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Nora, Torvald & Ibsen's Audience through the Ages

Who is to blame for an unhappy marriage? Some might blame one or the other of the married people. Perhaps both. Others could blame the law that bound them together. Or outdated marital traditions. Or gender inequality. All of these answers have been given in reference to the marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Every interpretation is shaped by who is looking at the marriage and what preconceptions they bring to the table.

In 1876, Laura Kieler learned that her husband was suffering from tuberculosis. To save his life, she secretly took out a loan to pay for a rejuvenating trip to Italy, but found herself unable to pay her creditors when she returned. Desperate, Laura forged a check to help with her payments. The bank quickly discovered the counterfeit, and Victor Kieler demanded a separation from his wife, arguing that she was an unfit mother. In shock, Laura suffered a mental breakdown that led to her institutionalization. It was another two years before Victor let his wife see their children again.

While anyone familiar with A Doll’s House can see the similarities between the Kielers’ marriage and the play, the differences in the stories are almost as striking. Many of the shifts Ibsen made between the true story and his play stem from his own understandings of gender and the law. “There are two kinds of spiritual laws and two kinds of consciences — one for men and one for women,” wrote Ibsen. “They do not understand each other, but in the practical matters of life women are judged by men’s law.”

Once A Doll’s House premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, thousands of viewers were given the opportunity to reinterpret the marriage for themselves. Like most of Ibsen’s work, A Doll’s House provoked conflicting interpretations. The New York Times found Nora to be a “peculiar, eccentric woman” and believed that nobody could “understand her or sympathize with her,” judging her to be the root of the Helmers’ unhappiness. The Danish Social-Democrat newspaper concluded in its review of the play, “the husband treats his wife as a child he amuses himself with, and so that is what she becomes,” shifting the blame towards the other half of the marriage. A review from Fædralandet, another Danish paper, felt it portrayed “marriage as an arrangement which, instead of educating the individuals…corrupts them,” placing blame on the institution itself. This diversity of opinion suggests that what an audience takes away from the marriage of A Doll’s House reflects more on their own values than on the original intention of the playwright.

This was particularly true for the British female activists who were instrumental to the rise of Ibsenism on the London stage. For them, the problematic marriage was not something to blame, but rather something to celebrate as a marker of progress on the issue of female independence and agency. Their interpretation was deeply influenced by the political climate of the 1890s. Two years prior to the first English language performance of the play, Parliament passed a revised version of the Married Women’s Property Act, which required the law to treat women as distinct entities from their husbands and made them solely responsible for the debt they accrued. Born from the social issues of the late 1800s, this feminist lens shaped both public and scholarly interpretations of A Doll’s House for over a century.

Nearly 140 years later, has the lens through which we interpret this problematic marriage shifted? Much has changed for married women since the play’s debut, from education, to professional opportunities, and expectations around marital roles. In the US, the definition of marriage itself has changed to include couples of all genders. And yet, the gendered barriers that Nora faces have not entirely disappeared. While Ibsen’s home country elected its first female prime minister in 1981, the United States has yet to elect its first female president. Indeed, the past election season exposed a national attitude towards gender that suggests a feminist lens may not yet be outdated. As Bryony Lavery, who adapted A Doll’s House, put it: “We’ve still a very very long way to go in equality of opportunity, power, and respect before this play is going to be a museum exhibit.”

– SARAH SCHNEBLY


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