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Every one of us has felt the need of independency or to go places that we have dreamt up as young children. However, obligations such as our family, friends, or jobs always seem to get in the way. We can't seem to leave the people who love and need us because of guilt, or the throbbing feeling in your gut, your conscience. In present times you always hear of people going on soul searching missions to find their underlining role on the earth. A Doll's house, written in 1879, brought up many controversial topics while being performed in that era. It questioned women's role in: the household, society, and their role in marriage. Even up to modern day, the big question Henrik Ibsen leaves us is what are one's true responsibilities? Is it acceptable for someone to leave everything behind in search for belonging? When does one's self come before others and vice versa?
In the late 1980's the roles of the women were to take care of the house, the children, and the husband. The man owned the woman, and therefore the woman was under the control of the man. Even girls had to learn how to take care of the household at an early age. The women would teach the girls how to become a good mother and wife when the time came. They would also make sure that the home was clean and organized when the father came home from work. Nora Helmer in A Doll's House is a prime example of a middle class wife in this era. She has been brought up by her father as many other girls were brought up in the 1870's. "When I was home with Papa he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls."(Ibsen 66) Norah shows how her obligation to her role in the house, even as an early child, has concealed her true beliefs and prevented her from creating her own personality. Ibsen challenges the structural component of a household and questions why women must be subjected to suppression by their home rather than search for careers of their own.
Through the plot of A Doll's House the problems within marriage are defiantly evident. "I have been your doll wife; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it was great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been."(Ibsen 67) Both this statement and the last quote by Norah portrays how man has dominated the women in their relationship as husband and wife. Nora and Torvald express superiority issues within their marriage. Nora also shows that she begins to accept life beyond her marriage when Dr. Rank confesses his love to her. Instead of totally rejecting him and going strait to Torvald, she eases her way out of the subject as if to leave some cards on the table.
Ibsen questioned what love truly is when Nora states, "You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me."(Ibsen 66) What is the real purpose of marriage? Are some marriages only formed in the intent to fulfill the stereotypical husband-wife family, or are two individuals actually in search of true love? The big question Ibsen was trying to relate here was if two people are truly in search of love, why must the women "maintain their submissive, dependent status in their marriage" (Basch 6).
Henrik Ibsen believed that in the world he grew up in, there were definite flaws in mankind. When Ibsen addressed the Norwegian League for Women's Rights, he had this to say: "I am not a member of the Women's Rights League. Whatever I have written has been written without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women's rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of mankind in general. True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity" (Brustein 139). Ibsen states he is not a feminist however he saw the flaws in his society and portrayed them through Nora and her actions.
In the 1890's, once married, women lost all individual rights, and their status depended upon that of their husband. According to the law, the woman now belonged to her husband. Husbands retained control over their wives' assets, property, inheritance, children, and even their bodies (Basch 17). Everything belonging to the wife at the time she was married, became her husband's, "as well as anything she might acquire later on: annuities, personal income, gifts and emoluments" (Basch 20). A Doll's House challenges these socially acceptable boundaries that late 1800's had built around women's rights. Henrik Ibsen's opinions about women's rights are mainly expressed through Nora's actions. Nora loves her husband however he becomes very sick so she goes behind his back to borrow money while going into debt. She knows that her Torvald could never accept she is "saving his life", so she decides to keep her secret to herself and pay off her dept on her own. Torvald discovers Nora's secret and he becomes furious with her. He then tells her she cannot leave because they will both be looked down upon in their society. Summing up Ibsen's opinions, Nora leaves with the final speech: "I believe that, first and foremost, I'm a human being, just as much as you, or at least I should try to become one. I only know that my ideas are totally different from yours. I find it impossible to convince myself the law is right. A woman has no right to spare her dying father's feelings, or save her husband's life!"(Ibsen 69) Ibsen conveys women's struggle to be an equal in everyday occurrences with man's demand for total control.
While Nora plays the major role in expressing Ibsen's outlook on women in society, Mrs. Linde and Torvald's maid also play part. Mrs. Linde leaves her previous family and remarries in order to help herself financially. Likewise, the maid leaves her family to serve Torvald and Nora in order become financially stable. Both of these women must live a life they did not want because they were women and they were inferior in their families. Through character development Ibsen again conveys the ideas of women not being equivalent to men.
So we come with the question, is it acceptable for someone to leave everything behind in search for belonging? Coming as an extremely large shock to many who watched this play when first produced, Nora ends the play by deserting her family and embarking for a search of her purpose in life. In today's world we often here of ideologist, celebrities and even friends embark on these soul-searching missions. Ibsen's characters live in a continual, exciting "now," moving toward the truth about themselves and their condition.(Gosse 1) Nora tries to justify to Torvald that she is deserting their children because she is not fit to raise them. How could she possibly raise children to live in a world she knows nothing about? She explains how she feels wronged by her father as well as Torvald for essentially placing her in their protective shield, and not letting her experience and learn the world for herself. It is crucial in life to live! Everyone must experience the good and the bad of the world for themselves or they will have to experiences to look back on.
In a time where women were treated not nearly as equals, Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's house was scandalous and controversial. However, he managed to portray the wrongs in society and human behaviours in his magnificent plays and would be called by some, the architect of modern drama. He exemplified the dominancy of man over women in not only society, by marriage. Nora and Torvald's relationship was a perfect example to depict these flaws in early 1900 marriages. Nora's actions also made viewers question the fine line between responsibility and spiritual liberation or self-enquiry. With Nora walking out on her family and embarking on her search for purpose in life, Ibsen leaves today's audience looking to themselves and asking the same question. What is your purpose in life?
Basch, Francoise. Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel. New York: Schocken, 1974.
Brustein, Robert. "The Fate of Ibsenism." Modern Critical Views Henrik Ibsen. Ed. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 139.
Ibsen, Henrik. "A Doll's House." Ibsen 4 Major Plays. Ed. Rick Davis et al. Lyme, NH: A Smith and Kraus Book, 1995. 1- 64.
Gosse, Edmund, Henrik Ibsen, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978 c1907.