The play ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen was written inthe 19th century and wasarguably one of the first plays to feature pre-feministideas, which contributed to the promotion of first wave feminism. The playillustrates the daily life of a bourgeois family, which were also mainly the reader,thus confronting them with their own norms.
Men were the pillars of society whereaswomen were there solely for their appearance and to hold up the reputation ofthe husband. Ibsen aspired to represent the daily struggles of life, and eventhough he was not a feminist himself, the reader is left with the perceptionthat he is. In ‘A Doll’s House’ Ibsenbrings forth his unusual stance on the role of women in 1879, which would be perceiveddifferently by various waves of feminism and battles the patriarchy throughcharacterisation and stage directions. Firstly, the play shows the protagonist Nora, a whitemiddle class woman, which links her to first wave feminism which mostlyconcerned women like her. Nora is clearly oppressed by her husband Torvald,shown through nicknames such as “squanderbird” (Ibsen, 24) and Skylark (Ibsen,24). These nicknames emphasize the belittling attitude Torvald has towards herand this language is both dehumanizing and indicates her inferiority. Torvaldfurther expresses his superiority with expressions as “It’s incredible what anexpensive pet she is for a man to keep” (Ibsen, 26) and thus not even treatingher as a person but as a thing you play with.
These remarks affirm herdisability to handle money and financial matters. Furthermore, Nora is givenlittle room to talk and Torvald denies her space to respond. This inferiority couldseem disturbing to a first wave feminist as first wave feminism primarily focusedon opening up opportunities for women mainly in politics (Rampton, 2008). Moreover,for a third wave feminist, which is focused on equal power between men andwomen, the reaction could be likewise. Secondly, the play creates a platform for Ibsen to unveilthe progressive attitudes about women’s rights. The family drama of ‘A Doll’sHouse’ is a tragedy which leaves a larger impact on the reader than othergenres. For example, Nora stating she is going to leave Torvald “I’m leavingyou now, at once” (Ibsen, 99) would never leave the reader with a confrontationas impactful as in a tragedy versus a comedy or any other theatre piece.
Thereality of Nora being trapped in a society defined by its female oppression isthe most powerful in a tragedy because it shows the reader the reality of thenorms they regard acceptable and the consequences the patriarchy has. Thetragedy allows the reader to relate to their family and the gender roles theyexperience. A first wave feminist would have received this revelation asunrealistic and rather risky, whereas a third wave feminist would find the ideaof a wife escaping patriarchy empowering and inspiring. The patriarchal society is clearly depictedthrough the characterisation created by Ibsen. In the 19th centurywomen were only a tool to create the best possible social status, and men werethe backbone of the family, which third wave feminists tried to change. Theprotagonist Nora is depicted as oblivious and frivolous, which Torvaldaccentuates by saying “…as soon as you have any (money) it just runs throughyour fingers and you never know where it’s gone” (Ibsen, 26) and dismissing itwith “it’s in your blood” (Ibsen, 27) as if she is just an ignorant child,whilst in reality she is very conscious of how she spends her money.
Thisemphasizes the handle Torvald has over her, and the patriarchal norms where theman is superior. A first wave feminist would likely ignore this belittlingcomment as she wouldn’t see how downgrading this because of the norms of thehusband earning the money and the wife running the household. A third wavefeminist would take great offense at this comment as they advocate woman’srights to work and earn an equal income as a man. By virtue of ‘A Doll’s House’ being a play, there arestage directions, which create the opportunity for Ibsen to express the role ofpatriarchy in daily life even further. For example, Ibsen foreshadows theleaving of Nora with stage directions such as “picks up her coat” (Ibsen, 55),possibly shocking a first wave feminist as it would be unacceptable to leaveyour family. Probably the most obvious and important stage direction is the turningoff and on of the light, which resembles the turning off and on of herawareness.
This is best shown when Nora confronts Torvald about not opening theletter, she shows she is very much aware of the consequences of her actions.Further on, the stage directions state “during the following scene it begins togrow dark” (Ibsen, 64) and Nora has forgotten about what could possibly happenif the letter would be opened, and goes on with her daily life. When it islight, Nora realizes the trapped marriage she is in which is built on lies andthat she has to leave to set herself free.
When the lights turn off thatawareness leaves and she is Torvalds toy again and this oblivious character. Ibsenwanted to create the awareness of the norms for marriage at that time, and howit could control your whole life to play the accessory of your husband. Concluding, different waves of feminism would interpretthese feminist ideas in other ways, as society keeps changing. A first wavefeminist would be enlightened and at times shocked, whereas a third wavefeminist would find what Nora did inspiring and empowering. Whilst the contextof various feminist movements continually changes, it will always be importantfor women to stand up for their rights, and Ibsen created the spark that litthe fire.