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 Johnson’s, 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 man’s nature to suffer from incompatible desires simultaneously—for 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 imperfectibility—an example of what Dr. Johnson called the triumph of hope over experience. The notion of imperfectibility not only fans existential anxieties, but also—by precluding simple solutions to all human problems—places 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 perfection—which 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 Ibsen’s three most frequently performed plays: A Doll’s 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 Ibsen’s 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 primitive—and 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 traditions—is 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 opposite—that he was almost incandescent with moral purpose. Contemporaries had no doubt of it; and the first book about him in English, Bernard Shaw’s 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, Ibsen’s 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 Ibsenism—20 or 30 years is a long time in the life of a man, but not of mankind—means 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 Ibsen’s 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 Shaw’s word), the inevitable consequence of certain social conventions and institutions. He invites us implicitly, and explicitly in A Doll’s 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 Doll’s 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 Meyer’s excellent translations):

Nora: Tell me, is it really true that you didn’t love your husband? . . .
Mrs. Linde: Well, my mother was still alive; and she was helpless and bedridden. And I had my two little brothers to take care of. I didn’t feel I could say no.
Nora: . . . He was rich then, was he?

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 Regina’s 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 Alving’s widow:

Manders: How much was it you gave the girl?
Mrs. Alving: Fifty pounds.
Manders: Just imagine! To go and marry a fallen woman for a paltry fifty pounds!

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 play’s 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.”
Manders: I understand—
Mrs. Alving: It was the sum with which he bought me.

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?
Mrs. Elvsted: Oh, I don’t know. I think he finds me useful. And then I don’t cost much to keep. I’m cheap.

Marriage, then, is a financial bargain, and a pretty poor one—at 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 Doll’s 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 Nora’s 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 time—the 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 women’s 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 Women’s 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. Alving’s 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 Manders’s house. Although Manders and Mrs. Alving felt a mutual attraction—indeed, fell in love—the pastor persuaded her that she had a religious duty to return to her husband. Despite Alving’s 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 Oswald’s 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 estate—a 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. Alving’s life spring from the false sense of shame—what 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 matters—for 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 know—my conscience is clear, that is true. But all the same, we couldn’t prevent a false and unfavourable interpretation being placed on our action. . . . And I can’t altogether close my eyes to the difficult—I might even say deeply embarrassing—position 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 Manders’s carelessness with a candle, he not only deems it God’s judgment on the Alving family but is clearly worried more about his own reputation than about anything else. In fact, he finds someone else—Engstrand, the carpenter—willing 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 husband’s 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.
Mrs. Alving: Others? Another’s, you mean?
Manders: It was extremely inconsiderate of you to seek refuge with me.

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 people—especially women—are made to suffer misery, degradation, and even violence. This is no mere figment of Ibsen’s 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 Doll’s 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 Doll’s 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?
Nora: What do you call my most sacred duties?
Helmer: Do I have to tell you? Your duties to your husband, and your children.

This crucial passage continues with a little psychobabble followed by the justification of radical egotism:

Nora: I have another duty which is equally sacred.
Helmer: . . . What on earth could that be?
Nora: My duty to myself.

Nora goes on to explain that she is first and foremost a human being—or that, anyway, she must try to become one. (This sentiment reminds one of Marx’s view that men will become truly human only after the revolution has brought about the end of class society. All who had gone before, apparently—and all of Marx’s contemporaries—were 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: . . . I’m no longer prepared to accept what people say and what’s 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 right—“or 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 don’t 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 moment’s 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 Doll’s House without anger and revulsion. Now we see what Ibsen meant when he said that women’s 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 principles—or at least what he or she believed to be first principles. For example, when Pastor Manders arrives for the first time in Mrs. Alving’s house, he finds some books that he considers dangerously liberal:

Mrs. Alving: But what do you object to in these books?
Manders: Object to? You surely don’t imagine I spend my time studying such publications?
Mrs. Alving: In other words, you’ve no idea what you’re condemning?
Manders: I’ve read quite enough about these writings to disapprove of them.
Mrs. Alving: Don’t you think you ought to form your own opinion—?
Manders: My dear Mrs. Alving, there are many occasions in life when one must rely on the judgment of others.

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 Ibsen’s philosophy, everyone—at least Nature’s aristocrats, for in fact Ibsen was no egalitarian or democrat—must examine every question for himself and arrive at his own answer: for example, whether the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is historically true—or 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 heart’s 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. Alving: All this talk about law and order. I often think that is what causes all the unhappiness in the world.

Mrs. Alving’s 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, Oswald—still believing that his father was a fine, upstanding man—concludes 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 Oswald’s 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 husband’s (and thus her son’s) disease:

Mrs. Alving: And this happy, carefree child—for he [Alving] was like a child, then—had 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 didn’t 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 duty—my duty, and his duty, and—I’m 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 you’re quite mistaken.
Manders: Oh? I thought you had spent practically all your time in artistic circles.
Oswald: I have.
Manders: Mostly among young artists.
Oswald: Yes.
Manders: But I thought most of those people lacked the means to support a family and make a home for themselves.
Oswald: Some of them can’t afford to get married, sir.
Manders: Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
Oswald: But that doesn’t mean they can’t have a home. . . .
Manders: But I’m not speaking about bachelor establishments. By a home I mean a family establishment, where a man lives with his wife and children.
Oswald: Quite. Or with his children and their mother.

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?
Manders: No, I don’t, thank heaven.
Oswald: Well, I shall tell you. I have encountered it when one or another of our model husbands and fathers came down to look around a little on their own. . . . Then we learned a few things. Those gentlemen were able to tell us about places and things of which we had never dreamed.

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 right—indeed, the duty—of 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.
Mrs. Alving: If I knew . . . that it would make him happy—
Manders: Yes? What then?
Mrs. Alving: If only I weren’t such an abject coward, I’d say to him: “Marry her, or make what arrangements you please. As long as you’re honest and open about it—”
Manders: . . . You mean a legal marriage! . . . It’s absolutely unheard of—!
Mrs. Alving: Unheard of, did you say? Put your hand on your heart, Pastor Manders, and tell me—do you really believe there aren’t married couples like that to be found in this country?

This is an argument typical of people who wish to abolish boundaries: if these boundaries are not—because they cannot be—adhered 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 one’s 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. Alving’s 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 legal—which is to say, conventional and institutional—guidance.

The modernity of Ibsen’s 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 Europe—which, 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 father’s 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.

Ibsen’s character was fixed, but he longed to be different. He was Calvin wanting to be Dionysius. If he couldn’t 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 did—Pastor 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.

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