When Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” premiered in 1879, it caused great controversy for its content. A considerable number of viewers, critics, and moral authorities were outraged that the main character, Nora, should violate the sanctity of marriage and motherhood by abandoning her family. But while many felt indignant in the late 19th century, a close reading of the play today reveals that Ibsen’s work was ahead of its time. Indeed, the fact that it remains the subject of intense study and a staple of college essays around the world. More than just bearing the qualities of classic literature, “A Doll’s House” was and still is a powerful commentary on the status of women in society through its exploration of female roles, dependence, and liberation.
While the release of “A Doll’s House” in 1879 was marked by scandal, there is no denying that it was a powerful commentary on the status of women in 19th century society. As the play itself reveals, women in the 19th century were far from equal to men. They had considerably less freedom to manage affairs on their own, let alone make legal decisions without the consent of male authority figures. For example, in the play, Nora’s secret involves her forging her father’s signature to borrow money—an action that resulted from the fact that women were not allowed to conduct financial transactions without the consent of a male. And even though Nora committed her crime to save her husband, she is judged by him as immoral. What Ibsen accomplished by writing the play, therefore, was hold a mirror for 19th century society to examine itself in. While it is true that the social and legal conventions of the time considered the curtailing of women’s freedom as normal, the injustice that Nora suffers at the hands of her husband forced people to reexamine their view and treatment of women. Ultimately, “A Doll’s House” shows that norms are not always just and that injustice results from viewing women as inferior to men and then condemning them for overstepping their boundaries when compelled by circumstances.
Although much has changed since the 19th century, Ibsen’s play remains relevant because it still mirrors the status of women today. It is true that there have been great strides toward establishing equality between men and women. Ibsen’s homeland of Norway, for instance, consistently ranks among the top countries when it comes to gender parity and development. The same, however, cannot be said about the rest of the world. In various societies around the world, women remain bound by laws that curtail their rights and render them dependent on men. Such dependence, in turn, limits their freedom and leaves them vulnerable. Indeed, inequality remains prevalent even in the West, where societies are presumably more progressive. The gender pay gap, for instance, remains a pervasive issue. In the United States, women of color such as blacks and Latinas earn far less than their male counterparts (Ross). “A Doll’s House” is thus still important in advancing progress in places where women are yet to achieve equal standing. Though a work of fiction, the play captures an essential truth about men and women being unequal. And the play, being a bringer of ideas, can help change attitudes and enable social progress.
The play also offers insight into the contribution of gender roles to women’s status. Being a wife and a mother is widely regarded as the ideal role for women, and indeed such a role has been the source of so much fulfilment for countless women. “A Doll’s House,” however, raises an often overlooked yet crucial question: what happens when the traditional roles expected of women overwhelm a woman’s sense of duty to herself? Nora’s life illustrates this problem. Having devoted her life to the care and security of her family, she finds that she has neglected herself and has failed to see the reality of her relationship with Torvald. She has become a doll living in a doll’s house, controlled by others and denied the legal agency that her husband enjoys. As she tells Torvald following her realization, “I have other duties just as sacred…Duties to myself.” With such words, Ibsen seeks not to paint the existence of gender roles in a negative light; rather, he seeks to explore the effect of imposing gender roles on personal freedom. In a modern world where traditional gender roles still hold great sway, Ibsen’s play prompts people to examine how these influence the status of men and women.
In conclusion, Henrik Ibsen’s celebrated play “A Doll’s House” offers a compelling look into women’s status both in the past and in the present. Though the play ignited scandal when first published in 1879, it nevertheless presented a critical look into women’s unequal standing in society at the time. In hindsight, it can be said that Ibsen’s play was among the first works in modernist literature to explore subjects of feminism and equality, in the same strand as other renowned works like Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Like Nora, the protagonists in these works seek to transcend the limitations imposed upon them by society. Though 140 years had passed since, it remains relevant to this day as the play still mirrors societies where there is great disparity between the sexes. Furthermore, the play continues to raise questions regarding gender roles in the contemporary era.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/160/160-h/160-h.htm. Accessed 5 January 2021.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1952/1952-h/1952-h.htm. Accessed 5 January 2021.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm. Accessed 5 January 2021.
Ross, Janell. “Black women and Latinas paid so poorly, catching up is almost impossible.” NBC, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/black-women-latinas-paid-so-poorly-catching-almost-impossible-n990231. Accessed 21 June 2020.