The House of Dolls

For “man-hating” feminists Meghan and Vicky 😉 

Words matter. Let’s talk about Henrik Ibsen’s “Et dukkehjem”.

Not “A Doll House”.

And definitely NOT “A Doll’s House”.

“Et dukkehjem”.


The dramatic essence of the play: Nora realizes her husband Torvald is not who she was happy to believe he was- and  that she also doesn’t know who she is HERSELF! She lives in  a system that has never let her figure out her identity. The system has done all the figuring out for her already, and she must break out of the system  to stop being a doll, a puppet, a toy. To become a human who understands herself on her own terms.

Calling the play “A Doll House” in English connotes right away that this is a play about Nora, the doll. Because isn’t that what you think of when I say the word “doll”? A doll is representation of a woman. Women of certain looks get called “dolls.” This is the house in which there is a woman who is a doll.

That’s not quite what Ibsen was going for. What Ibsen is thinking of as a “doll” is an artificial object that represents a human being. A Doll House is a popular children’s toy that replicates a traditional household, and that contains within its architecture a variety of dolls. Dad dolls, mom dolls, baby dolls, teenager dolls (the concept of teenagers emerged long after Ibsen, obviously, but there they were all along!) There’s aunt and uncle dolls. Maybe there’s a visitor doll in the guest room; maybe there’s a doctor doll that stops by, or a banker doll that lives down the street. There’s even DOG dolls.

If you saw anything feminine in the title “A Doll House”, and most people would, you’re misunderstanding Ibsen’s title- and therefore you’re misunderstanding Ibsen’s play.

It is definitely NOT “A Doll’s House.”


“A Doll’s House” is about a doll who owns a house. But Nora does NOT own a house. Nora owns NOTHING. She doesn’t own herself, which is why she must step outside of the house. Guess what? Torvald doesn’t own the house either. Torvald is CONTAINED within the house.

This is important, because no one OWNS this doll house. The dollhouse contains and imprisons the dolls within it.

The best English title I can think of is “The House of Dolls,” but I still feel it infuses the title with a femininity that is not supposed to be there. “The House of Toys” is too playful, “The House of Puppets” gives away the game.

You get the point. What the title is trying to convey is ARTIFICE. Fake. This is a house where people are being fake, and not allowed to be human beings.

Ibsen was a little confused when the women’s rights movement took up his play as political inspiration. In a speech given to the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights in 1898, a flattered Ibsen insisted on the point that he wasn’t strictly a women’s rights campaigners, a feminist. He said he “must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement,” since he wrote “without any conscious thought of making propaganda,” his task having been “the description of humanity.”

He meant that. He didn’t write a play about one woman. He wrote a play about a variety of characters, male and female. When one reads the play ONLY as a feminist play, one is missing out on many  of the points that Ibsen was making. It is easy to see why Ibsen would be bothered by this; he constructed a very meticulous, dollhouse-y play to say something very specific and profound, and his point was being ignored because the feminists who loved the play only saw it as a feminist play about a woman who wakes up to the truth of her oppression. This is what an -ism does. It FORCES a limited perspective. One sees things clearly along one narrow path, which feels powerful and gives a sense of clarity, but it is actually a BLINDING force. An -ism BLINDS you to the rest of the spectrum, and it makes you misunderstand reality.

By embracin an -ism, the feminists were misunderstanding the play entirely. It is NOT about a woman. It’s about a SOCIETY. It’s about a DOLLHOUSE, not a specific doll within it. Ibsen wasn’t AGAINST the women who loved the play. He wasn’t OFFENDED that he would be called a feminist. He wasn’t DISMISSING the feminists, whose efforts he supported, he was inviting the feminists to see MORE of the world, and understand the play he actually wrote, which they weren’t doing. They misunderstood it. He was MORE than a feminist. By labeling him a feminist, they were taking AWAY from him.  He wanted the women to understand the play BETTER and SEE THE ENTIRETY of the play; not just one forced perspective, one particular angle. Because the play Ibsen wrote is ALSO about a man who has to fulfill an impossible role, a good man who is trapped and reduced into hypocrisy and shame by a system that never gave him a chance, because it forced him to pretend that he was always chivalrous and powerful and capable of providing for his wife and endlessly satisfying her needs and whims. The system asked him to be a doll, and never allowed him to be a real human being.

If you are a feminist, you’re seeing LESS of the play, you’re understanding LESS of the play than what Ibsen wanted you to understand. He wanted to show you the world. You refused. You’re being willfully ignorant.

If a parallel “meninist” came along and, accurately, told you that this play is actually the story of a good man who gets abandoned by a wife the moment he exhibits a sign of humanity and steps out of the role the system forces him to play, you would be confused at best, upset at worst. But the meninist isn’t wrong, it’s just that he’s also BLINDED by his -ism, by his forced perspective. He would be misunderstanding the play too.

And if a misogynist watches the play, he could accurately say that it’s a play about a gold-digging, cheating bitch who runs out on her husband and her kids, because that’s what women do, just run out of difficult situations with their tail between their legs.

And if a Marxist watches the play, they could accurately say that it’s about how the bourgeois obsession with money and materialistic possession makes people turn on each other, while the bankers capitalize on their little domestic drama.

And if a Southern Baptist watches the play, they could accurately say that it’s about how a couple that doesn’t truly have Jesus in their lives and doesn’t pray together a single time for the duration of the play is obviously destined for ruin.

And if a positive critic watches the play, they could say that it’s a powerful depiction of the falsehood of social constructs. And Ibsen would be very happy.

And if a negative critic watches the play, they could say that it is pretty contrived and obvious in its intentions, and it is about as childish as the dollhouse it’s trying to represent. And Ibsen would be sad.

And if a racist saw it, the racist might say: “WELL, at least all the characters are of pure Nordic stock.”

And if another kind of racist saw it, the racist might say: “How come there are no black people in this house at all? Where is the diversity?”

And a pragmatist would reply: “What? It’s set on Norway in the 1800s, why WOULD there be any black people in the house?”

The list goes on forever.

One can easily see why ALL the other -isms that aren’t OURS are off the mark, or missing the point, or incomplete, or wrong. One can easily see that ALL the other people who adopt -isms are blinding themselves to the truth.

Except our -ism, of course. The -ism we chose is the one that let’s us actually see the truth, right?


Our -isms are exactly as false as the next -isms, and for exactly the same reason. They are a deliberate, narrow-minded choice to not see MORE of life. To see LESS. To UNDERSTAND less.

We are all limited in perspective. Always. But when we OURSELVES willingly limit our perspectives by focusing on a borrowed dogma, we are blinding ourselves not only to most of reality, but to our own internal possibilities to create new rules by which we can live our lives and take control of our lives instead of being powerless. By going into a system, we are being dolls. The best thing we can do as human beings is to be as appreciative of our reality as possible, and to open our eyes as much as possible, and see as much of our dollhouse as possible. But to see our dollhouse, we have to step OUT of our dollhouse, out of our belief systems. And only THEN we can actually start figuring out who we are.

At that point, we will stop worrying about what someone else thinks we should be, and what kind of doll we should be, and we will be rid of all our fears, because we will have learned to love ourselves.

When you love yourself, you automatically start loving others.

When you love others, you don’t hate them and you don’t fear them.


Damn. I’m a love-ist.

But you know what? Love is a much better form of blindness than hate 🙂 Thanks for listening.



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