Henrick Ibsen A Doll’s House (Et Dukkehjem, written 1879) is better known than Ghosts (Gengangere, written 1881), and in my opinion, the former is also a more polished drama. Yet, when I think of one of these plays by Ibsen, I cannot but think of the other. I don’t remember which I read first, but I first read each of them at the same time about a decade ago. Since both plays question the dynamics of the spousal relationship, a woman’s status in the home in general, and the effects of immorality on parenting, they seem perfect echoes of each other.
While the classic feminist story in A Doll’s House has a hint of hope for Nora Helmer, who decides to speak up for her own rights as a woman and as a human being, Ghosts seems to me to be the gloomy alternative, as Mrs Alving overcomes years of subordination to her immoral (and now deceased) husband.
image via Flickr CC license, by Michael at NW Lens, 2010 production of A Doll's House
As A Doll’s House begins, Nora Helmer carries in a Christmas tree, and children soon enter with delightful chatter. Their family appears to be happy. Soon, however, one realizes that the dynamic between Nora and her husband (called Helmer) is superficial, and Nora’s life is that of a doll; he thinks little of her intellectual abilities and instead “toys” with her thoughts and emotions.
Ghosts, on the other hand, is dismal from the beginning. A “gloomy fjord landscape” is in the background, and a gray mist does not let up for the duration of the play. A limited scope of characters and a dwelling on events of the past make Ghosts a play almost devoid of hope. Although Mrs. Alving tries to look forward to the future (her life after her husband, who has died), she is still haunted by her husband’s life, as the ghosts of the past now inhabit her son’s world.
Even the names Ibsen gives the two women show the difference of hope in the two plays. In A Doll’s House, Nora is given a first name, and in fact she is listed by her first name in the written script whenever she speaks. In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving is seldom called by her first name (it is Helen), and rather is referred to as Mrs. Alving in the script when she has a line to say. She is regarded only as a wife, even ten years after her husband’s death.
Given its emphasis on the past, Ghosts, then, is really the story of the after effects of what happened thirty years earlier, when Mrs. Alving had recently gotten married. The stories are echoes of each other, and there are both similarities and some significant differences between the young Mrs. Alving and the young Nora, and between their husbands.
Although I’m a respected wife and mother in happy marriage relationship, I love reading the accounts of these two women, both of whom appear to me to be strong, admirable women, given their challenges. I prefer reading A Doll’s House because of the element of hope in it, but I also appreciate Mrs. Alving’s tragic story. I believe both plays are classic feminist texts, unfortunately applicable today.
From here, this post contains spoilers for A Doll’s House and Ghosts. (more…)