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Henrik Ibsen’s well known play, A Doll’s House, has long been considered a predominantly feminist work. The play focuses on the seemingly happy Helmers, Nora and Torvald, who appear to have an ideal life. Nora is charming, sweet, and stunningly beautiful, and Torvald is a wealthy and successful banker. Of course, the couple has gone through difficult times in the past; in their first year of marriage, the couple was very poor and struggling to make ends meet when Torvald fell ill. Nora confesses that they needed to travel to Italy to give Torvald time to recuperate, and in order to finance such a trip, she was forced to take out a loan from one of Torvald’s coworkers, telling her husband the money was from her father. However, when Nora speaks of these tough times, it seems to merely emphasize the good fortune the couple has fallen into now. Wealthy, attractive, and prominent, the Helmers appear to be the perfect family. Yet the old adage holds true: appearances are deceiving. As Nora reveals more about how she has been secretly working to pay off the loan to Krogstad, Torvald’s coworker, it becomes clear that there is a great deal of tension under the calm surface of the couple’s home life. This tension mounts as Torvald tells Nora that he wants to fire Krogstad from the bank, and Krogstad subsequently threatens to reveal Nora’s lies to her husband if she does not find a way to save his job. The play’s action escalates, finally culminating in Torvald’s discovery of a letter Krogstad has written, revealing the truth about Nora’s loan. Upon learning that his wife has deceived him, Torvald becomes irate, and is immediately concerned with preserving his own image—even though Nora’s deception enabled Torvald’s recovery, for which he would presumably be grateful. At this point, Nora’s transformation from a silly, childish girl to an intelligent, independent woman is complete. She realizes that Torvald saw her only as a doll and leaves him.
Audiences and critics have a number of varying reactions to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but the most shared conception of the play is that it is, without a doubt, a feminist text. In her article entitled “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen,” Joan Templeton discusses the numerous ways in which A Doll’s House is indeed a play that addresses the issue of feminism and women’s rights. She states that:
When Nora discovers that she has duties higher than those of a ‘wife and mother,’ obligations she names as ‘duties to myself,’ she is voicing the most basic of feminist principles: that women no less than men possess a moral and intellectual nature and have not only a right but a duty to develop it (Templeton 32).
Templeton argues that Nora’s very transformation from childlike and naive to motivated and strong-willed is in its very essence feminist; moreover, the feminism of the play is prevalent regardless of whether or not Ibsen intended it to be so. And it seems fairly probable that Ibsen did not in fact intend A Doll’s House to be read as strongly feminist, stating at a banquet given to him by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League that he “must disclaim the honor of having worked consciously for the women’s rights movement…my task has been the description of humanity”(Templeton 28). Upon reading such a statement, it seems clear that Ibsen did not write A Doll’s House with the intention of penning a landmark feminist work.
Following that logic, there are a number of other critics who strongly disagree with Templeton’s assertion that Nora (and consequently the play as a whole) is inherently feminist. British play critic Michael Billington is one who disagrees with this interpretation of the play as feminist. Upon seeing a production of A Doll’s House at the Southwark Playhouse in London, Billington writes that, “Far from a straightforward feminist clarion call, the play becomes a complex study of two people who both have to reconstruct their identities” (Guardian Unlimited). Here, Billington changes the focus from the character of Nora, who is the central tenet of Templeton’s argument, to the dynamics of the relationship between Nora and Torvald. In this way, the focus becomes less about Nora struggling with her sense of self, and more about the identities of both characters. Similarly, in a rebuttal of Templeton’s essay on feminism in A Doll’s House, Michael Werth Gelber writes, “In the dollhouse of Torvald and Nora, both husband and wife suffer from arrested development, which neither may eventually outgrow” (Gelber 361). Billington and Gelber, along with many others, seem to read Ibsen’s classic as humanist rather than feminist, arguing that Ibsen’s message was not that women should strive to find themselves, but that all people should engage in a search for true identity.
A Doll’s House was written and published in 1879, and as such, Ibsen was certainly aware of the prevailing attitudes concerning women. Prior to the 20th century, women were expected to obey their husbands and concern themselves only with matters of frivolity and entertainment. In fact, years earlier United States President Thomas Jefferson summed up the attitude of the time when he addressed the issue of women and literacy, saying that, “Female education should concentrate on ornaments and the amusements of life…dancing, drawing, and music” (www.vst.cape.com). Women were not expected to educate themselves or become independent, which ensured complete reliance on their husbands. These widespread beliefs were surely known to Ibsen, and while he claims that his purpose was never to call attention to women’s issues, the concept of feminism played at least a subconscious role in the writing of A Doll’s House. At the same Norwegian Women’s Rights League banquet where he claimed that addressing women’s rights was not his intention, Ibsen states, “I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is…It is the women who shall solve the human problem” (Gelber 361). Although Ibsen claims that he is unaware of the women’s rights movement, he places the responsibility of dealing with the human rights movements in the hands of women, showing that at the very least, he has a deep respect for and confidence in women.
A Doll’s House features a protagonist who is meant to be an example to women and humans alike, displaying the importance of finding a sense of self and a true identity. Women and men, both then and now, can look to Nora to see the ways in which one really must find his/herself. When Nora finally realizes that she is only a doll to Torvald, she says, “I’ve been performing tricks for you, Torvald. That’s how I’ve survived. You wanted it like that…It’s because of you I’ve made nothing of my life” (Ibsen). Although relationships resembling Torvald’s hold over Nora were much more common in the 1870s, they are not obsolete even today. However, dominance now can occur both ways; in some relationships, women control the men just as men control the women in others. In this way, the feminist and humanist themes of A Doll’s House still apply to modern times.
It is difficult to say with absolute certainty what Ibsen truly intended when he wrote A Doll’s House. Did he mean for Nora to become a groundbreaking figure in female literature? Or was she simply a character who realized that her only obligations and duties were to herself, regardless of her gender? A closer look at the play only seems to confuse the matter. For example, one can examine her comments to Mrs. Linde on what it means to Nora to be “free.” She says, “Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it” (Ibsen). A supporter of reading the text as humanist rather than feminist might argue that this is hardly the sort of statement a female activist would make. Yet proponents of the play as a feminist text would probably refute this claim, saying that this statement precedes the point in the play where Nora makes her astounding transformation, and that this comment comes from an altogether different character: one who has not yet discovered the true responsibilities of womanhood.
After what seemed like endless exploration of the play, I found it incredibly difficult to come to a concrete conclusion on whether this text is humanist or feminist. Yet perhaps that isn’t what is important. Perhaps Ibsen didn’t intend the play to be read definitively as one or the other, but to be read by each individual reader in whichever way he/she wanted to read it- feminist, humanist, neither, or both. Both readings of the play are equally valid, equally supportable, and equally interesting. And more importantly, neither detracts from the sheer mastery of Ibsen’s use of language and overall writing style. A Doll’s House, whether it be feminist, humanist, or even communist, is a play that encourages growth, self-empowerment, and independence.
Billington, Michael. “A Doll’s House.” Guardian Unlimited 8 Nov. 2003.
Gelber, Michael Welth. Ibsen and Feminism. PLMA, Vol. 104, No. 3. May 1989. p. 360-362. www.jstor.org..
Reflecting on Race, Class, and Feminism. 26 Nov. 2003. www.vst.cape.com.
Templeton, Jean. The Dollhouse Backlash: Feminism, Criticism, and Ibsen. PMLA, Vol.104, No. 1. Jan. 1989. p. 28-40. www.jstor.org.
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