A Doll’s House

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen; drawing by David Levine

Ibsen could never be agreeable for very long. He seemed to have the fat of choler in his bloodstream, all of it collecting there from a youth as bitter, homely, and humiliating as a man could endure. Fate kept this large mind and angry ambition working as a druggist from the age of sixteen to twenty-two in the freezing cold of the little town of Grimstad. Well-named. He was sore at his family because they were worse than poor; they had gone from being well-enough off to a great diminishment—the kind of reversal that stood out like a birthmark in the nosy, petty provincial world of Ibsen’s life, and of his plays.

The Ibsen family had to move from town to a miserable little farm on the outskirts. Father Ibsen had the inclination to bankruptcy and shadiness Ibsen used over and over in his work, and along with it the sardonic wit of a small-town failure who drank too much. Ibsen detested all of them, except perhaps his sister, and he himself suffered some of the hardness of heart of those who cannot come to terms with their families. Ibsen’s mother, according to the biographer Halvdan Koht,1 started out as a sensitive woman who liked music and painting, but all her soul and energy soon sank into caring for her children and patiently enduring the bankrupt-prone father and his drunken-evening nonsense. It might be thought from Ibsen’s interesting women characters that he felt some special love for his mother. It was not so simple as that. When his sister wrote that his mother had died, he didn’t answer the letter for four months.

Still, he had learned everything and his ambition managed to feed on his own ill luck. In Hedda Gabler, Tesman says, “But, good heavens, we know nothing of the future!” and Lovborg answers, “No, but there is a thing or two to be said about it all the same.” And so it is with Ibsen. He is guarded, protecting himself from too much feeling, and yet he had a thing or two to say about everything he had experienced. He seemed to have felt a troubled wonder about women that made his literary use of them peculiar, original, and tentative—like a riddle. His wife was devoted and constant and notably strong-minded. When her son was born she announced that was the end of it. No more! And so little Sigurd had no brothers or sisters. Ibsen pondered this, without so far as we know strong emotion; he simply wondered what it might mean about his wife. His mother-in-law had been a novelist. There was a clear, Scandinavian, radical skepticism in the Thoresen family he had married into. For himself, Ibsen liked being away from the detested Norway, writing and writing, and getting a little drunk at night.

As he grew older and well-known, fan mail came from…

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