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Historical Context

A Doll's House was published in Norway in 1879. The first stage production was in Stockholm, in 1880. The play caused an immediate sensation, sparked debate and controversy, and brought Ibsen international fame. It was highly provoking: People tended to respond strongly to it, whether in praise or censure. All around the world, Nora's final door-slam made conservatives rage and liberals cheer, gave anti-feminists reason to fear and feminists reason to hope. The play has less shock-value today, but in the late-nineteenth century, performing it was often, as one critic puts it, "a revolutionary action, a daring defiance of the cultural norms of the time."

What were these cultural norms? Without simplifying too much, we could say that they were the ideals and values represented by Torvald Helmer and his doll-wife Nora, before her great change. These were the ideals that defined what is commonly termed "bourgeois respectability": financial success, upward social mobility, freedom from financial debt and moral guilt (or at least the appearance thereof), and a stable, secure family organized along traditional patriarchal lines. The patriarchal ideal was supported and reinforced by a social structure wherein women had little overt political or economic power, wherein they were economically, socially, and psychologically dependent on men and especially on the institutions of marriage and motherhood. The ideal of bourgeois respectability prevailed in the nineteenth century, but it never went unchallenged, and by the time Ibsen wrote his own challenge to it, at the end of the century, a new era of crisis and uncertainty regarding all things conventional had already begun. The position of women was an especially volatile issue because the patriarchal ideology underlay the entire social, political, and economic structure. If women were to have autonomy, then the whole structure of society would have to be reimagined¾the world would have to be remade. It was an apocalyptic idea that thrilled many intellectuals but terrified the ruling and middle classes, so that each move in the direction of autonomy¾ women's suffrage, revised marriage laws, advances in women's education¾ felt like the end of the world. The last decades of the nineteenth century had already begun to feel like the end of the world, anyway. The Western world was about to enter a period of unprecedented change-revolutions social, political, economic, cultural, and scientific. No one knew exactly what was coming, but a great many looked toward it with a mixture of hope and dread. When Nora slams the door of her doll's-house, shutting herself out of the only world she has known and stepping into a future that is unknown and therefore both promising and threatening, the sound resonates with the apocalyptic tremors of Ibsen's time.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Act 1, Part 1
Act 1, Part 2
Act 2, Part 1
Act 2, Part 2
Act 3, Part 1
Act 3, Part 2
Act 3, Part 3



 






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