Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll House” is now being commonly referred to as one of the finest examples of feminist literature of 19th century. The theme of women’s liberation can be found throughout play’s entirety, even though this theme is being spared of aggressive undertones, with which we usually associate feminist literature of second half of 20th century. Partially, this can be explained by the fact that “A Doll House” has been written by a man who had never dealt with a gender identity crisis, while being simply interested in portraying spousal relationships between men and women in utterly realistic manner. In this paper we will discuss Ibsen’s play within a context of how it tackles the issue of spousal inadequacy, while aiming to expose author’s ideas, in regards to the subject matter, as such that continue to remain fully valid even in our time.
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Play’s storyline cannot be described as being overly complex. Nora Helmer is a married woman, who had helped her husband Torvald Helmer (bank clerk) once by borrowing a large sum of money from the bank, by the mean of having forged her dad’s signature. Torvald is completely unaware of it. Initially, he is being presented to us as a loving husband, who treats Nora in particularly affectionate manner, even though he also appears to be utterly ignorant as to Nora’s basic humanity, while continuing to think of her as pretty but soulless doll. After having discovered a truth that the money he and Nora had spent on having a honeymoon trip, was obtained illegally, Torvald becomes enraged over his wife’s presumed infidelity. In its turn, this opens Nora’s eyes on the fact that she has been loyal to an unworthy man, who is being incapable of addressing life’s challenges outside of norms of conventional morality and for whom continuous observation of social customs meant so much more than ensuring his wife’s happiness. After having realized it, Nora decides in favor of leaving Torvald, who in her eyes has been downsized from a respectful head of the household into a moralistic mediocrity, totally incapable of appreciating Nora in a way she truly deserved.
It is not by a pure accident that the profession of a bank clerk is being traditionally held in contempt by many people. Apparently, this is because of this profession’s utterly mechanistic subtleties, which explains why classical works of European literature usually describe bank clerks as being pretentiously moralistic and spiritually shallow individuals. Throughout play’s entirety, Torvald never ceases to give Nora lectures on morality, without realizing that if it was not up to his wife’s “moral wickedness”, he would have died – it is namely because Torvald was able to spend time in Italy, which had restored his ailing health. In its turn, this brings us to discussion of one of “A Doll House” most important characteristics – in this Ibsen’s play, major characters’ physical appearance and the extent of their intellectual refinement do not reflect their existential value as individuals.
For example – initially, Nora is being shown to us as very naïve woman who takes a great pleasure in lightweight pursuits, such as decorating Christmas tree. The way she goes about dealing with petty domestic problems and the way she talks to Torvald and play’s other characters, prompt us to think of her as nothing but a regular housewife, who is not being burdened with too much intelligence. It is only gradually that we get to realize the full scope of Nora’s individuality, as someone who is being deeply affiliated with masculine values of decisiveness, courage and will-power.
At the end of the play, Nora reveals her true self by coming up with powerful statements, which her husband cannot effectively address: “I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you wanted it like that. You and father have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life. Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was father’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls” (Ibsen, Act 3). Alternatively; whereas, at the beginning of the play Torvald seems to be nothing less of a physical embodiment of the concept of manhood, by the time play ends, he is being revealed to us as someone who should have been born a woman, due to his moralistic-mindedness. Even the character that plays the role of a classical villain in this Ibsen’s play – Krogstad, is also being shown to us as psychologically complex individuals, whose behavior appears to be the least affected by truly malicious considerations, on his part.
Marriage as the form of social contract
In “Doll’s House” author does not promote any political agenda. His main objective was to show that women are not only capable of understanding the meaning of such an abstract concept as freedom, but that they are also capable of taking the issue of personal freedom close to heart. However, there is nothing truly “revolutionary” about how Ibsen portrays Nora. Play’s context implies that it is absolutely natural for women to be in charge of raising children and looking after the house. Throughout play’s first two acts, Nora seems to be quite happy about proceeding with her housewife’s routine. Moreover, she does not think about freedom as something that can be attained outside of domestic realm: “Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it” (Ibsen, Act 1). It appears that the real reason why relationship between Nora and Torvald had come to an end is because Torvald did not possess necessary psychological qualities that would allow him to act as the head of the family. In other words, we can say that; whereas, Nora was able to perfectly fit into the role of a housewife, Torvald’s lack of “perceptional masculinity” did not allow him to fit into the role of a husband and provider, regardless of how hard he tried to pose as the figure of “moral authority”.
The reason why integrity of Helmers’ family remained intact for quite some time, before Krogstad tried to blackmail Nora, was due to Torvald wife’s kindness –
as little as 3 hours
Nora pitied Torvald to the extent that she would never say anything to him that could cause Torvald to begin doubting his own self-worth: “Torvald has his pride – most men have – he would be terribly hurt and humiliated if he thought he had owed anything to me. It would spoil everything between us, and our lovely happy home would never be the same again” (Ibsen, Act 1). These Nora’s words leave no doubt as to her idealistic nature, as an individual. Also, they explain why Nora remained unaware of Torvald’s unworthiness for a long time – just as any idealist, Nora had constructed a projection of “ideal Torvald” in her mind, while waiting until “real Torvald” would begin living up to her expectations. However, this never happened, simply because there were no objective preconditions for Torvald to finally begin acting like a man.
In his famous book “Sex and Gender”, Otto Weininger provides us with an insight on what accounts for the healthiness of marital relations between man and woman: “Woman makes it a criterion of manliness that the man should be superior to herself mentally, that she should be influenced and dominated by the man; and this in itself is enough to ridicule all ideas of sexual equality” (Weninger, Ch. 10). What is the foremost psychological feature of a particularly intelligent individual? It is the fact that such individual’s existential mode is not being affected by considerations of conventional morality. The fact that
Nora was able to step over the notions of morality, while forging her father’s signature, and the fact that Torvald thought of such her deed as being “morally wicked”, has only one possible implication – psychologically speaking, Nora was more of a man, as compared to her simple-minded but “morally upstanding” husband.
Thus, we can say that, despite what is being assumed about “A Doll House” by majority of literary critics, this play does not promote the feministic idea of “gender equality”, but the idea that many men do not have a moral right to think of themselves as being superior to their wives, due to these men’s deep-seated psychological femininity. Women’s traditionally submissive social role comes as a result of men having embraced the duty of provider. This duty implies men’s ability to step over the notions of conventional morality, when necessary, in order to save the family. Marriage is nothing but a form of social contract. If, for whatever the reason (in Torvald’s case, it was his conformism), man fails to live up to his duty of a provider, wife gets a legitimate excuse to break the contract. This is exactly what Nora does at the end of the play: “Listen, Torvald. I have heard that when a wife deserts her husband’s house, as I am doing now, he is legally freed from all obligations towards her. In any case, I set you free from all your obligations” (Ibsen, Act 3).
Nevertheless, the fact that Nora decided to break up with Torvald does not necessarily mean that this was because she got fed up with “male chauvinism”, as many today’s feminists suggest – such her decision simply signified the strength of her resolution to find a worthy man to sign up a new “social contract” with. Apparently, Nora had realized the full scope of
Torvald’s worthlessness, as someone who was only good for holding on to his pathetic job, while continuing to come up with pseudo-philosophical statements about the importance of saving money. Thus, we can say that at the end of the play Nora does attain freedom, but such her newly attained freedom is not being concerned with Nora’s hypothetical intention to start wearing pants, while promoting “women’s liberation”, but with Nora’s realization of her true value as an attractive, intelligent and courageous woman.
The issues that are being discussed in “A Doll House”, continue to affect the realities of 21st century’s living. It is not a secret that, as time goes by, more and more men in Western countries grow increasingly effeminate, while women grow increasingly masculine. Such trend results in the extent “gender equality” between men and women is significantly increased. However, this trend also makes it less likely for husbands and wives to come to mutual understanding. The character of Torvald reminds us a typical White yuppie, who thinks of “making a career” as the solemn purpose of his life. Just like Torvald, such yuppies like to moralize a lot on issues they cannot possibly understand, due to their limited intelligence. Just like Torvald, “white collars” are incapable of admitting even to themselves that their allegiance to the rules of conventional morality is nothing but sublimation of their fear of life’s objective realities.
The reason why character of Torvald is so despicable is because his morals are superficial. He is nothing but a robot, who wants everybody to accept his way of life as being absolutely natural. Moreover, he seriously believes that everybody should act just like him. Unfortunately, people like Torvald continue to exert powerful influence on the process of designing socio-political policies in Western countries. Bible-thumping “torvalds” can never get tired of trying to instill citizens with “Christian values”, despite these “values’” sheer outdatedness.
Therefore, we can say that Ibsen play’s ultimate theme is being concerned with the process of men’s biological and spiritual degradation. The fact that, as time goes by, more and more men appear to grow increasingly incapable of acting as responsible heads of the household, leaves women with no option but to turn into feminists, despite their actual will.
Thus, we cannot consider “A Doll House” as merely literary work. Apparently, Ibsen’s play contains a number of powerful philosophical messages, which can be defined as follows: 1) Whatever comes naturally is automatically moral 2) Christianity cannot remain as a valid basis for social ethics to be based upon 3) Men and women have their own unique socio-biological roles, but this does not mean they are equal, in feminist sense of this word. 4) Marriage is nothing but a form of social contract, which can be broken at any time, if proven counter-productive.
Ibsen, Henrik “A Doll House”. 2001. Project Guttenberg. Web.
Weininger, Otto “Sex and Character”. 1902 (2002). The Absolute. Web.