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Henrik Ibsen

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English Literature

Did you know Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), the Norwegian literary hero, put himself in self-imposed exile in 1862 and left Norway for Italy? During his exile, he wrote his most famous plays including A Doll's House (1879) and Hedda Gabler (1891) which helped the Norwegian playwright become the founder of Modernism in theatre and an influential writer in the prose drama genre.

Modernism in theatre⁠—Henrik Ibsen's plays broke from the traditional style of former playwrights, making him a forerunner in Modernist theatre. By the early 20th century, Modernism in the theatre ranged genres and became especially popular after the end of WWI. Genres of Modernist theatre include Naturalism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Futurism, and Expressionism.

The biography of Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen, Statue of Henrik Ibsen/Henrik Ibsen Biography, StudySmarterStatue of Henrik Ibsen, pixabay.com

Henrik Ibsen was born on the 20th of March, 1828 in Skien, Norway, a town known for its timber production. He was the oldest child of a merchant, Knud, and a painter, Marichen. Although Ibsen showed little interest in writing as a child, Ibsen became interested in becoming an artist like his mother. At the age of 8, Ibsen's family faced financial hardships and moved to a run-down farm in Skien. They were forced to sell most of their possessions.

Henrik Ibsen's education

Ibsen left school to go work as an apothecary's apprentice when he was just 15 years old. Whenever Ibsen had a chance he'd write poems and paint. Ibsen was greatly influenced by William Shakespeare, the English playwright. Ibsen wrote his first play Catalina in 1848. In 1850, Ibsen planned to sit for exams at the University of Christiana and moved to the city of Christiana (Oslo). However, he decided he would rather focus on writing than attend university.

Ibsen's writing career, exile, and death

In 1851, Ibsen became friends with a theatre manager named Ole Bull. It was Bull who offered Ibsen a job as a writer and manager for the Norwegian Theatre located in Bergen. Here he learned the tools of the trade and returned to Christiana in 1857 to run a theatre there. However, he was unsuccessful and faced many criticisms, in particular that he was mismanaging the theatre. During this time he wrote the satirical play, Love's Comedy (1862).

Ibsen was disappointed and unhappy with his reception at the theatre and frustrated with the financial hardship felt throughout Norway, and he exiled himself to Italy in 1862. In 1865, Ibsen wrote the tragedy Brand which became famous in Scandinavia, and in 1867 wrote what is considered one of his masterpieces, Peer Gynt. In 1868, Ibsen moved to Germany where he wrote The Pillars of Society followed by his most famous play, A Doll's House (1879). A Doll's House was a social commentary on the traditional role of women in the household; the debates it began made the play irresistible.

Ibsen moved once again to Rome, where he continued to write and rouse interest in his plays. After many successes, including the controversial Ghosts (1881), Ibsen finally decided to return to Norway in 1891. 'Hedda Gabler (1890)' was written during this time and Ibsen's female heroine in the play made Ibsen even more famous, many considering him at this time as a Norwegian literary hero.

Ibsen enjoyed his fame and continued to write until 1899, his writing career culminating with When We Dead Awaken (1899). In 1900, Ibsen suffered several strokes which left him unable to write. He died on May 23, 1906, and the Norwegian Government gave him a state funeral.

The plays of Henrik Ibsen with quotes

Henrik Ibsen, Theatre/Henrik Ibsen Plays, StudySmarterA theatre, pixabay.

Ibsen wrote many plays that challenged societal expectations and pressures especially as they related to social class, the role of women, and the individual. His most famous plays are A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts.

PlaySummaryThemes
A Doll's HouseA three-act play in which Nora Helmer, a wife and mother in a middle-class household, grows dissatisfied with her husband and self-realizes her desire for equality with her husband. Women's equality, False Appearances, Restrictive Gender Roles
Hedda Gabler A four-act play exploring the unsatisfying and repressive life of the newlywed Hedda, who marries George out of pity. Social expectations versus the individual, Repression, Marriage and Love, Patriarchy
Peer Gynt A five-act play that follows the life, downfall, and redemption of a Norwegian peasant named Peer Gynt, who is a bit of an anti-heroPunishment, Religion, Morality
Ghosts Helen Alving dedicates an orphanage to her husband who has died to secure an inheritance for her son Oswald. Mr. Alving was a degenerate and Oswald inherits his disease. Oswald must grapple with his disease. Harsh Reality, Lies, Past haunting the present

Henrik Ibsen: genre, writing style, and major themes

Henrik Ibsen wrote in the Naturalism genre of drama and theatre.

Naturalism (Drama and Theatre)⁠—a literary movement that originated in late 19th century Europe that focused on realistic acting, the environmental and hereditary motivations of characters, and a deep study into the emotions and psychologies of the characters. Another term that can be used is realistic prose drama.

Ibsen's plays are realistic and have realistic settings and characters that could exist off the stage. He often explored the repression and confinement many characters felt due to societal expectations and gender roles, affecting them psychologically and emotionally.

An example can be found in Hedda Gabler. The entire play takes place in the living room of the Tesman household, a realistic setting, and the actors speak naturally and realistically. In addition to realistic settings and speech, naturalism did not include supernatural forces or implausible storylines. In Hedda Gabler, otherworldly creatures never make an entrance, and the plotline is realistic⁠—she is an unhappy and unsatisfied housewife.

Another key characteristic of Naturalism is to dive into the psychology of the characters, such as how the societal expectation of being a dutiful wife drives Hedda to psychological instability.

Writing style

Ibsen broke away from the traditional writings styles of playwrights that came before him. Previously, playwrights focused on writing in meter and rhyme, which Ibsen criticized as being artificial. To make his plays more realistic, he wrote dialogue that flowed naturally and used colloquial language.

Colloquial writing style — The use of familiar and informal language, especially in dialogue.

By using colloquial language, Ibsen's audiences could better relate to the play and the themes explored in the plays.

“NORA: Really? Did a big dog run after you? But it didn’t bite you? No, dogs don’t bite nice little dolly children. You mustn’t look at the parcels, Ivar. What are they? Ah, I daresay you would like to know. No, no—it’s something nasty! (Act One)"

In this excerpt, Nora is speaking to her children. Notice how the conversation jumps topics quickly and doesn't follow any sort of meter or rhyme scheme. It is just how a busy mother would speak to her three children. It is informal and natural.

Major themes

A theme is a central idea or topic that is found throughout a written work. Ibsen explores many themes in his plays, but the two most common themes are women's suffrage and their societal expectations, and the social class divide.

Women's suffrage and societal expectations of women

In the late 19th century when Ibsen was writing his plays, women had little freedom and rights. Women, especially middle-class women, were expected to be dutiful wives and mothers who took care of household chores while men worked.

Without political rights, women were limited in their freedoms, especially financial independence. Many of Ibsen's plays explore a woman's desire for independence from her husband and to break free from society's expectations of a woman. An example of women's suffrage can be found in A Doll's House. Nora, a wife and mother, begins to self-realize her oppressive role as a housewife and begins to explore her individuality, as well as the realization of her husband's hypocrisy.

He expresses desire and care for Nora, wishing he could save her from ruin in some heroic deed, but as soon as he learns of her crime, he insults and demeans her, revealing his true nature (Act 3). This only furthers her desire for freedom from her husband and her expected role as mother and wife. Nora even begins to work in secret, quoting that when she does she "feels like a man" (Act 1).

“I must stand on my own two feet if I'm to get to know myself and the world outside. That's why I can't stay here with you any longer" (A Doll's House, Act 3).

Here Nora, from 'A Doll's House' clearly states her desire for financial and political independence so that she can learn about who she is outside her role as a wife and mother.

Social class divide

Influenced by his financially insecure upbringing, Ibsen often explores the effects of class and status on an individual and the struggles one can face because of class systems. Ibsen never looks at an entire class, rather he focuses on the individual's relationship to class.

In the 19th century, the Bourgeoisie class was rising in status and wealth, the affluence of the aristocratic class was rapidly declining, and those in the working class oftentimes struggled economically, especially in Christiana (Oslo).

Bourgeoisie—(Mid-19th century France) a social class that belonged to the upper-middle class that saw its rise after the fall of the aristocracy. Especially in France, the Bourgeoisie were believers and proponents of liberalism, which meant they wanted greater individual rights and protections, eventually reaching an aristocratic status themselves.

In Ibsen's play, Hedda Gabbler, social class divides are seen. After her father dies and leaves her with no financial support, Hedda must marry someone with wealth and status to maintain her upper-class status.

She uses her affluent last name to manipulate George Tessman, who is of a lower class rank, to marry her, seeing his potential to rise in status. Hedda is disgusted with George and other characters of lower-class rankings showing how a person's social class determined their social acceptance and approval.

Henrik Ibsen facts and quotes

Below are some quotes from the plays of Henrik Ibsen that give us insight into his work as a playwright.

“You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone (Act 5).”

This quote is from Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People and shows Ibsen's stance on the topic of individualism, which he was a strong proponent of.

Helmer: I would gladly work night and day for you. Nora- bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.Nora: It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done (Act 3).”

Quote by Henrik Ibsen from his play A Doll's House. Ibsen wrote about the theme of women's suffrage and sacrifice in many of his plays and in this quote in particular he is showing how her husband cares more about his honor than he does for his wife's needs, while she and other women have sacrificed so much of themselves for their husbands regardless of the situation.

“Do think it quite incomprehensible that a young girl—when it can be done—without any one knowing—should be glad to have a peep, now and then, into a world which—which she is forbidden to know anything about? (Act 2)"

Quote from Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler. Here she shows how the restrictive and oppressive life that women live under the societal expectation that they marry and have children does not satisfy them or make them happy as they dream of learning about the world only men have the privilege to be a part of. Ibsen greatly believed in women's equality and rights.

"What ought a man to be? Well, my short answer is 'himself' (Act 4)"

Quote from Ibsen's Peer Gynt which goes along with Ibsen's belief in individualism. Here, rather than say a man should be honorable or care about his reputation in society, he should be himself and in that way, he will be happy and satisfied with his life.

“OSWALD: For I'm not so afraid of death--though I should like to live as long as I can.MRS. ALVING: Yes, yes, Oswald, you must!OSWALD: But this is so unutterably loathsome (Act 3).”

Quote from Ibsen's play Ghosts in which the son of the protagonist has inherited a mortal disease from his immoral father. He has decided to accept his fate and instead of worrying about death, he will try to live as much as he can. Yet he admits it will be hard. Ibsen often wrote about the harsh realities we face as humans especially when the reality is a consequence of someone else's actions.

Henrik Ibsen interesting facts

  • Ibsen's last words were "To the contrary!" after a nurse told a visitor that Ibsen was feeling a little better from his illness.
  • In 1858, Henrik Ibsen married Suzannah Ibsen (Nee Thoresen). They had one child together named Sigurd. However, this was not Ibsen's only child. In 1846, Ibsen had an illegitimate child, Hans, with his house servant, Else Jensdatter. He supported Hans financially until Hans was 14 years old but never met him.

Henrik Ibsen - Key takeaways

  • Henrik Ibsen was born in Skien, Norway on March 20, 1828. His family fell on hard times financially when Ibsen was 8 years old.
  • A Doll's House would become Ibsen's most famous play, first performed in 1879. He wrote it while living in self-imposed exile in Munich.
  • His plays were controversial as they touched on topics such as women's suffrage and social commentary on class divides. These two themes appear in many of his plays.
  • Ibsen wrote in the naturalism genre and used colloquial language to create more realistic characters and dialogue.
  • Henrik Ibsen is considered the founder of modernism in theatre and the father of prose drama.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen is a Norwegian playwright known for being the founder of modernism in theatre.

There are sources that claim Henrik Ibsen was a socialist, but there are no credible sources where Ibsen identifies as one. 

William Shakespeare and Henrik Wergeland

Henrik Ibsen wrote many plays including A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt, and Ghosts.

A three-act play in which Nora Helmer, a wife and mother in a middle-class household, grows dissatisfied with her husband and self-realizes her desire for equality with her husband.  

Final Henrik Ibsen Quiz

Question

Where was Henrik Ibsen born?

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Answer

In Skien, Norway


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Question

When was Henrik Ibsen born?

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Answer

March 20, 1828

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Why did Ibsen go into self-exile?

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Answer

He was unhappy with his reception at the Bergen theatre and he was frustrated with the financial hardships felt by many throughout Norway.

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What is Henrik Ibsen's most famous play?

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Answer

A Doll's House (1879) 

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When did Henrik Ibsen die?

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May 23, 1906

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What are 4 examples of plats by Henrik Ibsen?

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A Doll's HouseHedda GablerPeer Gynt, and Ghosts.  

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What genre did Henrik Ibsen write in?

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Naturalism (drama and theatre).

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Question

What is naturalism (drama and theatre)?

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Answer

A 19th-century literary movement that focused on realistic acting, the environmental and hereditary motivations of characters, and a deep study into the psychology of characters. 

Show question

Question

What was Henrik Ibsen's writing style?

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Answer

Ibsen wrote dialogue that flowed naturally and used colloquial language.

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What does colloquial mean?

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The use of familiar and informal language, especially in dialogue. 

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What is a theme?

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a central idea or topic that is found throughout a written work 

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What are two common themes in Ibsen's plays?

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Women's suffrage and their societal expectations, and the social class divide are two common themes in Ibsen's plays. 

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What is the Bourgeoisie?

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Answer

A social class that belonged to the upper-middle class that saw its rise after the fall of the aristocracy.

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What is liberalism (19th century)?

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The belief that citizens should get greater individual rights and protections.

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What is the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, the founder of?

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Henrik Ibsen is the founder of Modernism in theatre.

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When was A Doll's House first debuted?

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In 1879

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Who is the author of A Doll's House?

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Henrik Ibsen

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Where is Henrik Ibsen from?

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Skien, Norway

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What is the setting of A Doll's House?

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The Helmers' living room in a Norwegian town.

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What is a foil?

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A character who has contrasting character qualities to another character to emphasize certain features or qualities of a character.  

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What genre is the play A Doll's House?

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realistic prose drama

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What is realistic prose drama?

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A genre of theatre that places realistic characters in realistic situations and the dialogue is written in prose.

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What is prose?

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a writing style in which the writing follows the natural flow of spoken language and grammatical structure. 

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What point of view is used in A Doll's House?

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Third-person point of view

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What is dramatic irony?

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A literary device in which the audience members know something that the character doesn't 

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What is a tone?

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The author's attitude towards the central topic of the text. 

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What tone does Ibsen set in A Doll's House?

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A distant and objective tone

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What are the major themes in A Doll's House?

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The role of women in society and false appearances

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Who is the protagonist of A Doll's House?

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Nora Helmer

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Who is Nora Helmer married to?

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Torvald Helmer

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What does Krogstad use to blackmail Nora?

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The illegal contract with forged signatures Nora used to loan money

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