The emptiness of the 19th century marriage

Doll’s House

An Analysis of Ibsen’s Doll’s House

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Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 Norwegian play A Doll’s House presents a none-too-flattering vision of 19th century marriage and gender roles. But is Ibsen attacking marriage per se? From the perspective of “new historicism” and “cultural criticism,” this paper will attempt to answer that question by drawing on information contemporaneous of Ibsen’s drama — such as “A Nineteenth Century Husband’s Letter to His Wife,” which bears at least in essence the form of a real-life Nora-Torvald type of husband-wife relationship: one in which the husband fails to follow the Golden Rule — or the Pauline principle, “Husbands, love your wives” (Eph 5:25).

Ibsen, of course, had lived through a century in which his own nation had been subjugated to a foreign aggressor: Sweden. It was not until the 20th century that Norway was able to assert its independence and put the Swedish invasion and fidelity to the Swedish king behind it. If anything, Ibsen’s Doll’s House may be read as an allegory for Norwegian nationality, with Nora coming to realize herself as an independent body fully capable and deserving of governing herself. When Nora casts off Torvald (who obviously loves himself more than her — and who has not the slightest conception of selflessness, thankfulness, or humility — virtues that Nora alone possesses), a new historicist or cultural critic could easily reckon this as a symbolic gesture of what every good Norwegian hoped for.

However, disregarding the play’s symbolic aspect for a more literal interpretation moves the literary critic into another sphere of social commentary: the 19th marriage. As Paul Johnson observes in his critique of Ibsen, “Ibsen preached the revolt of the individual against the ancien regime of inhibitions and prejudices which held sway in every small town, indeed in every family. He taught men, and especially women, that their individual conscience and their personal notions of freedom have moral precedence over the requirements of society” (82). Ibsen, in other words, was a social revolutionary on the order of the Romantic/Enlightenment era — a time whose doctrine was substantially divorced from the old world teachings that unified Europe in the medieval world and brought security to Norway in the tenth century under King Olav. Ibsen, like the rest of the modern world of the 19th century, had rejected the medieval mores associated with the old world religion and family structure; it had left the Pauline scriptures for a philosophy based on “liberty, equality, and fraternity” — the motto of the French Revolution. Ibsen’s Nora is, in this sense, a reflection of the spirit of Ibsen’s age — the woman who realizes that she has been playing a thankless role her whole life: that the husband for whom she would sacrifice everything would not stoop to make the same sacrifice of himself for her. What St. Paul would have judged an error on the part of the husband (and compelled him to correction), is judged by Ibsen an inexcusable flaw in the social man-woman hierarchy. Ibsen’s solution is not Paul’s, which is Christ. Ibsen’s solution is dissolution of the marriage vows.

As “A Nineteenth Century Husband’s Letter to His Wife” shows, divorce was uncommon (although practiced to a degree) in the nineteenth century. Margorie Engel states that

Divorces were becoming more common but were not yet considered a major social problem. The people elected Andrew Jackson President of the United States even though he had married a divorced woman. Nonetheless…men and women had specific marital responsibilities and lived with considerable restraint on their behavior, always subject to community approval. Men were assigned the world of business and family support. Women were custodians of the home.

In such a social situation, Ibsen, by having Nora walk out on her husband, is literally slapping social convention in its face. In fact, in such a social context, Nora is a walking contradiction: she breaks convention by forging her father’s name and taking on work herself (without her husband knowing) to pay a debt that saved his life. Yet his ungratefulness scathes her so badly that she sees no point in acting like his “doll.”

Still, it is not social custom that Nora goes out of her way to buck. All of her actions have been directed toward one noble aim — the preservation of her husband’s life and good name. Yet, when those actions fail and, in their failure, expose the fault that lies at the heart of Torvald’s conception of marriage, Nora realizes that her marriage has been a sham. Torvald pleads desperately for her to stay — but she refuses to be a doll: Nora is sticking up for what St. Paul would have admitted was her due: she wants to be loved — not treated like a meaningless piece of property. Torvald realizes this all too late when Nora leaves him with her last words: that she could never live with a stranger, and that therefore the two of them could never be together unless there was a change — unless their “life together would be a real wedlock.”

It is this ideal of real wedlock that the medieval world, under the tutelage of the Pauline scriptures, understood so well — and it is this ideal that the modern world, in its attempt to throw off the shackles of the past, rejected to its own apparent detriment. It is this ideal that Nora laments is lacking in her own marriage — and it is this ideal that is absent in the letter of Marcus to his Wife in 1844. Marcus sees his wife the same way Torvald sees his — as property, or an employer, or a child, to be governed with rules (like a tyrant) and without charity or love. The opening line of Marcus’ letter says all that needs to be said, “You have sinned greatly…” No marriage could ever stand on such a line: it is Pharisaical.

In conclusion, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House displays the emptiness of the 19th century marriage, devoid of the charity recommended so strongly by St. Paul. “New historicism” and “cultural criticism” reveal that the emptiness stems not from our own projections necessarily, but from the times and events surrounding Ibsen’s own day and age, and the centuries of revolution that followed the end of the medieval world’s Christian philosophy.

Works Cited

Engel, Margorie. “The History of Divorce.” Flying Solo. Web. 8 Aug 2011.

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Aug 2011.

Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2007.

New Testament. New International Version, 1984. Biblos. Web. 8 Aug 2011.

“A Nineteenth Century Husband’s Letter to His Wife.” Southeastern Massachusetts

University, 1844.

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