How Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ Helped Invent Feminism a Century Ago (Guest Blog)

We Do It Together Blog: “Gender equality still stands among the biggest human rights battles yet to be fought,” writes playwright Marco Calvani

doll's house part 2 laurie metcalf
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The appearance on the European scene of “A Doll’s House” (1879) is one of the most important and sensational events in the history of modern theater. The international reputation of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (playwright, director, poet, and often referred to as the father of realism) begins with this play: a reputation made of scandal but, most of all, a success based on controversy.

The story of Nora and Torvald Helmer indeed disturbs the quiet life of the bourgeois conformist family. At the same time, it is a story that excites the fantasies, stirs hopes and ignites ambitions. Nora, a wife beloved and petted like a doll of the lawyer Torvald, abandons — in front of the festive Christmas tree — her husband and sons to become herself and assert her dignity as human being. The theater had never taken such a tremendous risk before.

Ibsen created the first real “feminist” character in the history of theater. Nora is a fragile and tormented creature who aspires to be considered an individual like everyone else. She claims her right to life while realizing her perpetual state of inferiority.

“I think I am a human being before anything else. I don’t care what other people say. I don’t care what people write in books. I need to think for myself,” Nora tells Torvald in the long agonizing final scene in which she tries to explain to herself and to her husband the reasons which have led her to abandon the family.

Ibsen was no doubt inspired by the belief that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society.” He identified an incurable rift between the true values ​​of life and the standards of conduct imposed by society. After all, those were the years of the first feminist battles and this shows how Scandinavian countries have been increasingly at the forefront in terms of social rights. It is noteworthy that during that period it was customary for invitations to be sent to Scandinavian families with the added postscript: “Please do not talk about ‘A Doll’s House.’”

Yet the playwright himself declared that the play’s theme was not women’s rights, but rather “the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person.” In a speech given to the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights in 1898, Ibsen insisted that he “must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement,” since he wrote “without any conscious thought of making propaganda,” his task having been “the description of humanity.”

Today, with the historical perspective, it seems right and proper to stand on Ibsen’s side and confirm that feminism was only one aspect (important but not essential) of his play. After more than a century, and in an undoubtedly different social situation, the heart of the story remains centered on the faithfulness to life. A faithfulness to which all Ibsen’s heroes and heroines (“The Woman of the Sea,” “Hedda Gabler,” “Peer Gynt”) at the cost of going toward the catastrophy, tend to a moral absolute, outside of which there is no chance of salvation.

But isn’t that faithfulness to life a principle that stands at the bottom of every fight that every human being has to pursue in order to achieve and feed his or her own authenticity? How can someone then separate this principle from the struggle into which women around the world have been forced?

The continuing and increasing interest in producing the revival or an adaptation of “A Doll’s House” (not to be missed: the Tony-winning Broadway production of Lucas Hnath’s sequel, pictured above, with Chris Cooper and Laurie Metcalf) makes me wonder about that feminism deep inside at the core of Nora’s revelation. And makes it clear that gender equality still stands among the biggest human rights battles yet to be fought.

We are left to accept the sad conclusion that — despite 150 years of wars and revolutions — women still remain victims of cultural, religious and civil subjugation. We don’t need to bother to go to the Middle East, where Islamic laws make the controversy more explicit and the emancipation more difficult. Even in the Western world, women still struggle to be independent protagonists of their own destiny, be it domestic or public.

The “feminist” Nora of 1879, capable of rebelling against conventions and social subjugation, remains in 2017 an important character. She is a heroine in the fight against an entire system that wants her small and silent. No matter if she’s middle class or proletarian, black or white, religious or atheist. In this world Nora still lives in a male society, judged by laws and beliefs made by men.

This is part of a blog series by We Do It Together, a nonprofit film production entity created to produce films, documentaries, TV and other forms of media uniquely dedicated to the empowerment of women.