Book Review: Readings On A Doll’s House

Readings On A Doll’s House, edited by Hayley R. Mitchell

I have read several books in this series [1], and in this book in particular I see the readings of the work in question as somewhat problematic.  The earliest audiences of A Doll’s House were prone to see Helmer Torvald, the husband of the protagonist Nora, as a saint and Nora as a sinner.  Contemporary audiences are likely to see Nora as a saint and Helmer as a brute and a bully. Neither of these readings are accurate, I think.  I think both of these characters are deeply wronged and deeply wrong, and I think that is part of the reason why Ibsen made them so.  In general, Ibsen’s plays tend to make both his men and his women pretty reprehensible beings, for different reasons and in different ways.  Ibsen commented that he had a bit of that troll nature and it showed in his literature.  It is in our reading of this play that we (as is so often the case) reveal who we are more than we understand what it is that Ibsen was trying to get at.  We either glorify Torvald’s focus on reputation and his lack of interest in knowing his wife deeply or Nora’s selfishness and casual wickedness.  Neither of these characters are in fact perfect or even noble, and both have tragic flaws that lead to the disruption of their marriage at the play’s end.  Both are simultaneously sinned against and sinners.

This book contains about 150 pages of different readings of Ibsen’s play and various aspects of his writing in general.  There are five treatises that evaluate the play, many of them tediously (and wrongly) viewing Nora as a model to follow in breaking up one’s families for selfish quests for personal fulfillment.  Three papers look at Nora as a multi-dimensional figure and as part of an unsuccessful couple.  Four discussions follow about women in Ibsen, from appreciation from feminists about the playwright’s awareness of the place of women as well as questions of truth and freedom.  Finally, four discussions end the book in discussions about the major themes of the play, from money and survival to heroism to radical moralism and rebellion against the status quo.  The treatises themselves are written by some obscure people but some as famous as George Bernard Shaw.  The book as a whole ends with a chronology of the life of Henrik Ibsen as well as a suggestion of books for further reading and a discussion of his works.

Does this book work?  A work like this is only as sound as its readings, and many of these readings are definitely mistaken.  For one, many of them assume that the author had some kind of larger agenda in writing the book that was feminist in nature.  Ibsen certainly often struggled with the question of the obligations of the self to oneself as well as to larger society, whether that is viewed as marital couples or the political society as a whole.  Over and over again he returns to these themes, and one feels him caught between a desire that women should serve as a fit moral example for children and raise them up in a proper fashion and his own selfish desire to seek his own enlightenment and his own enjoyment apart from the restrictions placed upon him by society.  Ibsen’s heroines, in particular, share this ambivalent position of being seen as moral exemplars but also as people who resented the restrictions placed on their freedom of action.  Helmer does not have to be a saint for Nora to be a sinner–she chooses to be deceptive and sneaky and dishonest and she cannot blame her father and husband for her lack of moral character.  If she had chosen to be honest, she could have held the moral high ground that many contemporary feminists (who share Nora’s disinclination to accept their responsibilities in marriage and society) claim for her, but she was not honest, and to see her as a noble heroine makes her a bad example to follow and a corrupting and immoral influence on others.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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