Loyalty, duty, obligation.

These are only some of the social

laws that Henrik Ibsen wrote out against in his later works. Ibsen believed

that these bourgeois beliefs were hindering the individual's, as well as the

nation's, realization of the self. To Ibsen, it was far more important to

have the freedom to express oneself than to adhere to outdated,

conventional ideas. In "A Doll House" and "Ghosts", both heroines are

forced to confront these social hindrances. Both women attempt to

overcome these powerful restraints in their attempts to find themselves,

one more successfully than the other.

"Ibsen's effect on his contemporaries and his influence on the

course of modern drama were immediate and profound".1 More than any

other dramatist, he gave theater a new vitality by bringing into European

bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social

significance which the theater had lacked since the days of Shakespeare.

For the better part of fifty years, Ibsen contributed to giving European

drama a vitality and artistic quality comparable to the ancient Greek

tragedies. This contribution to theatrical history gained for Ibsen the

reputation of being the greatest and most influential dramatist of his time.

He "gave the stage its first distinctively modern characters:

complex, contradictory individuals driven by a desire for something - the

'joy of life', a sense of themselves - that they can barely recognize or

name".2 His realistic contemporary drama was a continuation of the

European tradition of tragic plays.

In these plays he portrays ordinary middle class people of his

day. Routines, and schedules usually taken for granted, are suddenly

turned upside down as they are forced to confront a major crisis. Nora, in

"A Doll House", must finally confess to her husband that she borrowed

money illegally in a desperate attempt to save him. A fact she is terrified

to reveal. Mrs. Alving in "Ghosts" must confront herself, the ghosts which

she carries around with her, and those she perpetuates into the lives of the

children in her care. She is forced to come to terms with her own

cowardice in the face of stringent social norms. Ibsen makes it painfully

clear that these women have only themselves to blame, and forces them to

deal with that knowledge.

It is the tragic life feeling that gives Ibsen's drama its unique

quality. This experience of missing out on life and plodding along in a

state of living death. The alternative is pictured as an existence in

freedom, truth and love, in short, a happy life. In Ibsen's world the main

character strives toward a goal, but this struggle leads out into the cold, to

loneliness. Yet the possibility of opting for another route is always there,

one can chose human warmth and contact. The problem for Ibsen's

protagonists is that the choices can be deceiving, and the individual cannot

always see the consequences of his decision.

His characters are distinguished by their staunch,

well-established bourgeois lives. Nevertheless, their world is threatened

and threatening. It turns out that the world is in motion; old values and

previous conceptions are adrift. The movement shakes up the life of the

individual and jeopardizes the established social order. Here we see how

the process has a psychological as well as a conceptual and social aspect.

Yet what starts the whole process is the need for change,

something springing forth from the individual's volition. In this sense,

Ibsen is a powerful conceptual writer. This does not mean that his main

concern as a dramatist was the didactical use of theater, or the waging of

an abstract ideological debate. (Some of his critics, contemporary and

later, have made this accusation - and it is fairly obvious that Ibsen was

drawn towards the didactic.) However, the basis of Ibsen's human

portrayal is his characters' conceptions of what makes life worth living -

their values and their understanding of existence. The concepts they use to

describe their position may be unclear; their self-understanding may be

intuitive and deficient.

In 1879, Ibsen sent Nora Helmer out into the world with a

demand that a woman too must have the freedom to develop as an adult,

independent, and responsible person.3 The playwright was now over 50,

and had finally been recognized outside of the Nordic countries. "Pillars of

Society" had admittedly opened the German borders for him, but it was "A

Doll's House" and "Ghosts" (1881) which in the 1880s led him into the

European avant-garde.4

Nora is regarded by her husband as nothing more than as a

plaything or a pet rather than as an independent person with real needs and

emotions. These attitudes reflect the shallow and sexual nature of their

marriage. Nora is oblivious to this, however, until later in the play. When

she finally faces this reality, she is humiliated and disgusted. Nora has

forged her father's signature in order to borrow money. This is the terrible

secret she must hide from Torvald. She feels she cannot tell him the truth,

How painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with

his manly independence, to know that he owed me

anything. It would upset our mutual relations altogether;

our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is


Krogstad, the money-lender, threatens to blackmail Nora if she

refuses to convince her husband not to fire him. Krogstad unknowingly

does much more than frighten Nora. He also forces her to realize that her

social transgression was not so very different from his own. This

realization sparks an awakening in Nora. She is beginning to peel away

the layers and have a closer look at herself.

She speaks to Torvald about the forgery Krogstad once

committed. She becomes increasingly agitated as he lectures,

Just think how a guilty man like that has to lie and play the

hypocrite with everyone, how he has to wear a mask in the

presence of those near and dear to him, even before his

own wife and children. And about the children, that is the

most terrible part.6

This scene upsets Nora considerably. It is also a turning point.

Shortly after this lecture she shies away from seeing the children and

makes plans to see them less often so that she may avoid 'polluting' them.

this is the first indication that she will begin to make some significant

shifts in her life.

It is not until she is forced into it that Nora accepts that she

must confess to Torvald. There can be no true marriage if it is not based

on honesty and trust. Sadly, Nora is still convinced that the 'wonderful

thing' will happen when Torvald discovers the truth. She believes that he

loves her so deeply that he will protect her. Not only will he stand beside

her, he himself will shoulder the blame. He will dishonour himself in

order to save Nora, his "little lark".7

How disappointed she is when he does none of those things

and instead cares only for appearances. She might have seen this coming

had she paid closer attention to his reactions to Krogstad's continued

attempts at friendship. He denounces her as his wife and as the mother of

his children, but insists she remain living in the house in order to keep up

appearances. It is at this point that Nora must confront her true self.

Helmer tells her, "but no man would sacrifice his honor for the ones he

loves." Nora's poignant reply rings true, "It is a thing hundreds of

thousands of women have always done."8

Nora, having discovered she is no longer the little "squirrel"

Torvald thought her to be reflects upon the last eight years,

When I look back upon it, it seems to me as if I have been

living here like a poor woman - just from hand to mouth. I

have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald.

But you would have it so. You and Papa have committed a

great sin against me. It is your fault I have made nothing

of my life.9

Although he promises things will be different in the future,

Nora leaves him, her old ideals and even her children to search for her own

answers. She leaves it all behind with the closing of the door.

"A Doll's House" has a plot which he repeated in many

subsequent works, in the phase when he cultivated "critical realism". We

experience the individual in opposition to the majority, society's oppressive

authority. Nora puts it this way: "Now I'll begin to learn for myself. I'll

try to discover who's right, the world or I".10 As noted earlier, when the

individual intellectually frees himself from traditional ways of thinking,

serious conflicts arise.

For a short period around 1880, it appears that Ibsen was

relatively optimistic about the individual's chances of succeeding on his

own.11 Although her future is insecure in many ways, Nora seems to have

a real chance of finding the freedom and independence she is seeking.

Ibsen can be criticized for his somewhat superficial treatment of the

problems a divorced woman without means would face in contemporary

society. But it was the moral problems that concerned him as a writer, not

the practical and economic ones.

In spite of Nora's uncertain future prospects, she has served in

a number of countries as a symbol for women fighting for liberation and

equality. In this connection, she is the most international of Ibsen's

characters. Yet this is a rather singular success. The middle-class public

has enthusiastically applauded a woman who leaves her children and

husband, completely breaking off with the most important institution in the

bourgeois society - the family!12

This points to the basis of Ibsen's international success. He

took acute problems that afflicted the bourgeois family and placed them on

the stage. On the surface, the middle-class homes gave an impression of

success - and appeared to reflect a picture of a healthy and stable society.

But Ibsen dramatizes the hidden conflicts in this society by opening the

doors to the private, and secret rooms of the bourgeois homes. He shows

what can be hiding behind the beautiful façades: moral duplicity,

confinement, betrayal, and fraud not to mention a constant insecurity.

These were the aspects of the middle-class life one was not supposed to

mention in public, as Pastor Manders wished Mrs. Alving to keep secret

her reading and everything else that threatened the atmosphere at

Rosenvold in "Ghosts".13

"Ghosts" is in many ways very similar to "A Doll House".

Both plays are quite short in duration, the main protagonist is female, and

both plays take place over a very short span of time. However, this play

has no sub-plot. Only the characters involved in the main dramatic action

are ever introduced. This technique makes the strength of the play all that

much more powerful. There are no distractions to lessen the force of the

loss which Mrs. Alving suffers.

Mrs. Alving was raised to be a good girl. She went on to

become a good wife. She led a good and virtuous life because it was the

right thing to do. Ibsen, in writing "Ghosts", made her pay for sacrificing

her own personal needs.Ibsen points out that each generation learns from

the one before it, and that the ghosts remain with us unless we are willing

to struggle against them. He also makes clear that this struggle is not only

productive but necessary for our survival. There is no mistaking the

message Ibsen sends with the severe punishment of Mrs. Alving in this


In her first year of marriage to Mr. Alving, she was so

miserably unhappy that she ran to Pastor Manders for help. He scolded

her and persuaded the miserable young woman to do the dutiful thing and

return to her husband. For many years Mrs. Alving quietly ran the

house-hold. She even tended to her husband when he was in a drunken

stupor. What she didn't do, was express her true feelings.

It is only many years later that Pastor Manders feels her

resentment towards him. Manders asks, "What was that upshot of my

life's hardest battle?" To which Mrs. Alving remarks, "Call it rather your

most pitiful defeat." Manders can't believe that and gently says, "It was

my greatest victory Helen - the victory over myself." Here finally, an

utterance of Mrs. Alving's true emotions, "It was a crime against us


She is a very interesting and complex character for though she

wanted desperately to eradicate any trace of her "ghosts", she did

everything to perpetuate those old stigmas. She goes so far as to send her

one source of happiness, Oswald away to school so that he will have no

trace of his father in him. Then, ironically, she writes letters implying that

the boy's father is nothing less than a hero. There are many such

inconsistencies in Mrs. Alving's character.

At the same time that she reads books of which the Pastor

disapproves, she is financing an orphanage in her husband's name.

Although she despised the man, she does it in order to quiet any slanderous

gossip that might be circulating. Or it could have been an admission of

guilt. "Her decision to be her own judge of what is right and wrong

marked so radical a revolt from the habits of a lifetime . . . that the

de-throning of authority and the installation of the self in its place could

not be erected without a feeling of guilt"15 Perhaps she felt that she had

failed him in some way, taking the responsibility upon herself to bear.

She wants her son to be happy, but when he shows interest in

Regina, she considers arranging her marriage to prevent the two being

together. Mrs. Alving shows extreme emotional upset at the prospect of

telling her son the truth about his father. She regrets her life-long

cowardice, and yet still does not speak out. She is frightened by the ghosts

that haunt her,

It is not only what we have inherited from our fathers and

mothers that exists again in us, but all sorts of old dead

ideas and all kinds of old dead beliefs and things of that

kind. They are not actually alive in us, but they are

dormant all the same, and we can never be rid of them.

Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it I fancy I see

ghosts creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts

all over the world. They must be countless as the grains of

the sands, it seems to me. And we are all so miserably

afraid of the light, all of us.16

Perhaps Ibsen felt that he had not made his message clear with

Mrs. Alving. Perhaps he felt that the loss of her own happiness was not

punishment enough. For she now finds out that all of her efforts were for

naught. Oswald tells her that he is very ill. Her guilt grows as he tells her

about the doctor who diagnosed him. He had insinuated that Oswald's

father was not a virtuous man. Oswald had rushed to his father's defense

with his mother's letters as evidence.Mrs. Alving, although suffering

inner conflict still does not speak.

Mrs. Alving does something even more perplexing near the end

of the play.She feels freed that she can finally tell her awful secrets when

Oswald explains that he wants to take Regina with him simply because she

is full of "the joy of life".17 It is only at this point that Mrs. Alving feels

she can speak. Sadly, this is because she can now make Mr. Alving's

sexual transgressions her fault. She now feels responsible, "I brought no

holiday spirit into his home either. I had been taught about duty and that

sort of thing that I believed in so long here. As though this wasn't enough,

she goes on to shoulder the blame even further when she says, "I am afraid

that I made your poor father's home unbearable to him Oswald."18

Although she has spoken now, it is too late. Oswald is dying.

He is suffering from the syphilitic paresis and will soon need his mother to

administer the fatal dose of morphine that he carries with him. It is poetic

justice that Mrs. Alving should be the one to end his life. She has let

cowardice beat her all her life and now she must face the consequences not

of her actions, but of her in-actions.

"Ghosts", is a painful clash with the melancholic, killjoy

aspects of the Christian bourgeois tradition which subdues the human

spirit. Both this work, and "A Doll's House" contain, for all their despair,

a warm defense of happiness and the joy of life - pitted against the

bourgeois society's emphasis on duty, law, and order. It was in the 1870s

that Ibsen oriented himself toward his "European" point of view. Even

though he lived abroad, he continually chose a Norwegian setting for his

contemporary dramas.19

As a rule, we find ourselves in a small Norwegian coastal

town, the kind Ibsen knew so well from his childhood in Skien and his

youth in Grimstad.20 The background of the young Ibsen certainly gave

him a sharp eye for social forces and conflicts arising from differing

viewpoints. In small societies, such as the typical Norwegian coastal town,

these social and ideological conflicts are more exposed than they would be

in a larger city. Ibsen's first painful experiences came from such a small

community. He had seen how conventions, traditions, and norms could

exercise a negative control over the individual, create anxiety, and inhibit a

natural and joyful lifestyle.

This was the atmosphere of his youth that formed the basis for

his writing and world fame. As an insecure writer and man of the theater

in a stifling Norwegian milieu, he set out to create a new Norwegian

drama. He began with this national perspective. At the same time, from his

first journey abroad, he oriented himself toward the European tradition of

theater. In the history of drama, early in the 1850s Ibsen carried on the

traditions of two highly dissimilar writers, the Frenchman Eugène Scribe

(1791-1861) and the German Friedrich Hebbel (1813-63).21 For 11 years

the young Ibsen was occupied with day to day practical stagework, and it

follows that he had to keep himself well informed about the latest

contemporary European theatrical art. He worked with rehearsals of new

plays and was committed to writing for the theater.

Scribe could teach him how a drama's plot should be structured

in a logically motivated progression of scenes.22 Hebbel provided him with

an example of the way drama could be based on life's contemporary

dialectics, creating a modern conceptual drama. Hubbell's pioneering work

was his conveyance of the ideological conflicts of his day into the theater.

He also knew how the Greek tragedy's retrospective technique could be

used by a modern dramatist. From this he may have arrived at the idea of

making "Ghosts" a family drama. The "tragic flaw" in "Ghosts" is passed

down from the father to both of his children. An inescapable, tragic flaw.

In other words, Ibsen was in close contact with the art of the

stage for a long uninterrupted period. His six years at the theater in Bergen

(1851-57) and the following four or five years at the theater in Kristiania

from 1857 were not easy.23 But he acquired a sharp eye for theatrical

techniques and possibilities. Ibsen's apprenticeship was long, lasting about

15 years, and included theater work. There was a strong pressure to

produce hanging over him; one that led to fumbling attempts in many

directions. He experienced a few minor artistic victories - and numerous

defeats. Very few believed that he had the necessary gift to become more

than a minor theatrical writer with a modicum of talent.

In spite of this insecurity, it is a determined young writer we

see during these years. His goal was clearly national. Together with his

friend and colleague Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), he founded "The

Norwegian Company" in 1859, an organ for Norwegian art and culture.24

They had a joint program for their activities. Ibsen was especially

concerned with the role of theater in the young Norwegian nation's search

for its own identity. In these "nation-building" pursuits, he gathered his

material from the country's medieval history and perfected his art as a


What he had earlier treated as a national problem of identity,

now became a question of the individual's personal integrity. It was no

longer sufficient to dwell on an earlier historical era of greatness and focus

on the continuity of the nation's life. Ibsen turned away from history, and

confronted what he considered the main contemporary problem - a nation

can only rise up culturally by means of the individual's exertion of will.

Ibsen's message that the individual must follow the path of

volition in order to achieve true humanity, is clear. This is the only way to

real freedom - for the individual, and it follows, for society as a whole.

Nora and Mrs. Alving are two examples of this message. The

only way either of these women could free themselves was to rid

themselves of all these outdated social restraints. Choosing the right path

for themselves as individuals, not what was best for society or what was

expected of them. Nora wasted eight years of her life married to a man

that she realized was a "stranger" to her. She had been so busy playing a

role to suit and please him that she completely lost sight of her true self.

She risked her honour for a man that didn't appreciate or respect her as an

individual person. In all fairness, however, it must be stated that it would

have been impossible for Torvald to know her any better as an individual

as she did not even know herself.

Mrs. Alving's story was more touching. She spent twenty-nine

years with a man she did not love. She focused her entire life on trying to

keep any part of her husband from infecting and contaminating Oswald,

her only son. She had no idea that he had long since infected the boy with

syphilitic paresis. She also had no idea that this same son would die in her

arms because of her inability to stand up for herself and demand respect.

Mrs. Alving lost the better part of her life, a chance at happiness and her

only son. All because of a fear of breaking out of the old confinements.

Ibsen's message on the tragic consequences of ignoring one's inner

emotions and needs is loud and clear.

Even though Ibsen withdrew from his Norwegian starting point

in the 1870s and became "a European", he was always deeply marked by

the country he left in 1864, and to which he first returned as an aging

celebrity.25 It was not easy for him to return. The many years abroad, and

the long struggle for recognition, had left their indelible stamp. Towards

the end of his career, he said that he really was not happy with the fantastic

life he had lived. He felt homeless - even in his mother country.26

His style and talent set a new precedence for the drama of his

day. "Instead of setting before us a finished picture to contemplate, Ibsen

hands us an exposed photographic negative of the most sensitive quality,

and leaves the task of developing and the ultimate result to the individual

reader's ability".27

Ibsen's own desires and preferences deserve mention here.

Ibsen felt that studying individual plays without the whole as a group was

insensible, " . . . Ibsen [felt that] all the works he [had] created, however

they differ[ed] in style, to be integral phases of one consistent

development", and therefore should be studied as a whole not as separate

works.28 However, due to the length and nature of this paper, it was

impossible to adhere to these wishes. Be it sufficient that the reader

should keep in mind that these two plays are simply that, two plays from

one integral work.

It is clear then, by Nora and Helen's experiences that Henrik

Ibsen greatly valued the individual's and the nation's search for the true

inner self. He did not believe in conforming to rigid social structures, but

instead in discovering our individual needs and desires. His work

regarding women's rights and freedoms will be warmly remembered by

women everywhere for many years to come.