Ibsen and Feminism

The social response to Ibsen’s drama: Welcome to Nora’s page on Ibsen’s true intentions in writing “A Doll’s House.” Here are some critics’, some feminist groups’, and Ibsen’s own interpretations of his work.

            Considering the social context of the time, there is no doubt that Ibsen’s play sent a ripple of upheaval through the European and American social structure.  Nora’s decision to leave her seemingly perfect life as a doll and venture into the real world was no doubt dumbfounding to the contemporary audience.  According one source, “At the turn of the century physicians used Nora, whose mood changes from joy to depression in short cycles of time, as an example of female hysteria” (Henrik).  Rather than attributing Mrs. Linde’s surrender to social norms with her desire to assume the role of Krogstad’s doll to the constricting, unforgivable social traditions and practices of the time, Krogstad found her past behavior of independence and hard work a manifestation of “a women’s hysteria” (Ibsen 64).  The idea of female hysteria didn’t solely apply to explain Mrs. Linde’s behavior.  Many interpreted the hysterical shifts in Nora’s moods as understandable “because she wavers between the person she pretends to be and the one she may someday become” (Linnea).  This “female hysteria” was used as an explanation for her desire for impendence, although it was later cleared up by Havelock Ellis who linked her self-fulfillment to the creation of “a new social order” (Henrik). 

            True to Ellis’s predictions, social change was around the corner for the gender situation among the middle class.  The play, along with other historical factors, helped stir the movement for women’s rights.  At the time, women were neither allowed to pursue higher education nor substantially vote or assume more than basic property rights.  “They were expected to be passive, no matter what their true personality was” (Linnea).  Even if Mrs. Linde was allowed to work, she found herself “completely alone in the world, and feeling horribly empty and forlorn” (Ibsen 64).  This shows that the push for gender equality would be difficult because of deep-seeded traditions and prejudices against independent women.  There is no doubt that this atmosphere and Ibsen’s close relationships with many women during his lifetime contributed to his desire to write A Doll’s House.

            It was easy enough for the growing feminist movement at the time to label Ibsen as a feminist.  In fact, Ibsen had been active in several activities to try to bring about more gender equality in his town.  At one town council meeting he tried to get the paid job of librarian to be open to women; in his letter he stated, “Is there anyone in this gathering who dares assert that our ladies are inferior to us in culture, or intelligence, or knowledge, or artistic talent?” (Meyers 449).  Additionally, A Doll’s House  paints a sympathetic picture of the plight of women, as seen when Nora, in response to Torvald’s exclamation that her first duty was that of a wife and a mother, reveals “I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are—or at least I’m going to try to be.  I know most people agree with you, Torvald, and that’s also what it says in books.  But I’m not content any more with what most people say…I have to think things out for myself” (Ibsen 82).  Consequentially, after the release of “A Doll’s House,” feminist groups such as the Norwegian Women’s Rights League to throw a banquet in his honor (Templeton 110).  Templeton goes on to explain how “for Ibsen’s contemporaries, the sophisticated as well as the crude, A Doll House was the clearest and most substantial expression of the issues composing the ‘women question.’  From the 1880’s on, the articles poured forth” (Templeton 126). 

One of the feminists’ major arguments in portraying Ibsen as pro-women’s rights was the theme of liberty for Nora.  She is deeply rational and pitiable because of her practicality as well as her identifiable yearning for individuality and self-fulfillment.  For example, as she leaves she tells Torvald, “when a wife leaves her husband’s house as I am doing now, he is absolved by law of all responsibility.  You must not feel in any way bound, any more than I shall.  There must be full freedom on both sides” (Ibsen 85).  According to Errol Durbach in Ibsen’s Myth of Transformation, “the idea of ‘liberty’ in his drama is inseparable from the liberal ideology that inspired the revolutions that reshaped the social structure of Europe and America at the end of the eighteenth century” (Durbach).  This implies that the social movement that led to a revolution for liberty in America and places in Europe like Norway at the time was seeping into the realm of women’s rights.  While the critics jumped at this development and weaved Ibsen into the feminist movement, Ibsen fervently began to clarify his intentions for the public opinion.

            Other contemporary social groups were not so eager to give A Doll’s House a positive connotation.  Indubitably some people felt that “a play that questioned a woman’s place in society and asserted that a woman’s self was more important than her role as a wife and mother, was unheard of.  Government and church officials were outraged” (Linnea).  It wasn’t the blame for the rising divorce rate that got Ibsen to give in but some German theaters wouldn’t even allow the play to be performed; thus the alternate ending “in which the heroine rebellion collapses” (Linnea).  Perhaps the image of Torvald drowning in despair, sinking “down on a chair near the door, and cover[ing] his face with his hands,” trying to dream up the “miracle of miracles” that would save his house from collapse but being unable to because of the way society nurtured his beliefs and thoughts was too unjust (Ibsen 86).  It was only after the creation of the alternate ending that the play became famous around the globe.

            Nevertheless, Ibsen couldn’t accept that his plays be labeled feminist.  He thus fervently tried to clarify his views on freedom for expression in women.  First, Ibsen attempted to clarify the position of the critics and counter “whatever propaganda feminists may have made of A Doll House…[Ibsen] never meant to write a play about the topical subject of women’s rights” (Templeton).  Ibsen supposedly had other intentions in mind in portraying Nora’s conflict.  He considered himself a “poet of truth and of the human soul” (Templeton).  In this way, he preferred to be called a humanist (Linnea).  His observations of social roles include viewing the woman’s realm as “values, feelings, and personal relationships” while the men’s realm was “laws, legal rights, and duties” (Linnea).  Although Nora’s lack of understanding the consequences of forging a signature, even for a good cause, makes the central conflict the individual’s duty to herself, Ibsen in general “had little patience with people, male or female, who didn’t stand up for their rights and opinions” (Linnea).  In this way, Ibsen’s thematic portrayal of the plot in A Doll’s House makes its humanist, rather than strictly feminist, purpose justified.

            Overall, Ibsen’s work created a social backlash with those opposed to the feminist movement.  While women’s groups eagerly stacked up praises and honors for Ibsen, he fervently tried to disassociate himself from the feminist movement and satiate the critics with “humanist” rather than “feminist” intentions.  His creation of an alternate ending (see alternate ending page) to save himself from vituperative critics proves the extent of social upheaval created by his play in the context of the women’s rights movement in Europe and America.


Laura Keiler, courtesy of  http://www.ibsen.net/image/602/1/602_1.jpeg