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A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen: Feminism Issues And The Oppression Of Women

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Feminism is both a belief and a movement that tries to define and establish the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. It advocates women’s rights on the ground of the equality of sexes in all aspects of life. Feminism, as a literary revolution, aims to rebel against the patriarchal society which equates supremacy, strength, self-assertion, and dominance with masculinity as opposed to; inferiority, passivity, weakness, obedience, and self-negation with femininity. By depicting the suffering of the women in their works, the feminist writers highlight and condemn the plight of women in a male-centric society and thereby try to instill in them a sense of rebellion, self-assertion, identity, and self-worth.

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A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen represents a feminist play. The title of the play itself symbolizes the oppression of women and it suggests that women are treated as dolls in a patriarchal society. Though some may say that the play is about individuals devoid of identity and dignity who search for those individual rights during the onset of the play. This play is actually a critique of patriarchal prejudices and discriminations. Despite many critics of Ibsen believing that the play, “A Doll’s House” is meant to expose progressive humanist principles it is arguably about feminist ideals due to the play showcasing female characters having to endure and overcome masculine authority; the disillusion over believing they should be dominated and controlled; the emphasis people place on beauty, believing that it is the only domestic upper hand; and social constructs, in which women are only financially dependent on male figures. The play starts off with Nora and Torvald Helmer’s conjugal relationship. Until the very end of the play, Nora is a dutiful wife, who caters to her husband’s every need and want, and performs every role assigned to her by the societal norms of her generation. She is very content with her role as the subservient female whose fate is determined by that of her husband. This is evident in her complete confidence in hiding the truth about borrowing money in order to save Torvald’s health. About that she tells Mrs. Linde, “it would be a terrible blow to Torvald’s masculine self-esteem; he’d find it so painful and humiliating to think that he owed me something. It would completely unbalance our relationship. It would be the end of our lovely happy home”. Thus Nora is completely disillusioned with her husband. Alternately, in Torvald’s eyes, Nora is nothing but a “squirrel”, a “little skylark”, a “songbird” or a “scatterbrain” whose thoughts are illogical and typical to any other woman’s. Since her childhood, Nora has been regarded as a “doll” by her father. This is made worse when he hands her to her husband who treats her like a valued belonging. This is best demonstrated by Nora’s self-realization and awakening towards the end of the play; When I lived at home with Papa, he fed me all his opinions, until they became my opinions. Or if they didn’t, I kept quiet about it because I knew he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his doll-child, and he played with me the way I used to play with my dolls. And when I passed out of Papa’s hands to yours. You arranged everything according to your taste, and I adapted my taste to yours… Now, looking back, I feel as if I’ve lived here like a pauper — simply from hand to mouth. In this way, Nora rises up out of that cave of disillusioned reality and she becomes aware of the society that she is living in. Thusly, she chooses to leave and embrace the freedom that she grants herself.

Beauty plays a big role in Nora’s life. She prides herself on “dressingup”, “wearing costumes” and “dancing” for Torvald. It is apparent that Torvald and Nora live in an intransigent society, which follows strict customs and conventions. Torvald, whose most avid concern is for keeping up appearances regardless of the psychological cost is a prime example of this, when he forbids Nora to indulge in macaroons because he is afraid they will rot Nora’s teeth, doing this he also informs everyone else as a way of policing her behaviour even when he isn’t present. This is shown when Dr. Rank sees Nora take out a bag of macaroons and remarks; “Macaroons? Now, now! I thought they were forbidden here!” This is just one instance which exemplifies how high Torvald regards external beauty so that he can show Nora off when he thinks “she is worth looking at. ” Hence, Nora is objectified and is valued mostly for her outer appearance. Nora, knowing only her physical beauty holds power in her relationship tries to make the most out of this when she uses beauty and charisma to her advantage. She demonstrates this when she begins to ask for more money, the stage directions detail what happens next: “not looking at him playing with his waistcoat buttons”, mere domestic, a flirtatious behaviour is the only way she can get what she wants from him. This convention makes Nora value how she looks.

In this play, Ibsen also shows how Nora has been devoid of financial freedom and self-identity and thus becomes dependent on her husband. This proves difficult when she cannot ask him for a loan, which she needs to travel to Italy to save him from sickness. Without the money, she is forced to forge her father’s signature to get the loan. Later, when she is conversing with Mrs. Linde and makes it evident that she doesn’t know anything about the inner-workings of a loan she states; “Well I don’t really know exactly. You see with a thing like that, it’s very difficult to keep accounts”. Although she has a limited knowledge of finances, it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t ever inquire about life outside her responsibilities. She is mindful of this when she is bragging to Mrs. Linde about how hard she’s worked to attain her lifestyle and remarks; “Well, then I have found other ways of earning money too…it was a tremendous sitting there working and earning money. It was almost like being a man”. This implies the longing of a woman for freedom from her domesticity. Although, she is financially dependent, for she has no other method of getting money, she ponders about life without being attached to domestic work.

Many critics have stated that A Doll’s House is a humanist play replete with many progressive values relating to the development of persons, not just women. But Nora illustrates having to persevere through masculine dominance, stereotypes of a woman’s physique and appearance and economic dependence. In essence, it is a woman’s predicament with which the play deals; it is the persistence of Nora that is the subject of the play and it is the drastic step she takes after realizing her potential; this is the same woman in the play who uses the power of flirtation to gain political capital and it is she who seeks further financial independence. In this play, Nora seeks individuality and unmonitored selfhood, which she eventually acquires by breaking the shackles of gender roles of mother and wife. A Doll’s House, thus, represents a feminist play replete with feminist ethos. The emotional and psychological effect of the play has a profound impact on the audience and the readers.

A Doll’s House has been staged throughout as one of the world’s most important theatrical dramas. Few plays have had a similar impact globally on social norms and conditions. A Doll’s House explores not only the status of women but how they are victims of social forces to the extent that they are left with the role of a “doll-wife”. This drama puts forward the real and a burning social issue of a revolution that had become essential for society to progress.

01 April 2020

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