In my essay I’m going to talk about Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House and how one can come to realize that the play is a feminist one and how it manages to take a stand for the rights of women in the nineteenth century highly patriarchal society. Henrik Ibsen was born in Norway in the year 1828 and he got married in the year 1879, his view on marriage and on the status of women is reflected in his work a dolls house. He believed that husbands and wives should live as equals and find out the kind of people they really want to become. Feminism is a dominant theme of his play and he has reexamined the roles of women in the society by exposing the masculine stereotype in the Victorian Norway
For one to actually understand the moral codes and changing status women of that time one has to look at the historical context under which the play was written. The play, A Doll’s House turned out to be one of his masterpieces as it developed a new dynamic style(i.e. realism in theatre) which portrayed life very accurately and tried to break the false notions of idealized self. Ibsen wrote the play when he was in Italy, and considering the social context of the time the play was a blow to the European and American patriarchal structure.
Simone De Beauvior in, ‘The second sex’ discussed the status of women, throughout the history women have been underneath men. The women themselves felt they did not have any identity of themselves and they live on the entity of the of either their father or husbands as being the “other”. This refers to the people who are marginalized and are different from the superior self(of the male community). To me the concept of other echoes to idea of “other” used by Edward Said in his essay ‘Orientalism’. But, what he means by other relates to the people who are racially marginalized. So coming back to the play, Nora and other female characters are the models of the ‘second sex’ or the ‘other’ who is marginalized in the society. What is hard for the patriarchs accept is that the “other” or “the second sex” are also capable of fighting back and securing a hgher position for themselves in the society.
Nora the protagonist of the play breaks away from the institution of marriage and also leaves her children, for her desire to build her own identity and be respected as an individual in the society. Wife leaving their husbands and was very unbelievable considering the time when women were entirely dependent on the male community be it food, shelter and money. The society expected women to keep their homes, take care of her children and husband. Before marriage, a women was treated a commodity in the hands of the father and when she got married she became a commodity in the hands of her husband, she had no rights, thoughts and ideas of her own. This is highlighted in the play when Nora having realized her position and her value in her husband’s life confronts him, “When I lived at home with Daddy, he fed me all his opinions, until they became my opinions. Or if they didn’t, I kept quiet about it because I knew he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his doll-child, and he played with me the way I used to play with my dolls. And when… Daddy handed me over to you. You arranged everything according to your taste, and I adapted my taste to yours… Now, looking back, I feel as if I’ve lived a beggar’s life—from hand to mouth.”
The very title a dolls house suggests the objectification of women which is done within the realm of the domestic sphere. French feminist, Luce Irigray in her essay, ‘When Goods Get Together’ refers to women as ‘goods’ who are treated as commodities and traded between men in the patriarchal society. Nora too has been a liability for both her father and her husband. Nora states,“Our house has never been anything but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as I was daddy’s doll-child when I was at home. My children as well, they’ve been my dolls. I used to enjoy it when you played games with me, just as they enjoyed it when I played games with them. That’s all our marriage has been, Torvald.”It emphasizes the treatment of Nora as a lifeless doll, Nora’s house is symbolic to a playhouse where the characters living are not real. They are living in their disillusioned world and their marriage is nothing but farce. The relationship between them have been that of a master and a slave. The only role she played in the house was of bearing children and initially she was happy to accept her status as being subservient to her husband. She accepted her role as a slave whose fate was controlled by her husband.
Tovald constantly refers to her as “little one” or “little girl” which creates a atmosphere of subordination which she seems to accept. The exterior world never makes it on the stage both figuratively and literally. Nora is an actor who believes that she is in the real world and Torvald is the one who is controlling her. Torvald admits that he likes pretending to not know her in the party as if they are newly wedded. This highlights his false characterization of Nora he forms. She is nothing but his agent of fantasy and he has no desire of seeing the real her and Nora too had constructed herself according to his liking.
Women had very little social, political and economic power they were totally dependent on the male community. The gender roles are enforced on both women and male by the society, as Louis Althusser in his essay, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus’ points out that individuals become subjects of the society’s ideology the moment they are born. Thus, we can say that Trovald was not entirely at fault for his deeds as he was limited to play the gender roles expected from him. The play has tried to challenge the gender specific roles in terms of social behaviour attributed to both men and women. The playwright has created the character Mrs. Linde who is allowed to work in a society where women only received primary education and the only goal was to get married( in other words had to be passive),but we see she too feels lonely and empty which shows the amount of social prejudice against working women.
It is only in the end she realizes that she had been living with a stranger for the past eight years when, she sees that he never really loved her. Despite claiming to have done anything for her, he rebukes her of having ruined his life and berates her character. Speculating about their future he says that they will only pretend to be married and snatches her right over her children. We know that she had taken loan and forged her father’s signature only to save his life, but he at no cost is ready to appreciate it and it is only when Krogstad sends back the bond he has a emotional tirade. It is then that Nora realizes that such a man is not worth dying for and she plans on discovering herself to escape her oppressive situation. It is the secret which she is keeping from him is the hurdle between her individuality and her escape from the doll’s house. She on leaving tells Torvald, “when a wife leaves her husband’s house as I am doing now , he is absolved by law of all responsibility. You must not feel in any way bound, any more than I shall. There must be freedom on both sides”. This again pushes the notion of gender equality and leaves a possibility of hope that Torvald who is the outcome of the society’s upbringing , will reach beyond the concept of masculinity.
The party is extremely important part of the play, the costumes she wears the dance she does is symbolic of the disguise she puts in her everyday life. After the party when she changes into a plain black dress we realize that there is a radical shift in her, she is determined to become a full person rather than a doll of a male figures in her life.
The play exposes the hypocrisy of the society which thinks that a woman is subservient to men which was inherent in the culture and the attitude of the nineteenth century society. In the early nineteenth century, the social movement of revolution of liberty was seeping into women’s rights movement. The play is a revolutionary one as it was the burning issue of the time, social changes in terms of gender roles played by individuals was taking place. The play along with other factors had significant effect on feminist movement not only in Norway but also all around the world as the play was translated in several language and was performed widely across Europe and various other countries. The play played a significant role for the laws to be passed in 1888 according to which women gained majority status and the authority of husbands over their wife ended. The feminists considered him to be a benefactor of the marginalized women community as he in his play has painted a sympathetic portrayal of the situation of women in the society. In the end the protagonist recognizes her duty towards herself , she manages to cross al kinds of obstacles. In the end she confronts her husband when reminded by him about her duty as a wife and a mother. He appeals to her sense of religion and morality which she refuses to accept as they have again been fed to her by the mainstream. She says, “I believe that before anything else, I’m a human being, just as much of as you are…or at least I’m going to try to turn myself into one, I know most people agree with you,Torvald,and that’s what it also says in books. But I’m not content any more with what most people say…I have to think things out for myself”
It was inevitable that that the play once performed will bring controversies along with it and it so happened. Ibsen received negative criticism from the male community, as it was hard for them to think beyond and accept that a woman too can have an independent self and can leave the institution of marriage when she wants. They felt that the play asserted that the place of woman as an independent self was more important than her roles as a wife and a mother. Both government and church officials were outraged, they believed that the sacred institution of marriage would be disrupted and with the portrayal of Nora’s rebellious character. Ibsen had to create an alternate end to the play as the German theatre refused for it to be performed. Although, the alternate end to the play does not have a feminist stand as it has a happy ending where the heroine goes back to her hero. The real gist of the play is lost. The very fact that Ibsen had to create an alternate ending shows the fever the play created in the patriarchal world. Ibsen had always tried to disassociate himself from the feminists, he played that his intention of writing was not a feminist one but it was about the whole of humanity. The need of every individual to find what they really strive to become, and the justice to human race as a whole. But, it would not be right on our part to overlook the fact that Ibsen did see the injustice happening towards women and he planned on writing about it, to the extent that the readers/audience do feel sympathy as well as happy for the woman protagonist who leaves the boundaries of her safe confines of her house to become a dignified individual. To some extent the oppression and marginalization of women continues even today, that is how the play becomes revolutionary as it gives women the view of the possibilities that there is always scope for triumphing over one’s hindrances.
- De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010
2.Johnston, Brian. Ibsen’s Selected Plays: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
3.Northam, John. Ibsen: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.