“… And what does it mean, then, to be a poet? It was a long time before I realized that to be a poet means essentially to see, but mark well, to see in such a way that whatever is seen is perceived by the audience just as the poet saw it. But only what has been lived through can be seen in that way and accepted in that way. And the secret of modern literature lies precisely in this matter of experiences that are lived through. All that I have written these last ten years, I have lived through spiritually.”
– Henrik Ibsen speech to Norwegian students, Sept. 10, 1874
Henrik Ibsen, author of the play A Doll’s House, is considered one of the most important playwrights of all time. A Norwegian, he lived from 1828 to 1906, many of those years abroad because he found Norway too conventional. He wrote a towering collection of influential and haunting plays, including Brand, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, When We Dead Awaken, and The Master Builder. His work ushered in the modern era of realistic drama, with intimate portraits of flawed heroes grappling with social and moral problems. The Center for Ibsen Studies in Oslo, Norway, says that A Doll’s House is performed more than any other play except Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Ibsen’s work explores many themes, including the clash between appearance and reality, the role of the ideal, the taint of money and privilege, suicide and illness, and the tension between the individual and society.
One of Ibsen’s core beliefs was that individuals have a responsibility to chart their own moral course rather than blindly complying with social norms. In A Doll’s House, premiered in 1879, Ibsen extends that expectation to women, a radical act at that time. He does it through the character of a young mother who initially appears ill-prepared to take on the world. In the first act Nora Helmer, wife of Torvald, appears to be little more than a typical Victorian-era homebody: flighty, wheedling, dependent on the largesse of her husband and the comfort of her parlor. We learn in the second act that Nora has strengths and ideals but hasn’t always known best how to deploy them.
By the end of the play, however, Ibsen has Nora speak her truth and take on the mantle of self-responsibility in a shining moment of courage and self-realization. But Nora also cracks open her marriage and walks out on her family. Throughout the play, Ibsen contrasts the idealized world the characters imagine they live in, with the harsh reality of their situation. As the play closes, Ibsen leaves the audience with the same binary tension: is Nora’s final act of leaving her home and family a liberating step toward self-fulfillment or a frightening step into the abyss of suicide or worse? I wrote Searching for Nora to explore the possibility that it might be both.
– Wendy Swallow
Henrik Ibsen: the Man and the Mask, by Ivo de Figueiredo, biography, Yale University Press, 2019.
Ibsen: a Biography, by Michael Meyer, Doubleday, 1971.
Henrik Ibsen: A New Biography, by Robert Ferguson, R. Cohen Books; 1st Edition, 1996.
Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist, by Hans Heiberg (Author), Joan Tate (Translator)
You can find a robust list of books and articles about Henrik Ibsen here.
This site includes a short bio of Ibsen and a year-by-year list of his works.
Nora’s Journey is a photo essay that brings to life the novel Searching for Nora: After the Doll’s House, by Wendy Swallow. It starts with Ch. 1.
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