Book Review: A Doll’s House

“A Doll’s House,” by Henrik Ibsen (1879), read from Oxford World’s Classics Henrik Ibsen: Four Major Plays (1981), transl. by James McFarlane and Jens Arup. Also, “Ghosts” (1881), “Hedda Gabler” (1890), and “The Master Builder” (1892).

I can’t say that I enjoyed these plays too much. Ibsen and I diverge too much in our basic ideas of the world. What he calls bravery, I call cowardice, and vice versa. What he calls virtue, I call selfishness, and again vice versa. But I will try to assess them from a literary perspective, as well as a taste one, especially understanding that many of his morals are the morals of my own society.

Henrik Ibsen was a Norwegian man born in 1828, who, as Oxford World’s Classics puts it, was a playwright with “a period of sustained creative endeavor unparalleled in the history of modern theater and one which gave a whole new impetus and direction to the drama of the twentieth century.” Whew. His most famous play, “A Doll’s House,” was published in 1879, and began his career as a public menace, the object of outrage. His plays started the stage in Scandinavia, where they met with wide public debate, and in Germany the ending was (forced to be) re-wrote. It took until 1889 for the play to reach London, where its fame preceded it. Amid criticism and hostility were support and love, and Ibsen would continue as a public topic of polarized debate for his career. Ibsen knew his plays, their topics, and his “stark” treatment of them were inciting, but he sought truth at all cost, and dealt openly with subjects like commercial hypocrisy, religious intolerance, political expediency, conventional morality, and established authority (including man’s authority over woman). As time continued, he moved from the public sphere of conflict to a personal one, where his characters increasingly wrestled with temperamental and sexual incompatibility, magnetism, force, their unconscious mind, and dreams and visions. Overall, his writing was not only an impetus for social change, but also a game-changer in the arena of theater, where he excelled at using subtleties in language to an extent no one before had ever done before.

The “period of sustained creative endeavor unparalleled in the history of modern theater” began in 1877 and lasted until 1892. The four plays I read were pairs of plays at the beginning (almost) and end of this period. “A Doll’s House” was meant to culminate in “Ghosts,” and “Hedda Gabler” and “The Master Builder” were–as I have heard the phrase before–spiritual sisters.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about plays as literature, lately (which may be revisited when I review “Hamlet”). It is not quite adequete to read a play, exactly.  I would think that in almost all circumstance, plays are truly realized when they are performed. However, as this is a book blog and plays are often included in lists of novels/great literature, I will review them as I would a novel. If I easily encounter performances of them, I will review those as well. Almost any decent play can become great in the hands of a masterful director, actors, and set artist, and likewise can fall flat without them.

As for Ibsen’s plays, I find his characters to be unbelievable, especially one of the shining stars of his fame and accomplishments, Nora Helmer. I guess what I find most obnoxious about these characters is the speed with which they do things, which could be blamed on the necessity of story and play-writing, or it could be that the characters do not show significant glimmers of what they are to suddenly and so surprisingly become. Nora, for example, is this flitting, domestic plaything (thus the title) for nine-tenths of the play, unable to see her own mistakes and the seriousness of the looming catastrophe ahead. Then, all of a sudden, she is a most advanced, thoughtful, determined individual, come to drastic acts with absolutely no passion and able to express her inmost feelings and will to her husband without missing a beat. I’ve been in arguments. They don’t go like that.

Ibsen has also said of his own work that his plays do not make statements, they just pose questions. It is unfortunate that authors can not know their own work or impact as well as they might like (me and everyone else included), but I don’t buy this assessment for a second. It is historically interesting that he considered his plays questions, but they are very clearly works of value statements and modes for societal change (which is exactly what they became.) With lines like “If I’m ever going to reach any understanding of myself and the things around me, I must learn to stand alone,” would you believe his plays are unbiased vignettes, wondering about human nature, and nothing more?

And finally, I have to come back to this matter of taste. Ibsen, as might have been necessary in someone pushing toward individualism and equality in the 1800s, makes selfishness the knight in shining armor of his plays. I can’t enjoy story lines where such individuality is honored above duty and community and a moral compass; it’s just not something I believe and so I find Ibsen’s heroes and heroines unpalatable. In some stories, that’s okay, but Ibsen’s plays are constructed around the ideal, a pleasurable inoculation of them, so it’s much harder than having, for example, a novel where one of the characters commits suicide (a favorite of his) and another runs away (another favorite), and the novel’s judgement remains unclear or backward from what the reader might have picked. Let’s face it; we expect the just desserts of characters to line up with our morals, or else we have this thing called dissatisfaction. Only a very talented author can make characters so complex that we are willing to stay judgement for love of the character or some other dearly held ideal: that’s when literature can bend our future ideas, not when we are presented with characters that shock us and then merrily get the opposite of what we think they deserve.

For all that, I enjoy the story lines of some of his plays, especially “A Doll’s House.” Others were much less dramatic and, I would go so far, boring (namely “Ghosts”). Again, it’s only historically interesting Ibsen thought “Ghosts” was the culmination of “A Doll’s House,” because “House” is clearly the masterpiece of the two, better in every way I can think of. It’s dramatic. It’s interesting. It has several different plots interweaving on one stage, in one set, in just a few virtual days.

DOLLS HOUSE“A Doll’s House”

Like I said, I really enjoy the story of this play, but I find the outcome less than satisfying. I was also astonished by how many lines and ideas have become part of our culture. To wit (just from Nora’s lines in the last scene): “I have never understood you, either–until tonight,” “I’ve been greatly wronged, Torvald,” “You two never loved me,” “It’s your fault that I’ve never made anything of my life,” “I thought I was [happy], but I wasn’t really,” “I must take steps to educate myself,” “That’s something I must do on my own,” “I must learn to stand alone,” “All I know is that this is necessary for me,” “I have another duty equally sacred … My duty to myself,” “I have to think things out for myself,” “I believe that first and foremost I am an individual,” I don’t really know what religion is,” and “But I can’t help it. I don’t love you anymore.” It’s probably difficult to remove ourselves enough from the twenty-first to the nineteenth century to see what kind of statements these were, back then, but it seems that I am still hearing the echoes of Ibsen every day, at all levels of our society. That is quite something.

“Miserable as I am, I’m quite ready to let things drag on as long as possible. All my patients are the dame. Even those with moral affliction are no different” (p18).

“Ah, Torvald, you are not the man to teach me to be a good wife to you” (p81).

GHOSTS“Ghosts”

Sorry, but I found this play to be a lot of talking with no purpose. Boring. I can barely remember what it wasn’t about.

“My dear lady, there are many occasions in life when one must rely on others. That’s the way of the world, and things are best that way. How else would society manage?” (p102).

“All of this demanding to by happy in life, it’s all part of this same wanton idea. What right have people to happiness? No, we have our duty to do, Mrs. Alving” (p113).

HEDDA GABLER“Hedda Gabler”

Alright, back to interesting. Again, can’t agree with half of what Ibsen implies, but at least there is a vibrant plot(s) here. I imagine you could put on quite a show with this play.

“Because we men, you know, we’re not always so firm in our principles as we ought to be” (p237).

“I’d sooner die! / People say such things, but they never do them” (p262).

“One  generally acquiesces in what is inevitable” (p262).

MASTER BUILDER“The Master Builder”

A mildly interesting play with somewhat interesting characters. Funny that “The Master Builder” is considered the culmination of “Hedda Gabler,” when “Gabler” was far superior.

“It’s  fantastic the number of devils there are in the world you never even see, Hilde!” (p323).

“Or if one had a really tough and vigorous conscience.  So that one dared to do what one wanted” (p323).

In a way, reading Ibsen is like seeing ourselves in a cracked, Victorian mirror. If, indeed, these plays were just questions, then my questions are these: Is Nora the heroine? Or Kristine? And does “Hedda Gabler” have a hero at all?

*****

DOLLS HOUSE MOVIEDespite plenty of online photos of productions of these plays, I found only one video I could get my hands on, which is the Anthony Hopkins version of A Doll’s House (1973). And actually, I really enjoyed it. I thought that what Hopkins did for Torvald was a sight to behold, making the viewer sympathetic to him. And Claire Bloom actually welds Nora’s flightiness and her final conclusions together. It’s really wonderful acting. My only disappointment was the age of Doctor Rank. The guy played it well, but he was much too old to create much sexual tension between him and Nora (although they managed it fairly well, anyhow). If you are interested in plays or Ibsen, I would recommend this one. (It doesn’t view like a modern movie, as much).

*I did not feel like continuing with Ibsen into other works, at this time, but there are more of his plays in my (very) long term reading plan. Look for them much, much, much later.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Doll’s House

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