Henrik Ibsen lived during the 19th century, having been born in the early 1800s and dying in the first years of the new millennium. Women in this period lived very different lives from women today. However, it was during this period that women began to question their place in society. This was because more and more opportunities were opening up for them in the urban centers of the country, providing them with a means of supporting themselves and freeing themselves from the yoke of male domination. At the time, though, these positions were not the equal rights positions of modern times, so it was often difficult for women to decide whether they wanted to sacrifice freedom for comfort or comfort for freedom. Rarely was it possible to attain both and often it was found, too late, that it was possible to attain neither. Many women were still constrained in their activities by the wishes of their male relatives, whether the dominant voice belonged to the father, the oldest brother or other guardian figure or the husband. These are the issues explored in Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” through the character of Nora, marking him as an early feminist as he depicts her physical setting, relationships with others and her position in society.
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Feminism is best described as a structured movement that endorses the idea of equality for women and minorities in the economic, social and political arenas. No one would question that women have historically been subjugated to second-class citizen status and oppressive tactics simply due to their gender in the dominant patriarchal society. “Patriarchy is the system which oppresses women through its social, economic and political institutions. Throughout history men have had greater power in both the public and private spheres. To maintain this power, men have created boundaries and obstacles for women, thus making it harder for women to hold power” (Kramarae et al, 1985). Women were strongly oppressed during Ibsen’s lifetime and did not enjoy equal opportunities in a patriarchal society as evidenced throughout Ibsen’s play.
Despite any personal attributes Nora might have had, her husband seems to take the stance that she is little more than a space-marker, designed to provide for the perfect welfare and entertainment of the rest of the household. “The attributes of True Womanhood … could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them, she was promised happiness and power” (Welter, 1966). Throughout the first act of “Doll’s House”, there is not a single instance where Torvold treats Nora as an adult instead of as a child or a favorite plaything. He refers to her as a ‘lark’, a ‘little squirrel’ and ‘a little featherhead’, all before his tenth line. Other hints continue to be dropped regarding Nora’s spending habits throughout this first act, all of which are characterized on Torvold’s side in terms of an indulgent superior providing a brainless plaything with the tools to make it happy. “The dominant image remains that of a middle-class housewife happily trading in agricultural labor alongside men for the joys of urban domesticity and childrearing” (Hewitt, 2002). This is in spite of strong hints that Nora has been more industrious than her husband realizes in her attempts to pay off a debt taken for his benefit but without his knowledge.
Nora seems to have a strong streak in her, but she is trapped by her husband and by the society she lives in. Trying to help her husband, Nora found it necessary to take out an illegal loan because women were not considered responsible enough for this sort of business dealing. She also worked out many alternative ways of earning the money to pay it back, as opportunities for women were scarce and frequently considered a shame upon the family. “In 1870, 60 percent of all female workers were engaged in some aspect of domestic service and another 25 percent earned their livings in factories and workshops’ ‘ (Kessler-Harris, 1991) as the only real opportunities available to ‘good’ girls. Torvold teases her, “[you] shut yourself up every evening till long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas tree and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us … But there was precious little result, Nora” (Act 1). In this, Ibsen points out through Torvald how little Nora’s contributions mean to the household. Although in this instance, it is because Torvold truly has seen very little of the work Nora has sold in order to pay back her debt, it is also true that her efforts are unappreciated both in the house and in society at large. “Many [women] accepted the promise of domestic happiness and the circumscribed authority that supposedly inherited in piety, purity and submissiveness” (Roberts, 2002). Nora must work in secret and under false pretenses in order to work at all.
Nora’s final act within the play is to reject the boundaries she’s been under. When Nora decides to encourage Torvald to open the letter from Krogstad regarding her illegal loan, it is because she needs to know her husband values her addition to the household. When he reacts in anger, she realizes she would either need to sacrifice her self-respect or sacrifice her happy home. In allowing her this freedom, Ibsen is arguing for greater freedoms of choice and occupation for women, who he demonstrates are equally as capable, and sometimes more capable, at handling money and business as the men they are associated with.
Hewitt, Nancy. “Taking the True Woman Hostage.” Journal of Women’s History. Vol. 14, N. 1. 2002, pp. 156-62
Ibsen, Henrik. The Doll’s House. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1992.
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Kessler-Harris, Alice. “Women and the Work Force.” The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner & John A. Garraty (Eds.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
Kramarae, Cheris and Treichler, Paula A., with assistance from Ann Russo. A Feminist Dictionary. London, Boston: Pandora Press, 1985.
Roberts, Mary Louise. “True Woman Revisited.” Journal of Women’s History. Vol. 14, N. 1. Spring 2002, pp. 150-55.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18, N. 2, P. 1. 1966, pp. 151-74.