The Emergence of the New Woman in Ibsen




            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.


            Ibsen 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 Rome was ungraciously rejected not by the men but by the women members. His recorded outburst at the time is worth-noting: “What sort of women, what sort of ladies are these! What sort of females, ignorant, in the deepest sense ill-bred, immoral, on a level with the lowest, the most wretched.”


            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.


            Ibsen’s 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 Selma. In the figure of Nora he brought the problem more into the open by making her speak about the sham of her pretending to be a doll because the doll house convention expected it of her. Nora in this drama is initially portrayed as a gay, guileless wife with implicit trust in her husband and totally dependent on him for her happiness. What gives an extra interest to this conventional portrait of woman is Nora’s realising the harm unwittingly done to her by her father’s overprotective­ness in bringing her up. Marriage has not altered her position and hence her resentment: “Living with Torvald is a little like living with papa.” Her compulsive nibbling of sweets and unself­conscious humming are subtly highlighted by Ibsen to reinforce the effect of Torvald’s addressing her as his pet, his squirrel and his lark. Underlying this conventional rapport, we see in Nora a deep sensibility that is a definite compensation for her lack of commonsense. We see her first as a woman proud of her societal self-image and content in the thought that she has saved her husband’s life. Obtaining money on a forged signature did not worry her in the least since for her it was an act of love. The threats of Krogstad to ruin her reputation do not move her much. She is only worried that her husband may take the blame on himself. This illusory image she had of her husband is shattered by his demanding an explanation for disgraceful behaviour. When Krogstad’s return of the document restores Torvald’s good humour, he expects a similar reaction in Nora. But Nora only feels repelled by Torvald’s hollow feelings, first of unreasonable anger and now of pretentious magnanimity. Nora’s disillusion­ment marks the first dramatic triumph achieved by Ibsen in his candid exposure of the shallowness of middle class morality. Nora’s refusing to remain entombed in a role thrust on her by short-sighted parochial standards and her proposal to go away so as to sort things out for herself, is a tribute to Ibsen’s faith in the sovereignty of the individual self that has an intuitive awareness of the glory of a life of responsibility without which freedom will be an empty victory. Critics who ridicule Nora’s leaving for her father’s house, on the plea that whatever enlightenment she means to have there can as well be had by remaining in Torvald’s household, would do well to remember that her immediate need was for a short reprieve from the stifling doll’s house that denied her all responsibility and so all chances for personality growth. She wanted to live on her own for some­time and what can be a more appropriate background for that than the house of her childhood, the first place in her life of crippling dependence. The father who superintended her life is no more and Nora’s psychological need to others is understandabled. Nora’s deep spiritual dejection and her desire to be in a place where she is not a lark or a squirrel but a spirited human being had to be underscored by Ibsen without risking the possibility of her being misunderstood as a casual adventuress who can callously shelve her responsibilities as wife and mother, and hence his sending Nora to her father’s house. Thus the conclusion is not an artistic flaw but is a significant finale to Nora’s spiritual dilemma. Ibsen made Nora slam the door but he did not close the door on her probable coming hack. Nora’s statement to Torvald, “Both you and I would have to be so changed that our union should be a marriage” does not rule out reconci­liation. The stipulated change is indicative of the new maturity of mind gained by Nora in the school of suffering. Nora the New Woman has to meet a new Torvald. Ibsen is affirming here his conviction that only a humanistic world beyond the narrow male-oriented society can transform a doll’s house into a home.


            The 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 Regina, the house­maid, despite her knowledge about Regina’s parentage, and pragmatic enough to send her son to a boarding-house in Paris so as to keep him away from the corrupting influence of her husband, the profligate Captain Alving. The Alving heritage is endeavoured to be purified by her dedicating the orphanage to the memory of her husband. Overhearing the amatory advances of Oswald to Regina, Mrs. Alving is painfully reminded of the ghosts of the past – her husband and Regina’s mother. Her acknowledge­ment of the latent presence of other unexorcisible ghosts – past dead ideas and past dead beliefs – lends a sombre tone to the dramatic movement and we see in her mounting tenseness a forewarning of the malignant trick fate holds in store for her. This vague hint of impending doom is further heightened on the one hand by Regina and Engstrand’s attempts to outsmart one another in a bid to further their self-interests at any cost and on the other by the hypocritical Mender’s accusing her of failing in her duty both as wife and mother. Mrs. Alving’s disclosure of Captain Alving’s dishonourable past, of which fathering Regina was an incidental part, brings out from Oswald the admission of venereal disease with its threat of eventual insanity and death. If the burning of the orphanage is symbolic of the invalidation of pretence and falsehood, Helen Alving’s wish to do the right thing now poses a tougher spiritual conundrum. She is offered the choice of either witnessing her son’s gradual succumbing to paralysis or killing him out of kindness. In the portrait of Mrs. Alving, Ibsen seems to suggest that, in so far as one complies with social conventions, one has to accept the consequences. Puri­tanical upbringing prevented her from taking a sympathetic view of her husband’s uninhibited joie de vivre and she realises it only after she had a chance of extending her narrow understanding of life by studying books dealing with liberal ideas. She not only agreed with Oswald’s humanitarian code of morality as opposed to the restrictive morality of Manders, she felt happy that her son’s values in life are spared from the curbing control of Nor­wegian society. The predicament of a mother chosen to be the agent of her own son’s death is dreadful enough. What makes it intensely tragic is the fact that through it she is made to own defeat a second time in her life, for poisoning Oswald was tantamount to dealing a death blow to the lone ray of hope she had been nurturing during all the years of her bleak existence.


            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.”