A Year of Feminist Classics

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Category Archives: Henrik Ibsen

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!