Why A Doll's House is still an important feminist read
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Often called the father of realism, Henrik Ibsen was an influential 19th-century playwright, theatre director and poet. His controversial breakthrough work A Doll’s House depicts the reality of 19th century Norway where gender roles were uncompromising and women were subjected to an inferior position in the household.
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Henrik Ibsen portrays the normal day-to-day household interactions of his time to showcase 19th century female/male polarities and the social reality that subjected women to be nothing more than doting wives and homemakers. In 1879 upper-middle class Norway — as well as many other countries — women were not privileged with electoral voting rights and were not allowed to make any monetary decision without a father or husband’s permission. With the absence of their own financial and political vigour, the amount of authority, control and influence allocated to the women in the household were almost negligible.
The title ‘A Doll’s House’ itself indicates three things; order, grandiose and soullessness. A dollhouse, in a literal sense, is expected to be nothing more than aesthetically pleasing. Unlike a house filled with humans, a dollhouse, like its occupants, is unreal, make-believe.
Women in A Doll’s House were characterised to exhibit the detrimental side effects of sexual objectification and cognitive and emotional oppression. They are illustrated to be complacent and submissive, and quite literally treated as 'dolls'. They are belittled and treated less than human, which is shown through the patronising tone Helmer takes while talking to his wife, Nora. (“Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper?”).
Despite being the more ‘emotional’ characters, there is still a huge disconnection between the female protagonists and the world that they live in. This is illustrated through their lack of hobbies, interests, sense of self-worth and maternal connection, which contrast greatly in comparison to the fiery mannerisms, strong assertiveness and speech erudite projected by the male characters.
Moreover, women are portrayed to have accepted the circumstances of their way of living, and subconsciously indoctrinate each other, and their offspring. Nora’s response was to entertain her husband and to role-play as a bird. When Nora finds out that her friend, Mrs Linde, is a widow with no child, her response was: “So you are quite alone. How dreadfully sad that must be. I have three lovely children. You can’t see them just now, for they are out with their nurse. But now you must tell me all about it.”
This line also quintessentially portrays the kind of maternal sense adopted by upper-class women at that time; they treasure their children, but only because they are required to do so. Children are treated as a means for filling in an empty conversation, and a woman without a child is immediately presumed to lead an unfulfilled and empty life.
Ibsen’s work — amongst many others — was a huge influence for social change in European history, and the issues raised by Ibsen in his play are as relevant today as they used to be. Modern contemporary Western society is progressing at a rapid rate, and yet these underlying misogynistic messages are still present in many cultures. To fully understand the need for modern feminism, one must first explore its historical context — and this work achieves exactly that.