A Doll’s House, Henrik Johan Ibsen
A Doll’s House, Henrik Johan Ibsen

A Doll’s House, Henrik Johan Ibsen

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  • Published: October 18, 2017
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Henrik Johan Ibsen was an extremely influential Norwegian playwright writing around the turn of the twentieth century, and is considered by many to be largely responsible for the rise of the modern realistic drama. His plays were considered scandalous in much of society at the time, when Victorian values of family life and propriety were still very much the norm, and any challenge to them was viewed as immoral and even outrageous.It is hardly surprising, therefore, than many of his plays act as an attack on the society he inhabited, and his characters often choose to free themselves from its restrictions, sometimes passively, some times violently but always dramatically.

Ibsen’s personal struggle to realise himself in spirit and in truth coincided most productively with his efforts to effect a ‘revolution of the human mind’ and subsequent sociological changes. iIbsen’s society appears both affluent and agreeable yet only for those who understand how to operate it successfully. The Helmers, for example, in A Doll’s House, live well. Their house is “tasteful”ii, with Porters and Maids to help set up a “Christmas Tree”.

When we first meet Nora she is reprimanded by her husband Torvald for “squandering money”, and yet Torvald’s subsequent and consisted use of pet names, “pet”, “songbird” and (my personal favourite) “little squirrel” convey an air of joviality regarding her spending.But we learn quickly that such benefits come at a price, and that in exchange for societal involvement, one must conform to a view of proper conduct which is, in many respects, extremely narrow, savagely enforced and unforgiving. For a man of Ibsen’s generation, the great opponent of man was seen to be societ

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yiii The society Ibsen creates also offers us a picture of the patriarchal nature of the world he himself inhabited. In Hedda Gabler we are aware of the social status Tesman has over his new wife, although we are painfully aware that she is much more powerful and magnetic a figure.

In A Dolls House Torvald’s control over Nora lends the book its title. She is a porcelain doll in his wooden house that he expects to dance at his command, “Why don’t you run through the tarantella and try out the tambourine”, an offer presented as a question but with an authoritative rhetoric behind it. He talks to her with dripping patronisation, “my little spendthrift”, and then delights in his masculinity as he stands “quite alone with your young and trembling loveliness” at the end. It is a society which Ibsen himself may well have wished to be free of.

Shortly after his birth his family’s fortunes took a significant turn for the worse. While his mother took up work and turned for solace to religion, his father declined into alcoholism and severe depression. It is, therefore, quite understandable that he chooses to attack the male supremacy which deserted him and his family, and yet still appeared to him quite prevalent in the old fashioned society. Like Hedda Gabler he wanted colour to come into the black-and white photograph of his society.

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Doll’s House by Katherine MansfieldHedda received this in the form of the Dionysian Eilert Loveborg who brought with him poetry and love, dying when “he was shot in the abdomen”, from where blood would have flowed freely, giving even more “beautiful” colour noticeable to the world. Starved of the luxury of colourful figures from his past, Ibsen instead created pseudo-societies with exaggerated stifling environments and, in them, characters keen to experience real life by freeing themselves from the claustrophobic conditions of their captivity.A Dolls House features perhaps the most patriarchal society. In Hedda Gabler the supreme male has been described variously as “a wet fish”, “limp and useless”, and “a pain in the ass”. Tesman, though dominant in his society, is still a child to his “Aunty Julie”, the rhyming first and second names adding something to his juvenile dependence, and takes “the enchanting Hedda Gabler”iv on a honeymoon and chooses to spend his time in research for his book.

Torvald in A Dolls House is quite different. In a production I saw, which I have learned from my reading seems to be a normality, he was a tall strikingly attractive man. He is the alpha male in his society, and certainly in the sample of society Ibsen permits us to see. His competition consists of the dying Rank and the slightly unstable Krogstad. In the production I saw his authority over Nora was a mixture between latent aggression on his part and sexual fascination on hers.

What we see on stage is a societal-oppressed milieu in which characters are imprisoned. Their attempt at freedom, therefore, is an attempt to be free from their situation and the situations of society. The plays are not merely a subjective quest for personal realisation but also an objective effort towards imaginative insight into the main tendencies of an age and a civilisation. v Dr Rank is an interesting case to consider first.Although not keen to try and be free of his surroundings he is a rather eloquent testimony to what the society adds up to, and could, consequently, stand as a warning to Nora.

By external measures he is a successful figure, rich and well respected, and yet, despite his role as a doctor, he is unable to cure himself from syphilis, which, as a mirror to the Helmer’s marriage (and indeed that of the Gablers), does not affect any “well-groomed”, “prosperous” and “respectable” exterior but which eats away at vital organs leaving him “rotten to the core”.In Dr Rank, whose name simultaneously means both high social statues and foul smell, we see a personification of the destructive elements of the society, and as Nora talks to him, “I always think it’s tremendous fun having you”, flirts with him, “I am yours body and soul” and watches him, “He was going to shut himself up and die”, she becomes aware of his condition as a foreshadow of her own, “This ugly thing has come between us… thoughts of death and decay”, and she decides to act, “We must try to free ourselves from it. “In Dr Rank we have encapsulated the destructive ironies at the

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