A Doll's House | Study Guide

Henrik Ibsen

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A Doll's House | Context


During Ibsen's life, a new social class was on the rise as a result of the Industrial Revolution. This new class set out to shed the old system of aristocracy and nobility, yet this upward-moving middle class precisely retained the Victorian ideals and morals, often referred to as bourgeoisie respectability. This lifestyle insisted on virtue, purity, freedom from debt, and strict adherence to the customs and rules of social propriety. Ibsen sought to expose the social hypocrisy of this concept and inspire a nobility of character he believed would ultimately come from women, working-class men, and individuals "attaining to real liberty."

The society Ibsen lived in misunderstood the true meaning of his dramas, mostly because his ideas were quite radical. For example, the idea of a woman leaving her husband was earthshaking for a society rooted in the stability of patriarchal structure. So audiences tended to believe Ibsen was calling for the destruction of society, when his true goal was suggesting its reconstruction.

Norwegian Government

Norway enjoyed a wide berth of autonomy while under the rule of a Swedish king during Ibsen's lifetime. Although Ibsen as a young man delivered a speech denouncing kings and emperors after being inspired by the French Revolution in 1848, he received a lifetime king's grant to write. With this royal support Ibsen lived abroad beginning in 1866 for most of his adult life. Such grants were possible, as it was a common belief that the government was responsible for lifting culture and society through literature and arts by financially supporting talented writers, artists, and scholars. Ibsen criticized the liberal party for being cheap in investing in cultural efforts.

Popular Theater

The national theater in Norway was on the decline, and the government and private-run theaters that did exist imported plays from Europe. Ibsen was hired by the Norwegian theater in Bergen as a resident playwright and stage manager for the specific purpose of ushering in originally voiced Norwegian dramas. Ibsen failed many times before succeeding in ousting the overly romantic and popular melodramas in fashion at the time. Ibsen's first plays were complexly drawn and written in verse, as was common practice in theater at the time. Ibsen later turned to using sparse dialogue resembling natural speech, an entirely new theatrical device that changed the focus of modern theater.


Camilla Collett (the founder of Norwegian feminism), German philosophers Hegel, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, and literary critic Georg Brandes (who called for naturalism and realism) were all major influences on Ibsen's work.Brandes was also a personal friend of Ibsen's.

When Ibsen worked for the Norwegian theater, he had the opportunity to travel to Europe for extended theater study. There he observed high-quality productions, including professional performances of Shakespeare, which greatly inspired and helped develop his budding talent.

Laura Kieler, who had written a book based on characters from Ibsen's play Brand called Brand's Daughters: A Picture of Life, became friends with Ibsen in 1871. In 1876, when her husband developed tuberculosis and had to move to a warmer climate, Kieler borrowed money, committed a forgery, and was eventually caught. Her children were taken from her, and her husband divorced her. Laura Kieler was so distraught she ended up in a mental institution. The scandal was well-known, and Ibsen knew of it when he wrote A Doll's House.


Ibsen gave many political speeches and was decorated with numerous awards and honors during his lifetime. Yet as much as he was involved in politics, Ibsen did not want to be viewed as a puppet, writing for particular political views. He considered himself more of an artist than a political, social commentator.


Feminism became an important issue in many parts of the world, beginning in the middle of the 19th century. The first women's rights conventions in the United States and France were held in 1848. Yet during Ibsen's time, Norwegian women had no right to vote, own property, or borrow money. Women could inherit wealth by 1854, but they did not gain the ability to control their own wealth until the 1890s. It was not until 1882, three years after A Doll's House was performed for the first time in Copenhagen, that women in Norway were given access to higher education. In 1884 the first formal women's rights organization was founded (Norwegian Association for Women's Rights), which prioritized the rights to education and work, followed by a focus on gaining the right to vote. Women in Norway voted for the first time in local elections in 1907, one year after Ibsen's death. Then, in 1913, Norway became the first country to allow all women the right to vote.

Ibsen scholars have long cautioned against reading A Doll's House as an early feminist play. Some point to a speech Ibsen gave on his 70th birthday, in which he stated that the "woman's cause" was unknown to him, although he did hope to expose what "has ever been a cause of human beings." Nevertheless, letters and other speeches by Ibsen do provide some evidence that Ibsen intended for the play to bring to light the need for women's equality. However, this was just one prong of the worldview Ibsen had, a view more appropriately labeled humanism than feminism.

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