A family, Dr. Johnson once wrote, is a little kingdom, torn with factions and exposed to revolutions. This is a less than ringing endorsement of family life, of course; and the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose childhood had been as unhappy as Johnsons, would have agreed with this assessment. But Johnson, unlike Ibsen, went on to remark that all judgment is comparative: that to judge an institution or convention rightly, one must compare it with its alternatives. Marriage has many pains, says Johnson in Rasselas, but celibacy has no pleasures.
Johnson saw human existence as inseparable from dissatisfaction. It is mans nature to suffer from incompatible desires simultaneouslyfor example, wanting both security and excitement. When he has one, he longs for the other, so that contentment is rarely unalloyed and never lasting.
However, most people find it more comforting to believe in perfectibility than in imperfectibilityan example of what Dr. Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience. The notion of imperfectibility not only fans existential anxieties, but alsoby precluding simple solutions to all human problemsplaces much tougher intellectual demands upon us than utopianism does. Not every question can be answered by reference to a few simple abstract principles that, if followed with sufficient rigor, will supposedly lead to perfectionwhich is why conservatism is so much more difficult to reduce to slogans than its much more abstract competitors.
The yearning for principles that will abolish human dissatisfactions helps account for the continuing popularity of Ibsens three most frequently performed plays: A Dolls House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler. Each is a ferocious attack on marriage as a powerful source of much human unhappiness and frustration. It is this indictment that gives Ibsen his extraordinary modernity, a modernity that has only seemed to increase over the century and a quarter since he wrote these plays.
The scale of Ibsens achievement is astonishing. Almost single-handedly, he gave birth to the modern theater. Before him, the nineteenth century, so rich in other literary forms, produced hardly a handful of plays that can still be performed, and the literary power of his work has never since been equaled. It was he who first realized that mundane daily life, relayed in completely naturalistic language, contained within it all the ingredients of tragedy. That he should have transformed the whole of Western drama while writing in an obscure language that was considered primitiveand that he should have produced in 20 years more performable plays than all the British and French playwrights of his era put together, despite their incomparably longer and richer theatrical traditionsis almost miraculous.
Though Ibsen often claimed to be a poet rather than a social critic, lacking any didactic purpose, the evidence of his letters and speeches (quite apart from the internal evidence of the plays themselves) proves quite the oppositethat he was almost incandescent with moral purpose. Contemporaries had no doubt of it; and the first book about him in English, Bernard Shaws Quintessence of Ibsenism, published in 1891 while Ibsen still had many years to live and plays to write, stated forthrightly that his works stood or fell by the moral precepts they advocated. Shaw thought that Ibsen was a Joshua come to blow down the walls of moral convention. I think this judgment is wrong: Ibsen was far too great a writer to be only a moralist, and it is possible still to read or watch his plays with pleasure and instruction, without swallowing what he has to say hook, line, and sinker.
Still, Ibsens influence extended far beyond the theater. He wrote as much to be read as to be performed; and his plays were published, often in relatively large editions, to catch the Christmas market. And Shaw was hardly alone in perceiving their unconventionality. Ghosts, for instance, was initially considered so controversial, not to say filthy, that its printed version was handed round semi-clandestinely, few people daring to be seen reading it. By the end of his life, however, a quarter of a century later, most European intellectuals had come to take its moral outlook virtually for granted, and anyone who continued to resist its teachings seemed mired in an unenlightened past.
The comparatively easy acceptance of what Shaw called Ibsenism20 or 30 years is a long time in the life of a man, but not of mankindmeans that Ibsen must have expressed what many people had thought and wanted to hear but had not dared to say. He was thus both a cause and a symptom of social change; and like many such figures, he was partly right and largely wrong.
What are his moral teachings, at least in the three plays that have forged his enduring image? He was as rabidly hostile to conventional family life as Marx or Engels, but he was a much more effective and powerful critic, because his criticism did not remain on the level of philosophical abstraction. On the contrary, he laid bare the factions and revolutions of family life, its lies and miseries, in compelling and believable dramas; and while it has always been open to the reader or viewer to ascribe the moral pathology exhibited in these plays to the particular characters or neuroses of their dramatis personae alone, clearly this was not Ibsens intention. He was not a forerunner of Jerry Springer; his aim was not titillation or a mere display of the grotesque. He intends us to regard the morbidity his plays anatomize as typical and quintessential (to use Shaws word), the inevitable consequence of certain social conventions and institutions. He invites us implicitly, and explicitly in A Dolls House and Ghosts, to consider alternative ways of living in order to eliminate what he considers the avoidable misery of the pathology he brings to light.
It is hardly surprising that feminists celebrate Ibsen. For one thing, his three oft-performed plays repeatedly suggest that marriage is but formalized and legalized prostitution. In A Dolls House, Mrs. Linde, a childhood friend whom Nora has just encountered after an absence of many years, tells Nora that her marriage has been an unhappy one (I use throughout Michael Meyers excellent translations):
Nora: Tell me, is it really true that you didnt love your husband? . . .
In Ghosts, too, marriage for money is a prominent theme. The carpenter Engstrand suggests to Regina, who at this point thinks she is his daughter, that she should marry for that reason. After all, he himself married Reginas mother for money. Like Regina, she had been a servant in the Alving household, until Lieutenant Alving got her pregnant. Mrs. Alving discharged her, giving her some money before she left, and then Engstrand married her. Pastor Manders discusses the matter with Lieutenant Alvings widow:
Manders: How much was it you gave the girl?
The implication is that the transaction would have been reasonable, in the eyes of the respectable pastor, if the sum had been larger: as large as the sum that had bought Mrs. Alving. At the plays outset, when she is making arrangements for the opening of an orphanage named in memory of her husband, she explains something to Pastor Manders:
Mrs. Alving: The annual donations that I have made to this Orphanage add up to the sum . . . which made Lieutenant Alving, in his day, a good match.
Hedda Gabler alludes only slightly less directly to the mercenary motive of marriage. Mrs. Elvsted is another old acquaintance of the main female character, who turns up after an absence of many years and has had an unhappy marriage. She went to Mr. Elvsted as a housekeeper and, after the death of his first wife, married him:
Hedda: But he loves you, surely? In his own way?
Marriage, then, is a financial bargain, and a pretty poor oneat least for women. But, of course, there are other reasons for marital unhappiness, especially the irreducible incompatibility of man and wife. In fact, any apparent happiness is a facade or a lie, maintained by social pressure.
In A Dolls House, for example, Nora appears at first to be happily married to Torvald Helmer, a young lawyer on his way up. Helmer treats her like a little girl, sometimes chiding and sometimes indulging her, but never taking her seriously as an adult; and she plays along, acting the featherbrained young woman to almost nauseating perfection. Unbeknownst to Helmer, however, Nora has previously saved his life by obtaining a loan, secured by a forged signature, that allowed them to spend a year in Italy, whose warmer climate cured the disease that would have killed him.
When Helmer discovers what she has done, he is not grateful and does not see her forgery as a manifestation of her love for him; on the contrary, he condemns her unmercifully and tells her that she is not fit to be mother to their three children. In fact, Helmer interprets the episode as if he were the lawyer prosecuting her rather than her husband.
The scales fall from Noras eyes. Their life together, she sees, has been not only an outward but an inward sham: he is not the man that she, blinded by her acceptance of the social role assigned to her, took him for. She tells him that she is leaving him; and although Helmer offers a more adult, equal relationship between them, it is too late.
Undoubtedly, Ibsen was pointing to a genuine and serious problem of the timethe assumed inability of women to lead any but a domestic existence, without intellectual content (and, in fact, the play was based upon a real case). But if this were its principal moral focus, the play would have lost its impact by now, since the point has long been conceded. Ibsen was not, in fact, a devotee of womens rights: addressing a conference on the subject in Oslo, he said, I have never written any play to further a social purpose. . . . I am not even very sure what Womens Rights really are. With no faith in legislative or institutional solutions to problems, Ibsen had a much larger target: the change of people from within, so that they might finally express their true nature unmediated by the distortions of society.
In Ghosts, Mrs. Alvings marriage is unhappy not just because she was bought. Her husband was a philandering alcoholic, and she fled from him after a year of marriage, taking refuge in Pastor Manderss house. Although Manders and Mrs. Alving felt a mutual attractionindeed, fell in lovethe pastor persuaded her that she had a religious duty to return to her husband. Despite Alvings promise to change, which at the beginning of the play Pastor Manders believes that he kept, Alving continued his dissolute ways until his death. Mrs. Alving made it her task to conceal his conduct from the world and from her son, Oswald. But when Alving impregnated the servant with Regina (who is thus Oswalds half-sister), she sent Oswald away and would not allow him to return home while Alving was still alive. While Alving drank himself to death, Mrs. Alving made a success of his estatea success that she allowed to be attributed to Alving, permitting him to die in the odor not only of sanctity but of success.
The lies of Mrs. Alvings life spring from the false sense of shamewhat will others say?that traps her into returning to Alving and into covering up for him. Similarly, Manders, as Ibsen portrays him, represents a bogus moralism, in whose code appearance is more important than reality or inner meaning, and avoidance of shame is a better guide to conduct than conscience. This code leads Manders to make wrong decisions even in banal practical mattersfor example, whether the orphanage should be insured or not. He discusses this question with Mrs. Alving, noting that there had nearly been a fire there the day before. Mrs. Alving concludes that the orphanage should be insured. But then Manders indulges in a little oily and dishonest sanctimony:
Manders: Ah, but wait a minute, Mrs. Alving. Let us consider this question a little more closely. . . . The Orphanage is, so to speak, to be consecrated to a higher purpose. . . . As far as I personally am concerned, I see nothing offensive in securing ourselves against all eventualities. . . . But what is the feeling among the local people out here? . . . Are there many people with the right to an opinion . . . who might take offence? . . . I am thinking chiefly of people sufficiently independent and influential to make it impossible for one to ignore their opinions altogether. . . . You see! In town we have a great many such people. Followers of other denominations. People might very easily come to the conclusion that neither you nor I have sufficient trust in the ordinance of a Higher Power. . . . I knowmy conscience is clear, that is true. But all the same, we couldnt prevent a false and unfavourable interpretation being placed on our action. . . . And I cant altogether close my eyes to the difficultI might even say deeply embarrassingposition in which I might find myself.
Of course, the opinions of the people whom Manders is propitiating are just as bogus as his own; and when, the next day, the orphanage does in fact burn down, because of Manderss carelessness with a candle, he not only deems it Gods judgment on the Alving family but is clearly worried more about his own reputation than about anything else. In fact, he finds someone elseEngstrand, the carpenterwilling to take the blame for what he has done. Manders has no conscience, only a fear of what others will say.
His explanation of why he persuaded Mrs. Alving to return to her husband displays the same pharisaical fear of public opinion:
Manders: . . . a wife is not appointed to be her husbands judge. It was your duty humbly to bear that cross which a higher will had seen fit to assign to you. But instead you . . . hazard your good name, and very nearly ruin the reputation of others.
Once again, there can be no doubt that Ibsen has most accurately put his finger on a pseudo-morality in which shame or social disapproval takes the place of personal conscience or true moral principle, and in whose name peopleespecially womenare made to suffer misery, degradation, and even violence. This is no mere figment of Ibsens imagination. Indeed, I have observed the consequences of the operation of this pseudo-morality among my young Muslim patients, who are made to suffer the torments of a living hell and are sometimes even killed by their male relatives, solely to preserve the good name of the family in the opinion of others.
By no means, then, was Ibsen exaggerating. When he said that his fellow countrymen were a nation of serfs living in a free country, he meant that their fear of shame and notions of respectability enslaved and oppressed them, even in a land without political oppression.
The third of these portraits of unhappy marriages, Hedda Gabler, is the least interesting because it is implausible. Hedda Gabler, the daughter of a general, marries beneath herself, choosing an intellectual who hopes for a chair at the university, though he is actually a petty pedant, without originality or flair. In fact, he is such a milksop, such a pathetic ninny, that it is hard to believe that Hedda, with her very high conception of her own abilities and entitlements, would have married him in the first place. It is therefore difficult to take her consequent travails very seriously. But she ends up killing herself, because life, with the bourgeois options it currently offers her, is not worth living.
It is in A Dolls House and Ghosts that Ibsen offers us not just criticisms but positive prescriptions. And it is because his prescriptions are those of the 1960s, though written 80 years earlier, that we find him still so astonishingly modern and prescient.
When, in A Dolls House, Nora tells her husband that she is leaving him, he asks her (just as Pastor Manders would have done) whether she has thought of what other people will say. He then goes on to ask her about her duty:
Helmer: Can you neglect your most sacred duties?
This crucial passage continues with a little psychobabble followed by the justification of radical egotism:
Nora: I have another duty which is equally sacred.
Nora goes on to explain that she is first and foremost a human beingor that, anyway, she must try to become one. (This sentiment reminds one of Marxs view that men will become truly human only after the revolution has brought about the end of class society. All who had gone before, apparentlyand all of Marxs contemporarieswere less than truly human. Little wonder that untold millions were done to death by those who shared this philosophy.) So if Nora is not yet a human being, what will make her one? Philosophical autonomy is the answer:
Nora: . . . Im no longer prepared to accept what people say and whats written in books. I must think things out for myself and try to find my own answer.
And the criterion she is to use, to judge whether her own answer is correct, is whether it is rightor anyway, whether it is right for me. Postmodernism is not so very modern after all, it seems: Ibsen got there first.
Moments later, Nora makes clear what the consequences of her new freedom are:
Nora: I dont want to see the children. . . . As I am now I can be nothing to them.
And with these chilling words, she severs all connection with her three children, forever. Her duty to herself leaves no room for a moments thought for them. They are as dust in the balance.
When, as I have, you have met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people abandoned in their childhood by one or both of their parents, on essentially the same grounds (I need my own space), and you have seen the lasting despair and damage that such abandonment causes, you cannot read or see A Dolls House without anger and revulsion. Now we see what Ibsen meant when he said that womens rights were of no fundamental interest to him. He was out to promote something much more important: universal egotism.
It is clear from Ghosts as well that Ibsen conceived of a society in which everyone was his own Descartes, working out everything from first principlesor at least what he or she believed to be first principles. For example, when Pastor Manders arrives for the first time in Mrs. Alvings house, he finds some books that he considers dangerously liberal:
Mrs. Alving: But what do you object to in these books?
Coming from a character whom Ibsen scorns as ridiculous and bigoted, these words, which contain an obvious truth, are meant to be rejected out of hand. In Ibsens philosophy, everyoneat least Natures aristocrats, for in fact Ibsen was no egalitarian or democratmust examine every question for himself and arrive at his own answer: for example, whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is historically trueor at least historically true for him.
The object, or at least the obvious consequence, of such independence of judgment is the breakdown of the artificial, socially constructed barriers that constrain behavior and (in theory) prevent people from reaching a state of complete happiness, which is to say absence of frustration. Unhappiness in all the plays results from not having followed the hearts inclinations, either by not doing what one wants, or by doing what one does not want, all to comply with some social obligation enforced by the Pastor Manderses of the world:
Manders: . . . your marriage was celebrated in an orderly fashion and in full accordance with the law.
Mrs. Alvings son, Oswald, has returned home from Paris not only to attend the opening of the orphanage named for his father, but also because he is ill, with tertiary syphilis. He is destined to die soon in a state either of madness or dementia, according to the Parisian specialist (French syphilologists knew more about the disease than any other doctors in the world, and Ibsen was always well informed about medical matters).
At first, Oswaldstill believing that his father was a fine, upstanding manconcludes that he contracted the disease by his own conduct. In fact, he has congenital syphilis, passed on by his father. (It was formerly objected that Oswald could not have caught syphilis from his father alone, but in fact Oswalds father could have passed on the germs to Oswald through his mother, infecting her only with a subclinical case.) For her part, Mrs. Alving is in no doubt that society is responsible for her husbands (and thus her sons) disease:
Mrs. Alving: And this happy, carefree childfor he [Alving] was like a child, thenhad to live here in a little town that had no joy to offer him. . . . And in the end the inevitable happened. . . . Your poor father never found any outlet for the joy of life that was in him. And I didnt bring any sunshine into his home. . . . They had taught me about duty and things like that and I sat here for too long believing in them. In the end everything became a matter of dutymy duty, and his duty, andIm afraid I made his home intolerable for your poor father.
The way of avoiding such tragedies is for everyone to follow his own inclinations, more or less as they arise.
Only associations free of institutional constraint will set men free. Earlier in the play, Oswald has described to the scandalized Manders the informal families among whom he mixed in bohemian Paris, after Manders tells Mrs. Alving that Oswald has never had the opportunity to know a real home.
Oswald: I beg your pardon, sir, but there youre quite mistaken.
We go on to learn that these informal families, precisely because they are based not upon convention, duty, or social pressure but upon unconstrained love, are not only equal to conventional families but much superior. Oswald talks of the peace and harmony that he found among them: I have never heard an offensive word there, far less ever witnessed anything that could be called immoral.
And he adds:
Oswald: No; do you know when and where I have encountered immorality in artistic circles?
Not only are informal arrangements happier, therefore, than formal ones, but they prevent the spread of the very syphilis from which Oswald suffers. Suffice it to say that this has not been my experience of the last 15 years of medical practice.
The rightindeed, the dutyof everyone to decide his own moral principles and to decide what is right for him, without the Ghosts of the past to misguide him, leads Mrs. Alving to approve of incest, if incest is what makes people happy. While Oswald is still unaware that Regina is his half-sister, he falls in love with her (very quickly, it must be said), and she with him. He wants to marry her.
Mrs. Alving discusses the matter with Manders, who by now is aware of the consanguinity of Oswald and Regina:
Manders: . . . That would be dreadful.
This is an argument typical of people who wish to abolish boundaries: if these boundaries are notbecause they cannot beadhered to with perfect consistency, then they should be obliterated, as they can only give rise to hypocrisy. Mrs. Alving adds the kind of smart-aleck comment that has ever been the stock-in-trade of those to whom boundaries are so irksome: Well, we all stem from a relationship of that kind, so we are told.
It is not that Mrs. Alving fails to believe in right and wrong. But what is wrong is betrayal of ones inclinations. When Manders describes his painful self-control in sending her back to her husband when he was in love with her himself, he asks whether that was a crime. Mrs. Alving replies, Yes, I think so.
By the end of the play, Oswald has asked his mother to kill him with a morphine injection if he has another attack of madness or dementia. In the last scene, Oswald does have such an attack, and Mrs. Alvings last words in the play, concerning this act of euthanasia, are, No; no; no! Yes! No; no! We never find out whether she goes ahead, and Ibsen refused to say. But he clearly saw it as a matter for everyone to make up his own mind about, to work out for himself, free of legalwhich is to say, conventional and institutionalguidance.
The modernity of Ibsens thought hardly needs further emphasis. The elevation of emotion over principle, of inclination over duty, of rights over responsibilities, of ego over the claims of others; the impatience with boundaries and the promotion of the self as the measure of all things: what could be more modern or gratifying to our current sensibility? Not surprisingly, Ibsen regarded youth rather than age as the fount of wisdom. Youth, he assures us, has an instinctive genius which unconsciously hits upon the right answer.
And Ibsen was profoundly modern in another respect too. In his own existence, he was very conventional. Although attracted to women other than his wife, he always resisted temptation; he dressed correctly; he ostentatiously wore the decorations awarded him by the crowned heads of Europewhich, notoriously, he solicited. He was extremely cautious and careful with money. His habits and tastes were profoundly bourgeois, and he was regular in his habits to the point of rigidity. He could be extremely prickly when he felt his own dignity affronted, and he was a great lover of formality. His wife called him Ibsen, and he signed his letters to her Henrik Ibsen, not Henrik.
His character was formed in an atmosphere of Protestant Pietism. He was inhibited to a degree unusual even among his compatriots. As a child, he experienced the trauma of his fathers bankruptcy and the descent from prosperity and social respect to poverty and humiliation. He both hated the society in which he grew up and craved high status within it.
Ibsens character was fixed, but he longed to be different. He was Calvin wanting to be Dionysius. If he couldnt change himself, at least he could change others, and society itself. Like many modern intellectuals, he had difficulty distinguishing his personal problems and neuroses from social problems. Shortly before he wrote Ghosts, his son, Sigurd, who had lived almost all his life abroad, had been refused admission to Christiania (Oslo) University by the governing ecclesiastical authorities until he had met such entry requirements as a test of proficiency in Norwegian. Ibsen was furious. He wrote, I shall raise a memorial to that black band of theologians. And he didPastor Manders.
There is no evidence that Ibsen ever thought, much less cared, about the effect of his principles on society as a whole. This indifference is hardly surprising, given that he thought that nothing good could come of the great herd of mankind, which he termed the majority, the masses, the mob. He believed that he himself belonged to an aristocracy of intellect, and it is of course in the nature of aristocrats that they should have privileges not accorded to others. But whether we like it or not, we live in a democratic age, when the privileges claimed by some will soon be claimed by all. The charmingly insouciant free love of bohemians is soon enough transmuted into the violent chaos of the slums.
[Ghosts] contains the future, said Ibsen. He also said that he is most right who is most in tune with the future. But he did not display any interest or foresight into what that future might contain: for him, not whatever is, is right, but whatever will be, is right. Whether the scores of millions who suffered and died in the twentieth century because of the destruction of moral boundaries would have agreed with him is another matter.