Themes of Feminism & Gender in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

The play, A Doll’s House by Henrik Johan Ibsen is one of the few literary works that openly fought for the rights of women in the 19th century at the time, when women were still considered inferior to men, especially in a family setting and in the corporate world (Farfan 67). This play opens by painting a perfect picture of a normal family setting. Nora Helmer is a dutiful wife who understands that her role as a wife is limited to shopping and taking care of the family.

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She is responsible for addressing all family chores with the help of her house-help. On the other hand, Torvald is a hardworking husband who is a banker, keen on ensuring that the family’s financial needs are met. The family seems happy as each of the parents remains committed to their work. However, that changes when Torvald, the breadwinner, falls sick. The play points out one of the main arguments that feminists embraced, which was to fight for the rights of women in society. When Torvald fell ill, the financial stability of the family was challenged. A lot of money had to be spent on his medication, but the wife was not working. The situation was so bad that Nora had to hide the fact that she had gotten a job to support the family and cover her husband’s hospital bill.

In this play, Ibsen’s specific area of research was the evolving role and mentality of women in society. In Act 3, Nora confronts her husband and informs him of her intention to avoid marriage. It was worrying to Torvald because her explanation was contrary to what he had been taught about women. Women were expected to be submissive and able to withstand sufferings and humiliations because of the need to depend on their husbands.

However, her wife was showing a more independent approach to dealing with issues in life (Billington 1). The author was telling society that women could be successful when offered the opportunity. They could also fall in love with people who were not their spouses if they lacked affection at home (Blake 3). These were radical departures from what was the norm at that time. It was not common in the theater, and the society as the work gained popularity.

The Author’s Biography

Henrik Johan Ibsen was born on March 20, 1828, to Marichen Altenburg and Knud Ibsen in Skien town, Norway (Moi 277). His father was one of the wealthiest men in the port city. However, the family’s financial stability was affected when his father’s business suffered serious losses. According to Gale, most of Ibsen’s works were significantly influenced by his teenage life (28). It was painful for him watching his mother struggle to provide for the family despite the existence of a social structure that expected women to be housewives. He had to drop out of school to find employment as a teenager because of these financial challenges.

He developed an interest in writing at an early age, and it prompted him to find work at Det Norske Theater. The experiences he had in his life had convinced him that women deserved to be empowered in society to avoid the sufferings that his family went through. Critics argue that the play A Doll’s House was informed by the experiences that he had. Gale explains that most of his initial works received public criticism because of their emphasis on women’s empowerment (46). However, that did not stop him from promoting concepts and values he believed were right. By the time of his death on May 23, 1906, he had written several plays and poems, all of which promoted various themes he believed would transform society. He left a legacy that is still cherished by the global society.

The Author’s Bodies of Work

Ibsen is considered one of the most successful play writers of the 19th century. He has a large body of work in various genres of literature. However, his journey towards success in literary works had so many challenges. The first play that he wrote, Catilina, was never performed, though he was lucky to have it published. He wrote other plays that many theatre directors did not give serious consideration, partly because of his feminist approach to his work. The Burial Mound that he wrote in 1850 was his first play that made it to the theatre stage, but once again it was not a major success. In the 19th century, it was not easy to promote concepts that focused on women’s empowerment in Europe (Clapp 2).

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Society was used to a system where women were expected to be subordinate to men. His first successful play, Brand, was published in 1865. He maintained his approach and themes but was more experienced having been in the industry for some time. He knew what his audience expected. He had to start by gaining the confidence and acceptance of the audience. The new approach earned him success when he moved to Dresden, Germany in 1868.

As he became successful and largely accepted, he started reintroducing his judgments and beliefs in his drama (Gale 62). It was in this era that he published some of his most successful works, Emperor and Galilean in 1873 and A Doll’s House in 1879. Other notable works include An Enemy of the People in 1882, The Wild Duck in 1884, Hedda Gabler in 1890, The Master Builder in 1892 (Moi 259). He also wrote hundreds of poems, most of which were dedicated to his spouse.

The Author’s Principal Themes

According to Farfan, most writers often present their life experiences and beliefs in their literary works (77). They try to pass a message to a society based on what they have learned. Ibsen was no different. One of the primary themes common in all his plays was love. In the play The Wild Duck, Ibsen demonstrates that love is an important bond that helps in ensuring that relationships do not break. Without it, families cannot stick together.

The illicit affair is another principal these coming out in most of his works. In the play, A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer who is the protagonist, was involved in an illicit relationship with Dr. Rank while she was still married to Torvald. Women-empowerment is another major theme in most of his works that most of his critics believe that he was a feminist. He portrayed women as people who could achieve success in the corporate world when given the right support.

He demonstrated the pain and suffering that many women go through to make it in a male-dominated society. Domestic violence also formed part of the issues that were addressed in most of his plays. During this time, it was common to find cases where women were subjected to verbal and physical abuse. In A Doll’s House, Nora complains that her husband is subjecting her to verbal violence. He believed that one of the effective ways of fighting domestic violence was by promoting its discussion publicly. As such, people would see its dangers and avoid them.

The Literacy Movement of the Author

According to Blake, Ibsen has often been considered a realist by most of his critics (2). He often believed in having a society where people are given an equal platform of success irrespective of their gender. He knew that male chauvinism was dangerous to society because it denied women the opportunity to achieve success. These concepts made him be associated with the Modernist theatre movement. This movement transformed theatre in the 19th century.

At that time, most plays were strictly based on the values and principles of society. Women would play subordinate roles to that of men as expected in a normal family setting. However, this movement came with a radical shift. Although men were not demeaned in these plays, women were also allowed to be heroes. The movement promoted the belief that society should cherish the role of women in the corporate world. Although the concepts championed by this movement were resisted at first, especially in most of the initials plays written by Ibsen, the society later embraced them as they continued to gain relevance.

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Works Cited

Billington, Michael. “Little Eyolf Review – Exhilarating Ibsen from Norway’s National Theatre. The Guardian. 2018. Web.

Blake, Elissa. “Was Playwright Henrik Ibsen the First Male Feminist?The Sydney Morning Herald. 2014. Web.

Clapp, Susannah. “Little Eyolf Review: More Clear, Bleak Ibsen from Richard Eyre.The Guardian. 2015. Web.

Farfan, Penny. “From “Hedda Gabler” to “Votes for Women”: Elizabeth Robins’s Early Feminist Critique of Ibsen.” Theatre Journal, vol. 48, no. 1, 1996, pp. 59-78.

Gale, Cengage. A Study Guide for Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts: Excerpted from Gale’s Acclaimed Drama for Students. Cengage Learning, 2016.

Moi, Toril. “First and Foremost a Human Being”: Idealism, Theatre, and Gender in a Doll’s House.” Modern Drama, vol. 49, no. 3, 2006, pp. 256-284.

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