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My Analysis of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Hello everyone,

I am sorry about my sudden departure from WordPress about a month ago during  my school’s winter break.  I came home and after all the stress from school  I just felt like I needed a break from everything and spent the month relaxing.  I am happy to report that I will post every day again, yay!  I will start with my analysis of A Doll’s House, if you have any comments/questions please post them below.  Thank for reading!

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Background on Ibsen

Ibsen was born in Skien, southern Norway on March 20, 1828.  He was born to a prominent merchant family and had great pride in his heritage.  However, when Ibsen was seven years old his family’s fortunes dwindled and they eventually became bankrupt.  His father turned to alcohol for comfort shortly after, and his mother became a recluse who sought relief in prayer.    His parents would later on influence his writings and most of his plays focus around financial difficulties and moral conflicts (The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia, 1).

Connections To The Play

Financial concerns and moral conflicts were major themes in A Doll’s House. Nora and Doctor Rank especially voice their concerns about money and moral conflicts within the play.  The character Krogstad is also talked about when discussing moral conflicts.

Rank to Nora: “Certainly.  However wretched I may feel, I want to prolong the agony as long as possible.  All my patients are like that.  And so are those who are morally diseased; one of them [Krogstad], and a bad case too, is at this very moment with Helmer” (Ibsen 25).

Doctor Rank is a character in this play that is especially against immoral behavior because of the way his family handled their obligations and financial needs when he was growing up.  Doctor Rank’s childhood past is very similar to the life Ibsen led as a child.  Rank voiced his disappointment in his father and blamed him for being sickly growing up.

Rank to Nora: Oh, it is a mere laughing matter, the whole thing.  My poor innocent spine has to suffer for my father’s youthful amusements” (Ibsen 48).

Q: Why do you think Ibsen included concerns of his past in his plays?  Do you think he intentionally did this because he was “bitter” about his circumstances, or do you think he truly wanted to make people aware of the problems with the human race?

The characters Nora and Krogstad in the play both committed the crime of forgery and have to struggle with the actions they took.  Krogstad’s reputation is ruined by this act and Nora, though she is not punished, begins to understand the consequences of her actions and it changes her life.

Background (continued)  

 

The remainder of his life shaped who Ibsen became and fueled his writing.  He became an apprentice at 15 for a pharmacist when he was forced to leave school due to financial reasons.  At age 18 he had an illegitimate child with a servant and paid for the boy’s expenses until his teenage years.  Ibsen never met his son, but supported him because of his sense of moral obligations. Ibsen went to Christiania, later renamed Oslo, to study and better himself.  However, he did not pass all his entrance exams and committed himself to writing.  The first play he ever wrote, Catiline, was published when he was twenty, but it was not performed or received well.

It was not until he wrote his play, Peer Gynt, that he received any recognition from his works.  In the next several years he wrote more than 145 plays, but still did not receive tremendous success as a playwright.  The finest work that Ibsen wrote is called The Wild Duck which was written in 1884.  Ibsen, masters the use of irony in this play and conveys complex issues well, especially his idea of truth and what it means to the human race.  Other works Ibsen wrote were An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder and Ghosts.  On May 23, 1906, Ibsen died in his home at Arbins gade from a series of strokes.  His final words he spoke were, “On the contrary” (The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia, 1).

Q: What were you thoughts on A Doll’s House?  Do you think the issues that he brings up in the play are relevant to today’s audience?  Could you relate to any of the characters in the play?

Critical Reception of the Play

Responses to A Doll’s House in Scandinavia and Germany (1879-1880)

The play was published in 1879 and within a month 8,000 copies of the play had been sold out, and reprinted by Ibsen’s Danish publisher”(Durbach13).

The play was mentioned in homes everywhere and was received by the public.  In fact, it was so scandalous that many prominent people banned it from being mentioned in the house.

“Such furious discussion did Nora rouse when the play came out, writes Frances Lord, “…that many a social invitation given in Stockholm during that winter bore the words, ‘You are not requested not to mention Ibsen’s Doll’s House!” (Durbach 13)

Debates and differences in opinion were often the responses to Ibsen’s play.  Ibsen was asked to make an alternative ending to the play for the first German production because playhouses were unsure of how the audience would react.  Many women at the time even found the play to be horrid.  A famous actress at the time named Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to play the part of Nora stating, “I would never leave my children!”  In the alternate ending of Ibsen’s play Nora sinks to her knees at the doorway of her children’s bedroom and decides not to leave for their own good.  Ibsen however was not fond of this ending and went so far as to call it a “barbaric outrage” only to be used in emergencies.

It is interesting to note that this play did not spark debates about feminism, women’s rights, or male domination.  The only question people would ask is why would a wife and mother leave her family?  Many critics at the time identified with Helmer and reinforced his bias against Nora’s “unnatural” behavior (Durbach 14, 15)

Q: It is clear that the people of the 19th century thought that the ending was horrific and that no mother would leave her children and husband.  How did you personally feel about the ending of this play?

Responses to A Doll’s House in England/America

The people in England had the same reaction to the play as the people in Germany and Scandinavia. Some people in England went so far as to rewrite the play to make it more suitable for the audience.  One of these plays was entitled,  Breaking a Butterfly, which the author Durbach described as “a model of gobblegook” (Durbach 17).

There were some people in England however who greatly supported Ibsen’s ideas and wanted everyone to better understand what Ibsen’s messages were in the play.  Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor would invite a select gathering to her house to discuss this play and the supporters of Ibsen called themselves Ibsenites (Durbach 18).

“For Marxists, A Doll’s House envisioned the emancipation of men and women would be joined in free contract, mind to mind, as a whole and completed entity” (Durbach 18).

There were people though, such as Shaw, who supported Ibsen’s ideas but did not necessarily think he was a socialist.  In fact, Shaw says that Ibsen did not support any form of politics, religion, government, etc., but wanted to reject these ideas (Durbach 19).

The play overall in America was not widely received and some people felt it was “un-American” and represented old gloomy Europe.  Robert Schanke, a critic, shared words that many Americans felt about Ibsen’s plays.  He states, “Ibsen’s gloom belonged to the pessimistic European past, to the Old World that Americans had put behind them” (Durbach 21).

Q: Why do you think this play was “better” received in England than in Scandinavia/Germany/America?

Q: Today, the play is widely accepted, but scholars disagree on whether it is or is not a feminist play.  When/Why do you think the “shift” was made to accept Ibsen’s play?

Criticism of the play

Many scholars when taking a modern approach to this play seem to shy away from looking at A Doll’s House as a feminist play. 

A Doll House is no more about women’s rights than Shakespeare’s Richard III is about the divine right of kings, or Ghosts about syphilis…Its theme is the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she is and to strive to become that person” (M.Meyer 457).

Though some scholars may argue that Ibsen’s play have feminist ideas, Ibsen admits himself that he did not work to support the women’s rights movements.  He does state that it is important to solve the woman problem, but his task in creating this play was to describe humanity and better humanity as a whole. (Ibsen, Letters 337).

Many feminists however argue that it may not have been his intention to write a feminist play, but what he produced is accepted to have feminist ideas by many scholars.  Even though the author stated that A Doll’s House is not a feminist play it can be difficult for some people to not see the feminist ideas in the play.  Also, working towards improving the equalities of the sexes can be seen as a humanist idea and therefore Ibsen could be promoting feminist ideas in his plays.

Many people when approaching this play today either do not talk about feminism or monitor it to keep it linked with the text (Shafer, Introduction 32).

“Removing the woman question from A Doll House is presented as part of a corrective effort to free Ibsen from his erroneous reputation as a writer of thesis plays, a wrongheaded notion usually blamed on Shaw, who, it is claimed, mistakenly saw Ibsen as the nineteenth century’s greatest iconoclast and offered that misreading to the public as The Quintessence of Ibsenism.  Ibsen, did not stoop to “issues,” but was a poet of the truth of the human soul” (Templeton 28).

Some critics, such as Else Host, do not think that Nora can be the “newly-fledged feminist” because she is silly, childish and carefree.  Also, critics do not like Nora’s use of vocabulary and see her as unintelligent air-head.  The use of “baby talk” is especially hated and looked down upon (Templeton 30).  Also, critics do not like how dependent Nora is on her husband in the beginning.  For example, Nora often asks her husband for money by flirting with him and using “baby talk.”  She will also spend her money unwisely at times and is not “scolded” because of her “airy” nature.

Nora: [playing with his coat buttons, and without raising her eyes to his].  If you really want to give me something you might-you might-

Helmer: Well, out with it!

Nora: [speaking quickly].  You might give me money Torvald.  Only just as much as you can afford; and then one of these days I will buy something with it (Ibsen 13).

In the beginning Nora may seem like an air-head, but in the end she does seem to have a change in her demeanor.  She finally understands that she was only a play thing for her husband and that she never learned or talked about anything that would engage the mind.

Nora:…I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald.  But you would have it so.  You and papa have committed a great sin against me.  It is your fault I have made nothing of my life (Ibsen 76).

Q: Do you think that Nora is a strong female character in the play?  Does she change in the end?  Do you think she will be able to be an independent person?

Ibsen and Feminism

“The view supporting Ibsen can be seen to lie along a spectrum of attitudes with Ibsen as quasi-socialist at one end and Ibsen as humanist at the other.  Proponents of feminism might point to an amateur performance of A Doll’s House in 1886 in a Bloomsbury drawing room in which all of the participants were not only associated with the feminist cause but had achieved or would achieve prominence in the British socialist movement” (McFarlane 89).

Even though Ibsen made a speech famously stating that he did not “work for the women’s rights movement,” it does not mean he did not concentrate on the issues of women in society.  In fact in notes written for A Doll’s House in 1878 he writes, “A women cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view” (Ibsen 436).

Ibsen had many relations with feminists in his life including his wife, Suzannah Thoresen Ibsen, Camilla Collett and Magdalene Thoresen.  He often had passionate talks with these people about feminism and therefore it must have influenced his ideas and works.  Ibsen was even widely credited with inventing the emancipated woman in the last Act of A Doll’s House (McFarlane 91).

Ibsen in his notes again may show that he is sympathetic to the feminist cause.  “A mother in modern society is like certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the propagation of race” (Ibsen 437).

In A Doll’s House we do see a transformation in Nora’s character but it isn’t done as “smoothly” as some critics would like.  In the first two acts Nora is childish and is Helmer’s little skylark.  However, after Krogstad threatens to reveal her crime she becomes nervous and feels she might go mad.  We can see Nora’s “madness” when she rehearses the tarantella” (McFarlane 98).

“Rank sits down at the piano and plays.  Nora dances more and more wildly.  Helmer has taken up a position behind the stove, and during her dance gives her frequent instructions.  She does not seem to hear him; her hair comes down and falls over her shoulders; she pays no attention to it, but goes on dancing” (Ibsen 58, 59).

The tarantella’s origins are in southern Italy, where it serves as a form of hysterical catharsis, allowing women to escape reality and give themselves over to the music.  Nora’s final transformation is of course at the end of the play where she decides she wants to live her own life and be dependent from her husband and children (McFarlane).

Q: Did you personally see this play as a feminist work or did you see it as a humanist play like Ibsen intended? 

 

Works Cited

Durbach, Errol. A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s Myth Of Transformation. Boston: Twayne Pub, 1991. 13-23. Print.

“Ibsen, Henrik (Johan) (1828-1906).” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon, 2010. Credo Reference. 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2012.

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House, Unabridged. Clayton: Prestwick House, Inc., 2007. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik, Letters and Speeches, Ed., and trans. Evert Sprinchorn, New York: Hill, 1964.

McFarlane, James. The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 89-106. Print.

Meyer, Michael, Ibsen, Garden City: Doubleday, 1971.

Shafer, Yvonne, ed.  Approaches to Teaching Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: New York, 1985.

Templeton, Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen.” Modern Language Association. 104.1 (1989): 28-40. Web. 17 Jan. 2012.

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