West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002





Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Your Response and Mine
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Four Short Stories (Considerations)
  Genesis of the Short Story
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Bartleby - A Guided Reading
  Bartleby - Questions for Analysis
  A Few Notes on Herman Melville
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Five Writers Define the Short Story
  A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
  Ars Poetica
  Poets Define the Art of Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  Supplemental Poems
  The Craft of Poetry - Imagery
  The Craft of Poetry - Sound
  The Forms of Poetry
  Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Parodox in Poetry
  Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Aristotle's Tragic Hero
  Stepping Through Oedipus the King
  The Relevance of Oedipus Today
  Oedipus the King -- Study Questions
  Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House
  A Study Guide for the Drama Exam
  Study Guide for the Final Exam

General Announcements


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  A Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join the Conversation
  LIT 165 Discussion List


~~ Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House ~~

Helmer: Before all else you are a wife and a mother.

Nora: That I no longer believe. I think that above all else I am a human being, just as much as you are...

Henrik Ibsen's Theater

"Verisimilitude," the appearance, probability, or likelihood of truth, sums up Ibsen's aesthetic. A Doll House is realism, a mode we are very familiar with today. In his plots, characters, and settings, Ibsen strove for a kind of realism that would give credibility to the incisive social criticism at the heart of many of his plays..

  • Ibsen's plots recreate a believable sequence of events that might actually be experienced by the contemporary audience (later 19th century, European society).
  • Ibsen's characters are not larger than life, but representative of it. A typical theatergoing couple--middle-class, respectable citizens, well-off enough to enjoy the theater--might easily identify with the characters in A DollHouse, maybe uncomfortably so. Realism is Ibsen's motivating aesthetic, and he's been praised for his insightful portrayal of women (as they "really are").
  • Ibsen's sets are realistic, recognizable spaces that the audiences could easily find their place in.

Ibsen's contribution to the theater of his day was to create plays which effectively dramatized contemporary social issues with the intention of awakening his audience to them. His plays challenged social conventions and popular notions or attitudes--in A Doll House it is love and marriage which are dramatically scrutinized. What Ibsen sees isn't necessarily what his audience sees, or what they want to see. But the play relentlessly reveals the great lie beneath conventional roles that men and women "play" in their marriages. Ibsen did not believe the theater should be a place of refuge or escape from real life, but rather a way of confronting absolutely real social, economic, and psychological issues at a deeper level than everyday life afforded. Like several other of Ibsen's plays, A DollHouse is sometimes referred to as a "problem play," so named because the shocking social criticism it so strongly conveys doesn't easily resolve, or its resolution may seem somewhat radical, even revolutionary--especially to its contemporary audience. Audiences today may still find Nora's flight at the end of the play somewhat shocking.

Emma Goldman, author of The Social Significance of Modern Drama, describes Henrik Ibsen in this colorful way:

Uncompromising demolisher of all false idols and dynamiter of all social shams and hypocrisy, Ibsen consistently strove to uproot every stone of our social structure. Above all did he thunder his fiery indictment against the four cardinal sins of modern society: the Lie inherent in our social arrangements; Sacrifice and Duty, the twin curses that fetter the spirit of man; the narrow-mindedness and pettiness of Provincialism, that stifles all growth; and the Lack of Joy and Purpose in Work which turns life into a vale of misery and tears. <Sunsitel>

Ibsen, like many great, lasting writers, was an innovator. A Doll House was strikingly unique in its day on several levels. First, he wrote the play in a colloquial Norwegian instead of Danish to once again enhance the play's realism, which made him an instant Norwegian hero, popular nationally. More literary innovations included his variation on the "well-made play," in which the first act provided exposition, the second act a situation that complicated matters, and a third act which produced an "unraveling." This was the standard form audiences had come to expect. Ibsen, however, makes Act III, not an "unraveling," but a "discussion." Until Act III, the play may seem very unproblematic, leading to a clear, unambiguous moral lesson. But when Nora sits Torvald down to "discuss all this that is happening between us" the innovation might have seemed pretty jarring. What? Sit down Another subverted convention was the traditional role of the older male moral figure. That's a stock character, or a "type" that theatergoers would have been familiar with in Ibsen's day, like we are familiar with the certain kinds of characters today. Think of how filled with stock characters a typical Hollywood children's movie is. Rank serves this role, or so it seems. Until we find out, like his name suggests, that there is something a little stinky about him. He is far from being a moral force in the play. On the contrary, he's been hungering after Nora, flirting with her for some time—every chance he gets—until finally he reveals his love/lust. He doesn't apparently give much thought to the meaning of his deception in light of his friendship with Torvald. He's halfway to despicable, saved by the fact that he is gravely ill, otherwise noble and virtuous—a good friend—and Nora teases him mercilessly, seemingly aware of his affections.








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