Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was first published in 1879 . It was a coming of age play that dealt with the lives and anxieties of the bourgeoisie women in Victorian Norway. Feminism is the dominant theme, as Ibsen investigated the tragedy of being born as a bourgeoisie female in a society ruled by a patriarchal law.
Feminism in Ibsen’s major prose plays should be considered from the four perspectives of the double standard and marriage, and the emancipated woman and motherhood. It is telling that beliefs in differences between masculine and feminine are voiced by unsympathetic, hypocritical characters. In The Pillars of Society the priggish, platitudinous school-master Rorlund reads from Women In Service of Society to a group of town ladies dubbed the Society for Moral Delinquents in an attempt to uphold their dedication to the purity of the family and the community ; a wholly farcical value in the light of the lies, pretence and selfishness on which this society is based. Likewise, Karsten Bernick, observes tha “here the women are content to assume a seemly, if modest status”. Similarly, Torvald Helmer of A Doll’s House, whose most avid concern is for keeping up appearances regardless of the psychological cost, is given to statements about feminine helplessness and childishness versus manly strength and resourcefulness. A particularly blatant example of the double standard is found in Ghosts where Pastor Manders expressed moral censure for the Alving’s former servant Johanna as a fallen woman but scoffs at Mrs Alving’s characterisation of her deceased husband as a fallen man.
Ibsen was inspired to write A Doll’s House by the terrible events in the life of his protege Laura Peter san Kieler, a Norwegian journalist. Married to a man with a phobia of debt, she had secretly borrowed money to finance an Italian journey necessary for her husband’s recovery from tuberculosis. She worked frantically to reimburse the loan, exhausting herself in turning out hackwork, and when her earnings proved insufficient, out of desperation, she forgd a check. On discovering the crime, her husband demanded a legal separation on the grounds that she was an unfit mother and had her placed in an asylum.
Throughout the affair, Ibsen, her confidant and adviser, was greatly disturbed ; he brooded on the wife , “forced to spill her heart’s blood ” on the oblivious husband. The conflict between love and law, between the heart and the head, between the feminine and the masculine is the moral center of A Doll’s House. But Ibsen would sharpen life’s blured edges to meet art’s demand for plausibility. The heroine would be a housewife, not a writer, and the hackwork not bad novels, but copying ; her antagonist the husband, would not be a cruel brute but a kind guardian. The Helmers would be normal and this normality would transform a sensational fait divers into a devastating picture of the ordinary relations between wife and husband.
Norma Helmer is the best illustration of the illusioned woman who lives in a society where the male oppresses the female and reduces to a mere doll or plaything. Nora Helmer is that doll living in her fake doll house, which reinforces the fragile idea of a stable family living under a patriarchal and traditional roof. One can argue that Nora Helmer and the other female figures portrayed in A Doll’s House are the best models of the “second sex” or the “other” that the French revolutionary writer Simone de Beauvoir discussed in her essay, The Second Sex. De Beauvoir argues that throughout history, woman has been viewed as a “hindrance or a prison”. Aristotle also said,” The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. We should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.” Woman is always depicted as secondary to man. She does not exist as an entity by herself but as the “Other”.
In her husband’s eyes, Nora is nothing but a silly “squirrel”, a “little skylark”, a “song bird” or a cute “scatterbrain” whose thoughts are nonsensical and typical to any other woman’s. Since her childhood, Nora has been regarded as the “other” by her father. Then, her father handed her to her husband who treated her like a valued possession. This is best depicted by Nora’s self-realization and awakening towards the end of the play: “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.”
Ibsen’s depiction of the weak and docile woman is reminiscent of the 18th century revolutionary writer Mary Wollstonecraft who argues in her essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that women are taught since their infancy to have the “softness of temper, outward obedience, scrupulous attention”. Once accompanied by the gift of beauty, these attributes will ensure them the protection of man. This is echoed very loudly in Torvald’s words, “Poor little frightened songbird…Rest assured; my wings are broad enough to shelter you. How lovely and secure our home, Nora. A sanctuary for you. I’ll keep you here like a hunted dove I’ve rescued unhurt from the hawk’s talons. …For a man there’s something intensely reassuring and pleasurable about knowing that he’s forgiven his wife—and that he’s forgiven her sincerely, with all his heart. It’s as if she becomes somehow doubly his possession, as if he’s allowed her to be reborn, so that in some way she becomes both his wife and his child.” Moreover, Mary Wollstonecraft stresses that man tries to secure the good conduct of a woman by reducing her to a state of innocence and childhood. She states, “Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term of weakness.” This is very evident in Torvald’s treating Nora as a child. He forbids her to eat macaroons; he makes her dance for him, dress up and recite for him. On the other hand, not only is Nora treated as a spoiled child but also as a sexual object that her husband fantasizes about.
Thus towards the end of the play, Nora realizes that it is time that she regained her status as being the “One” after a long time of submission, which established her role as the “Other”. As Simone de Beauvoir has stressed, Nora has been taught not to take but to receive. She has gained only what her husband and father have been willing to grant her. In this sense, Nora’s domestic life in such a patriarchal society is just a reflection of the middle class women of her time that De Beauvoir depicted vividly in her essay. “They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men—fathers or husbands—more firmly than they are to other women. If they belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women.”
Nora’s famous monologue in the last scene is thus a compendium of everything that early feminism denounced. When Nora accuses her father and husband of having committed a great sin against her by treating her like a doll, she illustrates Wollstonecraft’s major charge in the Vindication, that women are brought up to be “pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue” as if they were “gentle domestic brutes”. When she describes herself as a doll wife who has lived “by doing tricks” she is an axample of Margaret Fuller’s charge that man “wants no woman, but only a girl to play ball with”. When she realizes that she is unfit to do anything in life and announces her remedy – “I have to try to educate myself” – she expresses nineteenth – century feminism’s universally agreed-upon base for women’s emancipation; in telling Torvald she does not know how to be his wife, she paraphrases Harriet Martineau in “On Female Education”, which argues the necessity of training women to be “companions to men instead of play-things or servants”. And finally, when Nora discovers that she has duties higher than those of “wife and mother”, obligations she names as “duties to herself” she is voicing the most basic of feminist principle ‘ that women, no less than men possess a moral and intellectual nature and have not only a right but a duty to develop it : “the grand end of their exertions should be to unfold their own faculties.”
Nora’s biggest fear is her husband hearing that she had forged her father’s signature to get the loan, which she needed to travel to Italy. Her motives were absolutely selfless because that trip saved her sick husband’s life. Nora knew that the revelation would have put her husband’s reputation at stake, but she felt deep inside that her husband would sacrifice his reputation to defend her as soon as he came to know that she did that to save his life.
Yet, the doll house is shattered as well as Nora’s illusion. The doll finally recognizes that her role has been nothing but the “Other”. She is aware that it is she who agreed to the definition of the “One” and the” Other”. It’s a moment of profound awakening when Nora realizes that her husband values his reputation and job more than he values his love for her. Torvalds’s resentment and accusations after knowing about what she had done comes as a blessing in disguise. We hear Torvald telling her, “For all these years, for eight years now, you’ve been my pride and joy, and now I find you’re a hypocrite and a liar, and worse, worse than that…a criminal! The whole thing is an abyss of ugliness! You ought to be ashamed.” She decides bravely to abandon her family to escape the restrictive confines of the patriarchal society she lives in. She is resolved to go out into the world and gain real experience. She is determined to think out everything for herself and be able to make her own decisions.
The woman figure in A Doll’s House is reduced, as Susan Bordo believes, to a “text of culture” on which all cultural aspects of gender difference are reinforced. That is, the female ideology is supported and reinforced by the social structure in which women have little social, political, or economic power. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen paints a bleak picture of the sacrificial role held by women of all economic classes in his society. In general, the play’s female characters exemplify Nora’s assertion that even though men refuse to sacrifice their integrity, “hundreds of thousands of women have.” The women figures in A Doll’s House are depicted as socially and psychologically dependent on men in the institution of marriage and motherhood. In addition to Nora, we have the character of Mrs. Linde who was forced to break up with her fiancé and marry another man who could support her, her mother, and two brothers. We also come across the character of the nurse who had to give up her child conceived outside the wedlock in order to keep her job.
Though Nora is economically advantaged in comparison to the play’s other female characters, she nevertheless leads a difficult life because society dictates that Torvald be the marriage’s dominant partner. Torvald issues decrees and condescends to Nora, and Nora must hide her loan from him because she knows Torvald could never accept the idea that his wife (or any other woman) had helped save his life. Furthermore, she must work in secret to pay off her loan because it is illegal for a woman to obtain a loan without her husband’s permission. By motivating Nora’s deception, the attitudes of Torvald—and society—leave Nora vulnerable to Krogstad’s blackmail.
Nora’s abandonment of her children can also be interpreted as an act of self- sacrifice. Despite Nora’s great love for her children—manifested by her interaction with them and her great fear of corrupting them—she chooses to leave them. Nora truly believes that the nanny will be a better mother and that leaving her children is in their best interest.
The roots of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House can be traced to Plato’s Allegory of Cave. Nora’s life with her husband is an illusion, and their marriage is a masquerade. As she confronts Torvald, she says, “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.” Thus, her life in the doll house was like the life of the people chained in the cave. What she saw was not the true reality, but the shadow of reality. She was content with her role as the subservient female whose fate was determined by that of her husband. She also never questioned her inferior predetermined position in the relationship. This is evidenced in her complete confidence in hiding the truth about borrowing money in order to save Torvald’s health. About that she told Mrs. Linde, “it would be a terrible blow to Torvald’s masculine self-esteem; he’d find it so painful and humiliating to think that he owed me something. It would completely unbalance our relationship. It would be the end of our beautiful, happy home.” Thus, Nora emerges from that cave that showed her the distorted reality. Upon realizing her value in her husband’s life, the true reality dazzles her like the bright sun. She realizes that she has been living with a stranger for eight years; she becomes aware of the crippling society that she is living in. Therefore, she decides to leave the dark cave and embrace the luminous freedom that she grants herself.
Nora’s understanding of the meaning of freedom evolves over the course of the play. In the first act, she believes that she will be totally “free” as soon as she has repaid her debt, because she will have the opportunity to devote herself fully to her domestic responsibilities. After Krogstad blackmails her, however, she reconsiders her conception of freedom and questions whether she is happy in Torvald’s house, subjected to his orders and edicts. By the end of the play, Nora seeks a new kind of freedom. She wishes to be relieved of her familial obligations in order to pursue her own ambitions, beliefs, and identity.
A Doll’s House is a revolutionary play that exposes the defects of the Victorian patriarchal society. According to Ibsen, “A woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”
“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,” Nora tells Torvald in a moment of self-realization. This has been the woman’s quest throughout history. Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House triumphs over all obstacles and finally recognizes her duty towards herself which had always been neglected. Profoundly disturbing in its day, A Doll’s House remains so still because it is the plea for woman as a human being, neither more or less than man.
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