Ibsen and feminism

Some notes and quotes from: Finney, Gail (1994), “Ibsen and feminism” in James McFarlane ed. (1994), The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Cambridge: CUP, pp. 89–105.

[…] in a frequently quoted speech made to the working men of Trondheim in 1885, Ibsen stated: ‘The transformation of social conditions which is now being undertaken in the rest of Europe is very largely concerned with the future status of the workers and of women. That is what I am hoping and waiting for, that is what I shall work for, all I can’.

At the other end of the spectrum, those arguing that Ibsen’s concerns were not narrowly feminist or political but broadly human invariably cite the speech he made at a banquet given in his honour by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League on 26 May 1898:

“I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League. Whatever I have written has been without any conscious thought of making propaganda. I have been more poet and less social philosopher than people generally seem inclined to believe. I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement. I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is. To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general.”

At an amateur performance of A Doll’s House in 1886 in Bloomsbury all the participants were associated with both the feminist and the British socialist movement (Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, May Morris, George Bernard Shaw).

Looking at Ibsen’s advocates in terms of political groups, one may safely claim that his strongest supporters were found in socialist circles.

Socialism and feminism were “familiar bedfellows” in the nineteenth century: sexual equality necessitated structural social reform.

In notes made for A Doll’s House in 1878, he writes that, “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view”

In 1884 Ibsen made clear his support for reform of married women’s property rights, arguing that women, not men, should be consulted: “to consult men in such a matter is like asking wolves if they desire better protection for the sheep”.

Ibsen’s contemporaries read A Doll’s House in feminist terms (true both of supporters and critics):

Whether or not one chooses to regard hiswork itself as feminist, there is no denying that much of it – above all A Doll’s House – was enthusiastically welcomed by feminist thinkers in Norway and throughout Europe. In closing the door on her husband and children, Nora opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women’s movement.

August Strindberg attacked Ibsen as “the promoter of the equality mania”.

Finney examines Ibsen and feminism in light of four sub-topics:

  • The double standard
  • Marriage
  • The emancipated woman
  • Motherhood

Double standard is exposed by the unsympathetic nature of characters who propound differences between men and women:

[Torvald], whose most avid concern is for keeping up appearances regardless of the psychological cost, is given to statements about feminine helplessness and childishness versus manly strength and resourcefulness.

Useful quote in terms of reception:

Ibsen was widely credited with virtually inventing the emancipated woman in the last Act of A Doll’s House.

The New Woman was a “literary type” of the 1890s. Ibsen’s “emancipated women characters” were important in the development of this type, but “cannot be wholly identified with it. [Puts self-fulfilment and independence above self-sacrifice; believes in legal and sexual equality; often single; more open about sexuality; well-educated; in paid employment; physically active.] Note, however, that the literary type of the femme fatale may also be at play: sensual, passionate.

Motherhood:

in Ibsen’s notes to A Doll’s House he conjectures that a mother in modern society is like ‘certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the propagation of the race’

Argument against the suddenness of Nora’s emancipation:

Careful examination of the first two Acts of the play reveals that the role of Helmer’s little skylark and squirrel is one in which he casts her and which she self-consciously plays

Tarantella:

This scene is illuminated by Catherine Clément’s discussion of the tarantella’s origins in southern Italy, where it serves as a form of hysterical catharsis, permitting women to escape temporarily from marriage and motherhood into a free, lawless world of music and uninhibited movement.

Conclusion:

Supporting the belief that a woman’s mind and body are hers to control as she wishes, Ibsen’s ceuvre allies him with feminist thinkers not only of his era but of our own day as well.