To what extent is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a feminist play?
In recent decades feminist critics have attempted to appropriate A Doll’s House as a feminist text, but they have been met with a barrage of criticism from some critics who prefer to stress other aspects of the play. In one sense to call it a feminist play is, of course, an anachronism, since the feminist movement did not begin until the late 1960s and early 70s, but, nonetheless, Nora’s abandonment of Torvald and her children at the end of the play can still be seen as a rebellion against the prevailing patriarchal values of European society.
In this research paper on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House I will examine the question of whether it should be seen as a feminist play, by examining the views of certain critics, but also by examining briefly some aspects of the play’s performance history. There are new productions of A Doll’s House all over the world, which suggest that whether we label it a feminist lay or not, it is still seen as a play that has something relevant to say to modern audiences. Jaeger (p. 259) claims that “The close of A Doll’s House gave rise to dissentient criticism” – at the very first performance. One of the first reviews of the first performance stressed its controversial nature in its presentation of women: “He [Ibsen] has wanted to portray marriage as an arrangement which, instead of educating the individuals... often corrupts them.” (‘The Country’, 1879, review of A Doll’s House).
However, Ibsen himself managed to give support to those who do not see the play as feminist by saying, at a 70th Birthday Dinner held for him by the Norwegian Women Right’s League:
I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement… True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. (quoted Templeton 28).
Ibsen was even prepared to add a fourth act in which Nora returned to Torvald in penitence in order to get the play performed in Germany (Templeton 34). Male critics who have argued against A Doll’s House being a feminist play have taken various approaches. Many claim that Nora’s gender is immaterial and that the play is about the human problem of self-discovery. Adams (1958 45) argued:
A Doll’s House represents a woman imbued with the idea of becoming a person, but it proposes nothing categorical about women being people; in fact, its real theme has nothing to do with the sexes.
This attitude was repeated by Meyer (1971 457):
A Doll’s House is no more about women’s rights than Shakespeare’s Richard II is about the divine right of kings, or Ghosts about syphilis. Its theme is the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she is and to strive to become that person.
According to Templeton, other criticisms of Nora have revolved around the fact that Nora commits a criminal act by forging the papers to get the loan that saves her husband’s life – ignoring the fact that this is an entirely well-intentioned act which is only a crime because she is a woman. Other criticism has focused on her immaturity and girlish flirtatiousness – not acknowledging that she is arguably playing a role that Torvald wants her to play, that she is conforming to the stereotype of wifely behavior that Torvald expects and wants from her. Templeton (2004) argues that Ibsen’s contemporaries saw it as a deeply feminist play and would be surprised to read some modern male criticism; she quotes Havelock Ellis, writing in 1890 about the influence of Ibsen’s play:
The great wave of emancipation now sweeping across the civilized world means nominally nothing more than that women should have the right to education, freedom to work, and political enfranchisement – nothing in short but the bare ordinary rights of an adult human creature in a civilized state. (Templeton 32)
These anti-feminist critics of A Doll’s House do not, perhaps, pay sufficient attention to the context of late 19th century society nor to the play’s recent production history.
Nineteenth century Norway, in common with North America and the countries of Western Europe, was a highly patriarchal society. There had been a limited amount of debate on the question of women’s rights, but the speed of change was lethargic and slow. In 1879, the year of the play’s first production, Norwegian woman had no power over their financial concerns and were only allowed to borrow money with their husband’s consent – this irrational injustice drives the plot, since Nora must keep concealed from her husband the fact that she has taken a loan for his benefit and the situation is further complicated because Krogstad is blackmailing Nora, because he is aware that she has taken the loan and committed the crime of forgery. At the time of the play working opportunities for middle-class women were very limited, being largely limited to low–paid clerical work. (Larsen, passim). Married women were simply expected to have children and run the home and certainly not to work at all. Divorce was fairly easy and inexpensive, but needed the consent of both husband and wife – and Torvald makes it clear that he will never agree to divorce – which should increase our admiration at Nora’s courage in leaving at the end of the play: she will become wholly isolated from society because she has voluntarily left her family.
From its first production the play was the subject of controversy because of its ending, but its importance was also recognized. Moi (p. 264) argues that it is the first text in Western literature to portray a woman as totally independent; Rekdal (p. 150) goes even further to suggest that Nora becomes an “individual beyond gender” by the end of the play and in one sense this is true. Nora says to Torvald at the end of the play: “I believe that before anything else, I am a human being, just as much a one as you are… or at least I’m going to turn myself into one… I want to think everything out for myself and make my own decisions.” (Ibsen p. 64) Larsen asserts:
In no other play has literature exerted such a far-reaching influence on all problems of society. It is therefore natural that the question of women’s rights should break through and become a national issue. (p. 471)
In 1888 Norwegian women were given the right to manage their own money and possessions, and access to university education was granted in 1882, so the play can be seen as having had almost immediate social effects. However, the effects of a single work of art are hard to quantify, since the question of women’s rights was being discussed and explored all over the civilized world. What is still true, now in the early 21st century, is that gender stereotypes and gender inequalities exist all over the world and this explains, perhaps, the play’s continuing relevance and ability to shock, and why directors and theater companies keep performing it.
The Helmers’ marriage is based on deception and lies. Ibsen’s portrayal of the marriage is “to stress the aspects of society and personal dishonesty that hinder personal development.” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). Torvald needs to have complete control over Nora, whether it is a question of macaroons, dresses or her financial secrets. He treats her like a child and the names he calls her are evidence of his infantilization of her:: “little songbird”, “squirrel”, “lark”, “ little featherhead”, “little skylark”, “little person”, little woman” – all have the effect of stressing his dominance, her decorative function and also serve to disempower her, dehumanize her and make her subservient to him. They may seem harmless and loving endearments, but they show us very clearly the gender/power relationship in this marriage. As Yuehua writes of Torvald:
He sees women as both child-like, helpless creatures detached from reality and totally dependent on men for support. His attitude towards his wife is a mixture of a sense of possession and sexual passion. (p. 81)
However, it appears to be a very happy marriage in which both Torvald and Nora are content: they are very well-off; they have four beautiful children; Torvald has just been promoted. But Nora is kept in a wholly subservient and weakened position by the way Torvald’s treats her, although she has shown her ability for freely independent thought and decisive action, in arranging the loan to help Torvald and, furthermore, in secretly re-paying it. To a certain extent, this might be argued to be Nora’s problem – her innocence. She cannot comprehend why an act that saved her husband’s life should arouse such vituperation, such criticism, especially as she has worked very hard and against the convention of wives not working, to pay off the loan. In one sense, her flirtatious and girlishly coquettish behavior towards Torvald, especially in Act One, is a deception, because she has already shown that she has the capacity to take independent and adult decisions and to act with responsibly: her marriage and the subservient, childish role she plays in it is merely another level of deception. As Yuehua puts it: