Thefeminist cause in A Doll House
Theplay ADoll House”by Henrik Ibsen tells the story of an ordinary family in the late19thcentury in Denmark. The play largely reflects the playwright’sviews of the world and gender relations during his time. The play waswritten in 1879 and was first performed same year and was wellreceived by critics. However, the play was interpreted by theaudience in very diverse ways. For some, the play was feminist whileothers believe it is not. This paper intended to take side with thepro-feminist view and argue that the play advocates for feministviews of gender relations. In doing so, the paper relies on therelationship between Nora and Torvald to highlight major aspirationsof the feminist movement and at the same show how women’s laxityactively supports a patriarchal society and thus undermines feminism.
Tobegin with, the issue of money in the Hemler family is a sensitiveone and has a huge influence on how the main partners relate. Thisissue is highlighted immediately when the play opens when Noraarrives home with several packages of Christmas gifts. It is uponseeing these packages that Torvald reminds his wife on the need to becareful with her spending. Nora acknowledges that she is indeedoverspending by issuing an apology to Torvald. This clearlydemonstrates the unequal power balance in the relationship. The manmakes rules and enforces them. In a way, Nora allows Torvald thespace and time to be overbearing and to serve his own self-interestsas she does not justify her reasons for spending the money as shedid. Rogers (1932) indicates that any relationship whereby a woman iseconomically dependent reinforces patriarchy. For Nora, she cannotmake independent decisions on spending without the approval of herhusband which according to Rogers also degrades women.
Similarly,the perceived higher place of men in society is depicted by Torvald’schoice of nicknames for Nora. He refers to her as a “squirrel”repeatedly when he asks “is it the squirrel skipping about” and“when did the squirrel get home?” (Act 1, p. 3). In this case,the name “squirrel” is used for endearing purposes but in actualsense it is demeaning, dehumanizing, and perpetuates the notion thatNora survives on scraps from Torvald. In another instance, Torvaldsays that Norais comparable to the “little birds that like to fritter money”(Act 1 p. 2, cited Finch and Park-Finch). Accepting such nicknames onthe part of Nora evidently points to her conformity to her husband’sexpectations and belittlement (Finch and Park-Finch).
Forinstance, she borrowed money to take her husband to hospital in Italysecretly. She is struggling to pay back the loan and uses some moneygiven to her for shopping to pay back the loan. She also does copyingwork at home which she also keeps as a secret. Through such actions,it becomes obvious that Nora is keen to play dumb to satisfy herhusband’s overbearing chivalry. She is afraid to show her man thatshe is ready to take bold steps financially and be in control of herlife. She had lied that the money she used for her husband’streatment was obtained from her father while in the real sense shehad borrowed a loan using forged papers. Ideally, women being able toaccess credit facilities, whether legitimately or illegitimately,then and even now marks a significant level of economic independenceto which Nora conceals.
Alternatively,it could be argued that Nora perceives her economic independence as athreat to her marriage and even the relationship. Perhaps, in Nora’sview, taking a loan amounts to challenging her husband’s superiorsocial role of being the provider and protector of the family. It isnot clear in the play whether Torvald would be opposed to Norasupplementing the family income but is clearly upset when he learnsof her efforts of borrowing money to cater for his trip to Italy fortreatment. Ideally, his unhappiness with Nora’s act can beattributed to the fact he felt his position as the head of the familyhad been undermined.
Nonetheless,the Torvald has failed in some of his duties as a man and head offamily. He has abandoned his wife to handle the debts that thefamily incurred when he was sick. It is also true that he is unawareof the existence of such a debt but arguing from a logical position,a patriarchal who assumes to be in control of his wife should be ontop of things in his family. For Torvald, he does not even seem toknow her wife as a woman. Although he does not abuse her in any way,he treats her in an appropriate manner in the way he patronizes herand treats her like an adored pet. Such treatment obviously hurtsNora’s feelings but once again, she manages to hide such feelingsfrom her husband behind smiles.
Inthe end, Nora feels that she cannot withstand her husband selfishnessand decides to abandon him and their children. It is this action inparticular that feminists have cited as the greatest support forfemale empowerment and feminism. This act alone is viewed as Norastanding up against Torvald as a woman to be counted as an equal. Infact, it is viewed as a Nora accepting Nora for who she is and notwhat her husband and a patriarchal society expects of her. Ibsenhimself commented on such bold steps to say that “A woman cannot beherself in modern society. It’s an exclusively male society, withlaws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminineconduct from a masculine standpoint” (Meyer, 476, cited in Finchand Park-Finch 3). As such, for Nora to be Nora, she had to step awayfrom her partner and family.
Therefore,Ibsen understands that the separation between Nora and her husband isnecessary for the wellbeing of Nora as a woman. He shows that Norahas to leave the doll house where is in managed by Torvald in thesame as a puppet and be a person of her own. Most notably, she mustseek financial independence and space far away from the doll housewhere she can cease to be a doll and become human with her own rightsand dignity. Historically, financial freedom for women has been citedas the key pillar of equality that feminism (Finch and Park-Finch 2).Even in modern times pay equality across the gender divide is a veryhigh politically sensitive issue. Thus, it is clear that eitherintentionally or unintentionally, Ibsen highlights and advances thecause of feminism.
Itis hard to assume that the play and Nora in person does not in anyway advocate the feminist cause. Her actions and position all alongthe play conform to the accepted place of women in the late 19thcentury and even in modern patriarchal societies. It is thereforeillogical and self-defeating to claim that the play does not rightlyaddress feminism issues. The play can justifiably be labeled feministbased on various points mostly based on the definition of feminismwhich loosely posits that it is the acceptance that men and women areequally capable but women have been unfairly treated from way back ina systematic and fundamental way largely driven by patriarchy andcapitalism (Giddens 470).
However,Ibsen denies that the play is feminist in any way. He argues that theplay is humanist and seeks to portray human nature. He made thisknown in a speech during an award ceremony where Norwegian Societyfor women rights commended him for advancing women’s through theplay. He said, “I must disclaim the honor of having consciouslyworked for women’s rights. I am not quite sure what women rightsreally are. To me it has been a question of human rights” (Finchand Park-Finch 3). The decisions that Nora took did not in any wayepitomize women’s emancipation. On the contrary, her actions havebeen compared to the idea human independence and the quest for truth(Templeton, 1070). According to Ibsen, to better understand the play,Nora should be perceived as sexless or genderless (ibid). This way,her action of abandoning her family could apply to people of eithergender who want to move on with their life. Anti-feminists have alsoblasted Nora’s actions by labeling her “abnormal vain unlovingegoist” who abandons her family to pursue her happiness Templeton1069). Again, her Nora selfishly plays role of savior by illegallyborrowing a loan for her husband’s medical needs instead of seekinghelp from friends (Templeton 1071).
Fromthe brief discussion above, it is clear that the play advocatesfeminism in very many ways. Nora’s journey to free herself fromTorvald who mistreats and considers her less of a human being in theway he treats her, chooses nicknames for her and even relates withher. From a feminist perspective, Nora is a strong woman who isdetermined to be treated as an equal human being regardless of hersex. She challenges society and in by refusing to abide by socialexpectations of being reliant on her husband and taking care of thefamily. However, this view has been opposed by those who feel thatthe play does little to advance the rights of women but in one oranother portrays Nora in a bad light and her actions as misleading tofellow women.
Finch,Andrew and Park-Finch, Heebon. A Post-feminist,Evolutionist Reading of Henrik Ibsen’s
ADoll’s House.N.d. Web. http://www.finchpark.com/arts/dolls-house.pdf
Giddens,Anthony. Sociology.New York. Polity.
Rogers,Katherine. Fromfeminism and a doll house.
Templeton,Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen”.PMLA
Vol.104no.1 (Jan. 1940): 28-40. Print.