Women and the Law: Legal Inequity in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
Although, Ibsen consistently asserted that his ground-breaking play, A Doll’s House, examined and interrogated issues pertinent to humanity in general rather than to the ‘women’s movement’ in particular, it can hardly be denied that the text has proved seminal in increasing consciousness about the social, political, economic and legal marginalization of women in the European society during the last half of the nineteenth century.
The Women’s Movement embraced Ibsen as one of the leading champions of its causes after the publication of the play not only because the playwright had sympathetically portrayed a woman demanding her rights and questioning the basis and sanctity of marriage itself, but also because A Doll’s House brought to the forefront certain issues that formed the core of the Women’s Movement of the time, viz. the standing of women in the eye of the law.
This paper intends to examine in detail the legal status of women in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century as presented in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and further assess how far a woman’s lack of economic independence as well as the patriarchal society’s understanding of women and their role in the scheme of things was responsible for such inequality in legal status. From our present privileged position it is in fact difficult to gauge how oppressive and restrictive the position of a Victorian woman was in society. A woman was merely considered her husband’s property.
She had no rights: no right to education, no right to work, no right to earn her own living, no right to participate in the political or economic advancement of her country. In fact everything beyond her own household was considered out of bounds for her. The primary tool for the perpetration of such injustice over half of the population was the law of the land. Very few even realized the situation as an oppressive or repressive one. It was simply the way things were, the way things had always been, the way things were meant to be. Ibsen’s was among the first voice that served as an eye-opener for the society.
In fact, as Harold Clurman notes, in A Doll’s House, “Nora’s slamming of the door in farewell to her husband…is a door slam which reverberated around the world. ” (223) Stripped of its psychological implications, Ibsen’s play runs thus: Thorvald Helman fell seriously ill and needed a long holiday abroad; Nora, in order to save her husband’s life and having no other means of acquiring money, forged her father’s name on a promissory note and raised the funds required for that holiday, then slaved and saved enough behind her husband’s back to pay to Krogstad the installments of the debt as they fell due.
However, as Krogstad takes to blackmailing Nora, she is left with no other options but to confess her crimes to Helman, who in a typically chauvinistic manner blames Nora for the entire fiasco adding that she is unfit to be a mother or a wife. This turn of events lead to an epiphany for Nora, who through a painful spiritual reassessment of her position at home – her doll’s house – realizes how the legal restriction work hand in hand with the social and economic repressions to deny a woman her humanity.
The central issue that stands out in such a skeletal rendering of the plot is Nora’s forgery and that in its turn draws our attention to causes that led to forgery as well as its legal and moral implications. As Moss and Wilson notes in a critical series dealing with contexts, during the Victorian era, “a woman’s economic status was tied to her husband, who, for example had to formally approve any loans for the household”(113). The obvious question that is raised against such a lopsided legislation is what happens when the husband or the man of the house is incapacitated or in some way unfit for “formally approving” such a loan.
Should the woman then silently watch as her family, her husband, her children die, or should she, as Nora does, take action in spite of the law refusing her any such right? These questions form the crux of Ibsen’s presentation of the repressive legal system that dogged women during the Victorian era. In fact, the legal problem faced by Nora in A Doll’s House strongly resemble a situation faced by one of the playwright’s close acquaintances, one whom Ibsen called his ‘skylark’, a pet name that Torvald uses to refer to his wife in the play.
Laura Kieler, too, became involved in forgery efforts to save her family and when the crime came to light she was first thrown out of the house by her husband and later put in an asylum (Moss, 117). Ibsen wrote during the period, in one of his early notes for the play A Doll’s House, “There are two kinds of moral laws, two kinds of conscience, one for men and one, quite different, for women. They don’t understand each other; but in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren’t a woman but a man” (quoted in Salome, 23).
This contradictory demands on women – to be a naive, childlike, doll on one hand and a shrewd, worldly-wise human being on the other – complicated the woman’s situation further. Nora takes a significant legal risk to save her husband’s life, but it does not seem, at least from Ibsen’s presentation, that she is completely aware of the implications of her actions. Pointing out her ignorance, Torvald asks her “Still suppose…I died? What then? ”(47). Her reply is characteristic, “If that were to happen, I don’t suppose I should care whether I owed money or not” (48).
Nora innocently and unknowingly walks into Krogstad’s trap when she commits the forgery, but it takes a long time for her to realize that what she has done will be considered a crime in the eyes of the law: “I don’t believe it. Is a daughter not to be allowed to spare her dying father anxiety and care? Is a wife not to be allowed to save her husband’s life? ” (30). With the realization that she is accountable to the law, also comes the realization that there is a greater world out there, a world run by men, whose laws are made by men and for men, a legal world that cannot care less about her emotions.
Though she is expected by her husband as well as the society to play the fool, the child, the doll of the house, in the eyes of the law she is expected to know better and would be punished if she does not. Thus the very same law that gives her the status of a child, a minor, when her rights her concerned, treats her as a grown up individual responsible for her actions when it comes to punishing her for her actions. Thus while Nora’s actions under the situation she is faced with, are understandable, even commendable, and morally correct, they are unacceptable in the eyes of the law.
This basic conflict between moral and emotional truth and legal truth is what brings about Nora’s awakening in the play. The lack of economic independence also contributed to complicate the woman’s situation in the eyes of the law. A woman had hardly any choice but to depend on her husband or father for money. If a woman tried to earn her own money, as Nora and Kristine do in Ibsen’s play, her employment opportunities were usually limited to low-paying jobs such as needlepoint, teaching and menial clerical positions.
It is the inequality in the economic status that is reflected in the inequity in the legal status for a woman. As Hardwick observes, “A Doll’s House is about money about the way it turns locks…Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgement of error, of having married the wrong man. Her real problem is money – at the beginning and at the end…”(43). That Nora has to forge her father’s signature to get a loan is because she has no other way of acquiring money. That Nora cannot get a loan by herself is inextricably related to the fact that she herself can hardly ever earn enough money to repay the same.
Thus the legal and social subordinate status of the Victorian women can be seen as a direct function of their lack of economic independence. In fact, Camilla Collett, the author of The District Governor’s Daughter and Norway’s most celebrated feminist from this era also proposed that the only means of liberating women from oppression and subservience is through furthering education and economic self-sufficiency among them, a thought echoed by Ibsen’s Nora in her final speech to her husband in the play. In his History of Modern Norway, G.
Derry noted, “within five years of the publication of A Doll’s House, women were being admitted to the private liberal club in the tradition bound city of Oslo”(Quoted in Clurman, 223). Greater educational opportunities for women, modification of marriage vows, the foundation of The Women’s Right League, rights to vote, all followed the publication of the Ibsen’s play in Norway. Perhaps it can be safely concluded that the playwright had hit the right spot in locating the women’s problem in the legal and economic inequity of the times.
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