Ibsen Feminism & Realism

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Born in 1828, Henrik Ibsen was a 19-century Norwegian playwright and theater director. He is often referred to as “the father” of modern theater. Ibsen’s work was considered scandalous during his era. He asked his audience a new set of moral questions, all set within a severely realistic middle-class background. Some of his most famous plays include Peer Gyant, A Doll’s House, and Hedda Gabler. As a child, Henrik Ibsen showed little sign of the theatrical genius that he would later become. He grew up in the small Norwegian coastal town of Skien as the oldest of five children born to Knud and Marichen Ibsen.

His Father was a successful merchant and his mother painted, played piano and loved to go to the theater. Ibsen himself expressed an interest in becoming an artist as well. The family was thrown into poverty when Ibsen was 8 because of problems with his father’s business. Nearly all traces of their previous affluence had to be sold off to cover debts, and the family moved to a rundown farm near town. It was there that Ibsen spent much of his time reading, painting and performing magic tricks. At 15, Ibsen stopped going to school and went to work. He landed a position as an apprentice in an apothecary in Grimstad.

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Ibsen worked there for six years, using his limited free time to write poetry and paint. In 1849, he wrote his first play Catilina, a drama written in verse modeled after one of his great influences, William Shakespeare. Ibsen moved to Christiania (later known as Oslo) in 1850 to prepare for university examinations to study at the University of Christiania. Living in the capital, he made friends with other writers and artistic types. One of these friends, Ole Schulerud, paid for the publication of Ibsen’s first play Catilina, which failed to get much notice.

The following year, Ibsen had a fateful encounter with violinist and theater manager Ole Bull. Bull liked Ibsen and offered him a job as a writer and manager for the Norwegian Theater in Bergen. The position proved to be an intense tutorial in all things theatrical and even included traveling abroad to learn more about his craft. In 1857, Ibsen returned to Christiania to run another theater there. This proved to be a frustrating venture for him, with others claiming that he mismanaged the theater and calling for his ouster. Despite these difficulties, Ibsen found time to write Love’s Comedy, a satirical look at marriage, in 1862.

Unlike many other writers and poets of this time, Ibsen had a long and seemingly happy marriage to Suzannah Daae Thoresen. The couple wed in 1858 and welcomed their only child, son Sigurd, the following year. Ibsen also had a son from an earlier relationship. He had fathered a child with a maid in 1846 while working as an apprentice. Ibsen left Norway in 1862, eventually settling in Italy for some time. There he wrote Brand, a five-act tragedy about a clergyman whose feverish devotion to his faith costs him his family and ultimately his life in 1865. The play made him famous in Scandinavia.

Two years later, Ibsen created one of his masterworks, Peer Gyant, a modern take on Greek epics of the past. This verse play follows the title character on a quest. In 1868, Ibsen moved to Germany. During his time there, he saw his social drama The Pillars of Society first performed in Munich. The play helped launch his career and was soon followed up by one of his most famous works, A Doll’s House. This 1879 play set tongues a-wagging throughout Europe for exploration of Nora’s struggle with the traditional roles of wife and mother and her own need for self-exploration.

Once again, Ibsen had questioned the accepted social practices of the times, surprising his audiences and stirring up debate. Around this time, he returned to Rome. His next work, 1881’s Ghosts stirred up even more controversy by tackling such topics as incest and venereal disease. The outcry was so strong that the play wasn’t performed widely until two years later. His next work, An Enemy of the People, showed one man in conflict with his community. Some critics say it was Ibsen’s response to the backlash he received for Ghosts. A few years later, Ibsen moved back to Germany where he wrote one of his most famous works.

With Hedda Gabler (1890), Ibsen created one of the theater’s most notorious characters. Hedda, a general’s daughter, is a newlywed who has come to loathe her scholarly husband, but yet she destroys a former love that stands in her husband’s way academically. The character has sometimes been called the female Hamlet, after Shakespeare’s famous tragic figure. In 1891, Ibsen returned to Norway as a literary hero. He may have left as a frustrated artist, but he came back as an internationally known playwright. For much of his life, Ibsen had lived an almost reclusive existence.

But he seemed to thrive in the spotlight in his later years, becoming a tourist attraction of sorts in Christiania. He also enjoyed the events held in his honor in 1898 to mark his seventieth birthday. His later works seem to have a more self-reflective quality with mature lead characters looking back and living with the consequences of their earlier life choices. Each drama seems to end on a dark note. The first play written after his return to Norway was The Master Builder. The title character encounters a woman from his past who encourages him to make good on a promise.

In When We Dead Awaken, written in 1899, an old sculptor runs into one of his former models and tries to recapture his lost creative spark. It proved to be his final play. In 1900, Ibsen had a series of strokes that left him unable to write. He managed to live for several more years, but he was not fully present during much of this time. Ibsen died on May 23, 1906. His last words were “To the contrary! ” in Norwegian. Considered a literary titan at the time of his passing, he received a state funeral from the Norwegian government.

While Ibsen may be gone, his work continues to be performed around the world. Peer Gyant, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler are the most widely produced plays today. Ibsen’s works have held up over the years because he tapped into universal themes and explored the human condition in a way unlike any of those before him. Author James Joyce once wrote that Ibsen “has provoked more discussion and criticism that of any other living man. ” To this day, his plays continue to challenge audiences. The 19th century began a period characterized by naturalism and realism.

Playwrights such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, and Strindberg led the way in this new type of theater which reflected a language and style more natural to real life. Excess and melodrama begin to play a lesser role. Actors during this time began to use the “fourth wall”, imagining a wall where the audience sits, keeping the belief entirely in the scene and not speaking to the audience. Playwrights were concerned with social and economic problems of the day and rather than providing an escape, theater engaged in discussion and illumination.

Playwrights gave characters specific stage directions; characters are individuals, not stereotypes, heroes and heroines, and there was much more detail placed upon physical appearance and character. In keeping with the realistic plots and dialogue, Ibsen’s stage sets attempt to capture the atmosphere of the everyday life of his characters. On the Ibsen stage, actors did not embellish their lines with broad flourishes of a hand or other exaggerated body movements. They become ordinary people going about their ordinary daily lives. The proscenium arch was important, however.

This arch from the sides of which a curtain opens and closes, acts in an Ibsen drama as a frame for the realistic portrait painted by Ibsen; a portrait that moves. The proscenium arch became a doorway or window through which the audience—peeping through the arch—could eavesdrop on people in quiet turmoil. The arch helped Ibsen create the illusion of reality. One of Ibsen’s most famous works, Hedda Gabler, is a stage play that focuses in depth on the last day-and-a-half in the life of the title character. Ibsen published the play in Copenhagen, Denmark, on December 16, 1890.

It debuted on the stage on January 31, 1891 at the Konigliches Residenz Theater in Munich, Germany. Stage directions describing the burning lamp indicate that the play is set before the invention of the electric light bulb. Most likely, the action takes place in the 1860’s. The place is the home of George Tesman and his new wife, Hedda Gabler Tesman. Ibsen describes the home as a villa once owned by a government minister, Secretary Falk. The scenes take place over one-and-a-half days in the elegant villa. On one of the walls hangs a portrait of Hedda’s late father, General Gabler.

Ibsen remains objective and neutral throughout the play, never using the dialogue to present his views or to exhibit pity or scorn for Hedda or any other character. Instead, Ibsen simply presents the story as it unfolds. Hedda Tesman, formerly Hedda Gabler (daughter of a wealthy general), returns from her honeymoon with her gentle-hearted husband in tow. She is discontent the moment she arrives. She is unhappy with the maid and outwardly annoyed with Jorgen’s aunt. Although Jorgen makes a comfortable living as a scholar, Hedda’s life is no longer as luxurious as it was in her younger days.

Hedda is bored. Only her late father’s pistols provide amusement. Judge Brack visits the couple. He playfully suggests to Hedda that if she is bored she could amuse herself by having a third person around. (This can be interpreted as friendliness or as an attempt at seduction). Hedda has no romantic interest in the judge. Instead, she occupies her time by prying into the personal life of Mrs. Thea Elvsted. In their childhood days, Hedda was openly cruel to Thea. She once threatened to rip out the girl’s hair. As an adult, Hedda’s ire is barely concealed.

She tries to be cordial in order to learn Mrs. Elvsted’s secret. Thea Elvsted’s marriage to an older man has grown cold. Her children have been tutored by a literary genius and recovering alcoholic, Ejlert Lovborg. She has fallen in love with the brilliant tutor. Moreover, Mrs. Elvsted has inspired him to return to writing. Thanks in part to Thea’s influence; Lovborg has written an impressive history book and a yet-to-be published manifesto on the future of society. It is perhaps his greatest work yet. Hedda is disgruntled by the news of Mrs.

Elvsted’s relationship with Lovborg. Before her marriage to Jorgen, Hedda had a turbulent affair with Lovborg. It ended with Hedda threatening to shoot him. Yet now, Hedda is jealous of Thea and disappointed with her husband’s lack of literary brilliance and social status. When Ejlert Lovborg stops by for a visit, he receives praise from his colleague Tesman. As soon as Lovborg is alone with Hedda he reveals his unending fascination for her. However, she is not willing to openly reciprocate the attraction, mainly due to her fear of public scandal.

Hedda’s icy words prompt Lovborg to start drinking again. He attends a stag party with the Judge and Tesman, where he reads some of his magnificent new book. However, he becomes so drunk that he loses the only copy of the manuscript before passing out. Tesman recovers the manuscript and gives it to Hedda for safe keeping. Partially sober, Lovborg returns to say farewell. He is devastated by the loss of his manuscript and Hedda does not reveal that she has it safe and sound. Instead, she watches as Lovborg breaks ties with Mrs. Elvsted. She leaves, emotionally crushed.

Lovborg plans to commit suicide. Hedda encourages him to do so, and asks that he make it a “beautiful death. ” To help him with this sad endeavor, she gives him one of her father’s pistols. After he leaves, Hedda’s jealousy prevails and she tosses the Lovborg’s book into the fire. Later, Hedda confesses to her husband that she destroyed the book, claiming that it was for the good of his career. (It is important to know that she had considered the book the love child of Lovborg and Mrs. Elvsted – perhaps her main reason for incinerating the manuscript).

The Tesmans soon discover that Lovborg has shot himself. At first, Judge Brack describes the suicide as something Hedda finds poetic. According to rumor, Lovborg shot himself in the heart. Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted decide to memorialize their friend by editing and organizing Lovborg’s notes in an attempt to reconstruct the lost book. The judge asks whether Lovborg meant something special to Hedda. She replies: I only know that Eilert Lovborg has had the courage to live his life after his own fashion. And then– the last great act, with its beauty! Ah!

That he should have the will and the strength to turn away from the banquet of life–so early. But Judge Brack has disturbing news. In reality, Lovborg shot himself by accident. And he did not shoot himself in the breast but straight through his bowels. Hedda is disgusted by the random ugliness of Lovborg’s death. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he died in a brothel. Then, the judge drops the second batch of bad news: he knows that Lovborg died by Hedda’s pistol. If she wants to save herself from public scandal, she will have to succumb to Judge Brack’s sexual advances. While her husband and Mrs.

Elvsted devote themselves to Lovborg’s book and while Judge Brack sits on the couch, satisfied with his lascivious game of blackmail, Hedda Gabler promptly shoots herself in the temple. The last lines are of the play are of shock and astonishment: Judge Brack: Good God! –people don’t do such things! Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, are considered by many to be representations of the issue women faced in the 19th century. During the 1800’s, women began to slowly become more independent. More and more women began to enter the work force and take on more responsibilities.

However, this change was a gradual process. Just because it was becoming more acceptable to work does not mean a woman could merely decide to get a job working alongside a man. It depended on class and social status. As both Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House show, middle class women were still expected to have less prominent roles in the household. While it was okay for some, there were always others that wanted more from life. Although accomplished in different ways, the main female characters from each play decide to take their life choices into their own hands and step outside of the box that society has made for them.

Their choices and the timing of the 19th century feminist movement caused the plays and Ibsen to become associated with being supportive of feminism. The characters could be seen as victims in situations caused by the men around them. But it is also true that if you look past the gender of each of the main characters, both plays are actually stark representations of realism. If the reader looks past the gender labels applied to each character, they will realize that there is more to each character’s story than being a woman that is “stuck” in a situation.

The audience’s interpretation of the women was most likely effected by the prominent issues that were going on, and the stories do reflect the thoughts of some middle class women at the time. Feminism in literature is a form of realism; therefore, Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House are examples of feminism and realism. Ibsen was not trying to create tales with happy endings. This is clearly obvious as neither play ends happily in the traditional sense. In A Doll’s House, Nora is treated like a caged bird. In her husband’s eyes, she exists to be beautiful and there when he needs to be entertained.

He even refers to her as his little songbird. She does not do much around the house with the exception of shopping and playing with the children. She lives in a fantasy world and does not really care about the misfortune of others unless it directly affects her. This is evident when her widowed friend comes to visit her and asks for her help finding a job. Nora cannot stop thinking about her “wonderful” life and proceeds to share these details with her friend. But if you look at Nora’s situation for what it really is, you will realize that she is a person trying to form her own opinions.

On the other hand, Hedda does have her own opinions and is not afraid to share them. Hedda’s actions throughout the play stem from the fact that she feels she is a victim. She is forced to follow the rules of society in order to keep a certain image. She did not marry George because she fell in love with him. She did it because she was reaching thirty. Hedda indicates numerous times that she wants control over her life. Her mentality throughout the play is that if she cannot control the events that occur in her life, others should not have control over their lives.

Similarly to Nora, both characters come to see what is wrong in their lives and decide to change it. What Ibsen has accomplished in both plays is realism at its best. But there is no denying that both plays are also strong examples of feminism. As previously mentioned, realism is merely a depiction of life without looking through rose colored glasses. Feminism, is in fact, real. It is as real as suicide, motherhood, divorce and independence. All of these topics that are covered in both plays, have made the audiences think, are open to individual interpretation, and allows us to form our own opinion.

The meaning behind each play will affect everyone differently. But as Nora Helmer stated in A Doll’s House, “I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are – or at least I’m going to try to be. I know most people agree with you Torvald, and that’s also what it says in books. I have to think things out for myself, and get things clear”.

Works Cited

Meyer, Michael. Ibsen a Biography. Garden City: Doubleday and Company Inc. , 1971. “Realism. ” Dictionary. com. 2008. Random House. 01 April 2007.

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