The play A Doll’s House written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879 is one of the first plays featuring feminism, which contributed to the spread of feminism. Using a visual form of text made it accessible, where feminist ideas could be spread thoroughly in the society. The play is an important work in terms of understanding concepts which of feminism; hence it still plays a significant role for feminists today. The interpretation of the play would differ for a woman being part of the early-period feminism as juxtaposed to a woman in the 21st century of third wave feminism. In order to understand why interpretation could vary between two feminist readers, one must first examine which parts of the text that could be interpreted differently and why.
A Doll’s House features the white middle class woman Nora as its protagonist, which connects her to a first wave feminist considering that the first wave feminism mainly involved white women of the middle class. The reader is presented to a woman who is oppressed by her husband Torvald. Several elements demonstrate Torvalds expressions of superiority as exemplified when he calls Nora “my obstinate little woman” (Ibsen, 26) and refers to her as his “little squirrel” (Ibsen, 2) or “skylark” (Ibsen, 2). This both asserts her inferiority and is dehumanizing, where Nora is described as a possession of Torvald’s. He further calls Nora a “spendthrift” (Ibsen, 4) and objectifies her by acknowledging “One would hardly believe how expensive such little persons are!” (Ibsen, 4) These remarks proclaim her inferior ability of dealing with financial matters. Furthermore Nora’s inferiority is evidenced by verbal communications between Nora and Torvald mainly consisting of Torvald talking, where Nora is given little space to respond.
The oppression could for a first wave feminist appear exasperating as first wave feminists primarily discussed and promoted the ideas of women participating in politics and voting where the voice of the female was advocated (Rampton, 2008). Nevertheless, a third wave feminist as characterized by promoting redistributions of power between men and women and honing the ideas of the first and second wave feminism such as dismissing norms and terms of the feminine could react likewise. (Krolokke, 2006)
Distinguishing the play from the average situation of women in the 1800s is the ending where Nora perceives her relationship with Torvald as based on his superiority as evidenced for instance when Nora comments “… I have been your doll wife …” (Ibsen, 67). She then decides to leave him as a struggle to become independent. For a woman reading this at the time the play was written, the scenario could be interpreted as risky and rather unrealistic, whereas a contemporary feminist would be inspired by the ideas of a woman refusing to accept her being treated as inferior and not equally. The play mirrors women’s situation in the 1870s where a first wave feminist would acknowledge Nora’s situation and choice of leaving Torvald as fraught with risk of losing financial, social and familiar security.
The journalist Susanna Rustin discusses the emergence of feminism in the play and argues that Nora is “a symbol throughout the world, for women fighting for liberation and equality” (Rustin, 2013). In addition to Nora being a feminist symbol, Rustin claims that she shows how much there is left to be improved in the society. A woman living in the age of third wave feminism could in contrast to a first wave feminist put less emphasis on elements that have changed; for instance woman’s role in the household. A third wave feminist could instead focus on inequalities that still exist such as the financial situation of men and women and men talking condescending to women. An essential aspect of the play is Nora feeling ashamed of having borrowed money from another man, and if Torvald were to find out she claims it would “upset our mutual relations altogether…” (Ibsen, 12) This demonstrates the relationship between men and women in the 1800s were a woman lending money from a man was unacceptable as evidenced from Torvald in response calling Nora “…a criminal!”.(Ibsen, 62) In perspective of a third wave feminist the scenario could help understanding the history of female oppression.
In context of third wave feminists advocating woman’s rights to work and earn an equal income as a man, the third wave feminist would feasibly interpret Torvald providing the family with money and Nora being a housewife as aggravating. Furthermore the dance between Nora and Torvald in act three could be seen as provocative and understood as Torvald showing off his wife to others, where she would merely be an object to him. The play could be used as a source of understanding the situation of women in the 19th century in comparison to women today, where crucial parts of the feminist ideas have been implemented including suffrage, women’s right to work and the disposal of sexism in a family. A first wave feminist would likely ignore the financial situation and perhaps also the metaphor of the dance due to those aspects being norms in 1800s society.
To conclude, feminist ideas would evidently be interpreted differently by a woman of the first wave feminism in comparison to a woman of the third wave feminism. The focus and ability to identify with Nora would differ as of the play depicting society in the 19th century where a feminist reading it today could evaluate how the situation of women has changed. A first wave feminist would arguably not consider many of the elements as inequalities or injustices such as the financial situation. Instead a first wave feminist would presumably see the ending where Nora breaks free from the power relationship between her and Torvald as inspiring. A first wave feminist would experience the play as mirroring 1800s society whereas a third wave feminist could use it as a source of understanding how the situation for women was in 1879 as compared to 2013, where some aspects may still require development in context of feminism.
- Ibsen, H. (1879). A Doll’s House. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
- Rampton, M. (2008). The three waves of feminism. Pacific,41(2), Retrieved from http://www.pacificu.edu/magazine_archives/2008/fall/echoes/feminism.cfm
- Krolokke, C., & Sorensen, A. S. (2006). Gender communication theories and analyses. (pp. 1-22). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/6236_Chapter_1_Krolokke_2nd_Rev_Final_Pdf.pdf
- Rustin, S. (2013, Augusti 10). Why a doll’s house by henrik ibsen is more relevant than ever. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/aug/10/dolls-house-henrik-ibsen-relevant