Henrik Ibsen’s Portrayal of Gender Roles as Depicted in This Play, A Doll’s House

October 23, 2020 by Essay Writer

Materialist Feminism in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

The nature of man is inherently oppressive. In every documented civilization, there exists or has existed a class system which identifies certain individuals as “lesser” than their superiors. In ancient Rome, the patricians ruled over the plebeians, and women were not counted as citizens; in ancient Greece, non-Greeks were used as slaves; and in France and England the oligarchy ranked above the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Whether by race, gender, sexuality, disability, or social status, humans have established a system of oppression in which these inferiors are not allotted the same privileges as the elite class. Oppression can occur in many forms: physical brutality, cultural imperialism, psychological coercion, or materialist control. As long as the hoi polloi are willing to accept these disparities, the persecution continues Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House exposes society’s economic and material barricades as they apply to women, resulting in a separate class of oppression presented in his play. By examining A Doll’s House through the lens of materialist feminism, readers can empathize with Nora’s struggles and gain a better understanding of Ibsen’s motivation for writing this socially transformative piece.

The term “materialist feminism” is a relatively new concept, which emerged from previous critical theories of Marxism and socialist feminism (Hennessy and Ingraham 5). The theorist credited with the divergence between materialist feminism and earlier precedents is Christine Delphy, a prominent figure in feminist criticism who expanded upon the work of French activist Simone de Beauvoir. Since documenting her theories in The Main Enemy: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression in 1977, Delphy’s work has received recognition among feminist theorists and sociologists. Materialist feminism is rooted in Marxism; however, Delphy – along with many other feminist critics – felt that Marxism “had not adequately addressed women’s exploitation and oppression” (Hennessy 7). In The Main Enemy, Delphy identifies the two key differences between Marxist feminism and materialist feminism, stating that “[Marxism] does not take account of the oppression common to all women” and “[Marxism] is centered not on the oppression of women, but on the consequences of this oppression for the proletariat” (1). Thus, for the last four decades, Delphy’s term has been used to describe the materialist oppression specific to women. According to Lois Tyson, author of Critical Theory Today:

[Delphy] focuses her analysis on the family as an economic unit. Just as the lower classes are oppressed by the upper classes in society as a whole, she explains, women are the subordinates within families. As such, women constitute a separate oppressed class, based on their oppression as women, regardless of the socioeconomic class to which they belong. (97-98)

As Tyson explains, Christine Delphy’s materialist feminism acknowledges the oppression unique to women. This form of oppression is achieved primarily in the household, as women are “subordinates” controlled through economic and material means. Historically and in many cultures, men are considered the head of the household, meaning that they are typically the breadwinners and the family spokesmen; they retain complete control within their families from allocating finances, to determining what their family members read, wear, and even eat.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Henrik Ibsen wrote his sociological plays – The Pillars of Society, Ghosts and an Enemy of the People, and A Doll’s House – in which he addressed contemporary issues. According to Michael Meyer, a renowned Ibsen biographer, these plays had a far greater impact than any newspaper, debate, or book written on the subjects he addressed (Henrik Ibsen: The Master Playwright). Since its debut in 1879, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has been among the most controversial plays. The progressive feminist themes caused an uproar among men and women alike. One actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to perform the play as written, forcing Ibsen to revise the ending and exclude Nora’s dramatic exit (Byatt). Although these reactions have faded over the years, readers and audiences still struggle to understand how a woman could leave her husband and children. However, a materialist feminism critique serves to help readers better understand the reasons behind Nora’s ultimate decision to leave her family.

The primary use of oppression in A Doll’s House takes the form of economic injustice; the women of the play are controlled through financial means. Nora appears to be well cared for by her husband, yet still faces economic oppression in her own home. In Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, Christine Delphy claims:

[a]ll contemporary “developed” societies . . . depend on the unpaid labour of women for domestic services and child-rearing. These services are furnished within the framework of a particular relationship to an individual (the husband). They are excluded from the realm of exchange [i.e., these services are not treated like the jobs people do for money outside their own home] and consequently have no value. They are unpaid. Whatever women receive in return is independent of the work which they perform because it is not handed out in exchange for that work (i.e., as a wage to which their work entitles them), but rather as a gift. (60)

According to Delphy, women’s work is not any less important than men’s, yet women are considered “nonworkers.” Any compensation they do receive is unrelated to the work performed. She proceeds to discuss how “dominant classes make the classes in their power do the productive work . . . the pre eminent sex does less work” (61). Women perform the tasks that men do not want to do; therefore, their work is never done. Materialist feminism analyzes these more subtle ways in which men assert power over women. Nora, like most women, contributes her fair share of work, yet her work is deemed less important because it involves child care and home maintenance. These jobs are no less important than jobs outside the home, but because they yield no income, her work is undervalued and underappreciated. Men can confine women to domestic work and claim the money they earn outside the home is theirs to allot as they see fit. Within the first few lines of Ibsen’s play, Nora calls her husband, Torvald, over to see her most recent purchase, to which he responds, “Has my little spendthrift been making the money fly again . . . . Come come; we can’t afford to squander money” (Ibsen 2). This text implies that Torvald maintains control of the finances and monitors Nora’s spending. Shortly after this incident, Nora says, “You might give me money, Torvald. Only just what you think you can spare” (Ibsen 2). Again, Nora is asking for extra money, indicating that she has no control over the family’s finances and proving Delphy’s claim that any money received is merely a “gift.” Without any money of her own, Nora must rely on her husband to care for her. Therefore, requiring women to work within the home without compensation is a common – and often overlooked – form of oppression.

Although Delphy focuses her analysis primarily on the family unit, she also acknowledges that patriarchy is “a system,” and, therefore, extends beyond the confines of the home (Close to Home 3). Ibsen’s play reveals how financial oppression exists on a larger scale. In the play, Nora mentions Torvald’s recent illness, presumably brought on by the stress of his job and the birth of their youngest child. The doctor suggested that Torvald take a trip to get away for a while, but Torvald refused. Nora, having no financial freedom, had to go about other ways of trying to convince her husband. She tells Christine Linde:

I told him how I longed to have a trip abroad, like other young wives; I wept and prayed; I said he ought to think of my condition, and not to thwart me; and then I hinted that he could borrow the money . . . He said I was frivolous, and that it was his duty as a husband not to yield to my whims and fancies . . . . (Ibsen 8)

In this situation, Torvald again asserts his control over the finances by refusing to pay for the trip; however, it is also apparent that Nora lacks the financial freedom to obtain the money elsewhere. Nora cannot take out a loan in her own name, but must forge her father’s signature for a loan. Her father, already quite ill, conveniently passed away soon afterward so that her secret could remain hidden. Furthermore, Nora has no means to repay her own loan because she does not earn her own income due to her oppression within the home. Instead, each time that Torvald gives her a stipend for household necessities, Nora stores away half of the money to pay towards the loan. So while Delphy claims patriarchy begins at home, the “system” she refers to expands to create a thoroughly oppressive society.

While Nora is the primary focus of economic oppression in A Doll’s House, the patriarchal system Delphy describes is also evident in an examination of Christine Linde, Nora’s childhood friend that comes to visit her in Act 1. Christine reveals that she once loved Krogstad, the banker in charge of Nora’s loan. However, in order to provide for her own family, she elected to marry Mr. Linde, a considerably wealthy man. This decision allowed her to care for her mother and her younger brothers until they were old enough to provide for themselves. She tells Nora, “My mother was still alive, you see, bedridden and helpless; and then I had my two younger brothers to think of. I didn’t think it would be right for me to refuse him” (Ibsen 6). She puts her family’s needs ahead of her own and marries a man she does not really love. Late in the play, when Krogstad asks why she did not wait for him, Christine replies, “You ought not forget that I had a helpless mother and two little brothers. We could not wait for you, Nils, as your prospects then stood” (Ibsen 33). When her husband dies, Christine is left childless and penniless. As a woman, Christine was not permitted to take over her husband’s business. With no one to take over, Mr. Linde’s business soon went bankrupt, forcing Christine to find work in order to survive. Due to social paradigms, however, Christine is unable to find steady work. Instead, she must perform odd jobs in areas considered “women’s work,” such as sewing and needlework. Christine’s initial marriage for the purpose of supporting her family is an example of patriarchy. Because of the way the system is set up, her best option was to marry a wealthy man. Furthermore, her inability to provide for herself financially after her husband’s death serves as further evidence of the extensive oppression women – especially single women – faced during this time period. A single woman could scarcely find any work, let alone take out loans or secure gainful employment. Christine is only able to acquire a job because Nora’s husband comes into a large promotion and Nora pleads with him on Christine’s behalf.

Materialist Feminism, like Marxism, is often centered on the financial aspects of a society in relation to literature; however, one of the benefits of using a materialist critique instead of a Marxist criticism is that the application of a materialist criticism can extend beyond finances to explore the many facets of oppression. One of the first instances of materialist oppression occurs in the first scene of A Doll’s House and utilizes a French biscuit called a macaroon (sometimes spelled “macaron”). According to Delphy in Close to Home, “food prohibitions – even when internalized – remain as constraints, especially since they are linked to a necessarily transitory status” (49). This explains how Torvald uses the macaroons as another form of materialist oppression. Torvald comes home and notices the sweet smell on Nora’s breath. He asks her, “Hasn’t the little sweet-tooth been playing pranks today . . . Hasn’t she even nibbled a macaroon or two?” (Ibsen 3). Rather than tell Torvald the truth, Nora conceals the fact that she has been eating macaroons and responds with, “I shouldn’t think of doing what you disapprove of” (Ibsen 3). In this statement, Nora reveals the true nature of their relationship early on in the play. She is so bound and subjugated in her marriage that she cannot even decide for herself what to eat, and she feels the need to lie to her husband when she breaks his rules. Nora is treated like another one of Torvald’s children, to the extent that he dictates every aspect of her life. Beyond this, he uses other characters to control her when he is not around. For example, when Nora offers a macaroon to Dr. Rank, a close family friend, he responds with “What! Macaroons! I thought they were contraband here” (Ibsen 11). Nora then lies, claiming Christine brought the macaroons, still unwilling to admit her disobedience to her husband even when he is not present.

Perhaps a more obvious display of Torvald’s control over Nora is the lock on the letterbox which prevents Nora from retrieving the mail without Torvald’s permission. According to Delphy, “it is about as accurate to say that the wives of bourgeois men are themselves bourgeois as to say that the slave of a plantation owner is himself a plantation owner (The Main Enemy 36). Therefore, women are merely production workers, not co-owners or partners within the production force. Nothing within the household belongs to the wife because they are considered as employees paid in upkeep. Collecting the mail seems like a fairly innocent chore, yet Torvald asserts his power by using a lock and key to prohibit Nora from accessing what does not belong to her. Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, is the executor of Nora’s fraudulent loan. When Nora convinces Torvald to hire Christine, she unknowingly puts Krogstad’s position in jeopardy, forcing him to extreme measures. He discovers Nora’s crime while reviewing her loan, which was supposedly signed by her father. However, the loan is dated several days after the death of her father, as Nora did not yet know of her father’s death when she forged his name. Krogstad reveals this fact to Nora, saying:

I had left the date blank; that is to say, your father should himself have dated his signature . . . . Your father died on the 29th of September. But look here: he has dated his signature October 2nd! Is not that remarkable, Mrs. Helmer? Can you explain it? It is noteworthy, too, that the words “October 2nd” and the year are not in your father’s handwriting, but in one which I believe I know. Well, this may be explained; your father may have forgotten to date his signature, and somebody may have added the date at random, before the fact of your father’s death was known. There is nothing wrong in that. Everything depends on the signature. Of course it is genuine, Mrs. Helmer? It was really your father himself who wrote his name here? (Ibsen 15)

Krogstad uses this leverage to blackmail Nora into reinstating his position. When his plan is unsuccessful, Krogstad writes a letter to Torvald and places it in the family mailbox. After Krogstad places his letter in the box, Nora and Christine plot how they might retrieve it. Christine asks, “And your husband has the key,” to which Nora responds “Always” (Ibsen 30). Nora tries to keep Torvald occupied so that Christine can pick the lock, but the women are ultimately unsuccessful in preventing Torvald from reading the letter. Therefore, the lock and key serve as an important form of oppression, which prevented Nora from intercepting the letter and ultimately lead to her downfall.

Upon receiving the letter, Torvald immediately enacts another form of materialist oppression on his wife, this time by using his own children as objects. According to Delphy in The Main Enemy, the Latin word “familia” includes land, slaves, women and children, all of which are “owned by the father (27). This is demonstrated in Torvald’s initial reaction to Krogstad’s letter, when Torvald says:

The thing is so incredible, I can’t grasp it. But we must come to an understanding. Take that shawl off. Take it off, I say! I must try to pacify him in one way or another – the matter must be hushed up, cost what it may. As for you and me, we must make no outward change in our way of life – no outward change, you understand. Of course, you will continue to live here. But the children cannot be left in your care. I dare not trust them to you . . . . Henceforward there can be no question of happiness, but merely of saving the ruins, the shreds, the show . . . . (Ibsen 40)

Torvald tells Nora that the children cannot be left in her care, which would suggest that he sees the children as his possessions to do with as he sees fit. He also maintains his own control over Nora’s life, insisting they will they will continue to live together and pretend nothing has happened, though their marriage is effectively over. Ordinarily, a split between parents would result in split custody, but because Torvald “owns” everyone and everything within his house, he alone has the power to determine what is best for his children. He refuses to allow Nora future contact with them, for fear that she is unfit to raise them, though she has done nothing to diminish her capabilities as a mother. Nora is also guilty of treating her children like dolls. She plays with them whenever she desires and sends them with a nurse when she is finished with them. Near the end of Act II, the children specifically ask for their mother, but she refuses them because it is not a convenient time for her. Nora’s treatment of her children resembles that of a young girl playing with dolls and abandoning them when she is finished. In his article, “Nora as a Doll,” Michael Wiseman of Inquiries Journal points out that Nora’s treatment of her children is reflective of her own treatment. He states, “Nora, having grown up as a manipulated tool of others, is under the impression that manipulation of others is a societal norm” (Wiseman). She continues the tradition in Act I when she gives her young daughter her own doll to play with. However, after recognizing her own mistreatment, Nora acknowledges her own wrongdoing in treating her children like dolls, saying, “And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them” (Ibsen 42).

Finally, Nora herself is materialized as an object of control. Torvald continually refers to Nora by pet-names such as “skylark” and “squirrel.” In doing so, not only is Torvald asserting his power over his wife, but he is also dehumanizing her. Even the title of the play materializes Nora, making her the “doll” with which Torvald plays. According to Michael Wiseman, “Nora Helmer spends most of her on-stage time as a doll: a vapid, passive character with little personality of her own. Her whole life is a construct of societal norms and the expectations of others” (Wiseman). He dresses her up in fine clothes and dictates every aspect of her life. He plays with her when he desires to be in her company, but he leaves her to her own devices when he is finished. Nora admits that she and Torvald have never had a serious conversation in their marriage. This further exhibits how Nora is treated more like a child or a plaything than a wife and partner. In her grand monologue, Nora describes her own role as an object in Torvald’s games:

While I was at home with father, he used to tell me all his opinions, and I held the same opinions. If I had others I said nothing about them, because he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his doll-child, and played with me as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house . . . I mean I passed from father’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your taste, and I got the same tastes as you, or I pretended to . . . . When I look back on it now, I seem to have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and father have done me a great wrong. It is your fault that my life has come to nothing . . . . And you have always been so kind to me. But our house has been nothing but a playroom. Here I have been your doll wife, just as at home I used to be papa’s doll child. . . That has been our marriage, Torvald. (Ibsen 42)

In this grand monologue, Nora reveals the extent of her life’s oppression. In her childhood home, she was controlled by her father; throughout her marriage, she has been controlled by Torvald. Nora compares herself to a doll and claims she has been living like a “beggar,” and performing tricks, such as dancing the tarantella for Torvald at their party. Nothing belongs to Nora, and her work is of little importance to Torvald. Instead, she is treated as a child, having no influence in her own life. In this way, even Nora herself can be considered an object of materialist oppression.

Not all scholars support the application of a materialist feminism critique to literature. Nora is often seen as impetuous and irresponsible for leaving her children, which is why the initial controversy over this play was so dramatic. In “The Dollhouse Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen,” Joan Templeton, a renowned Ibsen scholar, notes that critics of a feminist analysis argue that Nora is simply an “irrational and frivolous narcissist; an ‘abnormal’ woman; a ‘hysteric’; a vain, unloving egoist who abandons her family in a paroxysm of selfishness” (29). She covertly disobeys her husband’s wishes and risks his career for a vacation, proving that she is impetuous and irresponsible. She hides her sweets and lies about them, which demonstrates that she is “deceitful” and “manipulative” (30). Torvald’s pet names for Nora serve to represent her inability to comprehend complex issues. Based on these interpretations, Nora’s final exit and her decision to leave both her husband and her children is often deemed rash and foolish. As a result, Nora’s character as a whole is regarded as inconsequential.

All of these challenges towards Nora’s character are true, and in fact, Ibsen did not set out to write a feminist play. Rather, his purpose in writing A Doll’s House was to address even deeper issues – those of the human condition. At a banquet honoring Ibsen in 1898, Ibsen himself stated:

I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement . . . .True enough, it is desirable to solve the women problem, along with all the others, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. (“Speeches and New Letters” 65)

These arguments do not discredit a materialist critique, but rather extend these analyses beyond feminism. Nora’s struggles are not unique to women (though materialist feminism focuses specifically on the oppression of women); they represent the forms of oppression used throughout history on all “lesser” individuals.

An examination of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House through the lens of materialist feminism reveals acute oppression that manifests in many ways. Nora’s primary issue lies in the fact that she has no financial freedom and, therefore, no independence apart from her husband. She works as an unpaid housewife, left with no money of her own and forced to rely on Torvald. This extreme consequence is what makes her ultimate decision so intense; by leaving Torvald, she is walking into a world that does not provide any support for women. She chooses financial uncertainty over her current situation, adding an additional depth to an ending that is sometimes considered impetuous and foolish by critics. Nora is not just acting impulsively and abandoning her children; she is demanding change so that they can have the life that she never could. By applying a materialist analysis to A Doll’s House, it is clear that there are many avenues by which individuals can be oppressed. It takes a person of influence – such as a well-regarded author – to enact change and move closer to the ever-elusive idea of equality.

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