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Ibsen's a Doll's House as Modern Tragedy
The most powerful and lasting contributions to the literature of a given era are invariably penned by bold thinkers struggling to comprehend the ever changing world in which they live. Spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, the European Modernist movement, which was propelled by the authorial brilliance of authors and playwrights such as like the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, was shaped and inspired by the momentous political and social upheaval roiling all the Old Continent following decades of societal transformation. The toppling of previously infallible monarchies and the sudden distribution of democratic ideals across boundaries of gender and class forced the literary-minded creative class to recalibrate their worldview instantly, and the result is a wealth of material -- including novels, plays and critical pieces of nonfiction -- all of which focuses intently on the crumbling conventions of marriage and faith. With the external foundations of the preexisting social order irrevocably shattered, playwrights like Ibsen focused their intellectual insights on the shifting structure of society itself, analyzing the evolution of concepts like fidelity and femininity in relation to the tragic consequences these revolutionary adjustments to the collective mindset affected individual lives. Ibsen's most renowned work of drama was undoubtedly A Doll's House, a three-act masterpiece written in simple prose that manages to cast a scathing lens on the conventional roles assigned to women in a patriarchal system stacked decidedly against the fairer sex. By applying the traditional feminist reading to A Doll's House before expanding the discussion to include the concept of modern tragedy as essential to Ibsen's composition process, the informed reader can begin to surmise the ultimate import of this previously unheralded playwright's most compelling work.
Biographical Information on Henrik Ibsen
Now recognized as the "Father of Realism" and one of the founders of the European Modernist movement, Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen began life as the child of a well-to-do merchant family in the portside town of Skein. Although Ibsen's first few years of life would be considered rather idyllic, his father's unexpected fall from financial grace into a state of bankruptcy precipitated a tumultuous adolescence defined by Ibsen's father routinely mistreating his family. In the words of one Ibsen biographer, "always an authoritarian, Knud Ibsen became a family tyrant, visiting his bitterness and resentment on his wife and children" (Templeton 4), with this introduction to the powerless state inflicted upon women -- and the abuses they suffer in silence -- serving as a catalyst for the writer's subsequent literary portrayals of victimized female figures transforming into tragic heroines. The conflicted Ibsen soon began exploring creative outlets for the internalized frustration he felt towards his father, writing deeply reflective prose, along with tragic plays featuring characters who echoed his parent's own tortured marital dynamic. Although many of his initial forays into the world of dramatic literature proved to be fruitless, Ibsen persevered throughout his adolescence and adulthood, penning several works combing tragic elements with the realism of European Modernism. It was not until Ibsen reached his late thirties that his work as a playwright began to pay financial dividends, and only during his self-imposed exile to the European nations of Italy and Germany did he begin to infuse his work with the scathing social commentary that propelled A Doll's House into realm of literary discussion.
Overview of A Doll's House
The plot of A Doll's House centers, like much of Ibsen's work, on the power dynamics which exist between married couples, and indeed, between men and women in general. The story of the Helmer family -- consisting of husband Torvald, wife Nora, and three young children who are cared for by a nanny -- is presented by Ibsen as one defined by patriarchal dominance and the expectation of subservience as a wifely virtue. The first act of the play focuses almost exclusively on establishing Nora as a dependent figure who relies on Torvald's benevolent distribution of his own hard-earned funds to support her frivolous shopping habit. When Isben portrays the domineering Torvald dismissively telling Nora "you are an odd little soul. Very like your father. You always find some new way of wheedling money out of me, and, as soon as you have got it, it seems to melt in your hands. You never know where it has gone. Still, one must take you as you are" (Isben 12), one can almost feel the author's internalized anger at his own father -- who was known for launching similarly subtle attacks on his wife's self-esteem -- being transferred through the dialogue.
The following chain of events, in which Nora's duplicitous actions involving an unwise personal loan with a man called Krogstad precipitate the rapid unravelling of the Helmer marriage, evoke the classical tragedies of old by demonstrating that the idea of control over one's fate is only illusory, while presenting this age old theme through the modern lens of gender roles and their sudden reversal. When the final act finds Nora's schemes exposed by a manipulative Krogstad -- with an incredulous Torvald furiously excoriating his wife's unbecoming conduct and the irreparable harm she has done to his reputation -- the climactic conversation between the adversarial spouses sets the stage for Ibsen's radical reimagining of the accepted social construct. The following passage is considered to rank among the most controversial discourses in European literature, as Ibsen's modern restructuring of the traditional power structure between the genders foretells the societal unshackling of women occurring throughout the Old Continent at the time:
"Torvald: To desert your home, your husband and your children! And you don't consider what people will say!
Nora: I cannot consider that at all. I only know that it is necessary for me.
Torvald: It's shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.
Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?
Torvald: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?
Nora: I have other duties just as sacred.
Torvald: That you have not. What duties could those be?
Nora: Duties to myself" (Ibsen 41).
The play's concluding action displays a despondent Torvald contemplating the enormity of his wife's abandonment, and his own contribution to the deterioration of their marriage, while Nora calmly walks out of his life, the sound of the door slamming her only reply to his plaintive pleas. This defiant act of independence on the part of Nora -- who willfully abandoned her marital duties and maternal bonds -- was considered to be a scandalous concept following the initial publication and portrayal of A Doll's House, as traditional society bristled at the idea of a woman openly resisting the unspoken boundaries of institutionalized chauvinism.
The Traditional Feminist Reading of A Doll's House
Ibsen immediately establishes the thematic direction of A Doll's House by featuring Nora, a seemingly domesticated housewife living a life of marital bliss with her husband Torvald, as the ostensible protagonist of his play. Set during the late 18th century, Ibsen's work is imbued with the masculinity and paternalism on which his society had always been built, as when Torvald patiently lectures a childish Nora on the practices of prudent lending. Torvald's initial query to his wife after returning home from his vocation is dismissive of her capabilities, asking "has my little spendthrift been wasting money again?" before emphasizing his disregard by declaring bemusedly "Nora, the same little featherhead! That is like a woman." (Ibsen 9). The entirety of Act I is devoted to presenting Nora through the prism traditional gender roles, with Torvald's demeaning dialogue accentuated by more subtle signifiers of Nora's degraded social status. The audience's introductory vision of Nora is of her absently eating macaroons while humming and sorting newly purchased parcels, while Torvald's first scene involves him holding a pen and emerging with consternation from his elegantly appointed study. From the perspective of feminist literary criticism, these visual clues reflect the audience's preconceived notions of classic gender roles, as Nora engages in childish, unproductive behavior while Torvald applies his mind and body to the serious pursuit of maintaining a household. Further evidence of Ibsen's conscious effort to position Nora, at least in Act I, as a dependent figure in line with the prevailing 18th century European worldview, can be found in Torvald's repeated use of animal nicknames when referring to his wife in direct conversation. Much as women were systematically dehumanized by a patriarchal society that regarded them as inferior, Torvald strips Nora of her essential humanity by calling her "my little skylark," "my little squirrel," "you extravagant little person," (Ibsen) and a series of other pejoratives that assign her second-class status by virtue of her diminutive stature.
After grounding the audience's expectations throughout Act I, Ibsen spends the concluding acts of A Doll's House to directly challenge what he rightfully perceived to be the outdated model of gender relationships, a model that was encountering its first real resistance during the era in which the playwright came of age. Nora's…[continue]
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