Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House"

My niece, who is a Junior in a Catholic high school, has been assigned to read this book/play this year. I don’t remember a lot of details about it from when I was in high school, but my impression is that it was mainly about a woman who feels trapped in her marriage and so leaves “to find her self”. I also know that it has been used by a lot of secular feminists and others to bash marriage as being inherently detrimental to the self-worth of women.
This is my question to those who are familiar with the book and have considered it in light of Church teachings on marriage:**

From a faithful Catholic perspective, what is the best way to approach this book?

Is it appropriate to mandate this book as assigned reading to children this age–especially if it is offered unfiltered through orthodox Catholic teaching (which, unfortunately, does happen even at Catholic schools)?

Finally, does anyone know of any accessible informed reviews by orthodox Catholics critiquing this book? Thanks in advance! :slight_smile:

As literature

Yes. There is nothing wrong with exposing upper classmen (junior and seniors) to classical works of literature and literary criticism, especially in preparation for college.

I have never read “A Doll’s House” though I have read “Hedda Gabler”, which is also by Ibsen and runs on a very similar theme. I’ve read a summary of the plot for “A Doll’s House” so I have a general idea of what happens.

Honestly, when you analyse literature at school it’s not about whether it fits with your personal worldview. Much more relevant is how it reflects the author’s worldview, the views of the society at the time and what the author is trying to say with the play. “A Doll’s House” and “Hedda Gabler” are about the way women were treated in marriage at the time and dismissed by their husbands as foolish and unable to make adult decisions because that was the attitude at the time: women were considered frivolous and prone to hysteria. Ibsen is critiquing that. He associates that treatment with marriage but that is his view. Analysis of literature goes far beyond just thinking “this is the plot”. It’s about how the author constructs that plot and his language, his characters, the message he tries to convey. Whether you agree with that message is relatively unimportant.

The way to approach it is simply to approach it as a literary work of study, as you would Shakespeare or Orwell or any other works.

It is perfectly appropriate for this book to be assigned to high school students. You don’t read these works and think “well I disagree with x, y, z in the plot”. You read them and recognise them as great literary works, just as you would recognise a beautiful painting that depicts an immoral act as art based on the merit of its creation.

I must be a bad Catholic because when I read A Doll’s House about 15 years ago I drifted the book clear across the room in anger after reading the first couple of pages because of the way she accepted her husband’s treatment.:o

It is a classic, and one of Ibsen’s best.
It is not about bashing marriage…it is about a person not staying in a marriage that is unhealthy and killing her. It’s not about being selfish, it’s about the wife trying to save herself–which is usually agreed universally to be a good thing, no matter what religion one follows.

Even in Catholicism, separation and annulment is there for that purpose.

If groups of “Godless” women who don’t want one gender to be taken advantage of have mentioned this play, it would probably be to show the couple’s relationship as an example of one that is very unhealthy for a woman–emotional abuse circa the 1800’s.

Agree, further I seem to recall it was more than being trapped in a marriage. She is a woman in an emotionally abusive and controlling marriage who is being victimized by another man who helped her with a loan when she was pregnant and her husband was ill; her husband who does not know of this debt because for a woman to borrow money is a disgrace. She also forged her dying father’s signature to get the loan for her husband’s health.

This other man is threatening to tell her husband and disgrace her, but claims to love her. He returns the incriminating paperwork to Nora.

When her husband finds out, it becomes all about him and how he is saved this disgrace of his wife borrowing money. She realizes her husband is selfish and it was always about him. He never acknowledges that she borrowed the money because he was sick and they were having a family. She leaves to find herself by living alone.

It shows how women had few rights and few options.

It is based on a true story. When the real woman’s husband found out she had taken out a secret loan (and women could not borrow money without a man’s signature), the real husband divorced her and place her in an asylum.

From a faithful Catholic perspective the lesson should be that two people are equal partners in a marriage. That money and saving face (her husband’s face if he were to find out she borrowed money for his health when women were not allowed to borrow money) are immaterial to the bond of the couple – two acting as one. That selfishness has no place in a marriage, nor gives one the right to abuse or hold things over the other spouse – in this case the woman. She was not the selfish one, because women could not borrow money so she only had illegal means to get money to help a husband who did not even acknowlege that she did this for him.

It is an appropriate book. It does not advocate for divorce – it more advocates for what a true marriage should be like, unlike this one. Loving, kind, forgiving – not controlling, selfish and abusive.

Hi Fidelis :wave:,

High school English teacher here. I have to stop you right here and suggest that before you form any opinions about the play and whether or not it should be taught, go back first and re-read it. Your memories of what the plot may or may not contain should not be your basis for questioning its suitability for your niece’s English class. Nor should the opinions of the members of this forum, include mine. Read it, digest it, run it through your Catholic world view filter, and make your own informed opinion.

Regardless of your final thoughts on the play, having recently read it will give you the opportunity to have some truly fabulous conversations with your niece about marriage, components of both healthy and unhealthy marriages, personal qualities of good husbands, what it’s like to feel trapped in a circumstance, who controls assets (property as well as children) in marriages today versus in Victorian times, and how Catholics see all of these issues.

And these conversations are why we all of us need to read literature.


Thank you sincerely for all of your answers. They have helped me immensely. :slight_smile:

I think A Dolls House, and Hedda Gabler for that matter are terrible in terms of ethics and morals!

I was taught to be a loving and obedient wife and these texts do not seem to share my views!

Of course we are living in a modern age which has allowed a lot of freedom to women, which I wholeheartedly think is wonderful BUT themes like sexual disease AND adultury I think are a bit obscene, especially in Hedda.

My child’s school (not a catholic school) has organised a trip for the GCSE students to see Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic - I’m not sure if I want my daughter to miss out on the class trip, but we are a catholic family and I am a bit worried about her seeing the show. Any ideas on what I should so? Am I missing something with Ibsen? Can he be good for catholics too?

I think you let your child see the show, and explain your thoughts about its themes and plot to her. It can be a good ground for discussion. For example, my children have read classic literature in which women are expected to obey their husbands, in which ethnic groups are portrayed as somehow inferior to other ethnic groups, etc.

Mostly, these reflect the understanding of the author at the time the work was written. It gave my husband and me the chance to discuss the issues – for example, explaining to the kids that, while we have authority over our children as parents, my husband does not have authority over me – it is a mutual partnership; that people of all races are created equal in God’s sight, etc.

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