There are many different meanings to the concept of feminism in modern literary criticism. The most common definition of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes (Hannam 7). Operating this definition, the paper will examine Nora’s character from feminist perspective. Throughout the play, she is presented as Torvald’s pet. It is not until the end of the play that Nora decides she wants to live alone. He bribes her with money and makes her do “tricks” for him. Such an attitude is not the one a feminist would accept. A feminist wants to be treated equally with the opposite sex. Therefore, looking at the latest version of A Doll’s House, it is relevant to argue that Nora is a feminist hero.
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A Review of the Play
The main character of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, Nora, suffers because of hiding a big secret from her husband. She borrowed money from Nils Krogstad to save her husband who was terribly ill at the time. Torvald (Nora’s husband) has no clue that Nora was the one who got the money to pay the hospital bills. Torvald has been recently promoted, and he plans to fire Krogstad, who is now his employee. When Krogstad finds out about this intention, he starts blackmailing Nora to make sure he does not get fired. His actions are immoral, but Nora cannot tell her husband about the blackmailing since she herself committed fraud when she signed the agreement with Krogstad. She applied the signature of her father who was already dead at the moment of closing the deal.
In the end, Torvald finds out everything, and he becomes furious with Nora. In this argument, Nora has an epiphany and decides that she needs to be on her own. The woman is deeply disappointed in her husband who accuses her instead of defending her honor. Nora ends up leaving Torvald and her children to discover life on her own and be independent for once in her life. A Doll’s House was written at the time when there was much controversy about feminism.
Ibsen wrote many plays during that period that had a big impact in the 20th-century drama. I find this piece particularly interesting because a male writer is writing about feminism, and this could affect how feminism is portrayed. However, research on Ibsen and his other works allows concluding that A Doll’s House is not the only controversial piece he wrote.
Current research aims at finding out what makes a feminist hero and whether Nora was one. The authors of some of the articles I have found remark that there are different opinions on what a feminist is. Critics have argued that Nora is not a feminist heroine because she goes back to Torvald in the older version of Ibsen’s works (Rosenberg 189-190). The critical approach I am using is feminist criticism. This will help me analyze the texts from a feminist point of view and dig deeper into my research. Also, using this theory, I will examine the text from a new perspective and will be able to understand the symbolism of the woman in A Doll’s House.
Nora’s character did not know any other life than the one of being dependent on a man. Her father played a significant role in her life, and then she was passed down to Torvald. If to think about it, Nora did not have a fighting chance, and it was sad seeing her so easily manipulated by her husband. Throughout the play, the course of events and the development of Nora’s character allow noticing slight changes in the heroine’s behavior. For instance, she wanted people to believe that she had some sort of power in the house, and she would manipulate stories so she could get what she wanted.
Suffering and Forgiveness in A Doll’s House
Forgiveness is one of the most crucial moral issues that are taken into consideration when speaking of interpersonal communication, and the relationship between sexes is not an exception. In her analysis of A Doll’s House, Mahaffey defines forgiveness as one of the possible reactions expressed by a victim towards an offender as a resolution “to grant absolution rather than to blame” (54). Some non-feminists believe that forgiveness is a sign of weakness.
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Thus, the question frequently asked in regard to male-female relationships is whether feminists consider forgiving a man as a sign of weakness. In the play, Torvald eventually forgives his wife for what she did. However, he only does so when he realizes that Nora’s actions were aimed at helping him to save his reputation from being destroyed. It is a quite different kind of forgiveness. Torvald grants Nora pardon when he sees that everything is well again and that there is no danger for him.
Torvald’s decision to forgive Nora is followed by his expectation that she will take him back immediately and easily. However, Nora’s character has evolved so much until that moment that she refuses to accept her husband’s suggestion to return to the way of things as they used to be. Hence, Torvald’s forgiveness of Nora is close to the perception that the majority of people have (Mahaffey 57).
Torvald’s understanding of transgression is “the normative one”: it is necessary to avoid doing or “being wronged” since both of these states put the preservation of one’s integrity at risk (Mahaffey 57). Torvald is only able to forgive and forget when he sees that his status is out of danger (Mahaffey 58). Such forgiveness implies returning to the past state of affairs and forgetting the conflict. However, this scenario is no longer acceptable for Nora. She realizes how unreliable and cowardly her husband is, and she does not want such a belated excuse.
What is interesting is that in the early version of the play, Nora does not decide to run away. Instead, she forgives Torvald and continues living in her trap of life. (Rosenberg 189-191). In this version, it would be impossible to treat Nora’s character as a feminist one. She decides to keep being treated like a doll for the rest of her life. The comparison of the two adaptations is what allows speaking about feminism in Nora’s character. In the final version, she says that she forgives Torvald, but she needs to learn to be on her own (Ibsen 94-95). The woman realizes that she has given up too much for her husband and their marriage (Alexander 387).
She has never had a chance to discover “her own identity” and has never been treated with respect by her husband (Alexander 387). It seems valid to assume that Nora forgiving Torvald and still choosing to leave him makes her a feminist heroine. It encourages her to become stronger because she can forgive him yet walk away. Most people would not be able to do that.
Idealism and Gender in the Play
When considering whether Nora is a feminist or not, it is crucial to analyze idealism as an important feature of the play. The most apparent idealist against whose views Nora has to fight is Torvald. This “card-carrying idealist aesthete” makes Nora feel so frightened and cornered that she has no other choice but reveal her feminist features and leave him (Moi 257). As Moi remarks, Torvald’s idealism and Nora’s “unthinking echoing of it” make the characters theatricalize each other and themselves (257).
The most astonishing representation of such theatricalization is that Nora and Torvald act in a variety of idealist scenarios of male rescue and female sacrifice (Moi 257). As Langås remarks, the divergence between male and female genders goes “beyond the body and into the soul” (150). Thus, the issue of female “sacrifice” in the play is what makes the audience wonder about Nora’s gender and her feminist ideas.
The society has a well-established idea of women having to sacrifice something and men having to save them from difficult situations. In Nora’s case, these two oppositions are represented at different scales. First of all, she indeed made a sacrifice and an unwise thing: she borrowed money using her late father’s signature (a senseless action), and she attempted to save her husband’s life (a sacrifice). What is different in this scenario from the well-established public opinion, though, is that the man who was supposed to come to rescue refused to do so.
Monrad, a nineteenth-century literary critic and philosopher, suggests understanding gender as “a gift from God” and argues that is “ties biological differences to social, and the subordinated woman to the superior man” (qtd. in Langås 149). In this respect, Nora breaks the established rules due to refusing to be “subordinated.” However, it is understandable why she makes such a decision. She has been the “doll child” in the patriarchal world for too long (Ford 156). Now, it is time for her to take care of herself, understand her true possibilities, and defend her rights.
Feminism as a Destructive Force Against Conventional Marriage
Approaches to understanding women’s rights to equality differ, depending on females’ position in the society, marital status, and other factors. When analyzing Nora’s character as a feminist, some scholars view it from the angle of the destruction of conventional conjugal obedience and respect. Christian remarks that in late Victorian England, A Doll’s House served as a “destabilizing force” that exposed the difficulties of “conventional marriage” (44).
Ford characterizes the play as the exploration of “the issues of social convention” (156). However, it seems impossible for Nora to continue living with the husband who treats her with “selfishness and brutality” (Rosenberg 189). Thus, the revolt of the woman is quite understandable and “justified” (Rosenberg 189). Still, there exist opinions that a woman’s place is at her husband’s feet, and her will and desires do not deserve to be taken into account.
In the play, the reflection of married life is given through a variety of devices, but the most expressive of them in Nora’s Tarantella. This “play within the play,” according to Christian, presents “the intersection of theatrical performance and the marriage relationship at its most literal” (45). As well as in their marriage, Torvald points out his wife’s flaws when she is rehearsing the performance. As well as in their life, he is dictating his opinion to her as the only correct one.
The pressure under which Nora’s dance is prepared is the embodiment of her whole married life. The only way for the woman to save herself and be rescued from the world of suppression, neglect, and disagreement is to reveal her feminist character and defend herself. Indeed, in the period in which the play was written, Nora’s choice was considered as unacceptable and radically wrong for a woman and wife. However, when a woman is not treated as equal, she cannot continue putting the marriage in the first place. Thus, Nora has no other choice but break the chains of her conventional marriage, no matter what degree of disapproval her decision may cause.
Nora as a Victim of the Female Gender
One of the plausible explanations why Nora has become a feminist is the description of conditions in which she lived. She has received such attitude both at her father’s home and at her husband’s one. Her father used to treat her as a “doll-child” (Ibsen 89). Upon marrying Torvald, she is being considered “almost as a toy” (Alexander 386). For many centuries, women have been treated as dependent creatures unable to make their own decisions and not allowed to contradict their fathers or husbands. After many years of such treatment, Nora decides that she cannot stand it any longer.
The core idea of feminism is gender equality, and Nora’s life was as far from equality as it could be. Thus, she had no other choice than to stand for herself and defend her right to be accepted with respect. As Langås remarks, A Doll’s House is not so much about “Nora’s struggle to find herself as a human being” as it is about her “shocking experience of being treated as a woman” (148). Taking into consideration this opinion, it is apparent that the character’s motif was feministic and that she had no other option than defend her individuality as a female.
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Nora’s painful growth and maturity reflect the common attitude of men towards women. The relationships between Nora and men depicted in the play serve as the confirmation of “the struggle of women at the time” (Ford 158). Each of the male characters in the play performs a destructive role in the heroine’s life. Her husband, Torvald, does not respect her and feels angry instead of grateful when he finds out to what sacrifice she has gone to save his life.
Krogstad, the man who is blackmailing Nora, is terrorizing her, and the relationships between these two characters make Nora look “submissive” (Ford 158). The role of Nora’s father in her present situation should not be underestimated, as well. With his attitude to her as to a “doll-child,” he did nothing good for his daughter (Ibsen 89). She grew up into a woman who could not defend herself and did not know how to be resolute and decisive.
The problems of the main heroine of the play represent the usual difficulties women face because of their gender. Even when a woman is strong enough to speak out, men rarely listen to her arguments. In case with Nora, she does not even know how to express her arguments because she has never been treated as equal. Thus, the victimization of this character due to belonging to female sex is what leads her to becoming a feminist even though initially she did not have such an intention.
Rejecting Feminism in A Doll’s House and Counterarguments
Despite a variety of arguments for Nora being a feminist, there exists an opposing view, according to which the play is not about women’s rights at all. As Templeton remarks, Nora’s conflict represents “something other than, or something more than, woman’s” (28). Adams argues that the play’s “real theme has nothing to do with the sexes” (qtd. in Templeton 28). Therefore, the play that has frequently been accepted as the proclamation of women’s rights movement “is not really about women at all” (Adams, qtd. in Templeton 28). As Adams mentions, “Like Angels, Nora has no sex. Ibsen meant her to be Everyman” (qtd. in Templeton 28). However, there are several ideas that should be expressed as a reply to these arguments.
The main reason for not agreeing with Adams’s criticism is that Nora cannot possibly have “no sex” since there are many indications to her femininity and submission in the play. The second counterargument is that it is apparent that Nora is a woman and a feminist because her nature combines so many features that pertain to the “weaker sex.” Moreover, Nora’s character reflects the desire to get rid of the oppressing circumstances and become a respected and equal individual living in the society. Finally, it possible to reject antifeminist opinions of the play due to the existence of several versions, which means that even Ibsen paid attention to Nora as a female character and adjusted the play to draw attention to her feminist choices.
The analysis of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House allows making a conclusion that there are feminist motives in the main character’s final choice. Nora is a mother and wife, but she decides that she cannot continue sacrificing her own desires for the sake of her husband’s reputation. The problem is much deeper than merely the desire to avoid house chores and mother’s responsibilities. The heroine feels too much betrayed and oppressed by the man who was supposed to be her strongest support and defense. She is disappointed by the cowardice of her husband and cannot forgive him for being so unkind towards her. Moreover, she did the immoral act for which he is blaming her, to save his life and not to do or buy something pleasant for herself.
There are several crucial themes raised in A Doll’s House: marriage, motherhood, devotion, unfaithfulness, and others. However, the most significant of them all is the theme of a woman’s struggle to be treated equally with men. Having failed to reach this equality in many years, Nora eventually decides that the best way to gain it is to live by herself. The feminist views of the heroine are apparent: she refuses to be a toy in men’s hands, she cannot accept the idea of being humiliated, and she does not agree to live by the rules created for her by the male gender.
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Christian, Mary. “Performing Marriage: A Doll’s House and Its Reconstructions in Fin-de-Siècle London.” Theatre Survey, vol. 57, no. 1, 2016, pp. 43-62.
Ford, Karen. “Social Constraints and Painful Growth in A Doll’s House.” Screen Education, no. 37, 2004, pp. 156-158.
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Rosenberg, Marvin. “Ibsen vs. Ibsen or: Two Versions of A Doll’s House.” Modern Drama, vol. 12, no. 2, 1969, pp. 187-196.
Templeton, Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen.” PMLA, vol. 104, no. 1, 1989, pp. 28-40.