A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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!

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41 responses to “A Doll’s House: Introduction

  1. nymeth March 2, 2011 at 8:50 am

    I think I have mixed feelings about that quote as well. I can see how that’s a bit dismissive of the very real social constraints someone in Nora’s position had to face – which include not only social disapproval but also the possibility of not being able to support herself. But I like the empowerment aspect of it as well. At any rate, I envy you your introduction! Mine mostly consisted of the author ranting and raving about how the play has been “distorted with feminist interpretations” over time. I kid you not 😐

    • Jean March 2, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      Yes, I’m not sure Nietzche was thinking about all the people who might love to take responsibility for themselves, if only they were allowed to earn a living. It reminds me of my own great-grandmother, who left her husband when my grandmother was quite tiny. A woman on her own simply could not earn enough to support a child, and she ended up having to send her to stay with relatives. Later on she said it was the worst mistake of her whole life, but I don’t think she saw any other choice at the time. (Her relatives assured her that she could get her daughter back any time, but in fact they adopted my grandmother and refused to give her back, so my great-grandmother kidnapped her own girl back and took off for California.)

      I hope that wasn’t a pointless hijack of the discussion! 🙂

      • Emily Jane March 3, 2011 at 5:38 am

        It was an interesting anecdote, Jean, that highlights exactly the kinds of barriers women in such situations would have faced, not a hijack! Thanks for sharing it.

    • Emily Jane March 3, 2011 at 5:28 am

      Yes Nymeth, my thoughts exactly. I actually laughed out loud about your introduction, that’s just….so terrible, haha. Seems like a pretty difficult argument to make, too.

    • dragonflyy419 March 4, 2011 at 3:38 am

      My introduction has the same kind of rantings about it being not a feminist play and that is shouldn’t be considered as such since it wasn’t written to be one. It’s interesting to note that mine also had a lot of discussions of Nietzche (though not that specific quote).

  2. SilverSeason March 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    My copy of the play is “a new version by Frank McGuinness” and has no introduction whatsoever. I saw A Doll’s House on stage some years ago with Liv Ullmann (spell?) as Nora. It was very effective. Now, reading the play, I find that both Nora and Torvald are playing roles. Although he has the power in the domestic system, he is playing a role of strong provider and decider for which he is poorly suited. Both men and women are damaged by the inequality, a point that Mill made in Subjection. I have posted about this at https://feministclassics.wordpress.com/.

  3. Christina March 3, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Excellently-written introduction!
    I read A Doll’s House straight up with no background research, and it left me with a “that’s it?” feeling. It’s hard for modern readers to fully appreciate the scandal here, since it’s so tame by 21st-century standards. And my edition didn’t have a very meaty introduction, so I’m looking forward to learning all about the play through the discussion here.

  4. Lauren @ UnderneathaBook March 4, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Posted my entry here: http://underneathabook.blogspot.com/2011/03/book-review-dolls-house-by-henrik-ibsen.html

    My edition didn’t have an introduction, so I looked Ibsen and A Doll’s House on wikipedia. There, I learned that the play was heavily based on the experiences of one of Ibsen’s friends, a novel in her own right who apparently resented being known as “Ibsen’s Nora” later on. I think it’s an interesting question as to whether or not it was right for Ibsen to appropriate her experiences (and airing her family’s dirty laundry for all to see), even if it did call attention to women’s inequality, in the whole, “How personal should the political should be?” sort of way.

    • Emily Jane March 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      I think it’s an interesting question, too. I’m not sure yet what I think about it, but I want to address it in the discussion questions post I’m working on which should be up sometime in the next few days 🙂

  5. dragonflyy419 March 5, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    After reading A Doll’s House I can see where the Nietzsche quote fits in, as that is what Nora is doing, taking freedom by being responsible for herself (or at least that’s my interpretation). Anyways I wrote a blog on the play and my thoughts on it. I’m not the best at interpreting plays though, but this one was pretty interesting. I’m looking forward to the discussion questions.

    http://dragonflyy419.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/remarks-on-a-dolls-house-by-henrik-ibsen/

  6. Pingback: Sunday Salon – March 6, 2011 – caribousmom

  7. Emily March 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I’m looking forward to our discussion, too! I’m sorry I was MIA the last two months. It’s definitely not because I wanted to be!

    I just posted my review: http://emsalcove.blogspot.com/2011/03/dolls-house-review.html

  8. Pingback: Pillars of Society / Henrik Ibsen | Read Irresponsibly

  9. Nymeth March 9, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Here’s an initial post about both the play as a text and the experience of seeing it performed. Also a short rant about my edition’s introduction, which I just couldn’t help 😛

  10. Wendy March 9, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    My edition was a new one from Maestro Publishing Group and not only did not have an introduction, but had nothing even about the play anywhere in the book *laughs* I can’t say this was a great read, but I do think it is an interesting one – and I find it important that we look at these works if only to appreciate how far women have come (and what we stand to lose if we are not paying attention). Here is my review: http://www.caribousmom.com/2011/03/09/a-dolls-house-book-review/

    • Emily Jane March 10, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      I think it’s important too, to try and put ourselves in a such different contexts through reading. Even if it’s not entirely relatable, it gives us context for what’s going on now. Thanks for sharing your review, Wendy.

  11. dangermom March 10, 2011 at 12:48 am

    My copy is an old Penguin edition. The introduction was not terribly interesting, except for the really annoying bit about Ibsen’s wife, who is described as pudgy, plain, and tomboyish, except for her magnificent head of hair. Apparently her hair was her only redeeming feature, and nothing whatever is said about her mind or character.

    Here are my thoughts on the play. Though I wanted to say quite a bit about Nora’s comment that thousands of women have given up their honor for their loved ones, and I couldn’t seem to get it in there. I found myself thinking of Torvald as a Tennysonite (I could not love thee, dear, so well, loved I not honor more) and Nora as (sorry about this) Agatha Christie, who is always going on about the devastating practicality of women.

  12. amymckie March 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

    My copy of this book has no introduction so really interested to read what is in others! Gives me a taste of what I may be missing 😉 Interesting for sure. Looking forward to all of the discussion.

  13. LonerGrrrl March 12, 2011 at 12:01 am

    I enjoyed this play, and thought the dialogue betwen the characters was really lively and still resonates quite strongly today. I also thought it was a good follow-on from Wollstonecraft and Mill as the play brings more to life the critiques of middle-class women’s position in society they both made.

    I liked how Ibsen portrayed Nora as not being as naïve and helpless as her husband believed her to be. I think she shows a good deal of courage and thought it interesting the way she uses her feminine wiles knowingly throughout the play to cover up the circumstances surrounding her loan and to prevent Torvald from finding out about it e.g. distracting him from discovering Krogstad’s letter by pleading he focus on coaching her in her dancing for the next evening’s party. This could also be interpreted more problematically – a woman using her femininity in a cunning and duplicitous manner, a stereotype which has also done women harm.

    I really liked the final exchange between Torvald & Nora where she declares the need to educate herself and get to know her own mind. I think what Nora says here goes right to the heart of what feminism is all about. It still sounds so powerful today and something I think many women may still be able to relate to.

  14. A Slice of Hope March 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Looking forward to the discussion! I was interested at how much I read into words and actions from the very beginning, and how the ‘shock’ ending really wasn’t that shocking…http://cathygeagan.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings-a-dolls-house/ So much game playing – not much has changed! Simultaneously dated and relevant…

  15. Pingback: A Doll’s House / Henrik Ibsen | Read Irresponsibly

  16. Pingback: Review: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen « Amy Reads

  17. Niranjana (Brown Paper) March 16, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    The being true-to-yourself thing is such a cliche now, but it must’ve been quite stunning back then. I wonder if you have more details about the “uproar” it caused?
    And despite it being a cliche, women like Nora are called selfish even today. So much of the criticism about Elizabeth Gilbert and EPL, for instance, centers around her supposed selfishness–how dare she go out and do what she wants without fearing the consequences? Sometimes it feels like plus ca change…

  18. Pingback: A Doll’s House: Discussion Questions « A Year of Feminist Classics

  19. Pingback: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen « chasing bawa

  20. Sakura March 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    I was expecting it to be much more tragic so was pleasantly surprised at the ending. I have the Oxford World’s Classics edition which also has the alternative ending that was insisted upon by the German production (including the lead actress) in which Ibsen had to re-write it to provide a more conciliatory ending.

    You can find my review here: http://chasingbawa.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/a-dolls-house-by-henrik-ibsen/

  21. Iris March 29, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I finally posted about A Doll’s House. I have nothing new to say, and basically repeat what everyone has mentioned in their posts already. But I did really enjoy reading the play. It was a really interesting read. Like Sakura, I also read the OWC edition which also featured the alternate ending. I am glad he didn’t change it right away, because it does soften the message.

    Edited my own comment to add the link: http://irisonbooks.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/a-dolls-house-by-henrik-ibsen/

  22. Marcus September 5, 2013 at 6:53 am

    This is not just a feminist classic, it is also a very interesting drama. I must have read “A Doll’s house” more than 5 times, and I always find more themes and interesting things between the lines. I also blog about Ibsen’s play. http://jannotes.com/discussion-about-a-dolls-house/

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