The Emergence of the New Woman in Ibsen
Dr. T. PADMA
Recent studies of characterization in fiction have increasingly stressed the role of women characters as landmarks of creative achievement. Prof. Walcutt’s study is typical of this trend. He sandwiches Jane Austen’s Emma between Hamlet and Ahab. Ever since Virginia Woolf protested against male bias in much of imaginative writing, numerous insights have been brought to bear upon an appreciation of the New Woman. The shifts in male perspectives, it has been argued, account for the prevalence of some major stereotypes of women, such as the Virtuous Woman, the Sensuous Woman, the Sentimental Woman and the Liberated Woman – the last a creation of the twentieth century. The term “Liberated Woman” is fraught now with nuances of meaning which were not associated with it when used by Ibsen. The liberated woman’s underplaying her intellectual potential for fear of losing prospective suitors, and the quasi-medical pronouncements about a woman’s need to accept a status subordinate to that of a man for her own good, will have to be wiped clean from our minds so that the new woman of Ibsen can be seen by us as he visualised her.
Ibsen’s advocacy of freedom to women was free from any implied repudiation of their special identity as women. Believing as he did that men and women had “different kinds of conscience,” he laid greater emphasis on opportunities rather than on rights. His fight was for a society where the search “to find one’s self and one’s place in society as a contributing human being” is not made the exclusive prerogative of men. In other words, he wanted to emancipate women not from the tyranny of men (who he knew were equally the victims of a foolish social system) but from the clutches of middle-class morality so as to enable them to live the life of “purpose and will.” Our appraisal of Ibsen’s attitude to feminism will not be complete unless we see it in its social context. The Danish translation of John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women triggered off the publication of a series of pamphlets and articles on the subject of feminism and as the pioneering playwright of social realism Ibsen paid due attention to it in the course of his dramas.
Distorted estimates of Ibsen’s position as a feminist have unfortunately been perpetuated. Ibsenites, following in the footsteps of Shaw, have hailed him as a crusader, while hostile contemporary attitudes are summed up in Strindberg’s contemptuous reference to Ibsen as the “Norwegian male bluestocking.” The essence of Ibsenism as has rightly been pointed out is that “there is no formula.” This is particularly true of his advocacy of feminism which in a dispassionate analysis emerges more as a quest than a cult. Women’s problems have their place in the larger context of human problems and Ibsen’s feminism stems from this perspective.
was not given to romantically sentimentalising over
the lot of women. His tough Norse temperament and early exposure to the bitter
realities of life left no room for such foolery. On the other hand, he was
fully aware of the fact that many times, women out of petty-mindedness and
prejudice desisted all progressive ideas. This was
brought home to him when his move to win for women the right to vote in the
Scandinavian Club at
Altered social conditions have now distanced us from what were projected as serious problems confronting the women characters in the dramas of Ibsen. Still, a perusal of Ibsen’s concern with feminism, particularly as it is dramatised in the lives of the three major heroines, Nora (Doll’s House), Helen Alvingi (Ghosts) and Rebecca West (Rosmersholm) can be highly-rewarding for the light it throws on Ibsen’s own unresolved doubts about fighting for an emancipation that can offer only sterile freedom.
friendly concern for Laura Keiter, the counterpart of
Nora in real life, the impression made on his mind by Claura
Codett’s spirited defence
of feminism, and finally his own, attempt to merge the dual aspects of feminism
– its importance as an index of social change and its function of offering an
insight into the personality development of the women seeking feministic
assertion – resulted in Ibsen’s projecting through Nora in Doll’s House a
positive image of the New Woman. Tentative exploration of woman’s feeling
superfluous in an excessively sheltered life was already made by Ibsen in The
League of Youth through the character of
violent uprooting of conventional norms and proprieties so vehemently asked
for by the New Woman led to protests from conservative circles. Demands were
made for a different ending for the play on conventional lines. An unauthorised German production, in fact, sought to present
the return of a penitent Nora. This tinkering with Ibsen’s vision of the hollowness
of conventional marriage and of the affront to the human dignity of women
provoked Ibsen to compose Ghosts, his next play. If in
A Doll’s House Ibsen sought the emergence of the New Woman as a possible
redemption of the degrading modes imposed by conventional life style, his
concern in Ghosts was to expose the deadly corruption inherent in marriages
of convenience. The external breaking away from tradition dramatised in A Doll’s House is replaced by the
analysis of the repercussions of denying freedom to an unhappy wife in Ghosts.
If Nora had to pretend as a doll to please the two important men in her
life, her father and her husband, Mrs. Alving has to
maintain a facade of respectability upholding of which, she was led to believe,
was the best substitute for happiness in the life of a woman of her social
status. It is this “forcing of self-sacrifice on woman under pretence that she
likes it” which infuriated Ibsen most. The manuscript notes of Ibsen’s Ghosts
contain an interesting passage which shows to us the extent and the nature
of Ibsen’s concern for women. “These women of the present day, ill-used as
daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated according to their gifts,
prevented from following their inclinations, deprived of their inheritance,
embittered in temper – it is these who furnish the mothers of the new
generation – what is the result?” This passage clearly indicates that Ibsen
wanted emancipation for women since he was convinced that a liberated woman is
the only hope for the redemption of future generations. Ibsen firmly believed
that in denying freedom to a woman, society will be unwittingly jeopardising its own prospects for a better social order.
Thus Ghosts is a variation on the naturalistic preoccupation with
heredity. Its particular emphasis is on one’s duty to the “unborn.” This is dramatised with the help of delineating the horror of
venereal disease. Mrs. Alving does not play a part
like Nora, nor has she the Philistine temperament of a Hedda
Gabbler to play it safe. Sent back from the man she loves, to the man she
loathes, she does what a woman of her energetic nature is bound to do, namely,
to seek solace in commitment to work. She is liberal-minded enough to make
In Rosmersholm Ibsen turns to explore the destiny of a liberated Nora, an emancipated woman proud of her free spirit. To understand the intriguing character of Rebecca West, the heroine of this drama, one has to turn to the legendary trolls of Ibsen’s earlier play, Peer Gynt. The trolls, short in stature and mischievously playing pranks on man, are also seen as portraits of thorough-going individualism. Their motto, “To thyself be enough”, is duplicated in the career of Rebecca West. Rosmer is a clergyman, a conservative in politics, and he is impressed by Rebecca’s unfeminine attributes of knowledge and competence. Emancipation has engendered in Rebecca super-woman complex as a result of which she is eager to play the role of a Sybil, a galvanising angel in the life of Rosmer. The first hurdle in her elaborate strategy of inspiring Rosmer to prove his worth to the world lay in Beata, the simple-minded barren wife of Rosmer. With diabolical shrewdness Rebecca sets about undermining Beata’s peace of mind. Biding her time well she approaches Beata when she was psychologically most vulnerable and convinces her that Rosmer is truly in love with Rebecca and that she is in fact with child by him. As foreseen by her this impels Beata to kill herself. Under the influence or Rebecca’s radical ideas, Rosmer is won over to the liberal faction in politics. This incurs the displeasure of Dr. Kroll, the brother of Beata. Kroll avenges himself by publishing the lurid past of Rebecca West, viz., that she was the mistress of her father. This discovery of the monstrous, in the make up of the emancipated woman, posed for Rosmer a serious dilemma.
He could neither overcome his passion for reconciled to it in the knowledge of his wife’s suggestion Rebecca plunges into the mill-race and Rosmer too meets with the same fate.
The emancipated woman in Rosmersholm is seen as an extreme feminist who falls short of the saving grace of humanity. In her amoral pursuit of self she acknowledges no debt to society. Her self-image too is distorted because she sacrifices the greater identity for the smaller, the human for the individual, in this case, the feminist.
Ibsen has endowed Nora, Mrs. Alving and Rebecca West with high aspirations for the sublime and extraordinary but he did not portray them as realising their aspirations. The indeterminate future of Nora, the agonising tragedy of Mrs. Alving and the melodramatic suicide of Rebecca evoke a serious problem. The deterrent to these women’s reaching their goals was partly the convention-ridden society. Still Ibsen did not want to absolve these heroines of all moral responsibility in the working out of their disparate destinies. He posited one common flaw in all their images, i.e., defective self-knowledge, and he traced their failure to this shortcoming. A complete personality in Ibsen’s view is one that is “fully integrated around a noble purpose and at the same time urged on by the finest sentiments in its being.” Well meaning human interference and a thwarting social system checked personality growth in the case of Nora and Mrs. Alving. Rebecca’s “incompleteness” was rooted in her misguided dissociation of “free spirit” from fine sentiments. Ibsen could also be hinting that for these women their very endeavour was their reward. The desire of these heroines to transcend the petty, the mediocre and more than this their inability to come to a compromise with their surroundings is vibrant with the poignant rhythm of tragedy. The very fact that they do not lose their dignity even in what can be deemed defeat in materialistic terms speaks high of their stature as protagonists. Nora’s image is particularly significant for its positive value. Her effort is not directed towards mere flouting of established traditions but for their reconstruction on a sounder basis.
We see the obverse side of this in the character of Mrs. Alving. In choosing to be a conformist in a corrupt social order Mrs. Alving loses her dignity as a human being and on top of it is denied fulfilment as wife and mother. Rebecca West symbolises the false sense of emancipation a woman achieves through asserting her feminism at the expense of her humanity. The Ibsenian image of the New Woman is exemplified only in Nora. She demands the right to live fully as a human being. Femininity is to her contingent, humanity essential. Thus, Ibsen disowns the traditional image of woman as hollow and dismisses the extreme feminist image as self-defeating. According to him the authentic New Woman “chooses in freedom and on her own responsibility.”