A Doll’s House as a Feminist Play
Table of Contents
A Doll’s House is a problem play or a thesis play. It does not, of course, offer any ready-made solution to the problem with which it deals, but a dramatist is not bound to offer solutions. Ibsen presents the problem and leaves the solution to the readers. The problem is: What is the position or Status of a woman vis-a-vis her husband and her home?
The play does not deal with the rights of women in general, nor does it advocate the emancipation of women in the sense in which we understand the word “emancipation”. It merely shows us the sad consequences of the subordination of a married woman to the control of her husband. The play focuses our attention on the conjugal life of a middle-class couple and shows us the relationship existing between the husband and the wife and the possible consequences of that particular kind of relationship.
The play deals with the predicament in which a married woman finds herself on account of the excessive control which her husband exercises upon her; and it shows the method which the woman employs in order to get out of that predicament. Marriage is thus very much the theme of the play. Ibsen is definitely on the side of Nora in this play, and she wins our sympathies also. Thus it would not be wrong to say that A Doll’s House is a feminist play, even though Ibsen himself refused to accept this description of the play.
Ibsen’s Interest in Women’s Independence
Ibsen had become interested in women’s independence, and already in his play The Pillars of Society he had drawn two women, Lona and Dina, both of whom had minds of their own. He had also felt much impressed by a book written by his friend, Camilla Collett on the status of women. Furthermore, at the Scandinavian Club in Rome he had put forward a proposal that the women members of the Club should be allowed to vote at its meetings. When his proposal was defeated, he had walked out of the Club in a mood of fury. Thus there was a definite background against which Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House.
When the play was staged, it had the effect of a bombshell. Today, of course, it is difficult for us to appreciate the sensation that the play caused. To the Nineteenth century Europe, the idea of a woman violating her marriage vows and exhibiting a mind of her own by refusing to render unquestioning obedience to her husband was something entirely alien. Of course, it is only at the end of the play that the refusal comes. Nora in the play not only defies her husband at the end but makes him look small. The very subject of the play was one which was bound to give rise to endless discussion.
A Doll’s House: A Feminist Message to Society
The play had a message for society: it sought to awaken a sense of individual responsibility among women. Whether Nora acted rightly or wrongly naturally or unnaturally, in leaving her husband, her home, and her children in order to develop her own individuality this was hotly debated by people after witnessing the play on the stage. It may seem to some that Ibsen in this play thinks too much of a woman’s rights and top little of her duties, but Ibsen was not dealing with the status of women in all its implications and in every context. His purpose in the play was limited. He wanted to show that, if a woman was not allowed to establish her own identity and develop her own individuality, she could not be really happy. If Nora had continued to live with Helmer for ever under the conditions which we find her living with him at the beginning of the play, she would have felt wretched and miserable, and even the normal duties of her life would have seemed irksome to her under those inhibiting conditions. The method which Nora adopts at the end to get out of her intolerable situation may appear to be destructive and may seem to be a threat to the stability of all homes and families, but Ibsen’s aim was to point out a particular weakness and flaw in the social fabric, and to leave constructive philosophy to others. He diagnosed the malady, and left the cure to others.
Nora, Treated Like a Pet by Helmer
When the play opens, we find that Nora has been, and still is, leading the life of a pet in her husband’s home. There is no doubt that her husband is very fond of her, but the endearing expressions that he employs when addressing her clearly show that he regards her as a kind of pet. On hearing her humming a tune, he asks if his “little skylark” is chirping. He then asks if his “little squirrel” is frisking about. Subsequently also he addresses her on various occasions in much the same manner. There can be no doubt at all that he loves her, but it is the love of a superior for somebody lower in rank. This superior attitude which Helmer adopts towards Nora is seen also in his laying down the rules for running the household. He leaves no doubt in her mind that he is the master of the house. He insists that she should exercise economy in spending money on household needs
Nora’s Wifely Devotion to Helmer
Nora as a wife has been very devoted to Helmer. When he fell critically ill, she took him to Italy under medical advice, even though in order to do so she had to borrow money and had even to forge her father’s signature of course, at the time she did not realize that the act of forging her father’s signature could be regarded as crime: but whatever she did was promoted by her love for her husband.
Nora’s Belief in Helmer’s Love
If Nora loves Helmer devotedly, she feels convinced also that Helmer loves her with equal devotion. For instance, she tells Doctor Rank that her husband would, if necessary, sacrifice his life for her without the least hesitation. Not only that, with Krogstad’s threat echoing in her mind, she firmly believes that, if the worst happens, Helmer would take her whole guilt upon his own shoulders.
Helmer’s Possessive Attitude towards Nora
There are two reasons which lead to the whole trouble between Helmer and Nora. In the first place, he regards her as his property. He has a possessive attitude towards her. He believes that she belongs to him wholly and solely, and he behaves accordingly. His treating her as a pet is only one manifestation of his attitude of possessiveness. Later in the play he says that she is “doubly his property” because he has been able to save her from a grave danger.
And here is the second reason for the breakdown of this marriage. When Helmer has gone through Krogstad’s incriminating letter, he becomes furious. Nora had thought that he would take the whole blame for her criminal act of forgery on his own shoulders. But Helmer’s reaction to Krogstad’s disclosure of Nora’s act of forgery shows that Helmer is absolutely selfish and self-centered. Not only that as soon as the danger from Krogstad has been averted, Helmer returns to his previous self-complacency and resumes his previous patronizing attitude towards Nora. He now tells her that he has forgiven her and that she can take refuge in his love and care. He compares her to a hunted dove whom he has rescued from the clutches of a cruel hawk. He again looks upon her as a “helpless little thing” who needs his guidance and his direction. But Nora is now completely disillusioned about Helmer. All his protectiveness towards her had been a projection of his own ego. As soon as Helmer found himself in danger, he began to accuse Nora of having ruined his happiness and damaged his whole future. He failed to appreciate or even understand her reasons for having committed the act of forgery. Thus Nora finds that both his love for her and his moral values have collapsed in the face of a crisis in their married life.
Nora’s Realization on Her Own Identity
As a consequence of her discovery of Helmer’s true character, Nora decides to leave Helmer. When he tries to dissuade her from leaving him, she gives him her reasons for leaving. She tells him that first her father and then he (her husband) had wronged her. Under the paternal roof, she had to adopt the opinions and views of her father, and under her husband’s roof she had to adopt the ideas and the tastes of her husband. Her father used to treat her as his baby-doll: and her husband had been treating her as his doll-wife. Now she has realized that she has a mind of her own; now she wants to establish her own identity and, in order to do so, she must educate herself. As for her duties to her husband and her children, there is another duty which is even more sacred, and that is her duty to herself. She is certainly a wife and a mother, but first and foremost she is an “individual”. She would no longer be content with what most people say or that what the books tell her. She wants to think things out for herself, and get things clear.
Nora’s Drastic Decision: Is it Right or Wrong?
At the end of the play, as we have already indicated above, our sympathies are largely with Nora. She takes back her wedding ring and steps out of the house, slamming the outer door behind her. We feel convinced that she is justified in claiming the right to hold her own views and opinions and to form her own tastes. Why should a wife be subordinate to her husband? Why should a wife be always servile to her husband? However, it is open to question whether Nora was justified in leaving her home and her husband altogether.
It may be argued that, perhaps a working compromise between them could have been reached, and perhaps the family life of the two could have been preserved. It may be argued that Nora took too drastic a step in leaving not only her husband but also her children. Her maternal instincts should not have allowed her to leave her children, some would say. But if the play had ended with a compromise between Helmer and Nora, the impact of the play and the effect of its message on us would have been much less powerful.
There is no doubt in our minds, then, that A Doll’s House is a feminist play. It advocates the rights of the women, and especially of wives in relation to their husbands. Ibsen himself denied that he had written this play in order to put forward the claims of women. Nineteen years after having written this play, he was invited to address the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights. In his address to the gathering, he declared that he had never written any play to promote a social purpose, that he was more of a poet than a social philosopher, that he had never actively worked for the movement for the rights of women, and that he was not even very sure what the rights of women were. Whatever may have been Ibsen’s intentions, the effect of the play is to arouse in us a great deal of sympathy for the cause of women.