Modernist Movement: Fascination with liberation and truth


Zarilli discusses that during the modernist theater era, play writers were interested in knowing the truth and depicting reality on stage. However, they often question whether theatre and plays are capable of depicting the multidimensional truth of real life experiences. As Ibsen states, he often “questioned the representational basis of the theater” (Zarilli, p. 389). He questioned it because he understood that the materialist stage cannot clearly depict spiritual realities. Similarly, for Ibsen, photography cannot fully portray entire scenes or event. As Zarilli puts it, “[photography] has little to reveal about human experience” (Zarilli, p. 389). Those who believe in photography as truthful, according to Ibsen, “are led to sentimental and moral blindness” (Zarilli, p.390). The people Ibsen is calling “blind” are precisely the people living in the Norwegian society who do not question but learn to accept everything (societal norms) that it taught to them as infallible. Through this play, Ibsen hopes to awaken those who are suppressed in the society and show them a way to freedom and learn what is their individual truth. For Ibsen, being free to learn self-truth is what leads to satisfaction and self-fulfillment.

Having learnt of Marx political views, Ibsen believes that one day inequality will be abolished. In order to achieve freedom (to find the truth), the inferior/working class would have to fight or go against the ruling class. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the working proletariat must overthrow the bourgeois class in order to achieve a classless society (The Communist Manifesto). In regards to The Doll’s House, the proletariat can be seen as represented by Nora, and that the Bourgeois class as depicted by Torvald. Torvald controls and exploits Nora, and even calls her his “property” (Ibsen, p.61). This is the Norwegian society for Ibsen – a place where women are subordinate to and controlled by men. In the First Act, Nora accepts societal norms as they are presented, and refuses to share with her husband what she has done to obtain enough money to pay his medical bills. However, she soon learns that when the ‘miracle’ did not happen the only way to be free and learn the truth about her own self and have the power to control her life is if she rids herself from Torvald (Ibsen, p.65). This ‘overthrowing of the dominant class’ is achieved in the end of the play when Nora walks out of her old life with Torvald and her children to lead an independent life free of oppression alone, saying, “I must try to educate myself. I must set about it alone” (Ibsen, p.63). Nora has to stop acting and putting a play to please others and leave her family in order to find herself. The freedom to self-reflect is is what Ibsen terms “transcendence,” after having learnt of the idea from Hegel (Zarilli, p.300).

In The Doll’s House, Ibsen also criticizes the contemporary Norwegian society as being overly obsessed with superficialities. During this time period, appearances were often misunderstood as realities. For Torvald, what was important was not so much having a wife there to support and care for, but a beautiful doll he could claim as his possession. After realizing that Nora had forged her father’s signature to save his life, he told her “you must live as we have always done; but of course only in the eyes of the world” (Ibsen, p.59). Torvald’s emphasis that they would continue to live as they do but only for others illustrates that reputation and appearance are what matters. He would rather pretend that life was as it was than face that fact that his wife, who is supposed to be inferior, had saved his life. Torvald represents the Norwegian society who despite knowing the truth continues to pretend to be blind; and he is therefore, not able to be fully satisfied. Torvald’s emphasis on external characteristics is similarly seen in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Gwendolen was hung up on Ernest’s name. It seems that she was just in love with the idea of marrying a man named Ernest and not really in loved with Jack for who he is.

Some of the questions I am interested in finding out is how Nora’s leaving will allow her to find self-fulfillment? Is finding the truth and reality really better than living in a dream world, then why is there a saying “ignorance bliss”?