Is A Doll’s House a play about feminism or humanism?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The definition of humanism is:

any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

Under this definition, the play A Doll's House definitely reunites themes that deal with the preservation of human dignity, namely, Nora's.

However, if you were to conduct a feminist analysis of A Doll's House, you would have to consider the literal definition of "feminism," which is:

the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men

That said, the play would lean toward feminism.

The plot of the play revolves around a female main character whose key issues are related to the fact that she is a woman. Moreover, the aspects of "social and political" equality for women are also evident in the play because Ibsen makes it clear, through the actions of Krogstad and Torvald, and through showing the social rules of the time, that women, like Nora, are treated unfairly on a regular basis. He makes it known, without taking sides, that Nora is one of thousands of women of her generation, and even prior to it, whose dignity and human rights are entirely dependent on a male-dominated society.

Added to this is Ibsen's famous quote regarding his play:

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view

That statement alone encompasses the definition of feminism. Again, for these reasons, you would want to consider A Doll's House a feminist play.

Another indicator of this play being more feminist than humanist is the backlash that it received upon its first staging. The fact that the play touched the nerve of the society that it was mirroring is very telling. The shock was so enormous, it is said, that some people would make it a rule not to discuss the play even during their tea time or during any type of social gathering. The idea of Nora, "a woman," leaving her family and her household duties was so bold for its time that it was considered immoral.

A lot has been written about the effects of the play and how it was so controversial, which is indicative of the fact that thinking about women's rights during that time was unheard of. For more information, I recommend that you read Joan Templeton's article "The Doll House backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen" (1989).

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This play is commonly associated with feminism, but it can be more accurately described as a play about humanism as humanism relates to human dignity (regardless of gender) and identity.

Nora reaches a crisis point in her identity and in her dignity in this play, discovering the inadequacy of her role as mother and wife as it stands. She feels she must find a way to create her own identity, one that is worthy of respect. Living with Helmer, Nora has been patronized and belittled and her opinions have been fed to her by her husband.

When Nora realizes the inequity of her situation, she also recognizes her own self worth.

However, though Nora rebels against Helmer's patronizing attitude and claims a new identity in the end, she is only one of two female characters in the play.

Mrs. Linde is quite opposite of Nora in her relationship to the standards of femininity. Mrs. Linde embraces her role as caretaker, expressing a lack of fulfillment when she has no one to look after. She also works, gaining a position at the bank. She is not subject ot the same assumptions of weakness that hamper Nora. 

Seeing that each female character relates to the notions of feminism and to accepted social roles differently, we can hardly argue that this play is a one-sided promotion for the progressive values of feminism. Rather, the play expresses a consistent view on the value of dignity in one's character and the need for identity to be founded on positive choices, which defines humanism. 

Mrs. Linde chooses her path. Nora chooses her path as well, in the end. 

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"A Doll’s House" is not a play "about" either feminism or humanism. The play is about the struggles characters endure in their lives in the world. Nora, the protagonist, and Christine Linde both struggle with the problem of how women can deal with money in a society in which middle class women did not have the career opportunities that men did. While the play does address the specific issues of how women could live their lives in a changing world and the degree to which a society that made them dependent on men limited their personal and moral choices, this would be more accurately described as being about the role of women and their choices rather than about "feminism" per se, as feminism as an ideology or intellectual system isn't really discussed in the play. While critics can apply feminist theories to a play, that is quite different from the play being "about" feminism.

As for humanism, before one could argue that the play was "about" it, one would need to define which particular variant of humanism. One might argue, for example, that in the wake of Renaissance Humanism, the arts became increasingly secularized. One could not imagine this play having been written or performed in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, that does not make the play "about" humanism, but rather asserts that the social, philosophical, and religious changes ensuing from the Renaissance were among the preconditions making Ibsen's drama possible.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While A Doll's House is in part about feminism, the play is, overall, a statement about humanism. Nora is a woman who is compromised by her gender and its limitations, as she has difficulty making or borrowing money on her own and must play the part of a doll or a child to get what she wants. For example, in act 1, her husband, Helmer, refers to her as "little featherhead," along with other monikers that show he treats her as a silly and inferior being.

However, the play also suggests that Helmer's treatment of Nora and her need to use subterfuge to borrow money degrade him as well. The societal degradation of women has an effect on their marriage, as Nora feels she can't be honest with her husband. In the end, she leaves him, as she finds that she can't be a full human within the context of her marriage. Therefore, the play is about humanism and the different limitations of both men and women in the context of societal constraints and roles.