Early life and family
(ca. 1815–1820) of Ibsen's mother (far right), grandparents and other relatives
Ibsen was born into an affluent merchant family in the wealthy port town of Skien in Bratsberg (Telemark), the closely intertwined Ibsen and Paus family. His parents were Knud Ibsen (1797–1877) and Marichen Altenburg (1799–1869). Henrik Ibsen wrote that "my parents were members on both sides of the most respected families in Skien," explaining that he was closely related with "just about all the patrician families who then dominated the place and its surroundings."
His parents, though not related by blood, had been raised as something that resembled social siblings. Knud Ibsen's biological father, ship's captain Henrich Ibsen, died at sea when he was newborn in 1797 and his mother married captain Ole Paus the following year; Ole Paus was the brother of Marichen's mother Hedevig Paus, and their families were very close; for example Ole's oldest biological son and Knud's half-brother
Henrik Johan Paus was raised in Hedevig's home together with his cousin Marichen, and the biological and social children of the Paus siblings, including Knud and Marichen, spent much of their childhood together. Some Ibsen scholars have claimed that Henrik Ibsen was fascinated by his parents' "strange, almost incestuous marriage;" he would treat the subject of incestuous relationships in several plays, notably his masterpiece Rosmersholm.
When Henrik Ibsen was around seven years old, his father's fortunes took a significant turn for the worse, and the family was eventually forced to sell the major Altenburg building in central Skien and move permanently to their large summer house, Venstøp, outside of the city. Henrik's sister Hedvig would write about their mother: "She was a quiet, lovable woman, the soul of the house, everything to her husband and children. She sacrificed herself time and time again. There was no bitterness or reproach in her." The Ibsen family eventually moved to a city house, Snipetorp, owned by Knud Ibsen's half-brother, wealthy banker and ship-owner Christopher Blom Paus.
His father's financial ruin would have a strong influence on Ibsen's later work; the characters in his plays often mirror his parents, and his themes often deal with issues of financial difficulty as well as moral conflicts stemming from dark secrets hidden from society. Ibsen would both model and name characters in his plays after his own family. A central theme in Ibsen's plays is the portrayal of suffering women, echoing his mother Marichen Altenburg; Ibsen's sympathy with women would eventually find significant expression with their portrayal in dramas such as A Doll's House and Rosmersholm.
At fifteen, Ibsen was forced to leave school. He moved to the small town of Grimstad to become an apprentice pharmacist and began writing plays. In 1846, when Ibsen was 18, he had a liaison with Else Sophie Jensdatter Birkedalen which produced a son, Hans Jacob Hendrichsen Birkdalen, whose upbringing Ibsen paid for until the boy was fourteen, though Ibsen never saw Hans Jacob. Ibsen went to Christiania (later renamed Kristiania and then Oslo) intending to matriculate at the university. He soon rejected the idea (his earlier attempts at entering university were blocked as he did not pass all his entrance exams), preferring to commit himself to writing. His first play, the tragedy Catilina (1850), was published under the pseudonym "Brynjolf Bjarme", when he was only 22, but it was not performed. His first play to be staged, The Burial Mound (1850), received little attention. Still, Ibsen was determined to be a playwright, although the numerous plays he wrote in the following years remained unsuccessful. Ibsen's main inspiration in the early period, right up to Peer Gynt, was apparently the Norwegian author Henrik Wergeland and the Norwegian folk tales as collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. In Ibsen's youth, Wergeland was the most acclaimed, and by far the most read, Norwegian poet and playwright.