We are going to discuss Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House (1879), and it is a very well written play. Please read carefully the Act 1 of A Doll's House.
Please feel free to watch a video clip on Ibsen (about 4 min.) – A Short History of Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is known as the father of realism.
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Ibsen's realist play A Doll's House (1879, translated by William Archer) was controversial because of the ending part of the play. Ibsen himself argued that he did not mean to write about the subject of women's rights in A Doll's House, although many contemporary critics view the play as a feminist play. Ibsen wrote "freedom was more than an issue of sexual justice"; it was for a woman's own development as an individual.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778, a philosopher during the Enlightenment era) thought that the man was the natural head of the family and that women were naturally inferior to men (He considered it a scientific fact), and women's nature was to reproduce and give birth to a baby.
The following is a brief excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consist—I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.
Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften out slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstones.”
*Note: As Wollstonecraft argues in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in the late 18th century women were regarded as "irrational creatures," and they were raised to cultivate feminine traits, such as being seen as weak, emotional, and docile.
Please read the excerpt one more time and see what Wollstonecraft tried to challenge by using the verbs "persuade" and "dismiss." Many women in fact accepted the social norms of gender and gender roles during that time, and Wollstonecraft in her writing asks women to dismiss the so-called ideal feminine qualities, prescribed by society and to examine how the society's dominant view of women has contributed to reinforcing women's mental and economic dependence on men.
Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, advocated for legal and social equality between men and women. Similar to Wollstonecraft's argument for women, John Stuart Mill in his book On the Subjection of Women (1869) has written that "the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself," and it is "one of the chief hindrances to human improvement." Mill challenged society's dominant view that women are "naturally" inferior to men, and he argued that women should not be discouraged to participate in society with the assumption that they are not capable of because men have not let women try.
John Stuart Mill's On the Subjection of Women (1869)
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The following is a speech Ibsen delivered when he was invited to the Women's League after he wrote A Doll's House (1879)
Ibsen’s speech to the Women’s League in 1898
“I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League. Nothing I have written stems from any deliberate trend. I have been more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than is usually believed. I thank you for your toast but must disclaim the honor of having deliberately worked for women’s rights. I am not even sure what women’s rights really are. To me, it has been a matter of human rights. And if you read my books carefully, this point will be clear. Solving the woman question would of course be a desirable effect, but this has not been my sole purpose. My task has been to describe mankind.”
*Note: As he mentioned in the speech above, Ibsen claimed that he did not write A Doll's House to work "deliberately" "for women's rights"; he believed that issues about women's rights are indeed a matter of individual human rights.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)
*Note: Nora's characteristics/personality has been easily misinterpreted and mischaracterized. Please read the play carefully and ask the following questions in mind while reading the opening scene in Act I:
· Why does Nora hide (or why does she feel the need to hide) a bag of macaroons from her husband Torvald Helmer?
· Why does Torvald prohibit Nora from eating macaroons (despite that she is an adult)? Does he know (not know) that Nora has been eating macaroons? Does Nora know (not know) that he knows she has been eating macaroons?
Discussion Question #1 for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879, Act 1, pp. 534-552)
1 Why do you think Torvald calls Nora "my lark," "a squirrel," or "my featherbrain"? Does Nora mind his way of calling her? Torvald also calls Nora "a spendthrift." Does she agree with his view of her as a person who is irresponsible with money? Why does Nora ask Torvald to give her money for her Christmas gift? Is she a "spendthrift" [a person who spends money irresponsibly] as Torvald thinks? What do you make of Torvald's view of Nora? Is Nora naive and thoughtless, or is she trying to please Torvald and play a submissive wife? Why does she not tell her husband that she has been saving money to pay off her debt? What does Torvald know about the source of money they used for the trip? Did Nora have to lie about it to her husband? How has she been managing to pay the borrowed money of $1200 for the past several years?
2. How would you characterize Mrs. Linden? What do you make of her reasoning for marrying a man whom she did not love? Does she believe that sacrificing her happiness for her family is a female duty, or do you think she made the decision out of her moral consciousness or responsibility? Nora feels proud of saving her husband's life, but she does not want to tell Torvald about the money she borrowed to save his life. Why does she want to make it her "secret" "joy and pride" (Act 1, 548)? What does she mean by "upsetting the relation" (Act 1, 542) between the two? What does it say about their relationship as a couple? What did Nora do for three weeks before last Christmas? Why did she tell Torvald that she was making flowers for the Christmas tree? Why do you think Nora did not tell the truth to her husband? What does she mean by "I almost felt as if I was a man" (Act 1, 542)? Why does Nora hide the fact that she borrowed money to save her husband's life while revealing it to Christina?
3. How free was Nora to borrow money for her dying husband? Why did she forge her father's signature on the debt document? Should Nora have risked herself/her image to borrow money by forging her father's signature? Was Nora naive about the legally binding aspect of the I.O.U. document? When did Krogstad find out about Nora's forgery of her father's signature? Why did he not confront Nora about her "crime" at that time, and why does he now make it a big deal? Has Nora missed any monthly payments for the past several years? Has Nora taken the responsibility for the money she borrowed without telling her husband? Why does Nora feel terrified when Torvald says, "nearly all cases of early corruption [of children] may be traced to lying mothers" (Act 1, 552)? What do you make of Torvald's view here? Does Nora think she is a liar? Is Nora unethical? In what sense is she ethical or unethical?