Henrik Ibsen's Redefinition of Women

Born in 1828, Henrik Johan Ibsen was a well-known, influential Norwegian playwright and theater director. He came from a prominent family, with numerous members of the aristocracy of officials in Skien, Norway. He mainly lived in Italy and Germany in his most productive years. He wrote his plays in Danish. He has 25 plays and his major works are An Enemy of the People, Brand, Emperor and Galilean, Peer Gynt, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, When We Dead Awaken, The Wild Duck, and The Master Builder. After Ibsen’s plays began to be translated and performed, several plays of him were considered scandalous and revealing since they are not modeling the social norms and morals of family life of the 19th century.

Portrait of Henrik Ibsen by Henrik Olrik (1879).

Ibsen considered women's rights as human rights without dividing the sexes. He regarded the fundamental solution to the problems of the 19th century to be the education and acculturation of women. His ideas on the “woman question,” meaning the debate over the nature of women and their rights, is shared by intellectuals and scholars. In his speech at the Banquet of the Norwegian League for Women’s Rights, he depicted himself as a poet rather than a social philosopher making propaganda for women's rights. He claimed that the woman question is a "problem of mankind in general... My task has been the description of humanity" (Christiania, 1898, pp. 337-38).


Ibsen was a radical social thinker, grounding his critiques in the behavior and language of the middle class with its anxieties about status, money, and sex. His plays dealt with marriage problems, the dilemma of freedom, social conflicts, motherhood and divorce, career and family, the hypocrisy of the church, and universal rights. The term ‘Ibsenism’ emerged in the 1880s and 1890s, meaning cultural and political formation including socialists, Marxists, and feminists. They hailed Ibsen as their spokesman for several causes.

From the article titled "Ibsen and His Discontents"

Ibsen perceived a fundamental division between sexes that women and men do not belong to the same century. He claimed that "there are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and one, quite different, for women. They don't understand each other; but in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren't a woman but a man" (Ledwon, 2015, p. 101). Creating powerful female characters in his plays such as Nora Helmer, Mrs. Alving, Hedda Gabler, and Hilda Wangel, Ibsen was acclaimed as the creator of sharply perceived female roles in dramatic literature. In his women-centered plays, he portrayed women breaking gender roles and rebelling against the men-dominated society. He repositioned the status of women, no more of the common representation of women as silent objects in plays.


Throughout history, the role of women was bound to being a mother and a wife. Mothers were fulfilling their primary role in raising children; however, Ibsen revealed how women were defined solely by their reproductive function. His major women characters in his plays carried non-maternal status.

From the American film A Doll's House (1922) with Alla Nazimova and child actors Barbara Maier and Philippe De Lacy.

In A Doll's House (1879), the protagonist Nora Helmer is an emotional woman who realizes that she has never had control of her life; she has never found her true voice. Her life is built by social norms around her. So, she comes to the conclusion that she has to leave her family to finally find her identity. In the play, Helmer's controlling treatment of his wife Nora is the central conflict. Yet, their children are also being dehumanized as they are never given a voice. Nora, as a self-sacrificing mother who loves her children deeply, realizes that her children are voiceless because of her lack of identity. Thus, her abandonment of her children and husband is also a way of protecting her children by seeking her own identity.


Also in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler (1891), protagonist Hedda's motherless, father-dominated upbringing mirrors in her taste for pistols, horses, and even decorations. Her inevitable path to marriage and pregnancy results in hysteria. While other characters enjoy the news of her pregnancy, Hedda says "[Clenching her hands together in desperation.] Oh, it is killing me, — it is killing me, all this!" (Ibsen, 2010, pp. 116). Without even confirming her pregnancy, Hedda kills herself. Hence, she becomes the true victim of the burden of motherhood.

Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall in "Hedda Gabler" National Theatre (Lyttelton), London.

As Plumwood clarifies in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, women are defined with the reference to men. They do not exist as autonomous beings, they are perceived concerning the master, the man. The 19th century, to which Henrik Ibsen belongs, is a conflicting era in terms of gender roles. In his plays, Ibsen revealed how women were drawn into hysteria by the male-dominated society where they cannot find their identity or voice, and be individuals rather than obedient reproductive animals. An influential yet scandalous playwright, Ibsen became the father of modern drama and influenced the new woman question as a whole by redefining and repositioning women in his plays.



Bibliographical References


Gelber, M. W., & Templeton, J. (1989). Ibsen and Feminism. PMLA, 104(3), 360–362. https://doi.org/10.2307/462452


Ibsen, H. (1898). Speech at the Banquet of the Norwegian League for Women's Rights, Christiania. Retrieved from http://www.tallmania.com/DollsHouse/IbsensSpeechToFeminists.pdf


Ibsen, H. (2010). Hedda Gabler (E. Gosse & W. Archer, Trans.) [E-book]. Penn State Electronic Classics Series Publication. https://www.slps.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=22453&dataid=14688&FileName=hedda-gabler.pdf


Ibsen, H. (2001). A Doll’s House [E-book]. The Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm


Kelly, K. E. (2008). Pandemic and Performance: Ibsen and the Outbreak of Modernism. South Central Review, 25(1), 12–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40040017


Ledwon, L. (2015). Law and literature: text and theory (Vol. 1784). Routledge. E-Book. Retrieved from https://books.google.hu/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QiPICQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Law+and+Literature:+Text+and+Theory+lenora&ots=C1Omtd4-Ud&sig=rmakeGyPYPDg8YeNaDAu5y-PmxY&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Law%20and%20Literature%3A%20Text%20and%20Theory%20lenora&f=false


Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Retrieved from .https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/undergraduate/modules/fulllist/first/en122/lecturelist2017-18/plumwood.pdf


Templeton, J. (1989). The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen. PMLA, 104(1), 28–40. https://doi.org/10.2307/462329



Visual Sources


City-journal. (2005). "Ibsen and His Discontents" by Theodore Dalrymple [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.city-journal.org/html/ibsen-and-his-discontents-12881.html


Exhibitors Herald. (1921-1922). The American film A Doll's House (1922) [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Doll%27s_House_(1922)_-_10.jpg


Financial Times. (2016). Hedda Gabler, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London — ‘Precise’ [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/2e0e460c-c122-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354


Olrik, H. (1879). Portrait of Henrik Ibsen [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ibsen_by_Olrik.jpg

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Melis Güven

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