Right from its first performance Ibsen’s play has been misunderstood. From early on, A Doll’s House until recently, (when it began to be used mostly as a vehicle for feminism and what had been called the ‘woman question’), has not always been popular and a number of criticisms and misunderstandings have plagued it. Many had commented on the fact that within the society, during the time the play was set, that women were made to stay home and take care of the children and support their husbands and that it would be a travesty if they left all of this in order to pursue self-fulfillment. Yet more recently, its popularity has seemed to have steadily increased. Today, copiously commensurate with Roland Barthes’s 1967 dictum and theory that the author is dead,[i] —(heralding the fact that real fixed ‘meaning’ itself is dead and that texts are constructed out of precariously grouped citations which therefore allow unlimited and arbitrary open-ended interpretations to proliferate in spite of the author of the work’s original intent),[ii] today’s unfitting feminism has taken this up in further attempts to achieve greater power and freedom. The problem is that although Ibsen stated that he wrote the play to reflect humanist issues, in much of today’s culture, unfitting feminist interpretations which aim to rewrite the meaning of the play still abound.[iii] Regrettably, this is natural enough, since much of today’s feminism seems to still be at the centre of the power struggles that take place within the idea of marriage. Yet in spite of this auto-didacticism and arbitrarily organised consensus, which too often permits things merely stated as true as being true in today’s world if on the right side of political correctness, it is important to reinstate the Norwegian playwright’s original intentions for the play. These are extremely valid, especially since it was about the particular period it was written in, and therefore it should be made apparent that its original meaning is being stretched, altered radically and led away to suit the purpose of many of today’s commentators. Different from the spin that has been put on it Ibsen himself had actually stated what the play was about:
“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.[iv]
It is set in a rigid closely knit society in 19th century Norway, where Torvald’s wife, Nora, had once borrowed a large sum of money to help her husband recover from illness. However, instead of telling him about it, she has been paying it back secretly an instalment at a time with money she gets from him to pay for household expenses. All the while, she plays the role of a child and acts careless and like a doll, which, because of her behaviour, he often calls her . When Torvald is given a position as bank director, he takes it upon himself to dismiss a man who he thinks is guilty of forging his signature on a formal document. However, the man Nils Krogstad, was the person who had loaned the money to Nora. We then learn that it was she who had forged her father’s signature to get the money for her husband. Blackmail ensues from Krogstad who threatens he will reveal what Nora has done unless she convinces her husband not to dismiss him. But although she tries to convince Torvald, he will not take her seriously thinking her too childlike without the capacity to understand the world of money and business. When Torvald discovers that his wife was the one who forged her father’s signature, he wants to reject her even though she had done it to help him. However, after Krogstad changes his mind later she decides that she feels no more love for her husband and leaves him for her own independence. Throughout the play, under pressure in effect, Torvald and Nora are forced to exist on opposite sides of the coin, unable to reach any kind of common ground. At first they appear to complement each other as equally important people with equal value as human beings with the man being the provider and the woman the helper that holds him up, yet, due to societal pressures, by the final scene, they are arguing and are at cross purposes and fail to understand one another.
When the play premiered at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, 21 December 1879,[v] although it was met with great excitement and fascination,[vi] what had not proved to be so popular with the audience, was the aforementioned ending. As one critic in the Daily News[vii] in 1889 had pointed out, “…stranger still is the change that comes over her character and her conduct in the end in deserting her home, her husband, and above all her children, simply because she finds that her husband is angry with her, and inclined to take a selfish view of the dilemma when the exposure comes.[viii] A report written during the time of the first performance by a writer also displeased by Ibsen’s ending had stated,
“A Doll’s House” shows, like many of his other dramatic works, that no matter how ingenious his talent, how logically correct the psychological development, and how brilliant his dialogue, he has very often a problem finding an ending, which at once satisfies himself and his audience; and he is then easily tempted to put the effect above the truth which he has sought to portray in all of the preceding action with great success.”[ix]
Today, it is also this ending, that continues to be misunderstood and misinterpreted it would seem. Spurred on by it in particular, some commentators today, attempting to make their point, interpret and find it convenient to use the character of Nora as a symbol of female independence from men and from a society built by men for men that had assembled the world for themselves to act in. Yet, according to the literary critic Joan Templeton, Ibsen was “a poet of the truth of the human soul” and that Nora’s leaving her ‘doll’s house’ at the end of the play is entirely separate to the play’s essential meaning.[x] As Robert Brustein has also explained, “Ibsen, was completely indifferent to the ‘woman question’ except as a metaphor for individual freedom in a humanist sense”.[xi] In fact, due to the oppression of society upon them both, Nora is confused and feels stifled by a marriage which makes her blind to the fact that Torvald really does love her. As a result, by the end of Act Three she feels forced to turn her back on him and her children, sever ties with society and the world and goes into the snow to make a new life for herself.
Hence, while this last scene of the play has always been one of the most well-known and contentious in modern theatre and debated unceasingly, we need to understand that much of what Torvald says to her is actually correct in that if any information related to his wife’s illegal conduct leaks out, all he has worked so hard for will be destroyed. Therefore, Torvald’s real motivation for the way he behaves is due to the fact that in the rigid close-knit society that they live in, losing his job not only means that he will completely lose his status and role but also his self and identity. The real reason he behaves in the way he does to Nora rejecting what she says is that everything that gives him life and what he believes in, is in danger of being lost. One should also note, that after the danger passes in his mind of his losing his position in society, after he finds Krogstad’s second letter, he becomes his gentler self again. This is probably because Ibsen wants us to know that Torvald feels his identity returned and re-established. As such, Torvald’s words to Nora, “I forgive everything” should in fact be seen as a statement provided by an honest and sincere man and that saying this to her means that he intends to help her solve any problems they still may have and how everything will be all right since society will now not find out.
In fact, Ibsen shows that Torvald wants the house,—the ‘doll’s house’, they are living in to reflect what society wants, while also endeavouring to show that it also reflects what Nora wants, which he uses to explore the idea of personal freedom for both characters. To reveal the effects of her rejection of society, Ibsen makes Nora more superficial and materialistic in contrast to her husband, revealing that this superficiality comes as a dysfunctional symptom triggered by her rejection of what society wants, causing her to act a little crazily as if her behaviour were a side-effect of her non-conformity. Yet instead, for some commentators today, this is often interpreted to mean that only women are in the situation of being repressed even though the situation in the play is that both Torvald and Nora are repressed.[xii] In fact, Ibsen seems to be really using Nora as a symbol for individual freedom revealing that Torvald is more trapped in the end than she is, since he is the one more bound to society and cannot escape its expectations, while she can and does, which reflects Ibsen’s humanist position rather than an unfitting feminist one.[xiii] Yet, although it would seem that Ibsen appears to shows this, many feminist writers today wishing to gain further ground, misinterpret and renovate it to mean that Nora—(who they see as representing all women in general), wants freedom from Torvald—(who would represent all men in general). However, what Ibsen seems to be saying throughout the play is that in order to be free, one must be free from repression and to show this, he makes Nora the one that is lucky to escape whilst Torvald does not have such luck but remains more closely bound to society.
[i] See Barthes, R., ‘The Death of The Author: Roland Barthes and The Collapse of Meaning’, http://filmslie.com/death-of-the-author-roland-barthes-meaning/. See also Barthes, R. ‘Image-Music-Text, Fontana Press, Illinois, USA, 1993.
[iii] See ‘A Doll’s House: Theme Analysis’, http://www.novelguide.com/a-dolls-house/theme-analysis.
[iv] Ibsen, letters, 337, cited in Templeton, J., ‘The Doll House Backlash Criticism Feminism and Ibsen’, http://www.erhsnyc.org/ourpages/auto/2015/5/7/67424378/dollshousecriticalessay.pdf.
[v] See ‘Reviews of First Production’, National Library of Norway: All About Henrik Ibsen, http://ibsen.nb.no/id/11183651.
[viii] Rice, E., ‘Reception of A Doll’s House’, https://prezi.com/2bz47g-yrdta/reception-of-a-dolls-house/.
[x] Ibsen, letters, 337, cited in Templeton, J., ‘The Doll House Backlash Criticism Feminism and Ibsen’, http://www.erhsnyc.org/ourpages/auto/2015/5/7/67424378/dollshousecriticalessay.pdf.
[xi] Brustein, R., cited by Templeton, J., ‘Ibsen’s Women’, Cambridge University Press, England, 2009, p. 111. In fact, A Doll’s House was published in 1879 during Ibsen’s middle period of writing, which was when he had presented some of his most anti-establishment ideas. Ibsen came from a middle-class family whose financial stability was challenged whilst growing up and in a sense, rather than always allowing our consciousness to accept today’s unfitting interpretations all too tacitly by default, the play in addition to being about humanism, may also be seen as a way to look at how wealth can often control one’s whole experience of life.
[xii] See ‘A Doll’s House: Theme Analysis’, http://www.novelguide.com/a-dolls-house/theme-analysis; see also ‘A Doll’s House: Feminism, The Untold Story’, https://sites.google.com/site/feminismtheuntoldstory/feminish/a-doll-s-house.
[xiii] For another feminist reading on the subject and what I believe to be yet another misreading of Ibsen’s play, refer to Burton, E., ‘Feminism and Women’s Suffrage in A Doll’s House’, by Henrik Ibsen, https://prezi.com/l14yynzkb7mp/feminism-and-womens-suffrage-in-a-dolls-house-by-henrik-ib/.