How illuminating is it to read Ibsen’s drama in feminist terms?
The “woman question” raised by Ibsen’s plays has been greatly debated, from his contemporaries to modern day critics and theatre-goers. Whilst Pillars of Society was openly feminist, his two other plays Hedda Gabbler and A Doll’s House are more complex. The relevant question is whether Ibsen is writing about the rights of women or of human rights in general. Either way Ibsen caused great controversy with both plays in his time and raised important social issues that remain relevant even now. But in what terms did Ibsen intend us to read his plays? A Doll’s House is the perfect example to examine this.
The critics that disagree with reading Ibsen’s drama in feminist terms often quote the following statement made by Ibsen at his seventieth birthday party,
“I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement…True enough it’s desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.”
According to Ibsen himself, Nora’s conflict represents something more than just that of woman’s. The feminist answer to this would be a quote perhaps less widely publicised. This was said by Ibsen when sketching the play;
“A woman cannot be herself in the society of today, which is exclusively a masculine society, with laws written by men, and with accusers and judges who judge feminine conduct from the masculine standpoint.”
Bearing this in mind, combined with knowledge of Ibsen’s extremely privileged feminist education and his role in the movement, the play cannot be read in any other way than bearing feminist issues in mind. In January 1879 Ibsen proposed to the Scandinavian Society that a woman librarian be hired. He also recommended that women be given the right to vote in the society, amongst other examples. There are no doubts that Ibsen , despite claims on the contrary, was deeply involved in feminism and this shows in his work, and particularly in the character of Nora in her claustrophobic “Doll’s House.”
I would argue that an immediate reaction to the play would be to sympathise with Nora. Whether Ibsen intended her to be or not Nora became a figurehead of one of the century’s major social struggles, the oppression of women, especially in the middle class family. As a reader you cannot help but take note of the problems women faced in such a male-dominated society and feel a sense of achievement on Ibsen’s part in the knowledge that it aided the feminist movement. In this sense alone I would say it was definitely illuminating to read Ibsen in feminist terms as it highlights the importance of equality between the sexes.
Not all readers take such a positive outlook though. Admittedly Nora is not a completely faultless character. She is criticised as neurotic, selfish and manipulative, not exactly what you would call the perfect feminist heroine. Maurice Valency went as a far as to say,
“ Nora is a carefully studied example of what we have come to know as the hysterical personality-bright, unstable, impulsive, romantic, quite immune from feelings of guilt, and, at the bottom, not especially feminine.”
Although quite an extreme view, it proves to emphasise that despite creating an incredibly positive feminist movement, Nora is not always seen as the deserving role model. Arguments against her include her forgery in order to get the money needed to save her husband, showing her irresponsibility and egoism. These critics clearly did not find it enlightening to read in feminist terms, as the “heroine” is deceitful and ultimately unfeminine in her actions. Her famous exit described by Freedman as the “shallowest notion of emancipated womanhood, abandoning her family to go out into the world in search of ‘her true identity’”  Much has also been said about her...
Bibliography: Henrik Ibsen. Thomas, David, New York : Grove Press, 1984.
Ibsen-A Doll’s House. Egil Tornqvist, Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Ed. James Mcfarlane. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1994.
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