Ibsen was a champion of social criticism, particularly concerned about the ‘imprisoned souls.’ Concerns of women have been the concerns of his major works, A Dolls’s House (1879), Pillars of society (1877) Ghosts and Hedda Gabbler. Generally speaking the main criticism in Ibsen’s plays are directed against the vanities of contemporary living and especially of life which was lived in the north of Europe, which put obstacles in the way of free and unencumbered self-realization. The hypocrisies of economy, the dead hand of convention, the compulsion to do the done thing, the fear of what the people will think, the bigotries of the institutionalised religion and all those related factors which, under the guise of duty or royalty or moral obligation, stunt the personality and inhibit a natural development in the individual, and shut him off from genuine living. (J.W. Macfarlane, 1975) In Ibsen’s above mentioned plays or to be precise from Brand (1865) onwards there occurs a deeper pre-occupation about freedom. Ibsen repeatedly insisted that freedom was essentially a matter of individual decision and individual responsibility, something personal which was striven for without ever being fully realizable. Much of the fabric of the contemporary society he saw constituted of out dated attitudes and opinions, something that was now quite inappropriate for the new individual. It caught him up in a mesh of prescriptive duties; it saddled him with an intolerable burden of incumbencies largely obsolescent. It coerced him and bemused him into a belief that suffering and joylessness were necessarily predominant in good life. Above all Ibsen was anxious to revise current thinking about what one owed to oneself. He noted the tendency to suppose that any concern for one’s own self was rather one of the supreme duties.
Voice of women
A Dolls’s House (1879), Pillars of society (1877) and Ghosts (1881) portrays a process of emancipation by ordeal. All the main characters, Nora, Bernick and Mrs. Alving are on the process of a transformation from a primitive form of personal integrity to a more advanced and enlightened one.
The psychological depths of A Doll’s House and the behaviour of the characters in the play are notable facts. The husband uses baby-talk with his wife Nora. She in return, plays the baby. Her words and conduct are deliberately calculated to evoke his disapproval. She knows for instance, since she has lived with him for eight years that he does not like to borrow money. Yet when he calls her his ‘little spendthrift’ and sensibly points out that the pay-cheque from his new job won’t come in for another three months, she says, ‘Pooh! We can always borrow in the meantime’. (Ibsen, 1981) What if borrowed money cannot be returned because the man dies in accident? O well, in that case she would be beyond caring about such trivial things as money borrowed from strangers! Helmer’s comment, ‘Just like a woman’ does not cause Nora to protest. She seems to accept the justice of charge. Ibsen indicates indirectly that Nora is not expressing her true self but only her conventional self, against which she later revolts.
In fact, Nora is not extravagant for herself but only for the children. She saves money which she might have spent on herself to pay back a secret loan she had raised for her husband’s sake. In this she is self-sacrificing, but her attitude to her husband is not straight forward. She pretends to be absolutely subservient to him, even in such a simple matter as the eating macaroons, which he has forbidden.’ I would never dream’, she says, ‘of doing anything you didn’t want me to.’ (Ibsen, 1981) Yet, their friend Dr.Rank, a bachelor, calls on them every day. Dr.Rank could hardly have done so without Nora’s encouragement and Helmer’s connivance. No wonder Mrs.Linde advises her, as she learns more and more about it, ‘to give up all this business with Dr.Rank.’ Ibsen implies that Nora is using Dr.Rank as an emotional substitute for her husband when she tires of his company. She says almost as much to Dr.Rank when he tries, in desperation at the prospect of an early death, to bring their relationship out into the open. She would prefer not to acknowledge it, and even faced with a virtual declaration of Dr.Rank’s love, all she wants is that he should ‘keep coming as you’ve always done.’ In other words she wants him around, because it’s ‘tremendous fun’, and that of course gives Dr.Rank ‘wrong ideas’. But he is not to get any satisfaction out of the relationship.
Nora tries to justify such a relationship by making a distinction between ‘those people you love and those people you’d almost rather be with.’ (Ibsen, 1981) There is obviously something missing in such a love. It means that one cannot be sincere and natural with the loved person. That is definitely Nora’s problem with Helmer. She tells Rank for example, that she dare not say it. He would be shocked. The ‘crime’ Nora commits, in all innocence, for her husband’s sake, has given her ‘something to be proud and happy about’ She thinks she may keep it ‘in reserve’ and use it some day, when her husband loves her less, to increase that love. This is a sign that she knows her husband’s love depends on her pleasing him all the time. It is not self-sustaining. Nora has many weaknesses. She talks childishly about money and power. She is rather thoughtless and inconsiderate – she hears about the death of Mrs.Linde’s husband and often thinks of writing to her but fails to do so for three years. She acts the feelings she ought to experience but doesn’t. In the last scene of the play she finds her real identity as a woman and as a person. She awakens to the realities of her married life which she describes frankly. Nora’s first duty, she realises, is her duty to herself, as an individual to think things out of herself. If this brings her in conflict with society, she must ‘discover who is right, society or me.’ These are typical Ibsenite ideas, the driving force of all his plays. By leaving her husband and children, Nora puts herself in a position to begin a new life, a very difficult one in which she will educate herself and ‘learn to stand alone.’
Hedda on the other hand is quite a contradiction to Nora. Right from the beginning of the play we can find that Hedda is expressive, reactionary and impulsive. She speaks out her opinion which comes from a feeling deep from her psyche that she is a victim. She wanted to obey the society afraid of its mores and etiquettes, and that’s why she married George not out of love but because she has reached the ripe age to marry, a compromise with the rules of the society. She says, ‘I really danced myself tired, my dear sir. I had had my day…’ Since then she has to act to convince others that they were made for each other. Throughout the play we witness umpteen incidents that show Hedda wants to control her life. But she understands that she cannot do that, because she is pregnant, and is aware of the dangers ahead, if she broke her marriage. Her incontinence is what makes her to play with the lives around her. Both Nora and Hedda are empowering, they altered the way of conservative thinking among women. They showed them how to empower themselves and to react against the inequalities of society. In that sense Ibsen’s female characters were feminists, and activists who tried to transform the society.
Bernick’s fear of society is overwhelming, and it is that society which Ibsen analyses in Pillars of society. Its lack of generosity is embodied in Bernick’s recognition of the fact that ‘A youthful indiscretion is never wiped clean in this community of ours’. Though it does not excuse his conduct, it makes us more sympathetic to his predicaments. What he needs throughout the play is victory over himself, as Lona terms it, which is what every man needs in his life. Once he wins that victory, he finds his relationships changing almost instantaneously. ‘From now on,’ he says to his son, ‘you can grow up not as someone destined to inherit my life but as one with his own life to live’. He changes towards women by speaking of them as the ‘pillars of society’. It is true that Lona dismisses this as a ‘pretty feeble piece of wisdom’, but we may grant that it is an advance over Bernick’s earlier outlook. At the end of Act One, when Rorlund asks her what she wants in their society, Lona Hessel claims that she intends to ‘let in some fresh air’. Her success in doing this is one of the main themes of the play. We must remind ourselves of some facts about her which are material to the appreciation of her character. As a young woman she had the impulse to behave unconventionally, more to annoy the excessively respectable people of the town than with any serious thoughtful aims. She matures, and develops a clear notion of truthful living, self-realisation. (Tornqvist, 1995)
Ibsen’s positive values are his strong women. The main antagonists to be faced and fought in his plays are convention, hypocrisy, sexual passion, marriages of expedience, a corrupt press and vested interests; and hardest of all, the past, either of society or of oneself, which may involve guilt and hamper freedom. Ibsen examines all these elements in a philosophical plane, and that’s how the feminist identities are suffixed to it. Ibsen’s craft is so beautiful that he chooses ‘home’ and its domestic aspects to discuss his topic of interest. Ibsen shows these women in the context of their own home. Here home is seen as an ‘institution that tends to inhibit the development of the authentic self.’ So marriage becomes a microcosm of the prevailing male-dominated society at large, in which as the preliminary notes to Doll’s House put it – ‘a woman cannot be herself…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.’ (Tennant, 1948) Thus Ibsen’s female characters’ faith in authority and in male domination most often clashes with their natural instincts and it is very largely this that makes most of his drama. Ibsen thus builds up his case against ‘home’ as the source of bigotry and hypocrisy and the epicentre of all the affection and possessiveness. From there begins the frustrations that is waged outside as war against the sexes.