sigurd chose a large obelisk engraved with a hammer as his gravestone. Ibsen’s wife Suzannah continued to live at the apartment at Arbins gade until her death in 1914. Today it is open to the public as part of the Ibsen Museum.


Sources & Further Reading:

Meyer, Michael: Ibsen – A Biography, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1967.

Tysdahl, Bjørn J: Joyce and Ibsen – A Study in Literary Influence, Oslo: Norwegian Universities Press, 1968.


Exploreibsen website

More on Ibsen’s last years on the website of Norway’s Nasjonalbiblioteket

Website of the Ibsen Museum/Ibsenmuseet, Oslo

Website of the Henrik Ibsen Museum, Skien