Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Published, February 26, 2004

Still just a doll?

CAROLE E. BARROWMAN Special to the Journal Sentinel  

A sobbing student struggles from Alverno College's bookstore. Her arms are full of books, and her eyes full of despair. Expecting to hear about the outrageous price of the texts, or even that there are just too many of them, a faculty member steps forward, and asks the student what's wrong.

"I hate my children," the student blurts. "And I hate myself for thinking that."

For this woman on that particular day, the burden of being a wife, a mother and a student are simply too heavy to bear.

Since its publication in 1879, Henrik Ibsen's realistic drama, "A Doll's House," written during the rise of the women's movement in Europe, has remained the play capturing the spiritual and social conflicts inherent in being a woman and a mother in the modern world.

Ibsen's drama, set in Nora and Torvald's comfortable living room at Christmas time, details the gradual awakening of Nora to the realization that her marriage and her life are shams, shallow and superficial, and that her children may suffer as a result.

"At that moment it suddenly dawned on me that I had been living here for eight years with a stranger and that I'd borne him three children," declares Nora in the play's closing scene.
Ibsen saw Nora as a woman in search of her "essential self," a woman who "loses faith in her moral right and ability to bring up her children." And so Nora leaves, literally slamming the heavy door of the dollhouse behind her.

"It's inconceivable!" Torvald, her husband, exclaims. "Don't you realize you'd be betraying your most sacred duty?"

"I have another duty just as sacred," Nora counters. "My duty toward myself."

The Milwaukee Rep's new production of "A Doll's House" opens Friday. One recent afternoon, six women of varied backgrounds and ages, each one either an English or History major or a recent graduate of Alverno College, gathered to consider Ibsen's play in light of their lives as 21st-century women.

"[I]t suddenly dawned on me, I'd been living . . . with a stranger."

Over the years, the character of Nora has been described as a home wrecker, a silly "bewitching piece of femininity," "unprincipled," powerless, and even "abnormal."

According to one critic, Nora's "rejection of marriage and motherhood scandalized contemporary audiences," and continues to do so even today.

Dionne Mathews first read Ibsen's play in high school and remembers thinking then that Nora was "so stupid" for submitting to her husband's chauvinism. But reading the play again, Mathews says, "I didn't see (Nora) as naive or as silly."

In fact, Mathews believes the "person Nora becomes at the end of the play is the person she always was." She is simply acting a part prescribed first by her father, and then by her husband.
According to Mathews, who is herself recently married, a person "first needs to be comfortable with herself," and then a marriage can become an equal partnership. Raised by a single mother until she was 16, Mathews knows her mother "sacrificed time" with her so she "could work and make both our lives better."

Mathews' mother made a choice that at the time, Mathews concedes, "might have been seen as selfish," but in the long run, she believes, both she and her mother are stronger women because of that decision.

Sadiqa Issa admits she could relate to Nora because, as a Muslim woman, when Issa was first married her choices were extremely limited and all decisions made for her.

"My marriage was arranged. At 13, I already knew who my husband was. I left my father's house at 16 and went to my husband's. I didn't even sign my own marriage license." And I was just like Nora, she continues, "I'd fill my house with gifts, but never buy anything for myself. Sometimes I'd get to a point where I couldn't breathe because I'd feel so stifled."

"The most sacred duty"

"Women who leave their children are always considered monsters," declares Desiree Borchardt, but, she adds, "fathers leave all the time."

According to Kathleen Dolan, the relevance of Ibsen's play lies in the fact that abandoning her children is "the most unselfish thing Nora can do. Yet she faces a lifetime of reproach and guilt for her choice."

The key for women today is "to know your resources," adds Brooke Wegner. A woman today can make the choice not to marry and not to have children. But "choosing not to have children can carry its own pressures and guilt," admits Wegner.

"The woman problem"

The feminist issues Ibsen raises in "A Doll's House" are often the only ones audiences and readers see. But, according to Ibsen's own notes, although it's "desirable to solve the woman problem," he believed his "task has been the description of humanity."

To a woman, the Alverno students agree.

"Nora's character should be universal," Dolan explains. "I can identify with her as a woman, but this is a humanist play. It's about a troubled, broken marriage," and the consequences of avoiding the human complexities that a true marriage implies.

"The play's real relevance is in its challenge to gender roles, men and women's," insists Wegner, who argues Torvald's patriarchy turns Nora into "the oldest child" in the family, rather than respecting her position as wife and mother.

It's one of the reasons Nora's enlightenment shocks Torvald so deeply. "He just doesn't get it," quips Borchardt.

For Rachel Hoffman the way Torvald talks to Nora is particularly condescending. His language "is full of references to Nora as his 'little lark' or his 'little squirrel.' " Torvald views her as his property, as a "plaything, a doll."


What: Milwaukee Repertory Theater's "A Doll's House"
When: Opens 8 p.m. Friday; through March 28
Where: Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St.
How much: $7.50 to $47.50. Call (414) 224-9490 or visit