Context Readings for A Doll's House, Ibsen, and Realism

Context Readings for A Doll's House, Ibsen, and Realism

Author: Alexander Best

Develop an understanding of the historical and biographical context for the A Doll's House

Readings about A Doll's House, Ibsen, and Realism. 

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Work your way through the following resources covering Ibsen, Romanticism, and Realism. Take notes for each of the questions to help you retain ideas and formulate your ideas. Please spend no longer than 1 hour on this. Submit your notes in an MLA document on ManageBac in the dropbox for the assignment.

The idea of Romanticism, from which Ibsen and his Realism develops.

1. Watch this 5 minute video and briefly list the characteristics of Romanticism.

Ibsen from "A Short History of the Drama"

2. Read the following article and consider what philosophical aspects of the person and truth Ibsen values.  

HENRIK IBSEN (1828-1906)


This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927. pp. 317-22.

IN the entire history of literature, there are few figures like Ibsen. Practically his whole life and energies were devoted to the theater; and his offerings, medicinal and bitter, have changed the history of the stage. The story of his life -- his birth March 20, 1828, in the little Norwegian village of Skien, the change in family circumstances from prosperity to poverty when the boy was eight years old, his studious and non-athletic boyhood, his apprenticeship to an apothecary in Grimstad, and his early attempts at dramatic composition -- all these items are well known. His spare hours were spent in preparation for entrance to Christiania University, where, at about the age of twenty, he formed a friendship with Björnson. About 1851 the violinist Ole Bull gave Ibsen the position of "theater poet" at the newly built National Theater in Bergen -- a post which he held for six years. In 1857 he became director of the Norwegian Theater in Christiania; and in 1862, with Love's Comedy, became known in his own country as a playwright of promise. Seven years later, discouraged with the reception given to his work and out of sympathy with the social and intellectual ideals of his country, he left Norway, not to return for a period of nearly thirty years. He established himself first at Rome, later in Munich. Late in life he returned to Christiania, where he died May 23, 1906.


The productive life of Ibsen is conveniently divided into three periods: the first ending in 1877 with the successful appearance of The Pillars of Society; the second covering the years in which he wrote most of the dramas of protest against social conditions, such asGhosts; and the third marked by the symbolic plays, The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken. The first of the prose plays, Love's Comedy (1862) made an impression in Norway, and drew the eyes of thoughtful people to the new dramatist, though its satirical, mocking tone brought upon its author the charge of being a cynic and an athiest. The three historical plays, or dramatic poems, Brand, Emperor and Galilean, andPeer Gynt, written between 1866 and 1873, form a monumental epic. These compositions cannot be considered wholly or primarily for the stage; they are the poetic record of a long intellectual and spiritual struggle. In Brand there is the picture of the man who has not found the means of adjustment between the mechanical routine of daily living and the deeper claims of the soul; in Emperor and Galilean is a portrayal of the noblest type of pagan philosophy and manhood, illustrated in the Emperor Julian, set off against the ideals of the Jewish Christ; and in Peer Gynt is a picture of the war within the soul of a man in whom are no roots of loyalty, faith, or steadfastness.

When The Young Men's League was produced, the occasion, like the first appearance ofHernani, became locally historic. The play deals with political theories, ideas of liberty and social justice; and in its presentation likenesses to living people were discovered, and fierce resentments were aroused. The tumult of hissing and applauding during the performance was so great that the authorities interfered. The Pillars of Society, Ibsen's fifteenth play, was the first to have a hearing throughout Europe. It was written in Munich, where it was performed in the summer of 1877. In the autumn it was enacted in all the theaters of Scandinavia, whence within a few months it spread over the continent, appearing in London before the end of the year. The late James Huneker, one of the most acute critics of the Norwegian seer, said: "The Northern Aristophanes, who never smiles as he lays on the lash, exposes in The Pillars of Society a varied row of white sepulchres. . . . There is no mercy in Ibsen, and his breast has never harbored the milk of human kindness. This remote, objective art does not throw out tentacles of sympathy. It is too disdainful to make the slightest concession, hence the difficulty in convincing an audience that the poet is genuinely humain."

The Pillars of Society proved, once and for all, Ibsen's emancipation, first, from the thrall of romanticism, which he had pushed aside as of no more worth than a toy; and, secondly, from the domination of French technique, which he had mastered and surpassed. In the plays of the second period there are evident Ibsen's most mature gifts as a craftsman as well as that peculiar philosophy which made him the Jeremiah of the modern social world. In An Enemy of the People the struggle is between hypocrisy and greed on one side, and the ideal of personal honor on the other; in Ghosts there is an exposition of a fate-tragedy darker and more searching even than in Oedipus; and in each of the social dramas there is exposed, as under the pitiless lens of the microscope, some moral cancer. Ibsen forced his characters to scrutinize their past, the conditions of the society to which they belonged, and the methods by which they had gained their own petty ambitions, in order that they might pronounce judgment upon themselves. The action is still for the most part concerned with men's deeds and outward lives, in connection with society and the world; and his themes have largely to do with the moral and ethical relations of man with man.

In the third period the arena of conflict has changed to the realm of the spirit; and the action illustrates some effort at self-realization, self-conquest, or self-annihilation. The Master Builder and When We Dead Awaken must explain themselves, if they are to be explained at all; for they are meaningless if they do not light, in the mind of the reader or spectator, a spark of some clairvoyant insight with which they were written. In them are characters which, like certain living men and women, challenge and mystify even their closest friends and admirers. Throughout all the plays there are symbols -- the wild duck, the mill race, the tower, or the open sea -- which are but the external tokens of something less familiar and more important; and the dialogue often has a secondary meaning, not with the witty double entendre of the French school, but with suggestions of a world in which the spirit, ill at ease in material surroundings, will find its home.

It is significant that Ibsen should arrive, by his own route, at the very principles adopted by Sophocles and commended by Aristotle -- namely, the unities of time, place and action, with only the culminating events of the tragedy placed before the spectator. After the first period he wrote in prose, abolishing all such ancient and serviceable contrivances as servants discussing their masters' affairs, comic relief, asides and soliloquies. The characters in his later dramas are few, and there are no "veils of poetic imagery."


The principles of Ibsen's teaching, his moral ethic, was that honesty in facing facts is the first requisite of a decent life. Human nature has dark recesses which must be explored and illuminated; life has pitfalls which must be recognized to be avoided; and society has humbugs, hypocrisies, and obscure diseases which must be revealed before they can be cured. To recognize these facts is not pessimism; it is the moral obligation laid upon intelligent people. To face the problems thus exposed, however, requires courage, honesty, and faith in the ultimate worth of the human soul. Man must be educated until he is not only intelligent enough, but courageous enough to work out his salvation through patient endurance and nobler ideals. Democracy, as a cure-all, is just as much a failure as any other form of government; since the majority in politics, society, or religion is always torpid and content with easy measures. It is the intelligent and morally heroic minority which has always led, and always will lead, the human family on its upward march. Nevertheless, we alone can help ourselves; no help can come from without. Furthermore -- and this is a vital point in understanding Ibsen -- experience and life are a happiness in themselves, not merely a means to happiness; and in the end good must prevail. Such are some of the ideas that can be distilled from the substance of Ibsen's plays.

On the plane of practical methods Ibsen preached the emancipation of the individual, especially of woman. He laid great stress upon the principle of heredity. He made many studies of disordered minds, and analyzed relentlessly the common relationships -- sister and brother, husband and wife, father and son. There is much in these relationships, he seems to say, that is based on sentimentalism, on a desire to dominate, on hypocrisy and lies. He pictured the unscrupulous financier, the artist who gives up love for the fancied demands of his art, the unmarried woman who has been the drudge and the unthanked burden-bearer -- all with a cool detachment which cloaks, but does not conceal, the passionate moralist.

From the seventh decade of the last century to his last play in 1899, the storm of criticism, resentment, and denunciation scarcely ceased. On the other hand, the prophet and artist which were united in Ibsen's nature found many champions and friends. In Germany he was hailed as the leader of the new era; in England his champion, William Archer, fought many a battle for him; but in the end no one could escape his example. Young playwrights learned from him, reformers adopted his ideas, and moralists quoted from him as from a sacred book. His plays scorched, but they fascinated the rising generation, and they stuck to the boards. Psychologists discovered a depth of meaning and of human understanding in his delineation of character. He did not found a school, for every school became his debtor. He did not have followers, for every succeeding playwright was forced in a measure to learn from him.






Memory of Civil War (The Barricades) Ernest Messonier, 1848

Podcast Episode 24: Realism in Europe, Part One

3. What are the historical origins and characteristics of Realism? Take notes as you listen to the podcast.

Listen to the audio podcast on the link below. The picture above is mentioned in the first minute.

"In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Revolution of 1848 broke out like a series of brushfires across the continent of Europe. Although the uprising of the lower classes and the peasants was the last significant attempt to achieve political equality, the Revolution brought the plight of the lower classes to the cultural forefront. Realism challenged and replaced the rubrics of Romanticism.  Although Realism is usually associated with the artistic movement in France, Realism was an international movement that was both visual and literary and philosophical. Idealism in philosophy was replaced by Materialism and empirical thinking, giving rise to an artistic need to be “of one’s own times.”  Realism in the nineteenth century was not just a political or social impulse, it was also a set of concepts that stressed the contemporary in the visual arts."

Otis Modern Art 01: Modernity and Realism Pt 1: Becoming Modern

24 minute video about the emergence of Realism. Forward to the analysis of the paintings to get a sense of what Realism was developing from. You don't need to watch all of this (although it's very interesting!).

4. Make a list of some of the characteristics that define each of the paintings of the Romantic era.

The video also covers ideas of Modernism, which are closely linked with the art movement of Realism. As you watch, what are the characteristics of Modernism?

Introduction to Ibsen from Prentice Hall

5. Re-read the section in the play where Nora speaks with Krogstad. How do you think Ibsen's Realism is evident in this scene?


5. Identify three ideas of culture and context that you think are most important in discussing A Doll's House.

An Enemy of the People

Henrik Ibsen 

The Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen is the acknowledged originator—the "father"— of modern drama. He deserves this recognition because of his pioneering selections of challenging and sometime shocking private and public issues. Today there are few restrictions on dramatists except success at the box office. Plays may range freely on almost any subject, such as the drug culture, sexual perversity, the right to commit suicide, the problems of real-estate dealers, the life of a go-go dancer, violence, family dissension, homosexuality, and the Vietnam war. If one includes film as drama, there is virtually no limit to the topics that dramatists can explore. It is well to stress that dramatists have not always been this free and that Ibsen was in the forefront of the struggle for free dramatic expression. A brief consideration of some of his major dramatic topics shows his originality and daring: the blinding and crippling effects of congenital syphilis, a woman's renunciation of a traditional protective marriage, suicide, the manipulations of people seeking personal benefits, the sacrifices of pursuing truth, the rejection of a child by a parent, and the abandonment of personal happiness in favor of professional interests.

Ibsen's Life and Early Work

From Ibsen's beginnings, there was little to indicate how important he was to become. He was born in Skien (shee-en), Norway, a small town just seventy miles southwest of the capital, Christiana (now Oslo). Although his parents had been prosperous, they went bankrupt when he was only seven, and afterward the family struggled against poverty. When Ibsen was fifteen he was apprenticed to a pharmacist, and he seemed headed for a career in this profession even though he hated it. By 1849, however, when he wrote Catiline, his first play in verse, it was clear that the theater was to be his life. Largely through the efforts of the famous violinist Ole Bull, a new National Theater had been established in Bergen, and Ibsen was appointed its director. He stayed in Bergen for six years and then went to Christiana, where for the next five years he tried to fashion a genuine Norwegian national theater. His attempts proved fruitless, for the theater went bankrupt in 1862. After writing The Pretenders in 1864, he secured enough governmental travel money to enable him to leave Norway. For the next twenty-seven years he lived in Germany and Italy in what has been called a "self-imposed" exile.

Although this first part of Ibsen's theatrical career was devoted to many practical matters—production, management, directing, and finances—he was also constantly writing. His early plays were in verse and were mainly nationalist and romantic, as a few representative titles suggest: Lady Inger of Oestraat (1855), The Feast of Solhaug (1856), Olaf Liljekrans (1857). In his first ten years in Germany and Italy he finished four plays. The best known of these is Peer Gynt (1867), a fantasy play about a historical Norwegian hero, Peer Gynt, who is saved from spiritual emptiness by the love of the patient heroine Solveig. Today, Peer Gynt is best known because of the incidental music written for it by Norway's major composer, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). Ibsen asked Grieg to compose the music for the initial performances in 1876. Grieg's response was enthusiastic and creative, and the result is enjoyed today by millions. Ibsen also supplied the poem for which Grieg composed one of his loveliest songs, "A Swan."

Ibsen's Major Prose Plays

During the years when Ibsen was fighting poverty and establishing his career in the theater, Europe was undergoing great political and intellectual changes. Throughout the nineteenth century, Ibsen's home country, Norway, was trying to release itself from the domination of neighboring Sweden and to establish its own territorial and national integrity. In Ibsen's twentieth year, 1848, the "February Uprising" in Paris resulted in the deposition of the French king and the establishment of a new French republic. This same year also saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx (1818-1883). In 1864, the year Ibsen left Norway, Marx's first socialist International was held in London. In addition, during the time Ibsen lived in Italy and Germany, both countries were going through the tenuous political processes of becoming true nation-states. In short, change was everywhere.

Ibsen also was changing and growing as a thinker and dramatist, driven by the idea that a forward and creative drama could bring about deeper and more permanent changes than could be effected by soldiers and politicians. Toward this end he developed the realistic problem play. Such a play posited a major personal, social, professional, or political problem that occasioned the play's dramatic conflicts and tensions. Each problem was timely, topical, and realistic, as were the characters, places, situations, and outcomes. In this vein Ibsen wrote the twelve major prose plays on which his reputation rests: The Pillars of Society (1877), A Dollhouse (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882),The Wild Duck (1884), Rosmersholm (1886), The Lady from the Sea (1888), Hedda Gabler (1890), The Master Builder (1892),Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899). He finished the first eight of these plays while living in Germany and Italy, the last four after returning to Norway in 1891.

In these major plays Ibsen dramatizes human beings breaking free from restrictions and inhibitions and trying to establish their individuality and freedom—freedom of self, inquiry, pursuit of truth, artistic dedication, and, above all, the freedom of love. In attempting to achieve these goals, Ibsen's dramatic characters find internal opposition in self-interest, self-indulgence, and self-denial, and external opposition in the personal and political influences and manipulations of others. Because the plays are designed to be realistic, Ibsen's characters fall short of their goals. At best they achieve a respite in their combat, as in An Enemy of the People, or begin a quest in new directions, as in A Doll's House. They always make great sacrifices, sometimes losing life itself, as in Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkman.

Two Major Realistic Plays

A Dollhouse (Et Dukkehjem, 1879) and An Enemy of the People(En Folkefiende, 1882) are representative of Ibsen's major drama. They present believable people confronting virtually insoluble personal, marital, economic, and political problems. To make the problems seem real, Ibsen also specifies realistic locations: The setting for all three acts of A Dollhouse is the living room of the Helmer house, including piano, Christmas tree, carpeting, and wall engravings. In An Enemy of the People the settings are equally realistic, though more varied, changing from the Stockmann household to the print shop and the large home of Captain Horster. Ibsen is so scrupulous about stage realism in An Enemy of the People that a comparison of the Stockmann living room (Acts I and II) and the study (Act V) shows that the room arrangements and the placements of the doors correspond exactly, as though he had drawn a floor plan before he created his set directions.

Events Before the Plays Begin

Realism extends also to the technique of presentation, particularly the exposition about the root causes of the problems that come to a head in the plays themselves. As A Dollhouse unfolds, we learn that years earlier, Nora Helmer had extended herself beyond her means to save Torvald from a near-fatal illness. We also learn that there had been an earlier relationship between Krogstad and Christine Linde. Similarly, in An Enemy of the People, we learn about Dr. Stockmann's earlier investigations into the problems of the water contamination, his indebtedness to his brother for his job, and the dangerous and virtually criminal cutting of corners that occurred when the town's therapeutic spa was built. These details are logically and chronologically essential for our understanding of the problems and conflicts within both plays.

Ibsen's Symbolism

Both A Dollhouse and An Enemy of the People are realistic, and they, like all the major plays, are replete with contextual symbolism. One of the later plays, for example, "John Gabriel Borkman," dramatizes the freezing to death of the major character, an occurrence symbolizing what Borkman had done to himself much earlier by denying love. In A Dollhouse, one of the earliest of the great plays, the title itself symbolizes the dependent and dehumanized role of the wife within traditional middle-class marriages. (The Norwegian-Danish word for doll—dukke—can also mean "puppet" or "marionette.") In addition, the entire nation of Norway (cold, legal, male) is contrasted symbolically with Italy (warm, emotional, female). Ironically, the break in the Helmers' marriage is symbolically aligned with events that occur or have occurred in both locations. Other symbols in A Dollhouse are the Christmas tree, the children's presents, the death of Dr. Rank, and the mailbox. In An Enemy of the People the symbols are the town spa, the toxic wastes from the nearby tanneries, and the concepts of public opinion and the popular majority. Additional symbols are the Mayor's hat and stick, Evensen's horn, and the spring weather at the play's end. Perhaps the major symbol is the intrafamily antagonism of Dr. Thomas Stockman and Mayor Peter Stockmann, for all the other conflicts stem from their personal alienation.

Ibsen and the "Well-Made Play"

The plot and structure of both A Dollhouse and An Enemy of the People show Ibsen's use of the conventions of the well-made play(la pièce bien faite), a form developed and popularized in nineteenth-century France by Eugène Scribe (1791-1861) and Victorien Sardou (1831-1908). Ibsen was familiar with well-made plays, having directed many of them himself at Bergen and Christiana (Oslo). The well-made play follows a rigid and efficient structure in which the drama begins at the story's climax. Usually the plot is built on a secret known by the audience and perhaps one or two of the characters. The well-made play thus begins in suspense and offers a pattern of increasing tension produced through exposition and the timely arrivals of new characters (like Krogstad and Vik) and threatening news or props like the Mayor's information about the last will and testament of Morten Kiil. In the course of action of the well-made play, the fortunes of the protagonist go from a low point, through a peripeteia or reversal (Aristotle's concept), to a high point at which the protagonist confronts and defeats the villain.

Although Ibsen makes use of many of the structural elements of the well-made play, he varies and departs from the pattern to suit his realistic purposes. Thus in An Enemy of the People his principal variations are his emphasis on the characterizations of the Stockmann brothers and also his introduction of three sets of villains confronting Dr. Stockmann in the fifth act (the Mayor, Morten Kiil, and Hovstad and Billing). In addition, because An Enemy of the People is a play about ideas and principles, Ibsen concludes the play on the new note of Dr. Stockmann's dedication to growth and the future. In A Dollhouse his variation is that Nora's confrontation with Krogstad, who is the apparent villain, does not lead to a satisfactory resolution, but rather precipitates the more significant albeit intractable confrontation with her husband. In A Dollhouse and also in An Enemy of the People there is not a traditionally well-made victorious outcome; rather there are provisional outcomes—adjustments—in keeping with the realistic concept that as life goes on, problems continue.

Ibsen's Timeliness and Dramatic Power

Ibsen's focus on real-life issues has given his plays continued timeliness and strength. A Dollhouse for example, is almost prophetic in its portrayal of the helpless position of married women in the nineteenth century. Most notably, a woman could not borrow funds without a man's cosignature, and Nora had to violate the law to obtain the money to restore her husband's health. The mailbox, to which Torvald has the only key, symbolizes this limitation, and the ultimate disclosure of the box's contents, rather than freeing Nora and Torvald, highlights her dependency. Today's feminism has stressed the issues of female freedom and equality, together with many other issues vital to women, but the need for feminine individuality and independence has not been more originally and forcefully dramatized than in "A Dollhouse."

In a similarly prophetic vein, An Enemy of the People forcefully deals with the effects of pollution and the conflicts between preservers of the environment and proponents of business as usual. This issue emerges early in the play as soon as Dr. Stockmann learns about the toxic wastes contaminating the water of the town spa, on which the economic livelihood of the entire town depends.

At first the conflict resulting from Dr. Stockmann's discovery seems minor because his facts are so unassailable. But the issue is raised to a political level with the entry of the local newspaper editor and his publisher. Once Mayor Stockmann convinces these men that Dr. Stockmann is using his discoveries to suit his own political goals, the play enlarges into the opposition between the individual and society at large. As these conflicts develop, Ibsen creates two of the great moments in the history of drama—those scenes in Acts II and III in which Dr. Stockmann and his brother the Mayor argue over the issue of truth and individuality versus interest and collective public opinion. Their conflict comes to a head in Act IV, in which Ibsen, through Dr. Stockmann, establishes an individual's need and absolute right to pursue truth, wherever it may lead. The dramatic force of the emptied stage at the end of this act, with the cries and jeers of the angry mob reverberating loudly backstage, has not been equaled.

Bibliographic Studies

Because of Ibsen's importance, there have been many translations and editions of the plays. The Modern Library Giant edition of Farquharson-Sharp's translations of Eleven Plays by Henrik Ibsen(introduction by H. L. Mencken) has been a mainstay for many decades. Rolf Fjelde published paperback translations in 1970 and followed these up with The Complete Major Prose Plays in 1978 (twelve plays). Michael Meyer's translations (sixteen plays in four paperback volumes, 1986) are of major significance. Other individual and collected plays have been translated by Peter Watts, Una Ellis-Fermor, James McFarlane, Christopher Hampton, Inger Lignell, Nicholas Rudall, William Archer, Christopher Fry, and Kenneth McLeish. These names by no means constitute a complete list. A short edition of Ibsen's poetry has been translated by Michael Feingold (1987). The major biography of Ibsen isHalvdan Hoht, Life of Ibsen, trans. and ed. Einar Haugen and A. E. Santaniello (New York: Blom, 1971). Significant critical and biographical studies include George Bernard Shaw, The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1891; rpt. 1957), the pioneering work of Ibsen criticism; Rolf Fjelde, Ibsen: A Collection of Critical Essays(Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1965); Michael Meyer, Henrik Ibsen: The Farewell to Poetry 1864-1882 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1971); James Hurt, Catiline's Dream: An Essay on Ibsen's Plays (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972); Clela Allphin, Women in the Plays of Henrik Ibsen (New York: Revisionist, 1975); Harold Clurman, Ibsen (New York: Macmillan, 1977); Einar Haugen,Ibsen's Drama: Author to Audience (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1979); David Thomas, Henrik Ibsen (London, Macmillan, 1983); Yvonne Shafer, ed., Approaches to Teaching Ibsen's A Doll House(New York: MLA, 1985); Charles R. Lyons, ed., Critical Essays on Henrik Ibsen (Boston: Hall, 1987); Frederick Marker and Lise-Lone Marker, Ibsen's Lively Art (New York: Cambridge UP, 1989); Joan Templeton, "The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen" (PMLA 104 (1989): 28-40); Naomi Lebowitz, Ibsen and the Great World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 1990); Errol Durbach, A Dollhouse: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation (Boston: Twayne, 1991); Brian Johnston, The Ibsen Cycle: The Design of the Plays from Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1992); and James McFarlane, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994).

Author Links

The Ibsen Centre
This site, produced and maintained by The Ibsen Centre at the University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway, provides good background information on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and his work. It provides links to a chronology of Ibsen's life as well as links to further online research information. It is a fine resource if you are interested in further information about Ibsen or his work.The Dramatist: Henrik Ibsen
This site, produced and maintained by Bjorn Hemmer, a professor at the University Oslo, Oslo, Norway, provides very good information about Henrik Ibsen, his life and work, as well as solid critical analysis of some of Ibsen's major writings.Henik Ibsen
This site provides many links to biographical and bibliographical information regarding Henrik Ibsen and his work. Of special note is the link to August Strindberg, a related playwright, and the link which allows you to read Ibsen's speech entitled "The Task of The Poet."An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen
This site, part of the extensive New York University Medical Humanities website, provides basic background and interpretation of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People."

Ibsen and Realism

6. Read the following passage and find a short section of anywhere in the play (perhaps three or four lines) and consider how the linguistic choices are characteristic of realism.

Ibsen and Realism


By: Jens-Morten Hanssen

The four dramas Ibsen published in the years 1877-82, Pillars of Society, A Doll`s House,Ghosts and An Enemy of the People are characterised as realistic contemporary dramas or problem dramas.
In the main there are four aspects of these plays that justify such a description:

  • They make problems in society the subject of debate.
  • They have a socio-critical perspective.
  • The action is in a contemporary setting.
  • They present everyday people and situations.


Problems under debate

The Danish literary critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927) was the great pioneer of the breakthrough of realism in the Nordic countries. In 1871 he gave a series of lectures at the University of Copenhagen under the title "Main Currents in the Literature of the 19th Century" (published in book form in six volumes 1872-90). In this work Brandes puts forward the following manifesto for a new form of literature that is to be socio-critical and realistic:

That literature in our days is alive shows itself in the fact that it puts problems under debate. Thus for example George Sand puts under debate the relationship between the two sexes, Byron and Feuerbach religion, Proudhon and Stuart Mill property, and Turgenev, Spielhagen and Emile Augier conditions in society. That literature does not put anything under debate is equivalent to its being in the process of losing all significance.

The representatives of socio-critical realism in Norway, Ibsen, Bjørnson, Lie, Garborg, Kielland and Skram, were inspired by Brandes (photo). In the four dramas by Ibsen mentioned above we encounter again several of the social problems that Brandes uses as examples in the quotation. The relationship between the sexes is the subject of debate in A Doll`s House and Ghosts. Problematic features of prevailing conditions in society are debated in Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People (social morality, tyranny of the majority, commercial considerations versus general social considerations, environmental considerations etc.).


Socio-critical perspective

In his realistic dramas Ibsen was merciless in his quest to uncover negative sides of society, hypocrisy and dissimulation, use of force, and manipulative behaviour, and he made untiring demands for truthfulness and freedom. Truth, emancipation, self-realisation and personal freedom are key terms. In Pillars of Society Lona Hessel has the last word and concludes by saying that "the spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom - they are the pillars of society" In Ghosts Ibsen shines a critical light on the pillars that support bourgeois society, marriage and Christianity, and he takes up typical taboos, incest, venereal disease and euthanasia. This made him and those who shared his ideas into controversial figures in their own time. Their works created violent controversies or absolute furore. With hindsight one can see what enormous importance some of these works have had for different social movements. There is hardly a literary work that has meant so much to women`s liberation in practically all cultures all over the world as A Doll`s House.


Contemporary perspective

The action in all of the dramas that Ibsen wrote from and including Pillars of Society is set in contemporary society (hence the designation contemporary dramas). The representatives of realistic literature demanded of themselves that they should go into their own time and let themselves be marked by it. Historical dramas in the national-romantic style were passé. Classical gods and heroes, Roman emperors and kings of world powers were replaced by people "like you and me". The course of the action in these dramas was to bear the stamp of the times. 

The first notes Ibsen made for A Doll`s House (dated 19 October 1878) bear the heading "Notes for the contemporary tragedy". The term "contemporary tragedy" is illustrative. Ibsen`s project in this play is to apply the classical form of tragedy to a modern body of material. On the formal level Ibsen does not engage in radical experimentation in A Doll`s House. For example the three classical unities are maintained, the unities of time, space and action. What is new is the modern material of conflict, the topicality of what is taking place on the stage.

Everyday people and situations

In a letter to the Swedish theatre man August Lindberg, who was in the process of putting on Ghosts in August 1883 (his staging with its premiere in Helsingborg on 22 August 1883 was the first in the Nordic countries and Europe), Ibsen wrote:

The language must sound natural and the form of expression must be characteristic of each individual person in the play; one person certainly does not express himself like another. In this respect a great deal can be put right during the rehearsals; that is when one easily hears what does not strike one as natural and unforced, and what must therefore be changed and changed again until the lines achieve full credibility and realistic form. The effect of the play depends in large measure on the audience`s feeling that they are sitting listening to something that is going on in actual real life.

Ibsen was very greatly concerned that in his contemporary dramas the theatre audience (and readers) should be witness to trains of events that could just as easily have happened to them. This required that the characters in his dramas spoke and behaved naturally and that the situations had the stamp of being everyday life about them. The characters could no longer speak in verse like Brand and Peer Gynt. Monologues, asides and stilted ways of speaking (as in The Warriors at Helgeland) were ruled out. The realistic drama was to provide the illusion of recognisable reality.