A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Feminist Criticism
The play “The Doll’s House” illustrates Henrik Ibsen’s interest in gender inequality and women’s rights. This paper examines the literary work from a Feminist criticism perspective, which is relevant to its central theme. Despite the portrayal of the main character as stupid and dependent on men, the author at the end of the play turns her into a bold emancipated woman. Through Nora and Torvald, Ibsen constructs the model of a patriarchal society, the correctness of which he then denies.
At first glance, the play’s main character, Nora, is presented as a naive woman dependent on her husband. This image is stereotypical of society contemporary to Ibsen, when the dichotomy of the private and public spheres was widespread (Balaky and Sulaiman 39). Torvald is not involved in domestic life, spending most of the time outside the home and continuing to work even when he returns. It can be seen that the man devotes little attention to his wife and does not interact with the children at all during the play. Moreover, Torvald notes that when children return from a walk, the home “will only be bearable for a mother now” (Ibsen). Thus, the man and the woman belong to two different spheres, which do not imply their interaction.
Ibsen shows that their activities are also severely limited: making money for the husband and caring for the children and home for the wife. For the most part, Nora’s contacts with the public sphere consist solely of shopping and visiting neighbors (Balaky and Sulaiman 39). Torvald often pays no attention to the family while working, which speaks of its dominant importance for the man. In the third act, he directly expresses that Nora is not the most significant in his life, saying “no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves” (Ibsen). For Torvald, a wife is a highly functional application that cannot be more valuable than honor and career.
The husband often reproaches Nora for spending money, limiting her to various pleasures to save them. He often scolds and insults his wife, criticizing her way of thinking and action, and calls her “featherhead” (Ibsen). Torvald also frequently uses the word “little” to refer to Nora, which shows his condescension. He treats women as less developed creatures whom he needs “to instruct, nurture and censure” (Rosita 47). Torvald refers to her as naive and childish, noting that she has “become both wife and child to him” (Ibsen). He also often calls her by different pet names and says that she is a failure. Remarkable is the fact that the woman secretly eats sweets, just like a child hides them from their parents (Templeton 34). Nora fulfills the needs of her husband; she does everything according to his standards. Their family resembles a dollhouse, and the woman herself is presented as a doll controlled by the master (Kumari and Sunalini, 2017). Thus, Nora exists exclusively for Torvald, satisfying his social and psychological needs.
From the beginning of the play, the wife is presented as stupid and dependent, who does not leave the house’s living room. She is in the patriarchal system, where the man possesses the woman and her life. Kumari and Sunalini (2017) provide an argument for Kate Millet’s assertion that “ideological influence as much as monetary imbalance is the cause of women’s abuse” (836). Thus, Nora is presented as a powerless creature who has no value of her own. She exists as an attachment to the husband, giving him a generally accepted social status. It may seem that Nora is in control of the house and household chores, but “women’s disproportionate confinement in the private sphere [that] correlates with women’s subordinate status” (Balaky and Sulaiman 41). Torvald gives her money and indicates what it should be spent on and what should be done. It is noteworthy that when Nora was forced to earn money, she found it pleasant since “it was like being a man” (Ibsen). Thus, the woman is completely submissive, lacking personal life and identity.
Control from her husband forces Nora to completely submit to him and sacrifice herself for his welfare. Other people use her weakness as well, for example, Krogstad, who blackmails to betray her deception to Torvard (Rosita 48). Thus, Nora is under constant psychological pressure, trying not to disappoint her husband and to maintain his social status. Thus, the separation of the private and social spheres endowed man and woman with “distinct, but complementary, functions to perform” (Balaky and Sulaiman 41). The wife in a patriarchal society is an instrument for maintaining not only the husband’s status but also his psychological comfort. She has the exclusive role of guardian of the family, but she also has no right to make a mistake. In the view of society, including Torvald, a woman is a moral model for children since “almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother” (Ibsen). Nora, like other women, is in the cruel framework of the needs of her husband, father, and other men who are supported by society.
However, Nora’s devotion and submission to her husband were blind and unconscious. When the truth about her documentary fraud appeared, Torvald was reluctant to take her guilt, which shattered the illusion of a strong marriage. In the end, she finds the strength to free herself and take responsibility for herself, leaving home and family. However, Nora now appears before the reader not as an amorphous creature as before, but as a desperate and frightened person. According to widespread criticism, Templeton (2019) notes that she cannot be a feminist heroine since she does not possess a set of necessary qualities, such as seriousness, calmness, and law obedience (36). Thus, Nora seems to be a flawed individual who cannot personify women and address their problems. There is not an exclusively feminist, but a humanistic view of the play in connection with this assumption. Ibsen proposes to consider the problems of women and their rights as socially motivated and with psychological consequences.
The play, through Nora’s example, illustrates that the conventional wisdom is that women have no place in public life. Maintaining their home and family is their main task, while outside their households, they are in danger. Moreover, Ibsen shows how male patriarchal domination controls the female personality in all spheres of life. Despite her naivety and infinity, Nora finds herself in a fierce conflict with society itself. On the one hand, she is tired of enduring oppression from her husband and realizes that he does not love or appreciate her. On the other hand, she is afraid to destroy the picture of the ideal wife and mother, which society and family demand from her. In the nineteenth century, a woman could not receive money without the signature of her husband or father, which Ibsen illustrates through history by forging documents. Nora is in a stalemate under pressure from both her husband and society in the face of other men.
In such circumstances, the expected way would be suicide since the shame that she placed on her husband could not be tolerated. However, Ibsen shows the reader an alternative that is not typical of nineteenth-century society. Nora leaves both her husband and children, which may seem selfish on her part. However, such an act portrays her as a brave woman who was able to escape from the dollhouse and oppose the control of her husband and society. Moreover, Ibsen depicts Torvald as a self-centered and cowardly person, thus criticizing the patriarchal system. Nora is an example of an emancipated woman who was able to go against society and its censure to find her identity. The grotesque portrayal of such an individual as infantile, stupid, and naive reflects the author’s view of the ideas prevailing in society. The image of a man as being exclusively engaged in his work and not taking any part in the life of his children or his wife is also dominant. Thus, at the end of the play, Ibsen radically changes the characters’ positions from the oppressed to the independent and from the dominant to the humiliated.
In the play, Ibsen subtly criticizes gender discrimination and the infringement of women’s rights. Despite emphasizing the exclusively domestic role of a woman, he claims her social and psychological rights. The author also portrays men not as superior personalities but as petty, cowardly, and selfish people who care only about their social status. Thus, Ibsen criticizes the traditional perception of women as less capable and dependent on husbands. He proposes to consider them as individuals who are capable of performing not only bold but also generous and selfless acts.
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