Ibsen wrote of realism and in doing so brought to the attention of his audience the many dilemmas found in modern society. He wrote of the mind’s tumultuous battles and bared the ugliness that society sought so much to hide. The feminism portrayed in his plays was just one of those battles – a battle of the inequalities between men and women in society along with the confines and constraints afflicted upon women at that day and age.
Susan Torrey Barstow stated in her article "Hedda is all of us: Late-Victorian Women at the Matinee, “the contemporary, middle-class heroines of Ibsen and his followers seemed to live not in a fantasy realm, but in the spectators' own world. Ibsen's heroines do not face starvation, shipwreck, or attack by wild animals; instead, they struggle against the thralls of domesticity and the confines of traditional femininity. Their trials are the ordinary, familiar trials of pregnancy, childbirth, the double standard, sexual frustration, and, perhaps above all, boredom. When strong men appear, they tend to threaten the Ibsen heroine rather than offering her rescue and security.”
Hedda from Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, perceives herself to be a victim. Her choices appear to stem from desperation not unlike an animal backed into a corner. This is evident in her agreeing to marry not because she is in love but because she was approaching the age of thirty. "I had really danced until I was tired, my dear Judge. My time was over..." (Ibsen 202). Women in the 1800s, like Hedda, having only been trained in the domestic arts and told always that they were only suited to marriage and birthing children were thus forced to marry or be a burden upon their families in the 1800s. The societal expectancy that a woman be married by a certain age forced Hedda to choose before she was ready, her contempt being evident in almost every conversation with her husband, “Love? No, that is a joke.” (Ibsen 120)
Nora (from A Doll’s House) is quite the opposite of Hedda. She isn’t anything other than what people tell her to be and can be perceived by others as the victim but not acting the victim’s part. She realizes only later that she has chosen to let others guide her and states, “What I mean is: I passed out of Daddy's hands into yours. You arranged everything to your tastes, and I acquire the same tastes. Or I pretended to... I don't really know... I think it was a bit of both, sometimes one thing and sometimes the other. When I look back, it seems to me I have been living here like a beggar, hand to mouth. I lived by doing tricks for you, Torvald. But that's the way you wanted it. You and Daddy did me a great wrong. It's your fault that I've never made anything of my life.” (Ibsen 80) One could argue that Nora is blaming Torvald and her father for not allowing her to make choices. However, she is actually blaming them for shaping her into someone that never accomplished anything. She could actually be something more than what she is, but doesn’t know how because Torvald and her father never asked her what she wanted. She was instead pushed into roles that best suited them (Torvald and her father). This is a presentation of another of Ibsen’s quandaries – should men force women into roles and then blame them for not doing them effectually? Ibsen also asked whether this was men’s fault, did they realize that by taking control and “being the man” that they may have been causing harm without intent?
Nora rebels against these norms. She is courageous in her setting out to find herself, whereas Hedda is cowardly in her wishing to do something but lacking the courage to do it even to the point of taking the easy way out with suicide. Ejlert states, “Yes Hedda, you are a coward at heart,” while praising Mrs. Elvsted, ”And then the courage in action that she has.” (Ibsen 126; 131)
Hedda lashes out at those around her and seeks to control them with dubious chicanery as she feels she has lost all control with what she sees as a forced marriage compounded by a pregnancy which she refuses to acknowledge or talk about. She is jealous of Mrs. Elvsted for her ability to leave her husband and seeks to destroy Mrs. Elvsted’s happiness by taking away ‘her child’ – the burning of the manuscript Ejlert Lovberg created with Mrs. Elvsted’s help. Ibsen very cleverly foreshadows this event by having Hedda state, “Well! Now we have killed two birds with one stone,” in Act I. (Ibsen 44) The diabolical act of goading Ejlert to go out and commit some lechery and her tormenting of Mrs. Elvsted allows Hedda to feel some control. “Yes, there it is. I wish for once in my life to have power over the fate of a human being.” (Ibsen 143) Ibsen helps us understand that Hedda forced into an egregious expectation of who she should be lead her to angrily strike out at those around her and then wondering ‘who is to blame?’ Is it the environment and social climate that makes Hedda who she is or does she truly have a choice?
Nora and Hedda are two extreme heroines shaped by Ibsen. There is another less celebrated heroine from Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea, Ellida. Ellida being left by her lover who was forced to flee but swears he will return, finds herself facing poverty when he fails to come back and springs at the first opportunity of marriage given. However, when her first love comes up from the sea she must choose between the life she has built with a man she didn’t truly love and the love of her life. Society dictates that she must fulfill her duty to her husband and his children. In this Ibsen puts forth ‘is it right to remain with a man you do not love or return to the man you love?’ Ellida truly teaches the observer that in order to make a choice she needs the support of those around her to ‘allow’ her to choose. “I must make the choice of my own free will.” (Ibsen 101) While her annoyingly cloying husband, Wangel, demands, “Ellida, you have no choice.” (Ibsen 101) Through Ellida’s persistence she is finally given this freedom, “There is no single thing here to withhold me. Nothing in the world which holds or binds me. I have taken no root in your house, Wangel. Your children are not mine – their hearts are not mine, I mean, and never have been.” This allows Wangel to relent and declare, “you shall have your liberty again. Henceforth, you shall live your own life.” (Ibsen 102) This enables Ellida to choose of her own free will unlike Nora’s predicament where everyone decides for her. Ellida then chooses to remain with Wangel. This always puts the feminists in an uproar. (R. Zaller, Broadstreet Review, 1 Jan 2006) One must ask, why should Ellida forgo comfort and security with a man that has had a change of heart and children that are now willing to love her for a man that is at odds with the law and can offer her nothing but himself? Ibsen serves up to women ‘choice’ and thereby empowers them to choose something that the audience may not find acceptable. Yet this truly depends on the audience. An audience of Wangels would undoubtedly cheer her decision. It is not Ibsen’s way to offer a happy ending though and upon considering which would make the audience happy, he obviously chose the opposite, preferring to leave them squirming in their seats.
Ibsen’s plays are the femme fatale of modern day film. Nora leaving her husband to be her own person, Hedda choosing suicide over enslavement to a lecherous knave, and the freedom granted to Ellida were a strong empowerment to women. They were realistic characters that stepped out of the engrained roles set out by men and said, “No not me.” One can well imagine how a couple’s visit to the theater in 1879 would result in the husband hating the play and the wife privately dreaming of escape. That would explain that even though critics (mostly men) went to great lengths to revile the plays they were outvoted by the public (being mostly women) and were ultimately successful.
Ibsen may not have realized the affect of his plays, feeling them a failure by not enacting great change within his lifetime but he was the planter of the seed from which many feminist roots sprang, even if unintentional. The empowerment bestowed by himself and others like him aided women in the conquering of oppression. His work readily applies to our world today, empowering the underdog, giving hope to many that are subject to abuse and servitude to stand up and say, “No, not me.”