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A Doll's House

A Feminist Play?

A Doll’s House is often considered to be the first “feminist” play, challenging the Victorian ideal of a woman’s role in marriage and the family.

 

When initially written back in 1879 — yes, 1879 — it was banned in Britain and Germany, and was the subject of great controversy and strident demands to “change the ending.” Not that it is the target of such contention today.  In fact, by modern standards the play is tame.

In Ibsen’s time, though, women were considered “fragile” and subservient to men in marriage.  Men controlled the home, the money, the family and the lifestyles.  Having a female character dare to walk out on a sacrosanct marriage was, well, unthinkable. Sacrilegious.

Nora, mother of three young children, is married to Torvald, who patronizingly refers to her as his “little skylark.” She is considered the “fluff’ of the household, a fixture, a possession, a trophy.  What Torvald doesn’t know is that while he was very ill, Nora borrowed money to sustain the family, but never told him, fearing it would wound his pride. Nora forged Torvald’s signature to get the money and then is blackmailed and pressured to repay money she does not have. Add to that mix a doctor who professes his love for her, and Nora’s life is about to implode.

She hides her secrets, hides the mail, contemplates suicide, and ultimately decides to tell her husband the truth. His reaction is egocentric.  He berates and degrades her. He tells her she is unfit to be a wife and mother but that he will condescend to “keep her” for the sake of their children.

Nora realizes that she must make her own choices and reaches within for the power to do what is in her own best interest.  When Nora leaves her home, husband and children, closing the front door behind her, it is one of the most iconic endings (beginnings) in theater history.

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A Doll’s House has been a landmark among plays for the last 140 years.  It is required reading in many secondary schools, and the subject of discussion by those who study feminist literature.  But here’s a critical question: Did Henrik Ibsen write A Doll’s House as a “feminist” story? 
 

On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Ibsen was feted at a meeting of the Norwegian Women’s Rights League in May of 1898.  In response to the acclamation he was given at this meeting, Ibsen said this:

"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."

As we all are, Henrik Ibsen was a creature of his time.  Hence, we can forgive him for the phrase, “the woman problem.”  That’s how feminism was labeled and discussed at the turn of that century.  What is more telling is Ibsen’s assertion that his job was to describe humanity.  Perhaps, then, the central dilemma the play presents — how to be yourself and true to yourself  — is not exclusive to women? 
 

Perhaps this is the play's most radical aspect.  Women's stories are often treated as a special subject of concern only to women.  Is it possible that A Doll’s House suggests that finding one's own “place” and path is a common human journey?  Perhaps Nora’s story is more basic than feminism, fundamentally relevant to both traditional sexes, to all genders and to every human soul on the planet? 
 

A Doll’s House remains one of the most widely performed plays around the world.  Perhaps the longevity and power of this story is in its universal appeal: it touches and resonates in all of us.