Thursday, March 31, 2011


Yes, do. Try and calm yourself, and make your mind easy again, my frightened little singing-bird. Be at rest, and feel secure; I have broad wings to shelter you under. How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk's claws; I will bring peace to your poor beating heart.

Henrik Ibsen, Norweigan playwright, was friends with a couple named Laura and Victor Kieler. Laura had written a sequel to Ibsen's 1866 work Brand called Brand's Daughters: A Picture of Life, and she made Ibsen's acquaintance shortly afterward. Over the next five years they visited on and off. In 1876, however, Victor became ill with tuberculosis and the doctor recommended convalescence in a warm climate. Unbeknownst to her husband, Laura financed the trip through a loan on which she forged a signature. Victor was furious when he found out, demanding a divorce and taking the children with him. The emotional strain landed Laura in a public asylum, although she returned to her family after a month. Ibsen, who had declined to help Laura, was left feeling guilty about his role in the affair and the result was his landmark feminist play, A Doll House.

A dramatic backstory to be sure, but the play itself was kind of a let-down.

The problem with reading plays is that they're meant to be performed, not read. My disappointment with A Doll's House likely stems from this fact. Realist in style, it consists entirely of everyday dialogue with (to me) little aesthetic value. Still, it had its moments. Torvald's character is particularly interesting - as part of my job in a library Rare Books Department I cataloged a collection of poetry and correspondence from a local woman who lived in Ibsen's day. Her husband's letters address her exactly the same way Torvald speaks to Ibsen's heroine Nora. Anyway, turns out, according to third-party sources I discovered elsewhere, he had abandoned his first wife and child in another city to marry her without finalizing his divorce first! It's knowledge of real-life history like this that can add another dimension to your reading. Don't trust men who call you things like "my little squirrel" or really "my little" anything because that's belittlement and it means they don't take you seriously as an adult human being.

Also, the beginning of Act II, when Nora asks her children's nurse "how could you have the heart to put your own child out among strangers?" The response is that "I was obliged to, if I wanted to be little Nora's nurse." What Ibsen intended as commentary on social class is also, from an American perspective, commentary on racism as well. It's hard not to picture the nurse as a mammy - the black woman who raises the white folks' children instead of her own. Even without the added layer of racism, the exchange is loaded with implications of the word mother and what it signifies to different women. The Victorian "Angel of the House" was very much a bourgeois ideal that upheld the middle-class white woman as the arbiter of all things motherly at the expense of poor women and, in the United States, women of color as well. It's only a small part of the overall work but one that stood out to me.

But I'm afraid I don't have much else to say about this one. Henrick Ibsen is not Tennessee Williams. As a reading experience, A Doll House just fell flat for me. Oh well, better luck next month

A Doll House can be read online here.

A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2011, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . . What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.


Caitlin said...

I love A Doll's House, but I spent many many years directing all kinds of plays so I can really see it in my mind's eye. I've seen a couple of mind blowing productions of it so it has a real place in my heart. If you ever get a chance to see it live - do - you'll love it.

E. L. Fay said...

I will definitely see it if I get the chance. There has to be more to it than what I read.

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