A Year of Feminist Classics

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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Wrap Up: A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House is a very short text, but one which raised some interesting questions and, of course, some wonderful responses. I want to thank you all for your thoughtful participation. I was nervous about my first month of hosting, but you made it a most enjoyable experience 🙂 Here’s what you had to say!

Silverseason noted the literal meaning of the title and the implications thereof:

I begin by thinking that punctuation matters. A “dollhouse” is a plaything, a way to help little girls fantasize about the perfect home they will have some day. The “doll’s house” in Ibsen’s play is a real house in which a doll lives now, and the doll is Nora, the perfect self-sacrificing wife. This wife is less than a real, grown-up person, as the descriptive language used by both Nora and her husband Torvald makes clear. She is a little squirrel, a skylark, and irresponsible bird.

Lauren related the play to both John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft:

I was strongly reminded of The Subjection of Women as I read A Doll’s House, as well. Mill went into great deal detailing the number of ways in which the marriage contract could hurt or damage women, and the reader sees two of them play out in A Doll’s House. Christine, the friend of Nora, the protagonist, has been left destitute as a direct result of her husband and father’s deaths…

Nora, on the other hand, experiences Wollstonecraft’s gilded cage: she is continually condescended to by her narcissistic husband, who confines her to the domestic sphere.

Caribousmom discusses the relationship between economic independence and gender parity:

Money is one means by which power is obtained – and in Ibsen’s play, that idea becomes central. Nora appears to be completely under the control of her husband who stands to become very wealthy when he is promoted to a top position in a bank. Ibsen allows Nora to regain some of her autonomy through her ruse to obtain a loan – and then further empowers her by giving her the means to pay back the money. By putting money into Nora’s hands, Ibsen turns the table on tradition and allows a woman character to enjoy her own independence. In 1879, this would be a revolutionary idea.

Emily was bothered by Nora’s character, but was also felt caring towards her:

Nora and I do not have much in common.  She is not a character I feel particularly drawn to, and honestly, for most of the play she annoyed the snot out of me.  But when she tells Torvald that she has a sacred duty to herself, when she says, “I think that before all else I am a human being just as you are, or at least I will try to become one,” I saw myself opening my door for her, providing her with a haven for as long as she needed it.  I don’t know if that’s just my port-in-a-storm side coming out – that part of me that insists on being a source of stability and comfort for people who need it – or whether, in resolving to become the person she truly is, I finally connected with her.  I suppose the reason doesn’t really matter.  Either way, my door is open, Nora.

Iris notes that Torvald is conditioned and constrained by his role as husband/breadwinner, too:

The characterisation of the treatment of Nora as a doll in a doll’s house is so spot on for everything that went on in the play. And that last line shows how Torvald is trapped as well. Can we really agree with Nora that it is all Torvald’s fault? I think what Ibsen was trying to say was that it is society’s conditioning that was/is at fault.

Cathy Geagen, unrocked by the ending of the play, looks at the the foreshadowing that occurs with what seems a trained analytic eye:

Of the most fundamental importance to A Doll’s House are the onstage movements of the characters. In the body language of the Helmers we see the truth of their marriage played out while the Helmers pay lip service to happy families. The pathetically cutsie first interplay between the couple shows the male breadwinner, pen in hand, lecturing his picture perfect wife on the virtues of household economy. While the doll plays the role of a “little bird” with her speeches, the audience can see the first earmarks of the farcical element of her role.

ChasingBawa also wrote about the way in which Ibsen built tension slowly throughout the play and how she was both glad and suprised to see Nora realize her potential:

In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Ibsen is quoted as saying in his notes

A woman 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.

It seems that for a woman, there can be no win-win situation and that is what Ibsen was trying to address. I was actually rather worried that Nora would consider taking her own life and dreaded finishing the play but was pleasantly surprised when she showed her strength and finally awakened to who she really was. I’m sure she knew all along who she was, but I feel that she played along to what was expected of her and in doing so constructed her own prison.

Dragonflyy419 locates the power of the play in the last act:

The most important discussions in this book come from the revelations in the last act.  Nora comes to the realization that her marital relationships have been like those with her father, where she is not attempting to be her own person, but what others dictate her to be.  I believe this act is where the true aspects of the play having a feminist value comes in as well as where it would have shocked contemporary audiences.

Christina wondered about the moral, political, and social ramifications of Nora’s renunciation of motherhood:

Speaking of separation, this play led me to think about how divorce and custody have evolved to be more woman-friendly. Nora chooses to actively leave her family. In doing so she automatically forfeits her children and any monetary help from Torvald. Nora doesn’t lament these losses, since she wants to make a clean break and discover herself on her own. But the societal principle here is so obviously wrong: a woman must stay with her husband if she wants to be with her children, and if she wants to have any household income to speak of. The tables have turned now, at least in the U.S. I’m no expert on the subject, but I believe the default arrangement is for the mother to have primary custody of her children after a divorce, and we all know about alimony and child support. Did early feminist literature like A Doll’s House contribute to this change? Social change usually has to happen before legal change, right?

Dangermom is also highly critical of Ibsen/Nora’s dismissal of the children:

I suppose it’s partly that the children are not major characters in the play, which is really about the relationship between Nora and Torvald, but Ibsen easily dismisses the children as if they are of no importance, and this bothers me quite a lot. Nora’s comment that she is of no good to her children is a simple lie, not the clear-eyed assessment of her own incompetence that Ibsen seems to want it to be. Her children don’t care that she has never learned to be an adult, and would probably prefer that she work on it without leaving them. Had Ibsen never seen the effects of parental abandonment, or was he just trying to keep the children out of the issue?

Nymeth was lucky enough to attend a production of the play, and here’s what she got from the experience:

The production of A Doll’s House I went to see last week was all-around very impressive: the acting, costumes and stage effects were all perfect; and not only did it bring the play to life, but it made me notice more details, as I imagine a re-read would. For example, it wasn’t until I saw this production that I realised that Christine Linde and Krogstad’s relationship provides an alternate model to Nora and Torvald’s. Krogstad’s sense of masculinity seems to be slightly different from Torvald’s – different enough for the thought of his wife working being acceptable for him. It is because of this that he and Christine come to an understanding, and begin what seems to be a beneficial relationship for them both.

Phillip wrote about how he responded to the characters from a contemporary perspective:

At the end when she leaves Torvald to learn to stand on her own feet, the thought occurred to me that that’s almost expected these days in Western society. While many of the issues I read about Vindication of the Rights of Woman are still issues today, this one rarely is.

But Amy finds it still completely relevant:

In this respect, how Nora feels she has to put herself first and understand herself before she can focus on being a wife and mother, the play would still be shocking today to many. As the introduction points out, still a concern and still shocking, and something we still have to work toward achieving – a place where it isn’t ‘selfish’ for a wife and mother want time to herself.

If I’ve missed yours, please link it in the comments! Stay tuned for next month’s selection, Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman hosted by Iris. In the meantime, I’ll try to catch up on the comments you’ve left about A Doll’s House. Happy reading, everyone!

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Interview with Stephanie Staal (and Giveaway Winners!)

Back on February 22nd all four of us (Amy, Ana, Emily, and Iris) reviewed Reading Women by Stephanie Staal and told you about a fantastic giveaway. Today we are back with our interview with Stephanie Staal.

  1. One of the most interesting things about Reading Women is the fact that you read so many different feminist texts and take away something from all of them. If you had to pick the one that resonated with you the most, though, what would it be, and why? It’s so difficult for me to pick just one book, since I had quite a few favorites, each one resonating with me in a different way. But I suppose if I had to choose the book that, upon re-reading, left the deepest impression, I would say Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Stumbling upon her book when I did – as a relatively new mom – only to discover that I was relating to it in a way that I hadn’t as an undergrad served as a wake-up call. In college, I had viewed The Feminine Mystique as a work anchored to a very particular place and time – post World War II, white, middle-class suburbia. So it was somewhat of a shock to find myself, over a decade later and over four decades after Friedan published her book, identifying with some of the women she describes. Ultimately, re-reading The Feminine Mystique forced me not only to think more critically about the issues I was facing in my own life by placing them in a larger context, but also to appreciate the ways in which the world has changed since Friedan’s day.
  2. You mention in the afterword that there were several texts from the syllabus you couldn’t include in the book for reasons of space – if it had been possible, which are the ones you wish you could have included the most? I actually have rough chapters on Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race & Class, and Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class all sitting in a desk drawer – and there are even more books I would have included!
  3. Your reading of feminist texts was often quite different from that of the younger students in your class. What most surprised you about the younger generations’ take on the material? There was often quite a diversity of perspectives and opinions in the class, so I was a little surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reception to pornography when we covered the subject in class. Obviously it’s a complicated topic, with too many nuanced arguments, whether pro or con, to cover in just one class or in a few sentences here. But for whatever reason, I sensed a real discomfort among the younger students with expressing any critique of porn at all, as if being anti-porn meant being anti-sex, and that I found disturbing. We are clearly still faced with the challenges of articulating female sexuality in a culture of predominantly sexist, mixed messages, and I think these challenges can be especially difficult and confusing for young women. As the mother of a daughter, I often worry about the negative influence of hyper-sexualized images of women, and I was definitely bringing that sensitivity into the classroom.
  4. Clearly, you learned a lot about both feminism and yourself throughout the course of this project. What is the lesson you learned that is most applicable to your day-to-day life? In the book, I mention a quote from one of my professors that has stuck with me. She urged us to “tell the unexpected story,” or, in other words, to question the prevailing stories about women’s roles by finding new and creative ways to re-tell them; many of the authors I read provided inspiration in this respect. Revisiting feminist texts, and seeing the progression of feminist thought over time, reminded me how much these bold and enterprising women had accomplished over the past centuries – while at the same time revealing what work remains to ensure social, political, and economic equality. I was very fortunate to have the privilege and opportunity to take this personal journey through the feminist canon, engaging with feminist theory as an individual endeavor, but the practice of feminism must also involve the everyday effort to improve the lives of all women. And this is probably the most important lesson I have taken to heart.
  5. Reading Women coverOn our blog, a group of book bloggers are reading a list of 14 feminist text which we discuss together. Do you have any tips considering that our approach to the books (both scholarly and related to our every day life) is quite similar? First off, I absolutely love your blog – the discussions, the comments, all the background information on the books. For me, I found that learning about an author’s life – as well as about the social milieu in which she or he was writing – really enriched my reading experience and deepened my understanding of the material. On the other hand, I tended to shy away from reading contemporary scholarly or academic articles interpreting the meaning of a work for fear of being swayed too much in my own analysis. And since you are taking an approach that is both personal and scholarly, I would encourage you to explore the random trails of thought and memory that open up as you read, because they often lead to interesting places.
  6. At the end you talk about repeating the experience in another few decades. Do you think you really will? I hope so. In fact, I was joking with my daughter the other night that maybe we should take it together, when she goes to college – now how fascinating would that be!

Thank you to Stephanie for taking the time to answer our questions. We all had a great time with the book and coming up with the questions and hope that you have enjoyed her responses as much as we did. For more information on the book you can check it out on the Public Affairs website. You can also check out Stephanie’s site.

Now, the part that you’ve all been waiting for… giveaway results! What with the multiple entries for participants I (Amy) counted a total of 45 entries. I used random.org to choose the 5 winners and they are:

The winners have been contacted and if they don’t respond within a week new winners may be selected. Thank you to all who entered and congratulations to the winners. And thank you as well to Public Affairs for providing the books for this fantastic giveaway!

A Doll’s House: Discussion Questions

Hello again, everyone! I know that this was a short text, and that many of you have already written up your thoughts on the play, perhaps long ago (if you haven’t yet, don’t fret: there’s plenty of time before I collect all the links to write-ups and post them at the end of the month). But I, for one, have not yet stopped thinking about it and have a few questions I’ve been working on.

1. The first comes by way of Lauren of Underneath a Book. In comments on my introduction post, she voiced concern about the fact that the character Nora and her experiences were largely based on a woman whom Ibsen knew in real life and the troubles she’d had in her marriage; a woman who was not particularly pleased to have her story appropriated in this way for public consumption. What are the politics of fictionalizing an individual’s story to make a universal point?

2. Throughout most of the play, Torvald treats Nora, his wife, like an overgrown child or a care-free pet, and she does kind of act like one. But by the end we realize that Nora is not the shallow, vapid creature she appears at first to be; she has been, at least in part, consciously playing a role. Why? Has it been to her benefit or her loss?

3. Nora expects that when her husband finds out that she has broken the law to save his life, he will take credit for her actions and she will commit suicide to save his reputation. He surprises her by refusing to do so. Why doesn’t he? What is the relationship between his refusal and the role that he plays in their marriage?

4. Torvald tells Nora, in the end, that “I’d gladly work for you day and night, Nora–go through suffering and want, if need be–but one doesn’t sacrifice one’s honor for love’s sake.” Nora responds by saying that “Millions of women have done so.” This line gave me chills. It was this, above everything else in the play, that resonated with me and felt still too relevant today. What resonated with you?

Please feel free to answer one or all the questions, or to contribute your own!

A Doll’s House: Introduction

Henrik Ibsen (March 1828–May 1906) was a Norwegian poet, playwright, and theater director who is often referred to as the “founding father” of Modernist theater. Ibsen was a controversial figure because his works sought to reveal the sometimes unsettling truth of human reality that lay obscured behind the veil of Victorian society’s moral dictates. In many of his plays, women were the vessels through which disruption of these dictates was enacted. 

A Doll’s House was published in 1879 and its role-defying protagonist caused quite an uproar (to the extent that some performances actually presented a more conventional alternate ending to the play). Nora’s and Torvald’s marriage is a traditional one in which Torvald, manger of a bank, is supposed to make all the major financial decisions save those that his wife is allowed to make with her regular allowance to keep up herself, the children, and the house. But when he falls sick and requires a year of rest in Italy which he cannot afford, he is too proud to ask anyone for the help that he needs. So Nora leads him to believe that the money for the trip is a gift from her father, though really it’s from an illegal loan which she has taken out behind his back and to which she has forged her father’s signature. All the while Torvald pampers her and calls her cute, condescending nicknames while she appears complimented and content; he suspects nothing unusual as his “little song lark”, his “child”, flits nervously about the house. She has quietly saved and done a little paid work of her own in order to pay back what she owes and is very proud of this, but not all is well at the bank: something drastic must soon take place.

Through taking out a faulty loan, Nora is doing something that she knows is “wrong”, but with conviction that she is acting in her family’s best interest. This play deals explicitly with the emancipation of women from an oppressive marital/familial system without necessarily–despite what many of his contemporaries thought–condemning those systems completely. My copy of the play is published, along with five other plays by Ibsen, by the Modern Library and includes an introduction by Eva Le Galliene, who writes that

Ibsen was accused of being an enemy to “the sacred ties of marriage”; people could not understand that to him marriage was so sacred that he believed it must be based upon a spiritual communion; mere “living together” was not enough. he felt that a man and a woman should, ideally go through life together as perfect equals, in perfect honesty, free to develop–each in his own way–into a complete human entity. As Nietzche said: “What is freedom? To have the will to be responsible for one’s self”.

To look at the play with Nietzche’s statement in mind is to see that the solutions to Nora’s problems lay within Nora herself, a lesson that can be similarly applied to women and other marginalized groups more generally. I have mixed feelings about this so far: I find that notion both empowering and dismissive of the fact (idea?) that freedom is only real if recognized as such by others, particularly those in more privileged positions of power. But I’ll wait to find out what happens in the end, and for everyone else to begin reading, before pushing that point any further or asking what you think about it 🙂

I’m very excited to be hosting this month and I think that A Doll’s House is going to offer up a lot of interesting points of discussion. I’ll be back before too long with some questions for you all–until then, happy reading everyone!