How was your understanding of cultural and contextual considerations of the work developed through the interactive oral?
My understanding of ‘A Doll’s House’, by Henrik Ibsen deepened immensely through the interactive oral, where several presentations covered various aspects of the play, mainly Ibsen’s contribution to realistic drama, the significance of the play during the time it was written in and its symbolism.
We began the discussion by focusing on Ibsen’s works and how they have a realistic element to it. We looked at the key features of realistic drama and examined how Ibsen used this genre to mirror society and bring up certain issues. We understood why ‘A Doll’s House’ came under the same genre and reached the conclusion that it was because of the simple everyday language, depth in characters and real-life settings, to name a few characteristics.
Thereafter our focus shifted to why the play is considered a turning point in drama and as reason for it impacting entire Europe with its message and theme. We attempted to analyse the play in the context of the late 19th century and examined the way women were treated during that time. Through Nora, we realised that women were patronized by their husbands or fathers, and were absolutely powerless without a male figure to depend on. The fact that she took her life into her own hands, and became an independent woman by the end of the play sheds new light upon why ‘A Doll’s House’ was a play written against this social construct.
Finally, we discussed various symbols present in the play, focusing particularly on those that helped us elucidate their significance. We delved deeper into Nora’s character and understood that she was someone who broke societal walls, with the slamming of the door in the end and with her declaration that she had a duty to herself. While these two statements seem normal for a modern audience, the temporal and cultural context of the play helped me look at the play from a different point of view, making me realise the unequal dynamic between men and women, and how Ibsen helped take the first step towards society’s realisation of this disparity.
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Part 1, Works in Translation
A Doll’s House
Gender Roles and Humanity in ‘A Doll’s House’
In his play ‘A Doll’s House’, Henrik Ibsen challenges societal norms and questions the validity of social structures existent in the nineteenth century, through the development of the characters in his play. His realistic depiction of everyday life helps him portray the gender roles played by individuals in society, conveying the need for equality amongst men and women.
Although Nora and Torvald appear to be the “perfect couple”, envied for their happiness by everyone around them, their image gradually changes over the course of the play as the audience is exposed to Nora’s “misdeeds” and her internal conflict. Ibsen introduces depth in Nora’s frivolous and light-hearted character while foreshadowing the dysfunctionality in her relationship with Torvald from the first few pages itself, when she hides “the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth”. The sudden change in her actions not only indicates a form of fear, but serves to show the inequality between the couple which further corresponds to the patriarchal structure of society during that time.
In addition to subtly hinting at larger themes through the actions of his characters, Ibsen manipulates the order of incidents and weaves past with the present to reveal Nora’s “crime” to the reader. Through Nora’s interaction with Krogstad, Ibsen allows for the reader’s interpretation of circumstances, skilfully channelling it in a manner that breaks their impression of her child-like nature and innocence. At the same time, he brings forth Nora’s immaturity through her conversation with Christine, where she talks about her sufferings and refers to her “crime” as “something to be proud and glad of.” The perceived shift in Nora’s personality reflects how characters are not black and white, but fall in the grey area of uncertainty. Ibsen’s realistic portrayal helped people in the nineteenth century realise that women like Nora were not two dimensional but rather embodied “the comedy as well as the tragedy of modern life”.
Even though Ibsen has written using everyday language, with the absence of asides and soliloquies, one gets to know of Nora’s conflict without ever witnessing what was going on in her mind during the play. In fact, the simplicity of these dialogues is what makes a larger impact on the audience. Ibsen constructs the fourth wall between his actors and the audience through the realistic manner in which he writes the play. Not only do the readers understand and relate to the characters more, they get the impression that they have been embodied in their very essence. His realistic style of writing, that also presents the stark difference between appearances and reality, is further substantiated by the rift in Nora’s perception that Torvald would find a solution to her crime, but instead he reacted by shouting at her. It shows the reader how societal perceptions govern relationships and how those who are a part of the relationship play roles to fulfil these idealistic perceptions; though it is all a façade that gets eventually exposed.
This further helps one explore the roles men and women played in society during that period. Women, on one hand were expected to be wholly dependent on the male figures in their lives and make sacrifices for them, as Nora does with her freedom, independence and opinion. Man, on the other hand was the centre of woman’s lifestyle, around whom they shaped themselves, which can be seen by Nora’s dialogue, “When I was at home with papa… or else I pretended to” The candour and simplicity in her dialogue not only helped Ibsen mirror the fact that society was built around the needs and desires of men, but conveyed the harsh truth that society was hiding under its mask; which is one of the reasons why his work was received negatively by those living in that century.
A deeper exploration of the two roles reveal that women were supposed to deal with the ambiguous concepts of values, feelings and relationships, while men worried more about definite things like law, legal rights and duties. In an “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint,” women succumbed to the “duties” that were assigned to them: being good mothers and wives, which ended up becoming their sole purpose. This “duty” became so typical of a woman that a place with children would “only be bearable for a mother”. Moreover, although women were not expected to know what was better for them, they were responsible for all their actions, in addition to taking the blame for others, as is seen by the way Torvald believes that “almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother.”
On the other hand, a man could do the same thing as a woman, but conversely, would be perfectly acceptable to society. His purpose was to appear successful and perfect on the outside, which made his sole concern outward perception, rather than the relationships he was upholding. This could be seen when Torvald read the letter that informed him of Nora’s forgery and debt and how he is more concerned to make his relationship appear happy “in the eyes of the world.” instead of supporting her as he would if he actually loved her.
The faulted assumption of Torvald’s priorities makes Nora realise that her marriage and “home has been nothing but a playroom”. It pushes her to realise that her impression of Torvald taking the responsibility of the debt upon himself and “suffering for my Nora’s sake” was far from the truth. Through her conversation with Torvald following what actually happened, Ibsen blatantly uncover the reality of their relationship. His language, characterized by the absence of metaphors and similes, makes the audience feel as though they are one with the protagonist and magnifies the impact greatly as a result. Rustin, who talks about how “someone said to me the other night, ‘That’s the play that broke my parents’ marriage up'”, only exhibits the magnitude and depth of this impact.
In fact, Ibsen’s depth of understanding about the social constructs and the human psyche allowed him to present this belief so realistically that his play received a multitude of critiques initially. According to Brian Johnston, Nora’s crime was “a trivial act which nevertheless turns to evil because it refused to take the universal ethical claim into consideration at all”, which perfectly coincides with Torvald’s dialogue condemning Nora as one with “no religion, no morality, no sense of duty”. Gender roles and the societal norms were so embedded in individuals during that time, that even women, for whom the play was a herald of freedom and independence, condemned Nora, calling her “a case study of female hysteria”.
However, over the course of the century, perspectives on Nora’s actions have changed to match Ibsen’s original intentions. Critics today recognize “Ibsen’s ability to stage humanity” instead of getting involved in the story and the characters. They realise that “what the heroine is seeking transcends her sexual identity” and that the same message can be conveyed through a male protagonist as well. For instance, Nora’s “crime” serves to make the audience realise that everyone makes mistakes and suffers as a result of them.
Ibsen chose a woman protagonist, not particularly to fight for their rights as a feminist, but to bring the matter of inequality amongst genders to the attention of the society he was living in. In a speech at the Norwegian Woman’s Right’s League, he disclaimed “the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement… task has been the description of humanity,” which shows his true aim to restore balance between the two genders. Through his skilful and simplistic writing, Ibsen has turned ‘A Doll’s House’ not only into a symbol for the fight for humanity and equality, but the medium that carried the world into a new era of ideas, mindsets and constructs.
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Rustin, Susanna. “Why A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen Is More Relevant than Ever.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Aug. 2013, www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/aug/10/dolls-house-henrik-ibsen-relevant.