Although it is difficult to know exactly how audiences watching Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House felt about the content of the play when it was first performed, it is difficult for us reading or watching it in the 21st century to see it as anything but a strongly feminist statement.
What is especially striking about the powerful feminism of the play - other than the year in which it was written - is the fact that Ibsen himself always claimed to be resolutely apolitical. And yet for a man who claimed in no way to be either a feminist or more generally an advocate for social change, his exploration of the ways in which women were continually infantilized by society in fact seems highly political to us, and in fact is one of the reasons that the play remains so compelling to us more than a century after it was written.
We can fully appreciate the way in which Ibsen's heroine, Nora, is a character trapped by the circumstance of her past who refuses to remain trapped. Ibsen's has at its core a defense of the human spirit and of the limitlessness of human courage (Shaw 40). It is clear when reading his play that, malgre-lui, he had become a force for social change and for the rights of women not only in his homeland but throughout the world.
Ibsen's series of so-called "social plays," of which A Doll House is a prominent member, are unmistakably his most famous and argue fervently against the social ills and lopsided relationships of modern civilization. Much debate has centered around A Doll House and exactly which segment of society Ibsen is attempting to emancipate in his tale of interrelated physical, social, and moral infirmity. Despite the playwright's insistence that A Doll House is less about feminist freedom and more about the individualism of all human beings, Ibsen's drama clearly supports women's rights, as evidenced by his own actions in the real world and the elements of male-female relationships within the play (http://www.owlnet.rice.edu).
We may see in the character of Nora a stand-in for Ibsen himself, for just as does Nora in the play, Ibsen too traveled a path from conservative views on the role of women to holding at least sympathetic views on the ways in which women were oppressed.
The 1879 play tells the story of Nora Helmer. She is sheltered and petted and expected to act like a sweet but unintelligent pet first by her father and then by her husband. Nora commits forgery to get money to save her husband's life and he discovers this fact after she has repaid the sum
His behavior towards her when he discovers what she has done - and it is important to remember that she has acted only out of concern for his welfare and has shown both courage and initiative in doing so - is patronizing and unkind. She acts entirely out of love for him, but his response to her actions make her realize that he has never actually seen her as a real human being on her own but rather as a pretty doll.
By the end of the play she was entirely transformed herself, and because of this Ibsen emerged as one of the great feminist artists. The irony that once again women were being spoken for by a man may or may not have been obvious.
Whether Ibsen himself ever intended to speak for women is not clear; he would probably have denied that this was his intent even as he always denied being a feminist.
Although he himself expressly denied being "a feminist," such scholars as Elinor Fuchs and Joan Templeton have convincingly shown that he was at the very least sympathetic to the beginnings of the women's movement, and was even actively involved in the push to redefine the role of women in society. Certainly the creator of such seminal feminist archetypes as Lona Hessell, Nora Helmer, Helena Alving and Ellida Wangel could not have been blind to the implications of the plays in which they appeared (http://nauvoo.byu.edu/TheArts/Theater/studypackets/lesson01/context.html).
It does not seem that Ibsen's views on the roles of women, nor indeed his political views in general were changed by any single dramatic event. Rather, he seems simply to have become more and more educated on the subject through such relatively mundane (and yet potentially epiphanous) actions as reading widely.
He would certainly have been exposed to ideas current throughout Europe and the United States during his lifetime about the importance of women's rights. He no doubt came into contact with these ideas through reading, through traveling and through talking with both men and women.
As was true elsewhere in the world, much of the impetus for women's rights had its roots in the dislocation caused by the industrialization occurring in Norway during the second half of the 19th century as:
the centres of power were slowly shifting away from the local community and the family unit, towards the parliament, government and other nationwide organisations. The household lost its significance as the framework for the production and labour of both spouses, which it had possessed in the days of predominantly agrarian society. In consequence, the hitherto unimportant distinction between the public and domestic spheres was accentuated, and the corresponding masculine and feminine roles of 'bread winner' and 'home maker' thrown into contrast. This growing disparity served as an impetus for the formation of a women's movement, which would see an increasing desire in women for equal rights, conditions, and influence in society at large (http://www.ssn.flinders.edu.au/scanlink/nornotes/vol2/articles/hurrell.htm)
Ibsen could not have been unaware of these major shifts occurring in Norwegian society and he must personally have known women of the middle and upper classes who, like Nora, suddenly found themselves bereft of both traditional community and traditional usefulness.
Indeed it could legitimately be asked not why Ibsen became a feminist but why other (male) writers and citizens of his generation did not. It might be a more interesting question to ask how August Strindberg, for example, was able to ignore the oppression of women that went on all around him. Why should we be so astonished by the simple acknowledgement of the truth that Ibsen performed?
The climax of the play occurs when Nora Helmer decides to leave her husband, to go out into "the real world" and find out who she is when she has stripped off the appearances of frailty and uselessness that the men in her life have wrapped her with, as Nora tells her husband. She decides that she will no longer be content to play the part of being a doll.
Our house has never been anything but a playroom. I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy's doll child. And the children in turn have been my dolls. I thought it was fun when you came and played with me, just as they thought it was fun when I went and played with them. That's been our marriage (Act III).
The play thus presents an argument that while women deserve on moral and philosophical grounds to be as free and as empowered as are men, they also deserve the have the support of others in their community in helping them work toward that freedom. While this is clearly and explicitly a statement about the role of women, we can also read it as a statement about the role of men,
When Ibsen claimed not to be a feminist, was he not perhaps being neither coy nor insufficiently reflective? Perhaps he meant what he said: Perhaps he was simply being a humanist, one advocating the same rights for all humans.
Finally, Kauffmann makes the fascinating suggesting that in setting Nora free, Ibsen was also setting himself…