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  • "First and Foremost a Human Being":Idealism, Theatre, and Gender in A Doll's House1
  • Toril Moi (bio)


A Doll's House is the first full-blown example of Ibsen's modernism. It contains a devastating critique of idealism entwined with a turn to the everyday, a celebration of theatre combined with a fierce analysis of everyday theatricality (A Doll's House is teeming with metatheatrical elements) and a preoccupation with the conditions of love in modernity. In A Doll's House, Ibsen mobilizes all these features in a contemporary setting and in relation to a fundamentally modern theme: namely, the situation of women in the family and society.2 The result is a play that calls for a radical transformation [forvandling], not just, or not even primarily, of laws and institutions, but of human beings and their ideas of love.

This article explores three major themes in A Doll's House: idealism, theatre, and gender. Although idealist aesthetic norms were a primary concern for many of the play's first critics, contemporary literary scholars have barely raised the subject.3 In this article, I use the term "idealism" to mean "idealist aesthetics," defined broadly as the idea that the task of art is to create beauty, combined with the belief that beauty, truth, and goodness are one. Taking questions of beauty to be questions of morality and truth, idealist aesthetics thus seemlessly merge aesthetics [End Page 256] and ethics. Although the earliest versions of idealist aesthetics had been espoused by Romantic radicals such as Friedrich Schiller, Madame de Staël, and - a little later - Shelley, by the time of A Doll's House, the Romantic movement was long dead; yet idealist aesthetics lived on, albeit in increasingly tired and exhausted forms, which often were aligned with conservative and moralistic social forces. Not surprisingly, then, in the wake of the radical Danish intellectual Georg Brandes's fiery call for a modern literature in his 1871-72 lectures on Hovedstrømninger i Europeisk litteratur, idealism was increasingly coming under attack, and - as I show in my book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism - Ibsen's works were the linchpin of the burgeoning modernist opposition to idealism.4

The moment of A Doll's House marks a clear shift in the increasingly intense cultural battle between idealists and emerging modernists in Europe. Idealist responses to A Doll's House were embattled in a way that idealist responses to Love's Comedy and Emperor and Galilean were not.5 In this article, I will show that defenders of Ibsen's realism nevertheless come across as less sophisticated than their idealist opponents. In fact, by propagating the idea that A Doll's House was to be understood as a "slice of life," Ibsen's first admirers entirely missed his pro-theatricalism, his metatheatrical insistence that what we are seeing is theatre. Around 1880, then, neither Ibsen's enemies nor his friends were in a position truly to grasp the scope of his aesthetic achievement.

But idealism was not just an important element in the reception of A Doll's House. It is also embedded in the play, most strikingly in the character of Torvald Helmer, a card-carrying idealist aesthete if ever there was one. Moreover, Helmer's idealism and Nora's unthinking echoing of it make them theatricalize both themselves and each other, most strikingly by taking themselves to be starring in various idealist scenarios of female sacrifice and male rescue.

Ibsen's critique of idealism is the condition of possibility for his revolutionary analysis of gender in modernity. In this respect, the key line of the play is Nora's claim to be "first and foremost a human being (359)."6 Nora's struggle for recognition as a human being is rightly considered an exemplary case of women's struggle for political and social rights.7 But Nora claims her humanity only after explicitly rejecting two other identities: namely, "doll" and "wife and mother." In order to show what these refusals mean, I first consider the signification of the figure of the doll. "The human body is the best picture of the human soul," Ludwig Wittgenstein writes (152). What...


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