Defying Gender Roles

( Nora and Torvald in the 1922 silent film version )

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Context on Ibsen and A Doll House

Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is considered by many critics to be the most popular playwright of the 19th century. Out of all the playwrights in history, his plays are the second most frequently produced on stages worldwide, trailing only William Shakespeare. A Doll House (usually translated as A Doll’s House) has been cited by some scholars as the most frequently produced play of the 20th century.

Part of the reason for the popularity of A Doll House when it was written in 1879 is how it stood out in the cultural climate of the late 19th century in Europe. This was an era of increased conservatism and entertainment of the era was expected to uphold high morals and values. Religion, the family, and the duty to live a respectable existence were all to be honored and upheld by popular dramas.  Ibsen’s plays challenged these values. His plays usually aimed to look behind the facade of society and to expose its inner-corruptions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings. Ibsen found this era of respectability and propriety to be stifling, and his dramas often depicted characters who suffered under the repressive morals of society.

A Doll House was the most famous of these social convention challenging plays because it depicted what was then a shocking subject: a woman who decides to leave her husband and children. Among the higher rungs of 19th century European society, such an idea was unthinkable. The play caused huge controversy across Europe and America. Critics were offended at how the play insulted the bonds of marriage and the duty of women to take care of their children. Moralists feared that Nora could set a bad example for other women and glorify such behavior. Feminists, on the other hand, championed Nora as an example of the modern, liberated woman who they contended had every right in the world to pursue their own desires.

Ibsen’s sweet facial hair 

Ibsen himself said that he never intended to write a feminist play, but that he wanted to show that all people have the right to be fully developed individuals. In 1898, in a speech at The Festival Of The Norwegian Women’s Rights League, Ibsen said:

I AM not a member of the Women’s Rights League. Whatever I have written has been
without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more poet and less
social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general. And if you read my books carefully you will understand this. True enough, it is desirable to solve the problem of women’s rights, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. To be sure, whenever such a description is felt to be reasonably true, the reader will insert his own feelings and sentiments into the work of the poet. These are attributed to the poet; but incorrectly so. Every
reader remolds it so beautifully and nicely, each according to his own personality.
(Archive.Org)

Here, Ibsen remarks that he supports women’s rights, but the point of his drama was to illustrate a problem that all people face; feeling repressed by a society that raises us to conform. As you read the story, consider how the theme of individual liberation could apply to a variety of situations that oppressed people confront. Could the play be adapted to speak about racism, homophobia, poverty, etc?

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Themes to Consider for Reading A Doll House

(A Doll House in China)

Women and Patriarchy

First of all, think about the title. Before you started reading, what did you expect this play to be about? The image of the doll house perhaps brings up the image of a young girl, and so maybe you thought it would be about a young girl. Instead, this play is about a fully grown woman. Why does Ibsen use a doll house as an extended metaphor for describing Nora’s life? What does it say about her state as a woman, and perhaps about all women’ in the 19th century, if they are being compared to dolls?

At the end of the play, it is revealed that this is Nora’s own metaphor for describing her life. When she explains why she is leaving Torvald, she states:

“But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.” (953)

In this quote, Nora reflects on the idea of patriarchy. Patriarchy is the traditional rule of men over women, the family, the domestic sphere, and society. Here, patriarchy is shown to affect Nora’s life in that she is treated like a doll by her father, raised to think of herself as such, and then handed of to her husband for the same treatment. Take note of the language Torvald uses to address Nora, calling her his little bird. Is this affectionate or demeaning?

Money and Economics

Think about how money and debt play a central role in the character’s lives in the play. Without getting into debt, the eventual progression of events that led to Nora leaving Torvald would never have happened. First of all, consider how the play begins with a question of money. Nora has just bought some items for Christmas and Torvald criticizes her for frittering away their money on frivolous things. At that moment, we are given the impression that Nora is somewhat of an airhead and materialistic. Torvald certainly treats her as such, assuming she has no understanding of budgeting or finance.

Yet, we later learn that Nora is more shrewd than we were led to believe when she confesses her scheme to get a loan for her husband’s treatment. She practically brags to her friend about all the work that she has to do to repay the loan. Why does she take such great delight in having cooked up such a plan?

The play supports what Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who we will read soon) says in Women and Economics, that women can only be free through economic independence. It is clear that Nora understands that in keeping finances out her hands, she is left to be dependent and servile to her husband. In the character of Mrs. Linde, Ibsen gives us an image of what a woman out on her own would look like. She must find work to support herself as a widow. Is she supposed to be a positive character? Does she make independence look attractive, or is she supposed to be a victim?

The other way money is used to demonstrate power is debt. Krogstad has power over Nora due to the debt, while Torvald had purposefully avoided debt and has power in society because he manages a bank, and thus has the power to give out loans. Early in the first act, Torvald says to Nora:

But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way for the short time longer that there need be any struggle.

Think about the power of debt in our own society. How does debt guide our behavior and shape our society? For example, you may have student loans due in the near future and the fact that you have to pay them is impacting how you study here at SEMO. Imagine how that same feeling of pressure under a debt affects Nora, Torvald, Krogstad, and other characters in the play.

Reputation

Many of the decisions that characters in this play make are not motivated by what they truly want, but by the desire to maintain their reputation. Torvald has a “good” reputation, while Krogstad has a “bad” reputation, but as they play progresses, we see how Krogstad may have had little choice as to take on certain disreputable actions out of desperation. On the flip side, Torvald seems outwardly to be upstanding, but on the inside, he is condescending and shallow.

When Torvald at first curses Nora for her debt, pay attention to his words. Notice how he is ready to break off all feelings of love, but he still wants to remain married so that people outside of the household will still think highly of them. When he “forgives” Nora so suddenly, she is motivated to leave him. She sees how the desire to retain a reputation creates hypocrisy.

The Nature of Love and Marriage

When Nora states that she and Torvald do not really love each other, he is completely dumbfounded. This of course, comes literally minutes after he renounced his lover for her, then promptly forgave her once he realized he was no longer going to be blackmailed by Krogstad. Is Torvald truly in love with her? Right before she announces that she will leave him, Nora and Torvald have the following exchange:

Nora. That is just it; you have never understood me. I have been greatly wronged, Torvald–first by papa and then by you.

Helmer. What! By us two–by us two, who have loved you better than anyone else in the world?

Nora [shaking her head]. You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.

What is the basis of Nora’s argument that he is not truly in love with her? What is Nora’s vision of true love? What must the relationship be like between a man and a woman for them to truly love each other? How do other elements that we expect from marriage get in the way of love?

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Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

(Sylvia Plath in the 60s)

Sylvia Plath’s (1932-1963) poem “Daddy” is a dramatic, raw statement of anger, persecution, and disappointment in her relationship with her father. Plath lived a short, but intensely productive life as a poet. Her collections of poetry and one novel The Bell Jar, became widely popular after her death by suicide in 1963. Plath’s work was widely received by a new generation of women in the 60s who came of age as adults during the Women’s Liberation Movement. They saw in Plath’s work the brutally honest and insightful voice of a poet who could communicate the experience of women in their time. Plath was known as one of the “confessional poets”, just like Anne Sexton who was one of her good friends. The confessional poets literally confessed their darkest, most shocking emotions and depicted truths about their lives and experiences that most people would keep hidden. Like Sexton, Plath was candid about her suicidal tendencies, her ambivalence toward motherhood, disappointment with romance, and feelings of rage and oppression.

In “Daddy”, Plath reflects on the relationship between a daughter and her father. Many critics have interpreted this as Plath speaking truthfully about her own father, while others point to an interview she gave before her death in which she spoke of the poem’s speaker in the third person and described it as “a girl with an Electra complex [whose] father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it” (Hughes “introduction”). Whether or not Plath sees herself in the speaker of the poem, literally or just figuratively, is a question for debate.

As you read the poem, I want you to pay particular attention to the metaphors and imagery that Plath uses to describe the relationship between father and daughter. In particular, notice how the speaker compares her father to a Nazi and herself to a Jew. What kind of a relationship does this suggest? Is this comparison too extreme or fair? It is important to note that knowledge of the extent of the Holocaust was just becoming widespread among Americans when Plath wrote this poem. Therefore, this was a shocking development in the 50s to see just how deep Hitler’s monstrous cruelty reached. Is it ethical to use the Holocaust as a metaphor to compare with personal relationships?

In reading “Daddy” along with A Doll’s House, I want you to consider how both Nora and the speaker of this poem respond to patriarchy in their lives. How is Nora’s feeling of oppression with Torvald as her controlling husband similar to Plath’s feeling of oppression under her father? Compare and contrast how they characterize and respond to patriarchy. Even though Torvald is Nora’s husband, how might he also be acting like her father? In turn think about how Nora is treated by her own father and how this may or may not be similar to how the speaker of Plath’s poem feels treated.

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About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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