Monday, March 2, 2009

A Doll's House, 41/81

A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen - for New Author category

When I was a student at BYU in my last semester I took an American Lit class. Looking back, I should have taken almost any other class available. I was a newlywed when the semester started, and by the end I was expecting my first baby. So what did we study that would go along with my life's lessons I was learning at the time? 

Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Edith Wharton. Sarah Orne Jewett. Just about any depressing story written by American women, we read it. That class was not a lot of laughs.

The play, A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, would have fit right in with those writers if only he had been American. It's got all the right elements. Restricted setting - check. Slice of middle class family life - check. Deceptively innocuous beginning - check. Desperate woman struggling with her own identity against a tightly ordered society and family life - double check. 

The difference is that for me, 18 years after the first class, is that now instead of making me depressed, it made me angry to read this. Angry with Nora, and the way it took her so long to protest the way she was treated. Angry with Helmet, for treating his wife as an inferior creature he had to humor. Angry with Christine, for putting up with years of unhappiness just so she could devote her entire self to taking care of someone. And then going after what she really wanted only because she was helping her friend, and further, because she set up the expectation that she would again be 'taking care' of someone. 

Most of all, angry with society, that this was accepted as normal. I read that when this play was first performed, the audience was shocked. But not because of any of the reasons I mentioned. No, because women were generally supposed to be perfectly content to be treated in such a way.

Looking back at that class, I am not a bit surprised that I found it so troubling. There I was, just barely started on this marriage thing and shortly about to take on motherhood. And what did I get to read about? Any healthy models of what family life could be like? No. Literally, everything we read that dealt with marriage or motherhood was telling me how restrictive it was, how demanding, how degrading to my personhood, how I would have to sacrifice my very self to be successful in my new roles. No wonder I had a hard time!

So a little perspective is valuable now that I read this play. I know from my own experience that marriage does not have to be like that, and that motherhood is a source of great joy and fulfillment, as well as a challenge. Yes, I know that society was different 100 years ago, but I have to believe that even then, not every marriage was one of dominant/submissive. There must, even then, have been relationships that were based on a more equal footing. There must have been women who ENJOYED being a wife and a mother, and didn't just do it because they needed security.

And maybe I'm just a little spoiled, because I am living in the 21st century, when women are busy in so many different things. Maybe. But to say that I can't judge people from that era means that I'm supposed to accept that they are not as capable as I am of fixing things that don't work, and that they are not as bright at seeing what makes them unhappy. I don't believe that. Yes, it must have been more difficult for women of that time to express their true selves, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't get angry when I read about a woman who is a doormat, and ask myself why she put up with that.

What did I think of this play? I can't say I loved it. But it sure brought out a strong reaction in me. On that basis alone, I have to give it 5 stars. I think that every couple ought to read this play, or even better, see it together. And so should every therapist or clergyman. Single people too should read this and learn from it to set up some solid boundaries before they form a partnership.

I think that so far this year, this is the book that got me the most emotionally involved with what I was reading. So I have to give it 5 stars. However, read or see this with the knowledge I didn't have as a newlywed. Not every relationship demands this self sacrifice from the woman. This is how it is NOT supposed to be. Once you know that, you can ask yourself if you need to adjust anything in your relationships so this doesn't happen.

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