“I must make up my mind which is right – society or I.”
— Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House
Feminism comprises of ideologies and movements that have the motive to attain equal social, political and legal rights for women. Feminism contends that women face discrimination in every sphere of life owing to their gender. It aims to curb gender-based violence and oppression to create an environment conducive to the growth of women. Society’s prejudice towards women is also reflected in the literature produced by the members of the society, the theory of feminist criticism seeks to analyze the stereotypical representation of women in literature and to explain how literature promotes the narrative of male domination. The play “A Doll’s House” written by Henrik Ibsen can be analyzed under the feminist criticism theory, although the play is controversial since many readers have called it a feminist play that reclaims the rights of women through the character of Nora, but others readers have labeled it as an anti-feminist play as it portrays women as petty and selfish. The play “A Doll’s House” accentuates the plaguing gender inequality pervading society even in the 21st century. Since almost throughout the play the playwright Henrik Ibsen exposes us to scenarios that shed light on the discrimination against women, so the play can be scrutinized under the lens of Feminist criticism.
The play “ A Doll’s House” revolves around a woman who is belittled by her husband and the society, she is treated like a doll-Child by her husband eventually upon realizing that she needs to live for herself she leaves her home. This play challenges the accepted and deeply embedded social practices of that time. Joan Templeton states that “This play can be categorized as early modern feminist play” (Templeton 362). In the play, Ibsen has used a very anti-feminist approach to convey the message of feminism, he has sketched the picture of the patriarchal 18th-century society. One aspect of Feminism is that women in society are considered commodities or property, who are dependent on the men and the men have absolute authority to make every decision for the females. In the play consider the characters of Nora, the nurse, and Christine. All three of them have lived there lives as commodities to satisfy other people related to them. Nora has always been treated like a property or a doll who has never been given a right to choose, everything was decided for her, In Act III Nora while apprising Helmer about her decision says
“I have been passed on from father’s hands into yours. You settled everything according to your taste like father used to and I obeyed you both. I have been father’s doll- child and your doll-wife” (Archer 118).
The above dialogue reveals the powerlessness of women in front of her husband and her father, she is treated like a doll or a property who is considered to have no liking of her own and she is forced to comply with whatever her husband or father settles for her (Britain 20). The second character who was exchanged like some commodity is Christine, she had to exchange herself to help her younger brother and her bedridden mother. Christine was forced to marry a rich man in order to secure bread for her family. In Act I Nora asks Christine that if she did not love her husband then why she married him, to this Christine replies: - “I married because I had to take care of my dying mother and my young brothers” (Archer 34). This dialogue reveals that the system works in a way that it makes the women objects to be exchanged for financial security, although the decision was Christine’s own decision still it is important to note that such a situation that makes a woman helpless is the creation of the society and culture. Next, if we consider the character of nurse, she was forced to leave her daughter due to the norms of the society, her father was abusive and he did not approve of her giving birth to an illegitimate child, again it can be seen that a women were not given the right to decide for themselves (Templeton 29). The text under discussion reveals the widespread ideals of society regarding women.
Another major aspect that can be analyzed under the theory of feminist criticism, is the theme of marriage, Ibsen portrays how in marriage the husband overpowers or subjugates his wife. Nora and Torvald shared a relationship that was more like a relation between a father and daughter than husband and wife, Torvald belittled Nora and did not take her seriously, for him she was just a source of entertainment and a mother to his children, her opinions did not matter to him since being a woman she was supposed to be dim-witted. During Nora’s last conversation she says:-
“We have been married now for eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two have had a serious conversation?” (Archer 117), this dialogue hints at that Nora was considered stupid and naïve, so Torvald usually did not take her seriously and considered her as a child, Torvald would say “The child (Nora) shall have her way”. The society only considers men, apt for work and only men are supposed to earn, females are too naïve to understand the public affairs. Torvald says to Nora “My little skylark, do not stress, you know nothing about the world, leave the matters of work to me…..I will protect you like a hunted dove” (Archer 89) from this it can be inferred that women are systematically labeled as objects of beauty, angels, frail and naïve so that they continue to live up to their titles and never ask for their rights.
Another feminist perspective that is evident in the play is the stereotyping of roles, the society has reduced women to the roles of a mother and a wife mother so that women are kept financially crippled and dependent on men their whole life, which will give men the liberty to manipulate women the way they please. In Act III Helmer says to Nora “You cannot forsake your holiest duties, the duties to your husband and Children” to which Nora gives an excellent feminist response “I have other duties just as much sacred, the duty to myself” (Archer 119). This reveals that the society has stereotyped the roles played by women to such an extent that the general perception is that women who live for themselves are impertinent but feminism claim that a woman before being a mother or a wife is a human and she has a duty to herself, and that duty is to live for herself, the last scene from the play, in which Nora slams the door behind her and says to Torvald “I have to live for myself” is extremely significant as it marks the snatching of rights by the oppressed gender, Nora becomes a strong and independent feminist from a weak and frail wife, and she shuns the law and society and ventures outside her comfort zone to live for herself for once.
Karl Marx says that the financial status of a person determines his or her thoughts, a person lower in rank will automatically have slave-like nature, and Ibsen has mirrored this in the play. Feminism deals with analyzing that how men have taken control of the money producing sources and females have been reduced to the roles of wife and mother. They have been systematically kept at a position that will keep them financially dependent on the men so that their opinions can be stifled easily. The relation between Nora and Helmer, mirrors this premise of Feminist theory, it is evident in the play that Nora was just reduced to a doll and a child by her husband, she was financially dependent on her husband thus her husband dictated her every move (Britain 34). She was not a wife but a mere decoration for her husband. In Act III, Nora declares that “When I look back on it now, I seem to have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth, begging you for every penny. I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald” (Archer 125).
The above dialogue sheds light at the fact that how women have to live according to the whims and fancies of their husbands and fathers because they are the ones sitting over the source of money, so women have to be subservient to men in order to live. They are just mere objects who perform tricks and live on it.
Where many feminists lauded the play and the character of Nora, some feminists also found Ibsen’s play having an anti-feminist approach in which Nora was portrayed as a dimwitted and guileless creature, in the play Helmer calls Nora by names such as “skylark”, “squirrel” and “dove” and instead of taking offense at such names Nora actually enjoys being called such names for example in Act 1 Torvald says “Is that my little squirrel bustling about?” to which Nora replies cheerfully “Yes It is”, she accedes that she is a squirrel and not a human being, then at another point Nora says “oh please Torvald I will do tricks for you, I will dance for you, please do as I say”, this confirms that Nora thinks of herself as an object of amusement, this is the reason certain radical feminists consider this as an insult to women and feminism. The representation of Nora as a trivial and shallow woman, who wants to spend beyond her means without thinking about the repercussions somehow is the extension of the pre-conceived notions regarding women in the society that is they are spendthrift and fickle-minded, In Act I Helmer says “You’re a funny little creature. Always on the look-out for some way to get money, but as soon as you have any it just runs through your fingers and you never know where it’s gone”, from this dialogue it can be deduced that Ibsen is reiterating the society’s stance that women try to spend beyond their means as they are boastful and naïve. In comparison to Nora, Helmer has been painted as a sensible and prudent man, who takes his decision after careful rumination and spends within his means, he does not want to end up in debt by borrowing money, in Act I the conversation between Helmer and Nora hints at the society’s perception regarding men and women, Nora says “we can borrow until then” to which Helmer replies “That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt” (Archer 4) these lines clearly paint women as reckless and stupid whereas men as prudent and cautious. Also, another point that is fervently criticized by some readers and appreciated by others is the return of Christine into the sacred institution of marriage with Krogstad, for a woman reading this play in the 18th century this scene in which Christine happily decides to marry Krogstad saying: “How things change! How things change! Somebody to work for… to live for. A home to bring happiness to” (Archer 112) is what an obedient and good woman should do, a woman is nothing without her children and husband, but for a woman reading this play in the 21st century this is utterly indigestible, as modern women believe that a woman does not need to live for anyone, she is complete in herself and her happiness does not depend on anyone (Templeton 28). Here, Ibsen reiterates the gender role of a woman as a housewife whose happiness only relies on working for others and living for others, Ibsen through the character of Christine first offers a strong woman who works despite the restrictions on women and then he changes the entire narrative by portraying Christine as a woman who feels incomplete and unhappy without a man and finally feels contended working for a man, which shows society deems that a woman must be unhappy and incomplete without a man.
It can be concluded that Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” is a play teeming with the message that how the sacred institution of marriage has become claustrophobic for women owing to the inflexible roles ascribed to women. Few points of Ibsen’s play as mentioned above stirred up a controversy among the radical feminists who contend that Ibsen’s play touts the perceptions that society has regarding women instead of challenging them while other critics say that “A Doll’s House” espouses that women must have the right to decide what they want to do with their lives. Feminist critics have regarded Ibsen as a realist and staunch supporter of women’s rights who talked about the rights of women at a time when nobody was even aware that women also have needs, owing to the aforementioned play he earned criticism from the public as the play glorifies a woman who abandons her children and husband to live for herself.
Archer, W., 1926. A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen. New York: Walter H. & CO.
Britain, I., 1983. A Transplanted Doll’s House: Ibsenism, Feminism and Socialism in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England. Transformations in Modern European Drama, pp. 15-45.
Joan, T., 1989. The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen. PMLA, 104(1), pp. 28-40.