Mar 9, 2011

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

HELMER: You’re a wife, a mother. They come first.
NORA: I don’t think so, now. Not any more. I think that first I’m a human being, the same as you.


Ibsen’s classic 1879 play A Doll’s House tells the story of Nora and Torvald Helmer’s marriage. The two have been married for eight years, and, as we immediately discover, their relationship dynamics are nothing short of disturbing – though in no way unusual for a Victorian marriage. Torvald is the provider, the person in charge, and the serious, responsible adult. Nora, who he refers to as his squirrel and his songbird, is supposedly a spoilt child or a pet – immature, frivolous, careless with money, constantly dolled up, and always willing to provide her husband with entertainment. But as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that these dynamics are a farce, and that a harsh reality hides behind them.

I absolutely loved A Doll’s House, and I feel incredibly lucky that I had the chance to see it performed immediately after reading it – and just in time for this month’s Year of Feminist Classics discussion. The play is freely available on Project Gutenberg and it’s a very quick read, so I hope some of you will consider joining us this month. This just might be my favourite of the texts we’ve read so far. Ibsen’s portrayal of the infantilisation of women that inevitably takes place in a traditional Victorian marriage is absolutely spot on – as is his acknowledgement of the fact that someone in Nora’s position can be blind to it and convince herself that she’s happy for a considerable amount of time.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Photo Credit

At the same time – and as SilverSeason was saying at the group blog – for all its power and privilege Torvald’s position also doesn’t come across as a comfortable one. Just as Nora is disallowed intelligence, independence or agency, he’s disallowed any sort of vulnerability or dependence. It’s unthinkable for a man like him to rely on his wife, emotionally or financially, without his identity or sense of worth coming into question. The result is of course a relationship model that forbids real intimacy to both partners.

My edition of A Doll’s House includes an unintentionally hilarious introduction where the author rants furiously against the fact that the play has been so frequently “distorted by feminist interpretations”. His tone shows such a deep misunderstanding and dismissal of the term that I don’t even know where to start. He seems convinced that caring about independence and emotional honesty in both men and women disqualifies the play as a feminist text, and that Nora’s gender is absolutely incidental to the story and what it’s trying to say. Thank you kindly for opening my eyes, Mr____. (I’d include the author’s name, but if he happens to have Google Alerts turned on, the fact that Ibsen has been included in the Year of Feminist Classics at all may very well give him an apoplexy. I don’t want this person’s blood on my hands, so I’d better keep quiet.)

Regardless of what Mr___ thinks, gender is of course at the very core of A Doll’s House. It’s the reason why Nora is patronised, and why she feels the need to hide any actions that show her competency and resourcefulness. Gender is also the reason why Torvald cares so much about his honour, and why relying on his wife rather than being the one relied on is so unthinkable for him. The way the complex traps of gender roles are conveyed in A Doll’s House reminded me quite a bit of To The Lighthouse, which as you might I absolutely loved.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

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.

My one qualm about the production is that it expanded a little on Ibsen’s original text – not in any way that changed its meaning in the least, but in a way that spelled things out more than Ibsen’s writing tends to. Perhaps some of it comes down to differences between translations, but in any cease I preferred the sparseness and the greater subtlety of the original text. I can see how the additions could make the play more accessible if you lack historical context, though, so perhaps they were there for a reason.

(My other qualm has to do with some members of the audience, who seemed convinced that the play was a comedy. Did I miss any dark comedic undertones? Is the passage I opened with, or the moment when Nora tells Torvald she no longer loves him, really laugh out loud funny? Grumble grumble grumble.)

As usual with Year of Feminist Classics reads, I’ll point you towards our group blog instead of linking to other reviews directly.

31 comments:

  1. HOw awesome that you were able to make this a kind of three-dimensional experience! I'm going to have to do some research and figure out who this clueless author is that wrote the intro...

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  2. I'm so glad you liked this one and very jealous of your live performance, even if the audience was wonky. Interestingly, when I discussed this play with my book club last fall, there was one of our members who insisted that this was not a feminist play at all. He used a lot of the same arguments you mention your introduction using. We had quite a good debate going on, because it wasn't just the idea of feminism that bothered him, but that we were claiming gender roles had anything to do with this play at all. I'd forgotten that entirely until your review...

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  3. I also think it's very cool that you got to see the play and read the text as well. It must have been very satisfying seeing it all in so many contexts. I also am interested in your comment about the infantilization of Victorian women. I had not heard of this term before, but with your clear explanation of the story and it's repercussions, I feel I am much more informed and enlightened on the matter. I need to read this story, and by the way, your review rocked!

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  4. I studied this at school and remember talking about the gender issues, so I too had to laugh at what you said about Mr __ . I don't remember the play being intentionally funny but I think it depends on the individual and age, hearing "squirrel" was quite funny at the time, even if explained to us.

    However although I remember the basics your thoughts here have gone into details I didn't think about so I'm glad to know it's at Project Gutenberg, I think I should re-read it.

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  5. I was talking to some friends yesterday about the International Women's Day and we reached the conclusion that feminists should start a campaign to de-demonize the word "feminism".

    Most people just think about burning bras and men-haters. *sigh*

    Glad you liked the play, I did a similar thing recently with All My Sons and it does enhance the whole theater experience.

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  6. I'm so glad you got to see it. Every play MUST be seen.

    Ibsen takes a deft hand to a common theme in this one. I loved the songbird analogies.

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  7. Sandy: It's not worth googling, really :P He's a professor I hadn't even heard of before, but with whom I quite clearly I would NOT get along :P

    Amanda: I wonder how common that reading is! I bet it would be a great experience to discuss it in the context of a book group and actually hear the reasoning behind it. One of the reasons why this intro frustrated me was because it dismissed a gender-centred reading without elaborating on it much at all, as if the author thought it was beneath him to do so. That actually surprised me more than his rejection of the term "feminism", which I know not everyone wants to identify with. But it seemed so clear to me that gender was the main reason why both Nora and Torvald were expected to act in certain very narrowly defined ways that I'd be very curious to hear how else the play can be read.

    Zibilee: It was fantastic, and it made for a very memorable experience! Thank you for the kind words as always. I hope you do get around to reading the play, as I can see you enjoying it a lot!

    Charlie: I could understand laughter in the first few scenes, in a "this is so horrifying it's actually funny" sort of way, but it really confused me in act III, which to me has such a heavy mood to it. Oh well, people are different and all that :P

    Alexandra: Yes! I just wonder how it can be done, though :\

    Monica: The analogy was perfect - and I love how there's an edition with a cover that plays on that (an empty cage, if I remember correctly).

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  8. A Doll's House is one of my favorite plays. I also read it right before I saw it.

    I don't think you missed any humor - I don't remember any funny instances.

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  9. Nymeth, I am reading a short work by a feminist theologian which takes the stance that the patriarchal model - inherently hierarchical - is the root of not only sexism, but of racism, ageism, and colonialism as well. Completely fascinating - I love this woman (Sandra Schneiders) and her work is always a treat to read. "A Doll's House" is one of my favorite plays, and I agree with you: so much better to understate and allow Nora and Torvald's confusion and essential good intentions towards each other, to tell the larger tale about society's flaws. I spit out my coffee when I read about the foreword - it's hard to believe it wasn't written tongue-in-cheek!

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  10. I'll have to read this one. I could not have survived during that time period. I can't imagine how demoralizing it was for women.

    I'm so glad you got to see the play. I don't make it to enough live theater, but it is something that I love.

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  11. It must have been lovely to read the play and see it around the same time.It definitely gives you a whole new perspective.

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  12. Yeah, this really needs to go to the "more sooner than later" pile, I see.

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  13. I imagine seeing and reading the play so close together really intensified your experience. What is it with audiences these days not knowing how to behave?

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  14. This is one of my favorites to read, but I've never seen performed. I love all the dimensions of this review - great work as always, Ana!

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  15. Brenna: I'm glad it wasn't just me, and that my funny fuses aren't broken after all :P

    Nancy: Schneiders' work does sound fascinating! And yeah, part of me wants to believe that this introduction was someone's idea of a joke :S

    Kristi: I know - and the more I read about it, the more that idea sinks in. Of course, had we been born then we would probably not know there were alternatives, which is in itself a scary thought.

    Vivienne: It really does! I hope to be able to do this again while I'm here and make the most of all the lovely theatre groups you have over here.

    Debi: It does! It reads like a novella, really, and I think you'd really love it.

    Kathy: I know! I wonder what the actors thought of it. They were definitely not playing their roles for laughs.

    Elisabeth: Thank you! And I hope you'll have the chance to see it someday.

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  16. I loved this play too when I read it in high school. I don't know how anyone could possibly read it as not having to do with gender--then what the heck is it about???? Seriously. What university is that guy affiliated with?

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  17. Heidenkind: Oxford :| I had to google his name to find out, and it turns out he passed away some years ago, so I needed not fear Google alerts or apoplexies :P He says that the main themes are "personal dignity and responsibility" - and yeah, these matter in the play, but like you said they can't be divorced from gender at all.

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  18. "Interesting" intro from that professor. Bumbling and repressed, more like. I am completely jealous that you saw the play after reading this - I would imagine this completely rounds out the experience of the story, and I would love to be able to implement that at some point. With a classic such as this one, it's one I'm going to have to check out. And although I've heard quite a bit about it, I'm not familiar with Project Gutenberg. I must remedy that immediately. Thanks for posting this; your blog is always a delight to visit!

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  19. Thus does Serious Literary Criticism prove itself divorced from Literature. Nora is one of the original feminist heroes. So glad you were able to see this performed after reading it, but I guess it was obvious which members of the audience were familiar with A Doll's House, and which weren't :|

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  20. Coffee and a Book Chick: Aw, thank you so much! And do check out Gutenberg - it's a wonderful resource!

    ds: I hope I'm right to assume that his reading is on the minority among critics, though! One can hope, at the very least :P And yes, it kind of was, although I'm sure some people who hadn't read it before DID appreciate it.

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  21. But, but, but... how can we know to avoid your edition without knowing who wrote it? Could we know the publisher at least? lol

    That truly is an unintentionally hilarious introduction you are right. I'm shocked! He really needs to reread the play, or read it at all? Too funny!

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  22. Amy: Ha, good point :P It's the Drama Classics edition. I bought it because it was so inexpensive and did have an intro, but I'd have been better off reading it on Gutenberg.

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  23. I loved this one too and I would love to see it performed live. When I really enjoy a book I love to do the "trifecta" if possible, see the movie version and see the play version (if there are both/either) so I can cement it in my memory.

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  24. It's been more than a decade since I've read this play, so I can't remember the details. I do remember, though, that I read Ibsen's GHOSTS at the same time and found the contrast striking. I can't remember the details but i remember feeling like Ghosts was the result twenty years later if the woman in A DOLL'S HOUSE hadn't left her husband. GHOSTS is quite depressing and dark, I seem to remember A DOLL'S HOUSE at least ending on a hopeful note?

    I definitely saw it as a feminist text, though. I can see how that intro must have been amusing. I'm curious to read it -- and reread the plays. Perhaps I'll get a chance to do so this month. It's a good reading month so far :)

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  25. Avid Reader: I love the "trifecta" experience as well! The author of my infamous introduction mentions how much he disliked a 1973 movie adaptation with Jane Fonda - needless to say, I particularly want to watch that one now :P

    Rebecca: Gutenberg has Ghosts as well, so I think I'm going to read it while A Doll's House is still fresh in my mind! And yes, this one does have a hopeful ending.

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  26. I love that quote you put at the top! It's one of my favorite lines from the play.

    Great review! I'm all the more eager for our discussion now :)

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  27. Emily: Me too! I can't wait to see what the other Emily will ask us.

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  28. I hate it when people laugh at serious parts of plays. I feel worried for the actors that they will be thrown off their stride and also have their feelings hurt. I never know whether to blame the actors for playing it wrong, the writer for being, whatever, outdated or reaching for emotional beats they haven't earned, or the audience for doing the nervous laughter thing.

    (I am going to see Arcadia soon and I'm so worried that everyone will get in the habit of laughing at the many hilarious jokes! And then will laugh at the end when it's not funny anymore!)

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  29. I'm so glad you all put this on the list for the Year of Feminist Classics project otherwise it would probably have taken me another 10 years to read this. It was brilliant and I really enjoyed reading it. And I've got the edition with 4 plays so will be reading Ghosts next. I too am a little perplexed that people were laughing during the play you saw as I didn't really see it as a comedy...

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  30. I apologize for only now getting over here to read your post on A Doll's House! I actually read it without even realizing it was a Year of Feminist Classics book. I loved it and am really enjoying reading everyone else's thoughts on it so close to having read it myself! I would love to see this one performed. I must read more Ibsen!

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  31. i believe as the play is based in Norway, that we cannot refer to the era as 'victorian' as this was specific to England only. As for feminism, i think it foolish to say Ibsen wanted nothing to do with it at all, although it seems his main aims were to expose faults in relationships and society

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