A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
22 March, 2011
I’ve been curious about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House since I first came across how influential it was in Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar’s intellectual upbringing. Chandrasekhar was the subject of my PhD thesis and I read everything I could on him and his work. Being a serious and rather grave young man, his letters show his reading interests to be Virginia Woolf, Henrik Ibsen, Ivan Turgenev and the Bhagavad Gita. Alas, I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them except for Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own last year. In contrast, his hero and nemesis, the great Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington who was instrumental in introducing Einstein’s general relativity to Britain (portrayed by David Tennant in the film Einstein and Eddington), was a huge fan of murder mysteries and went through them like nobody’s business.
I had initially gone into A Doll’s House thinking it was going to be a grand tragedy and when I started reading the first few pages, my suspicions seemed confirmed. What surprised me greatly was how masterful Ibsen is in imbuing the text with tension from the outset and slowly and inevitably cranking it up. A little like torture. Which is how I felt Nora must have been feeling when she realises that her secret may be exposed. You can read Emily Jane’s introduction here and some discussion points here at the A Year of Feminist Classics blog. Do go and check it out to see what others thought of this play.
A Doll’s House centres on Nora, mother of three and wife of Torvald who has recently received a promotion as bank manager. Torvald treats her preciously, often calling her his pretty little pet and making petty remarks and scolding her for not fitting in to his vision of ideal womanhood. Reading his words was simultaneously chilling and revolting and added to the increasing tension. There can be no doubt that Torvald is in love with his wife, or the idea of his wife, but often treats her like a spoilt child. Things go awry when Krogstad, a colleague of Torvald’s with a blot on his reputation, drops in and it becomes clear that Nora had borrowed some money in secret to help Torvald recuperate when he was ill some years ago. A forged IOU and the threat of exposure drives Nora to desperation as she tries to cover her tracks and keep her family life intact. Things are not helped when Nora’s childhood friend Mrs. Linde, a widow, arrives asking for help and Torvald hires her to replace Krogstad.
I am actually astounded that this play was written by a man and published in 1879. No wonder there was such outrage when it was first performed, especially in such a tight-laced and religious society. To question what society (i.e. men) deemed was appropriate in life, marriage and finances was almost sacreligious.
In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Ibsen is quoted as saying in his notes
A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.
It seems that for a woman, there can be no win-win situation and that is what Ibsen was trying to address. I was actually rather worried that Nora would consider taking her own life and dreaded finishing the play but was pleasantly surprised when she showed her strength and finally awakened to who she really was. I’m sure she knew all along who she was, but I feel that she played along to what was expected of her and in doing so constructed her own prison.
None of the characters are especially likeable, even Nora at the beginning. Torvald is repulsive as a husband and a man, pompous and self-righteous spewing words without the strength of action behind them, ready to sacrifice his wife to save his own reputation. I was especially surprised by Mrs. Linde’s actions as she was the one person who could have saved Nora, yet didn’t perhaps from a misguided sense of fairness. I am assuming that it is because she didn’t know Torvald’s character well but it could well have been due to envy. Krogstad redeems himself and only wanted another chance. And Nora, well Nora, I was genuinely surprised. Yet I was also bewildered at her decision when it came to her children. I felt it was too hastily made. But then maybe I am also constrained by what society expects of women and cannot myself break away so easily. Ultimately, it is a choice between what is true freedom for a person and what society deems is freedom.
I genuinely did not expect to enjoy reading A Doll’s House as much as I have. I was expecting a somewhat dry and, dare I say it, boring play but this was tense, fast-paced and exhiliarating. And very modern. The questions it raises are still very much relevant to women today. And now I really want to see the play!
I read this as part of A Year of Feminist Classics project for March where you can find out more about the monthly reading list. Also please do check out Violet’s fantastic review which really puts some of these issues into perspective.
I won this book courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics in their weekly twitter competition on Fridays.