ENG 221, Wednesday 6:45-9:15
4 May 2014
Ibsen’s Relationship Advice (final revision) Henrik Ibsen’s plays suggest that the keys to a successful relationship are equality, forgiveness, and honesty. In both A Doll House (1879) and The Wild Duck (1884), Ibsen introduces his audience to two sets of opposing couples. In each play, one couple’s relationship ends up broken while that of another appears to flourish. Ironically, it is often the couples with the less-admirable pasts – the “bad” couples – that are awarded the “happily ever after” once they have embraced the concepts that Ibsen has laid out as relationship necessities to the reader. Ibsen conversely uses those couples who appear to have been living upright lives – the “good” couples – to show how failure in his three essential areas can result in catastrophe. Ibsen expresses these ideas most concisely in the following quote from The Wild Duck where Hjalmar, one of the “good” people, is expressing jealousy over the success of his father’s relationship ( his father being one of the “bad” people) :
Hjalmar: Well, uh – you see, I find something so irritating in the idea that I’m not the one, he’s the one who’s going to have the true marriage.
Gregers: How can you say such a thing!
Hjalmar: But it’s true. Your father and Mrs. Sørby are entering a marriage based on complete trust, one that’s wholehearted and open on both sides. They haven’t bottled up any secrets from each other; there isn’t any reticense between them; they’ve declared – if you’ll permit me – a mutual forgiveness of sins. (Ibsen, 191)
Ibsen clearly points out each of the keys to a successful relationship that he demonstrates throughout the two plays in this one quote and refers to it as a “true marriage.” Equality is pointed out in the even balance of trust and openness on “both sides.” Forgiveness is highlighted in “the mutual forgiveness of sins.” Open communication and honesty are depicted in the “complete trust”, the “openness”, and the mention that they are not holding back things from each other or keeping secrets. Using each of the four couples, Ibsen clearly suggests that equality, forgiveness, and honesty play the most important roles in the success or failure of their particular relationship, and by extension, in the success or failure of relationships in general.
Consider the first element of equality. Ibsen addresses equality in A Doll House using both of the couples in the play, but look first at Torvald Helmer and Nora – the “good” couple – who are notably unequal throughout their seemingly proper marriage. Inequality between Torvald and Nora is demonstrated throughout the play on Torvald’s behalf in little things like his supercilious nicknames for Nora and especially in his fatherly control of her allowance and privileges. Torvald is more patronizing in his marriage than he is passionate. Nora is well aware of the inequality between her husband and herself but enables the situation by hiding her true feelings and from her husband and keeping the knowledge of her secret activities to herself. Her guilty pleasure of sneaking macaroons is only one small aspect of playing along with these inequalities. She keeps the secret of borrowing money to save Torvald when he was sick and paying it back. She tells Mrs. Linde, “Torvald, with all his masculine pride – how painfully humiliating for him if he ever found out he was in debt to me. That would just ruin our relationship. Our beautiful, happy home would never be the same” (54). Not only does this show her compliance in their dysfunctional ruse of a marriage, but it subconsciously gives her an upper hand; she feels her secret somehow empowering. Once Nora has spent time secretly repaying her debt on her own, she finds that it has developed her self-confidence. However, this new confidence does not serve to equalize the two characters, but rather empowers Nora with the idea that she may not need Torvald