Essays and Criticism
Henrik Ibsen elevated theatre from mere entertainment to a forum for exposing social problems. Prior to Ibsen, contemporary theatre consisted of historical romance or contrived behavior plays. But with A Doll's House, Ibsen turned drama into a respectable genre for the examination of social issues: in exposing the flaws in the Helmer marriage, he made the private public and provided an advocacy for women. In Act III, when Nora slams the door as she leaves, she is opening a door into the hidden world of the ideal Victorian marriage. In allowing Nora the right to satisfy her need for an identity separate from that of wife and mother, Ibsen is perceived as endorsing the growing "women question." And although the play ends without offering any solutions, Ibsen has offered possibilities. To his contemporaries, it was a frightening prospect.
Bjorn Hemmer, in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, declared that Ibsen used A Doll's House and his other realistic dramas to focus a "searchlight'' on Victorian society with its "false morality and its manipulation of public opinion." Indeed, Torvald exemplifies this kind of community. Of this society, Hemmer noted: "The people who live in such a society know the weight of 'public opinion' and of all those agencies which keep watch over society's 'law and order': the norms, the conventions and the traditions which in essence belong to the past but which continue into the present and there thwart individual liberty in a variety of ways." It is the weight of public opinion that Torvald cannot defy. And it is the weight of public opinion that condemns the Helmer's marriage. Because Torvald views his public persona as more important that his private, he is unable to understand or appreciate the suffering of his wife. His reaction to the threat of public exposure is centered on himself. It is his social stature, his professional image, and not his private life which concern him most. For Nora to emerge as an individual she must reject the life that society mandates. To do so, she must assume control over her life; yet in the nineteenth century, women had no power. Power resides with the establishment, and as a banker and lawyer, Torvald clearly represents the establishment.
Deception, which lies at the heart of A Doll's House, also provides the cornerstone of Victorian life, according to Hemmer. Hemmer maintained that it is the contrasts between reality and fiction that motivated Ibsen to tackle such social problems as marriage. Victorian society, Hemmer stated, offered a "clear dichotomy between ideology and practice." The facade of individuality was buried in the Victorian ideal of economics. In the hundred years since the French Revolution economic power had replaced the quest for individual liberty, and a married woman had the least amount of economic power. When Nora rejects her marriage, she is also rejecting bourgeois middle-class values. In this embracing of uncertainty rather than the economic guarantee of her husband's protection, Nora represents the individual, who, Hemmer asserted, Ibsen wanted to make "the sustaining element in society and [who would] dethrone the bourgeois family as the central institution of society." Nora's rebellion at the play's conclusion is a necessary element of that revolution; it is little wonder that Ibsen was so disgusted at the second conclusion he was forced to write. In making Nora subordinate her desires as an individual to the greater need of motherhood, Ibsen is denying his reason for creating the conflict and for writing the play.
The question of women's rights and feminist equality is an important aspect of understanding A Doll's House. Ibsen himself stated that for him the issue was more complex than just women's rights and that he hoped to illuminate the problem of human rights. Yet women have continued to champion both Ibsen and his heroine, Nora. Social reform was closely linked to feminism. In her discussion of the role Ibsen played in nineteenth-century thought, which appeared in The Cambridge Companion to...
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The Doll's House is one of the strongest plays that Ibsen has produced. In the way of character-painting, and artful and artistic handling of the situations, he has done nothing better. It is a pity that we could not have had The Enemy of Society, with its strong autobiographic suggestiveness, first; but there is no more characteristic play upon the list, nor one more indicative of the author's mind and power—if only it be read with fairness and appreciation—than the one selected. The heroine of The Doll's House is its light-hearted pretty little mistress, Nora Helmer. She has been eight years the wife of Torvald Helmer, and is the mother of three bright vigorous children. She is her husband's doll. Torvald Helmer calls her his little lark, his squirrel, provides for her every fancy, hugely enjoys her charms of person, forgets that she has a soul—and is sure he loves her most devotedly. Nora has always been a child; her father, a man of easy conscience, has brought her up entirely unsophisticated. She knows nothing of the serious side of life—of its privileges, its real opportunities—nothing of the duties of the individual in a world of action. Nora is passive, she submits to be fondled and kissed. She is happy in her "doll-house," and apparently knows nothing outside her home, her husband, and her children. Nora loves her family with an ideal love. Love, in her thought, is an affection which has a right to demand sacrifices; and in turn is willing to offer up its own treasures, whether life, honor, or even its soul, be the stake. She is not merely ready for such a sacrifice—poor sentimental Nora!— she has already, though in part ignorantly, made it, and has committed a crime to save her husband's life.
There is much machinery to carry on the plot; but in spite of the abstract nature of the theme, the episodes are so dramatic and the dialogue so brisk and natural that the drama moves without perceptible jar, and our interest intensifies and the suspense increases until the denouement occurs. Herein lies the secret of the success of this and all the other of Ibsen's kindred dramas. Along with the...
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No work of Ibsen's, not even his beautiful Puritan opera of Brand, has excited so much controversy as A Doll's House. This was, no doubt, to a very great extent caused by its novel presentment of the mission of woman in modern society. In the dramas and romances of modern Scandinavia, and especially in those of Ibsen and Bjornson, the function of woman had been clearly defined. She was to be the helper, the comforter, the inspirer, the guerdon of man in his struggle towards loftier forms of existence. When man fell on the upward path, woman's hand was to be stretched to raise him; when man went wandering away on ill and savage courses, woman was to wait patiently over her spinning-wheel, ready to welcome and to pardon the returning prodigal; when the eyes of man grew weary in watching for the morning-star, its rays were to flash through the crystal tears of woman. But in A Doll's House he confronted his audience with a new conception. Woman was no longer to be the shadow following man, or if you will, a skin-leka attending man, but an independent entity, with purposes and moral functions of her own. Ibsen's favourite theory of the domination of the individual had hitherto been confined to one sex; here he carries it over boldly to the other. The heroine of A Doll's House, the puppet in that establishment pour rire ["not to be taken seriously"], is Nora Helmer, the wife of a Christiania barrister. The character is drawn upon childish lines, which often may remind the English reader of Dora in David Copperfield. She has, however, passed beyond the Dora stage when the play opens. She is the mother of children, she has been a wife for half a dozen years. But the spoiling of injudicious parents has been succeeded by the spoiling of a weak and silly husband. Nora remains childish, irrational, concentrated on tiny cares and empty interests, without self-control or self-respect. Her doctor and her husband have told her not to give way to her passion for "candy'' in any of its seductive forms; but she is introduced to us greedily eating macaroons on the sly, and denying that she has touched one when suspicion is aroused.
Here, then in Nora Helmer, the poet starts with the figure of a woman in whom the results of the dominant will of man, stultifying the powers and gifts of womanhood, are seen in their extreme development. Environed by selfish kindness, petted and spoiled for thirty years of dwarfed existence, this pretty, playful, amiable, and apparently happy little wife is really a tragical victim of masculine egotism. A nature exorbitantly...
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