An Analysis of Feminism in A Dolls House, a Play by Henrik Ibsen
In A Dolls House, Ibsen presents a view of the world that is unconventional to say the least. He breaks from tradition to compose a play that deals with what were at the time controversial social issues, and he presents a view of these issues that was highly unpopular. In A Dolls House as well as in many of his other plays from his modern period, Ibsen was criticized because he dared to break new ground and to challenge the accepted values of his society. So, was Ibsens play a feminist work, devoted to helping women in society, or was it designed to show a different perhaps more universal message.
Many critics who have read, seen, and commented on A Dolls House have stated that it is most definitely a feminist work. However, Ibsen himself never forthrightly said that his play was indeed feminist. Yet, something in the play obviously disturbed the man driven society of his time. In fact, several theater productions decided to change the ending of A Dolls House in order to make it more acceptable. I believe that there is no denying the presence of feminist views, characters, and actions in the play. However, I am not convinced that feminism was Ibsens main message in the play. In order to find the feminist views in the play, we must first define feminism. Feminism can be defined according to Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary as the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
If you had never before read A Dolls House, and you opened it up to read Act 1, your first reaction would be, “This is one of the most sexist things I have ever heard.” You wouldnt be able to understand how anyone could call this play a feminist work. You are quickly introduced to the two main characters: Torvald, The dominant, wise, caring, smart and prosperous husband, and Nora, the meek, submissive, foolish, and naive housewife. Torvald is the “man of the house”; he earns the money and works hard for his family. He is the boss and everyone obeys him unquestioningly. Nora is a “spendthrift” who does whatever will please her dear husband. She spends her day cooking, cleaning, and helping to care for the kids.
The men of Ibsens day must have found this scene to be most delighting. As you read on, you can begin to see that Nora fills the role of Torvalds pet, his “little squirrel”. She is his to do what he pleases with. She is his Doll. If the avid feminists arent to disgusted to read on, they may find some hope in the character of Mrs. Linde. Mrs. Linde is the first sign of feminism in the play. She is an independent woman who provides for herself and lives off her own income. She is not submissive, nor does she feel like she needs a man to look after her, as Nora seems to.
The play goes on much in the same way, we meet the other characters, none of whom are truly feminist, but none of which are as obviously sexist as Torvald. Nora continues to play the role of the good wife. Even when she fears that she may have ruined the families (i.e. Torvalds) good name, instead of doing what she has thinks is best for herself, she feels she must do what is best for her family (i.e. Torvald). She believes that she should commit suicide rather then risk contaminating the lives of her husband or children.
In Act 3, however, everything changes. Noras mistakes are revealed, but instead of being submissive to her husband, Nora decides to stand up for herself. She realizes that Torvald is holding her back, and that his biased view of the world is keeping her down. She then does the most truly outrageous thing and in an act of what some might call pure feminism, she leaves her husband and children to strike out on a new life of her own.
As you can see, there is definitely some degree of feminism in A Dolls House. However, maybe feminism is only a small part of the issue that Ibsen is really addressing. Perhaps feminism is a tool used by Ibsen to convey his greater message to the audience. I believe that this message is one of individualism. Individualism is a theory maintaining the independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests. Using these definitions we can see that feminism seams to be a part of individualism.
In the play, all of the protagonists seem to promote and accept individualism, and the antagonists try to prevent individualism. Lets start with the protagonists. Nora starts out as an unknowing victim, she has no traces of individualism, but as the play progresses she turns into a self-sufficient, freethinking person, a true individualist. Mrs. Linde is from the start both a feminist and an individualist. She relies on herself and is limited by no one. Dr. Rank seems to support individual thought and expression, unlike Torvald, he does not try to control others or to limit others freedom. Instead he is a supporting loving and caring friend, who shows Nora her self worth as a person. Now, on to the antagonist.
Torvald is definitely not an individualist. He tries to force others to rely on him. He enjoys his power over others and likes to treat people as his toys. He does not respect Nora, he simply commands her. Krogstad starts out as the character everyone hates, he is oppressive and cruel. He relies on others and tries to live off them. He will do whatever he can to get what he wants from others. However, as the play progresses, Krogstad develops into a character who helps others to develop. With the help of Mrs. Linde, Krogstad becomes an individualist character. He decides to strike out on his own and to change his ways.
So, the play can also be said to contain themes pertaining to individualism. Many of Ibsens other plays from this period also stressed individualism especially as it pertained to individuals being oppressed by society. In fact, in almost all of his plays, Ibsen addressed problems that he saw in his society. In this way, A Dolls House is very effective. The play attacks societies oppression of women and also its oppression of the individual.
I believe that Ibsen used both of these ideas so that they would complement each other and make an even more powerful message. It would not have been as effective if a dutiful husband had decided to leave his friends and family to start on a new life. Men leaving their families was probably something that happened every now and then and was not nearly as controversial as a woman leaving her dutiful husband and her children. Ibsen loved being controversial, it forced people to think about and often see his point.
Ibsen often stressed the idea of society holding the individual as a prisoner, and his plays very often show an individual breaking from the chains and bonds of society. In A Dolls House, Ibsen uses the wife (Nora) who is oppressed and kept prisoner by her husband (Torvald) as a metaphor for the individual who is oppressed by society. When Nora leaves her husband and family to live on her own and for herself, it represents a person who breaks the chains with which society binds him and truly and freely lives. Ibsen is not supporting the abandonment of loved ones, he is simply supporting the individuals right to be held prisoner by no one. If your family makes you a prisoner, then you must leave your family.
If your society makes you a prisoner, then you must leave your society. He does not endorse putting yourself above another, he endorses putting personal freedom before society. He looks for a society in which none are oppressed and no ones freedom is compromised. He believes that the individual must find freedom in his self. As the main character in Ibsens An Enemy of the People, a play with a similar theme about society, states, “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
It is undeniable that A Dolls House has aspects of feminism, but I do not believe that it was created with the purpose of being a feminist work, at least not solely. A Dolls House has a deeper theme, one of individualism and breaking free from all that keeps us down. Ibsen wants to show people that their society does indeed hold people prisoner. He wants people to realize how they are being kept prisoner by the accepted beliefs of society and also by others. This definitely applies to feminism because women were and sometimes still are oppressed by society. The play is a feminist work, but it is much grander than that, it is a work promoting true freedom and individual rights. It encourages us to break loose, learn for ourselves, think for ourselves, act for ourselves, be ourselves, and most importantly be true to ourselves.
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023