Radical Ideals Pertaining to Self-Expression
Henrik Ibsen’s two revolutionary plays, A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People, both have characters that defy Victorian social constraints of self-expression. In A Doll’s House, Nora, a mother and wife, does the unexpected by leaving her controlling husband of many years for personal and moral gain. Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People is similarly not content with being suppressed by the compact majority, thus he metaphorically secedes from society to further his personal beliefs.
Examinations of these two characters who deviate from the pre-determined conventions of society reveal Ibsen’s radical thoughts pertaining to self-development during the Victorian Era. Opposing the belief that women are inferior to men, Nora leaves her domineering husband to liberate herself, allowing her to build upon her own personal beliefs. Throughout Nora’s marital relationship with Torvald she has “existed merely to perform tricks for” him (76). From her perspective, she feels as if she has been forced to have one sole purpose, to please her husband. Believing that she has “made nothing of (her) life”, she begins to realize that her situation with Torvald is restricting her opportunities in life (76).
Nora choses to use the word “nothing” to emphasize the emptiness that is her life, and how it is “(his) fault” that she has accomplished “nothing” in her life. While expressing these feelings to Torvald she states, ” I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me (77)”. This conditional is clear in that she has to leave him to allow herself to grow, she cannot have it any other way. The diction of “everything” illustrates that she believes she will gain so much more than her current “nothing” with Torvald. This juxtaposition between her current and idealistic situation, exemplifies her desire to become an independent individual.
Nora now has “duties to (herself)” that she must do if she is ever to discover this new life in front of her (78). When confronted by Torvald in attempt to keep his wife, Nora states” But now I am going to try. I am going to see if I can make out who is right, the world or I” (79). The short sentence of “But now I am going to try” aids in emphasizing that she is no longer going to let someone else control her life and that she, a woman, will make decisions for herself. By stating “going to try”, she is indicating that whether she succeeds or fails in this pursuit she will have done it under her own terms. She furthers this by saying she will face experiences from her own point of view, not a view tainted by male dominance from Torvald.
Nora’s final act of independence is when she states,”See, here is your ring back. Give me mine,” (81). The ring symbolizes their marriage, the binding that holds Nora and Torvald together. The act of returning the ring is symbolic of their marriage terminating. In the imperative tense, Nora commands that Torvald return his ring to her, the ultimate act of independence from him.
Again, Ibsen utilizes these short sentence patterns to give Nora a powerful tone, a tone she did not have with Torvald. Women in the Victorian time period did not break from their husbands, because they were bound to them. Nora’s actions of her newfound independence from her husband were radical and even looked down upon. Ibsen wrote Nora as a character who acted differently than all of her contemporary women. Similarly, Dr.
Stockman rebels against the town in An Enemy of the People because he detests that the majority of the people do not follow their own principles, in a sense they do not have any individuality. This rebellion is Stockman’s act of independence in that he follows his own beliefs and not those that he disagrees with. According to Stockman”the majority has might… but right it has not (223)”.By saying the majority has no “right” illustrates Dr. Stockman’s dislike for the majority.
He then furthers this statement by saying, “I am in the right- I and a few others scattered individuals. The minority is always in the right (223)”. Stockman contrasts between the minority being in the right and the majority being in the wrong to emphasize that he, a minority, is better than the “common people” who hold the same opinions as their “superiors” (228).Although this seems rather eccentric, Stockman according to Ibsen is correct. It is the minority that are the ones who voice their individual opinions instead of the congregated masses who only have “might”. Stockman describes “majority truths”, which are the majority’s ideas, as ” last year’s cured meat- like rancid, tainted ham; and they are the origin of the moral scurvy that is rampant in our communities, (224)”.
Interestingly, Stockman describes the “majority truths” as the origin of “moral scurvy”. Scurvy is a disease that back in the Victorian time period killed many people and occurs when diets lack an essential substance to help them survive. This allusion to scurvy describes Stockman’s opinion on how the majority’s ideas are causing a “rampant” disease in society that is destroying their individuality. The use of the word “rancid” is also very important in that it hints that the majority’s ideas are old and in a sense rotten.One of Stockman’s final statements is Ibsen’s final attempt at instilling this radical idea in his audience; ” It is this, let me tell you- that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone”(252).
The construction of his statement- the two clauses joined together by a hyphen- creates a sense of finality for the reader. This “finality” is that being an individual creates a more empowered person. What this truly means is that if a person “stands alone” they are following their ideals and beliefs. Ibsen is hinting that people should not follow others or the “compact majority” but instead have faith in their own beliefs. These two plays, which share common themes, do not only represent Ibsen’s ideas, but are the means in which Ibsen communicates to his audience.
The message he communicates is that individuals must find their own ideas and not be silenced or influenced by other people; just like how Nora leaves her husband and likewise Dr. Stockman his compact majority. This new way of thinking was completely radical and different to the conventions and practices during the Victorian time period. Even today Ibsen’s ideas are applicable to our world.