(After an introduction in Norwegian, the article in English follows.)
Hvordan ville det sett ut om Nora var en mann? Jeg tenker på Nora i Ibsens skuespill Et dukkehjem, som har gått sin seiersgang over verden som symbol på det moderne kvinneopprør. Verden har imidlertid endret seg siden urpremieren i 1879 og muligheten for å se stykket fra motsatt kjønnsretning er blant de spørsmål som drøftes i denne artikkelen. Samtidig diskuteres Hedda Gabler, en annen Ibsen-skikkelse. Gir hun et mer relevant bilde av dagens kvinne? Jeg tar utgangspunkt i Ibsens framstilling av de to kvinnene og dessuten dokumentarserien Ibsens dramatiske kvinner vist i NRK nylig. For å kunne nå flere, er artikkelen skrevet på engelsk , men jeg håper vårt norske publikum også vil ha interesse av å lese den.
Renewing Ibsen’s Gender Roles
In this country Nora is more famous than Ibsen himself, the professor of Nanjing University in China, He Chengzhou, said when interviewed by The Norwegian Broadcast Corporation (NRK) recently. Nora is known as the Ibsen character embodying the archetype modern woman disposing of her oppressive chains. She is the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House which was first shown in 1879. Is The Dolls’s House, however, a relevant play on gender roles to-day? Yes, probably in certain non-Western areas of the world. But in our part of the world? My answer is yes, but my full answer might surprise anyway...
The above mentioned interview occurs in a broadcast ducumentary called Ibsen’s Dramatic Women. Besides Nora, the series presents the character Hedda Gabler from the Ibsen play named after her. Unike Nora, Hedda is not a celebrated heroine, rather an anti-heroine. In the following I shall present the two plays and some of the comments given in the documentaries, as well as my own view on the characters and their relevance in contemporary society.
Nora’s altruistic forgery
The plot of A Doll’s House briefly goes as follows: Nora and her husband Torvald, who is a bank director, live with their two children in a house in a small city. However Nora has done something illegal in the past. In order to save the life of her husband when struck by illness, she once raised money by forging her father’s signature. No one knows about this, and the money has been repaid. But a solicitor, who works at the bank, has found out about the forgery. For some reason the director (Torvald) wants to dismiss this solicitor, who then blackmails Nora to influence her husband to withdraw the dismissal. Nora fails, however, to change her husband’s mind, and the solicitor reveals her secret to Torvald in a letter. Nora performs a dance (tarantella) and thus delays Torvald’s opening the letter. But ultimately Torvald reads the letter, and is shocked because of the prospective public scandal. He wants to break the relationship to Nora, but also wants them to stay in the same house and refrain from a formal divorce thus minimizing the scandal. Now Nora is shocked. She had hoped her husband would stand with her in spite of the scandal. However, a moment later another message from the solicitor arrives. Due to fortunate circumstances he has changed his mind, and will not make the secret public anyway. Torvald is relieved, and expects everything to return to normal. For Nora, however, nothing is like before. She realises she has lived a life lead by others, and that she now has to find her own way. With a view to this ambition, Torvald has become an obstacle rather than a benefit. So Nora leaves Torvald — and also the children.
A too celebrated rebel?
To-day Nora is not only a success, she is embraced. Or is she rather abused? When the play was first shown, it was seen as a scandal. To-day, however, the play tours the world on first class. In my opinion there is something suspicious about an allegedly “rebellious” play touring the world on first class.
Admittedly some steps have been taken to modernize the play. Such as replacing the 19th century outfits with today’s. However, this makes me ask even more urgently if the play really is about to-day.
What was particularly hard to accept for the audience in 1879, was Nora leaving her children. This point has also been modernized in certain productions, as this sacrifice now seems quite superfluous. In modern versions Nora leaves and takes the children. In one Arabic production she even does so in spite of the law, unlike her Western sisters who have nothing to fear from to-day’s law on this point. The Norwegian director Terje Mærli, who is interviewed in the broadcast documentary, alertly points out that to-day it is actually men who end up loosing their children when a marriage breaks.
By a production in 2003 the German director Thomas Ostermeier wanted to stir up the end of the play in order to achieve the sense of drama which Nora’s exit originally did. He gave Nora a gun. In the last scene from a vantage position she kills her husband with several shots in a row. Undoubtedly dramatic, but what’s the point? One may suspect this hyper-dramatizing covers up an underlying uncertainty as to whether the play is still relevant. Or could this conspicuous killing be intended to open men’s eyes?
A human’s got to do what a human’s got to do
A Doll’s House could be a dated play on gender justice in our part of the world. However, some commentators, e.g. the respected actress Lise Fjeldstad (having played Nora, of course), when interviewed by NRK refers to Nora as a human being rather than specifically as a woman. The play could be about something more general than women’s liberation.
In this perspective Nora’s discovery of her responsibility towards herself may be important. This point is part of her final argument with Torvald. Nora ranks this responsibility over any other. The content of a contemporary person’s responsibility towards her/himself may, however, be quite different from Nora’s in 1879.
What is countered by Nora in Ibsen’s play, when adhering to the deepest responsibility (the responsibility towards yourself) is social convention. This is where Torvald fails completely. So the play, in my opinion, can also be seen as putting marriage and the accompanying love before social convention.
Social convention can have an open aspect and a covert aspect. Some conventions are outspoken such as refraining from adultery and being a dutiful citizen on election day. Other conventions are, however, not outspoken, nor are they directly promoted or defended by anybody as norms, but still they are adhered to and sanctioned if broken. What we call political correctness would be an example of covert conventions.
The other spouse’s choice
In the productions of A Doll’s house which I have seen, Torvald’s failure seems inevitable. In fact, Nora is the only one who is surprised when he sticks to convention. We, the audience, are not. However, I would love to see a production where also Torvald’s choice occurs as a choice, and not as inevitable and embedded in his person in beforehand.
I believe marriage is basically co-living and includes co-choosing. Marriage is in my opinion underestimated as a an arena where people continuously create, and, from time to time, re-create, themselves and each other. Also when a marriage ends in divorce, the participants are sustained or changed in the accompanying process, for good and for bad.
A woman killer ...
Turning to the play Hedda Gabler, the protagonist Hedda is a complex personality. But she commits evil acts that are clear enough as evil acts.
Hedda is married to a professor named Jørgen Tesmann. Hedda married this man for safety rather than for love, and she is quite unsatisfied. Their friends Ejlert Løvborg and Thea Elvsted, however, have a fertile relation. Thea inspires and helps Ejlert to write a book manuscript, which when finished seems very promising. Hedda is envious. She also have reason to fear that Ejlert may outrace her husband to have a position as a professor, which she and he have banked on him getting. Hedda lures Ejlert to get so drunk he looses the manuscript. Hedda gets hold of the manuscript and burns it. I now burn Ejlert’s and Thea’s child, she says. When Ejlert realizes his manuscript is lost, Hedda gives him a gun suggesting he makes an honorable exit to life. Ejlert takes the gun, leaves, and not much later he is found in a brothel bleeding from a wound caused by Hedda’s gun, and dying. When Tesmann and Thea learn that Ejlert is dead, they start reconstructing the lost manuscript based on Thea’s notes. Hedda then sees that goodness is not wiped out in spite of her effort. She also falls under the control of a man, a judge by profession, who knows about her involvement in Ejlerts death and blackmails her to be his mistress. She is a failure in absolutely every sense. Logically she kills herself.
... is an individual killer?
Unlike Nora, who is seen as a representative of women all over the world, Hedda Gabler is seen as strictly individual by NRK’s broadcast documentary. Only one women could do like her.
But is that really so? Women marrying for safety rather than for love is a well known pattern. Certain gender theorists have suggested that women to-day relate to government as a substitute husband. The government of Norway is a well off, safe, but somewhat predictable and boring “husband”, who exactly fits the description of Jørgen Tesmann.
If there is an archetype or collective Hedda out there, we should look out for her vicious acts. We should be aware of her envious desire to interfere in fruitful relations between men and women. Moreover we should be aware of the possible collective Hedda’s influx on men. Isn’t exactly killing their own masculinity what men for the time being are seduced to do? Firmness, seclusiveness, and even strength are to-day discouraged rather than encouraged. Ejlert Løvborg died bleeding from a wound — in his abdomen.
Nora representing men
Above I have suggested that Nora seen as a human reveals some aspects of her development that may be relevant to-day and just as relevant to men as to women. However, one could challenge the gender aspect of Ibsen’s play even more radically by asking if Nora in the 21st century could be seen as representing men rather than women.
We can elaborate on this suggestion by reverting to the gender aspect of A Doll’s House and look for traits in Nora’s life that may seem relevant for men to-day. In 1879 Nora was caged up in a comfortable house where everything indicated happiness. She was, however, not herself. And by her own words she was not happy, just merry. Can we find similar golden cages locking up men in to-day’s society?
I think we can. Nora’s femininity was i 1879 not honored and used properly (nor was her masculinity). Rather it was used just in part, and confined to private life. To the extent that a women’s efforts were actually appreciated, it may have been for it’s ornamental effect rather than in a serious manner. In our own time — what is the position of say an inventive and hard-working engineer in Norway to-day? I would suggest he is fairly well off, but also sort of cut off, working in a black box, so to speak. And are not the results of his work taken for granted? His achievements is not honoured and not seen as representing his gender and it’s masculine values like clarity and control.
I would also add that masculinity may be honored, even worshipped, if displayed in arenas that are not really important. Sports would be a comprehensive example. Great effort and great results are appreciated when displayed in the Olympics as well as e.g. in the open Norwegian mass race Birkebeiner’n. Masculinity is celebrated as long as it is entertainment! Moving on to a third example, leadership can be seen as a masculine task (however, like most other aspects of masculinity/femininity it can be carried also by the non-typical gender). I will suggest that in Norway leadership appears “allowed” rather than wanted, and any leader shall regularly have to express some humility reminding others and him/herself that he/she may well be the leader, but he/she is not necessarily the boss. To a certain extent this may be valid also to other western countries. One might ask further if our society requires more humility from male than from female leaders.
Last, but not least, Nora’s sacrificing her children does not much resemble women i Norway and in the West in 2011, as already pointed out, whereas risking loss of children to-day is part of men’s condition.
Nora representing fathers
Nora can be seen as abandoning her children because she realizes she cannot be the parent she should be. This is suggested by Lise Fjeldstad in the broadcast documentary on Nora, and may be explained by Nora having lived a life lead by others. Nora is immature, however she is mature enough to take responsibility for her immaturity, and thus leave.
Also the circumstances under which Nora eventually would have to carry out her parenthood, could be a problem. I will suggest some men in the 21st century are facing a similar situation. After a divorce, and possibly a child custody trial, a man may find he cannot be the parent he should be. Also in his case the development or maturity as a caretaker might be a problem, however the social and legal preconditions for exercising his parenthood would most certainly be a problem. Child custody trials deal with power and authority. Unequal distribution is considered best for the child. One of the parents, usually the man, is rendered a position so weak that the other parent can feel safely predominant. Should, and could, a man face his children as a parent he does not believe in himself? Like for Nora in 1879, however, exit provokes social reaction.
I think men could consider revolting against a few things. Rewriting Ibsen’s Doll’s House inverting the gender aspect could be an interesting project! Perhaps the first show of such a version would also turn out a scandal. The form of a scandal, however, may also have changed since 1879. In the nineteenth century breaking family conventionality was condemned as scandalous. In the liberal society of the 21st century breaking social convention is rather ignored. A postmodern scandal is silent rather than loud.
The man Nora does not represent
There is a type of fatherhood, or rather a strategy, which is specific to men. In nature this is known as the extensive male breeding pattern. By some species only a few of the males make it to have offspring. Other species constitute couples and are monogamous. The former constitutes the extensive male breeding pattern and the latter the opposite intensive pattern. Humans are by nature somewhere between the two extremes, however may tend in both directions (See e. g. Livets dans — Dance of Life, 2004, by Bjørn Vassnes, Norwegian science journalist). The two strategic options for men are A) Having many children for whom you leave the upbringing mostly to the mothers (extensive) or B) Having fewer children by whom you contribute more to the upbringing (intensive). The complexity regarding strategies and tendencies among humans increases when you also take into account women’s options.
Obviously our culture’s answer to this has been making the intensive pattern predominant by developing monogamy. Our instincts are, however, mixed. The mix can be found as an ambiguity in an individual man, but can also be found as a distribution of men to predominantly intensive and predominantly extensive types. In spite of espoused monogamy both types are known in our culture.
Returning to A Doll’s House, abandoning your children is not necessarily a loss, but rather what you would prefer anyway, if you are the extensive type. The prevalence of the extensive type of man in our culture adds some complexity to the gender-political situation. The political claim of men regarding children and gender equality in parenthood would be a more straightforward case if there was no gender skewness as regards polygamous behaviour.
(Noralf would in Norwegian be male for Nora.) In any case I think men should take over A Doll’s House as a drama on gender justice. For a new version with the inverted gender perspective to be trustworthy, however, not only the monogamous type of man, but also the extensive type should be included among the characters and integrated into the story. What about making an inverted version with “Noralf” (monogamous) and Noralf’s brother (polygamous) as protagonists?
And what could be done to modernize Hedda Gabler? I would suggest a version in which Hedda does not occur as exceptional, but rather as representing something generally female. This might be a matter of artistic interpretation (staging) rather than rewriting.
Les også: Snørr, tårer og myke hender