Henik Ibsen, Pope John Paul and the Battle over Marriage

Kathleen Curran Sweeney FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

Kathleen Sweeney uncovers, in Henrik Ibsen's influential plays, some of the existentialist ideas at the root of the current deconstruction of the family. She shows how some seeds of the needed response have been sown by Pope John Paul II. Miss Sweeney is a freelance writer and graduate of the John Paul II Institute in Washington.

"When Nora closes behind her the door of her doll's house, she opens wide the gate of life for women, and proclaims the revolutionary message that only perfect freedom and communion make a true bond between man and woman, meeting in the open, without lies, without shame, free from the bondage of duty"

On Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama by Emma Goldman.[1]

In the Victorian era in which Henrik Ibsen lived, the plays he wrote shocked many but fascinated others. Today, his ideas on women and marriage are deeply embedded in the culture and taken for granted. What is the validity of his views? Have they borne positive fruit?

Ibsen challenges his theatrical audience to probe more deeply into marital relationships. He seems to question the validity of marriages that, upon examination, appear to be only contracts established for financial reasons or social standing, maintaining a facade of propriety. Complete and open truth between spouses and freedom of choice for women are central values expressed in his plays. His critiques of relationships between men and women opened up serious questions for the culture in which he was writing. Ibsen said he wanted his plays to dramatise the problematic position of women in a male-dominated society. "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society," he wrote.[2] This was indeed a problem toaddress, but unfortunately Ibsen did not provide any positive solutions. Deeper understandings of women and marriage that could be helpful are missing from Ibsen's plays. This lack has led to some poisonous conclusions.

The theme of self-fulfilment of women which pervades several of Ibsen's plays is a theme central to the feminist movement. In our day, Pope John Paul II, in his theology of the body and other writings, has given us a more profound understanding of true fulfilment so that we can answer the questions Ibsen raised in a way that does not undermine marriage but supports it. Let us look at these aspects in a couple of Ibsen's plays and then in the theology of the body.

In A Doll's House, a young married woman, Nora, seems very happily married, in love with her husband Torvald, as he is with her, and delighted with their children. Yet it is clear there are serious defects in the relationships. Torvald is dominating and patronising toward Nora, whom he treats like a child. Nora is constantly telling him little lies and fearful of telling him about money she has borrowed. Her children seem to be playthings for her, just as she seems to be a pretty doll to her husband. Torvald fails to respect his wife and grant her the dignity of mature and responsible womanhood, spoiling her and indulging her, which only stultifies her growth. When he

finds out that Nora's loan transaction involves an illegality which would bring a public scandal, he appears to care more about his own reputation than about Nora, rejecting her in a scathing, angry attack. Nora is shocked at how quickly her own need for understanding and support is ignored in favour of his ego. What is the resolution of this conflict? Instead of portraying an attempt to understand each other better and grow into a more mature love, Ibsen's play ends with Nora abruptly leaving her husband, her children and her home, considering her marriage ended and her husband a stranger and handing back her ring, despite the fact that Torvald apologises for his anger and promises to change. She declares: "I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me.It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer." When Torvald asks her how she can neglect her most sacred duties to her husband and children, Nora responds that her most sacred duty is to herself. She no longer accepts that "before all else, you are a wife and a mother", but believes that "before all else, I am a reasonable human being". She is not sure about religion either and says she will have to find out "if it is true for me".

In this play, Ibsen has correctly pinpointed problems in marriage that call for change: domineering and patronising husbands, failure to acknowledge with respect the intelligence, responsibility and self-direction of wives, dishonesty and childish behaviour, duty without love that can leave a marriage relationship superficial. But the influence of rationalistic and individualistic ideologies results in a failure to find a positive basis for marital love. According to Martha Fletcher Bellinger in her analysis of Ibsen's moral principles, he believed that "we alone can help ourselves; no help can come from without".[3] Can one really "find oneself" alone in a rationalistic search for one's identity and maturity? Or is it rather, as the VaticanII document, Gaudium et Spes, states, that man "cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself". (GS 24)? Before exploring this further, let us look at another play by Ibsen.

In The Lady from the Sea, Dr. Wangel seeks "a true life together" with his wife, Ellida, but for three years there has been an estrangement between them which he is seeking to understand, sensing there is some deep psychological obstacle within his wife. Circumstances arise that lead Ellida to tell Wangel about a strange alliance with a seaman which she had entered into before her marriage to the doctor. This seaman, who had visited her village, had an understanding of the sea that Ellida shared with him, such that they seemed soul-mates and agreed to an engagement which the seaman enacted by putting each of their rings on a key-ring and tossing it into the sea. Then he had to leave with his ship but he promised he would return for her as soon as he could.

Afterwards, Ellida realised that this had been "mad and meaningless" and wrote to the seaman that all was finished between them. When Dr. Wangel came to her village and proposed, she accepted. Yet the strange man from the sea continued to have a strange "power over my mind," Ellida told Wangel and after experiencing a mysterious dream, she lived with "the dread of the strange man".

When this seamen suddenly appears from a ship that arrives in their town and comes to claim her according to their promise to each other, Ellida is alarmed and Wangel wants to protect her. But Ellida feels she must face the seaman and make a free decision about marriage. She seems to be full of contradictory feelings, telling Wangel, "I love no one but you," yet also saying to him, "You came out there [to her village] and bought me. I accepted the bargain and sold myself to you.... It was not of my own free will that I went with you... the secret lies in those words...I see that the life we two live together is really no marriage.... We should release each other of our own free will-to cry off the bargain." Wangel protests, "I have no right to set you free. I exercise my right to and myduty to protect you... You have no right to choose, no right without my permission." But Ellida, says, "you can never prevent the choice... The longings and desires of my soul-you cannot bind these...." Wangel asks her if she wants a divorce, but Ellida responds that "It is not formalities like these I care about. Such outward things don't really matter, I think. What I want is that we should release each other, of our own free will."

When the seaman arrives at their house, he says: "Both Ellida and I agreed that what we did should have all the strength and authority of a real and true marriage.... If Ellida wishes to be with me, she must come of her own free will." The turning point in this drama comes when Wangel says: "I cry off our bargain. Now you can choose your own fate in perfect freedom." Ellida now feels this changes everything, and she freely chooses to stay with Wangel, telling the seaman: "Your will has no power over me now." The seaman responds: "There is something here stronger than my will..."

What is being said in this scenario? What is being considered as the basis for a true marriage? The main character Ellida asserts that the formalities of a wedding ceremony are irrelevant and that a traditional marriage may only be a financial contract, a "bargain" that one can "cry off." The seamen makes the assumption that a freely given promise can be just as binding as a marriage. What is most valued is freedom of choice. Neither the romantic passion of the seaman, which had a "strange power over her" such that she felt she had no will of her own "when he was near," nor the marriage with Dr. Wangel, which Ellida thought she had made for financial and social reasons, made a space for a truly free choice, the play implies.

Missing from this, or perhaps purposely excised, is the Christian understanding of marriage as an institution established by God, a sacramental reality in the Church, ordered to the happiness and spiritual growth of the spouses and to the procreation of children for the good of society. Also missing is a recognition of the importance of the vow taken in a formal marriage ceremony in the presence of witnesses. This vow and these witnesses show the recognition of their importance to marriage and family by both Church and State. The indissolubility of this union of man and woman guarantees that children will be raised by a mother and father whose love will seek to prepare them for their contribution to society and to the building up of the kingdom of God. Peace and security for the couple'slove is underwritten by the permanence of the relationship sealed by the vow before witnesses. Moreover, the fidelity of a married couple is called to be an image of God's fidelity to His people. The marriage of baptised Christians is an image and participation in the total self-giving love by which Christ gave himself to the Church as her Spouse, accomplished in his sacrificial death on the Cross.

The marital relationship, therefore, is not just a private arrangement. While deeply personal and intimate, it is also ordered to the good of the Church and of the whole society. Vatican II states that "the well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of marriage and the family".[4] John Paul II pithily summarises this in Familiaris Consortio (75): "The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family." The family is where the character and virtue of society's members are formed. Yet in Ibsen's plays, the highest value the characters express is the individual's freedom of choice, regardless of when or how it is exerted or with what consequences.We should recall that the importance of free consent in the making of a marriage vow has been insisted upon by the Church just as much as the permanence and indissolubility of a valid marriage. Moreover, within the nourishment of grace that the Church provides, marriage attains the freedom to become what it is called to be: "the most effective means for humanising and personalising society",[5] which includes the married couple themselves, their children, relatives, friends and the wider society. It is also called to be a means by which the couple and their children help each other reach their final destiny of eternal life with God.

A further issue for marriage is raised in this play by the characters Lyngstrand, a young man with artistic yearnings, and Bolette, Dr. Wangel's daughter by an earlier marriage.

Lyngstrand: "A woman should gradually change until she is like her husband."

Bolette: "Has it never occurred to you that the man too might be drawn over to his wife in this way? Grow like her, I mean?"

Lyngstrand: "No, man has a calling in life that he lives for. She must live for his [calling]."

Bolette: Oh, you don't know how really selfish you are!"

Later, Bolette, in remarking about her desire to read in order to know something about the world, likens her life to the carp in their pond in contrast to the wild fish of the open sea: "We live very much like the carp in the pond. The poor tame domestic fishes know nothing [of the fiord where wild fishes pass in and out]. We've got to be good and live our lives here in the carp pond."

Here we find the theme of women's liberation that runs through several of Ibsen's plays. Does marriage imply the enslavement of women to men and the confining of her abilities to the domestic chores of a household? Much of the feminism movement has been built around this thesis. Certainly a corrective has been needed to an imbalance between men and women that can occur in marriages and in social attitudes. Pope John Paul II has given recognition to this imbalance in his writings such as The Dignity of Woman, and The Genius of Women. But there has also been an exaggeration in the women's liberation movement which has contributed to a breakdown in marriages. What is the solution to these challenges?

Both men and women desire "to find themself" in some way and contemporary culture often suggests this is a search one must do by oneself, isolated from compromising influences. The emphasis is on an individualistic freedom, devoid of content. But such freedom can lead to wrong choices as well as right ones. Freedom is not an absolute in itself. It must be oriented to the good for it to be real freedom - freedom for something. Since this is so, the goal should be to seek what is good, and in this case, what the good of marriage is, what is good in the relationship of man and woman, and what is the good of one's own being.

To address the question of "self-fulfilment", which Ibsen's characters are seeking, we must ask what human fulfilment is. Fulfilment implies a perfection of what one is meant to be. This requires an understanding of the human person's nature and purpose of existence. It is not just a subjective or arbitrary decision, but needs to be grounded in the reality of our existence. Uncertainties about God, creation, the gift of femininity and masculinity, and the destiny of human life to live eternally with God, leave men and women adrift in knowing how to arrive at their own perfection or fulfilment. Morality is often presented as an extrinsic requirement imposed by an external authority or social convention, rather than the realisation of the dignity and purpose intrinsic to human happiness andtrue fulfilment.

Pope John Paul II, in his theology of the body, speaks of self-possession. The first element in self-possession is awareness of my own being standing before God, realising that I exist because God gave me the gift of existence to be the particular person I am. The appropriate response to this reality is gratitude and a sense of responsibility to God for my life. The second element of self-possession is being accepted by another for one's own sake. When a woman is accepted by the man "for her own sake, through her humanity and femininity, she comes to the innermost depth of her own person and to the full possession of herself," John Paul II writes.[6] If she is accepted in this way, she "discovers herself", she can realise that she is a gift toanother and she is drawn to make a gift of herself. The woman's femininity is revealed in the presence of the man and the man's masculinity is revealed in the presence of the woman. This is one of the ways a person "finds himself by making a sincere gift of himself".[7] Thus begins a true communion of persons.

The human person "finds" him or herself through relationships with other persons, which stir an interior response resulting in change and growth into a fuller self. We need each other in order to grow into this fuller self. The child, for example, grows in personality within the home when he is loved, accepted for himself, and given positive challenges. The classic world understood that "anyone is free who belongs to the house; freedom is being at home". The slave is not free because he is not a member of the family. Pope Benedict tells us that St. Augustine learned from his own experience that:

"In the indeterminate and apparent freedom of an existence in which everything was possible but nothing made sense, he was enslaved by an illusory image of freedom: banished from his true self and unfree in an utter lack of relationship that was founded on being distanced from his own self, on separation from the truth of his own self."[8]

When marital relationships are considered within an understanding of creation as gift, and of the gift which the spouse is, then a central key has been found to living these relationships with a firm love and peaceful joy. Why is it that married men and women have difficulty living this conjugal gift in complete happiness? The late pontiff speaks of the "freedom of the gift". For man to be able to give himself, to become a gift, it is indispensable to see freedom as self-mastery.[9] Rather than being willful self-assertion, his gift of self needs to be "disinterested," i.e. not self-centred, but for the sake of the other who was willed by the Creator "for his/her own sake", and who has a destiny in God. Threats to this freedom of the gift ofself are found in the dominance of selfishness (egoism), concupiscence and undue appropriation of the other for one's own purposes. The freedom of self-dominion is an interior freedom. This inferiority of the freedom of the gift is linked to the existence of man and woman as personal subjects, and to their acceptance of each other in the fullness and mystery of the whole person, which includes recognising the particular dignity of being created by God and for God, and an appreciation of the differences between being a female human being and a male human being. A common failure occurs when it is not recognised that the unique gifts of womanhood differ from the particular strengths of men. Another kind of failure can occur when the full dignity of human personhood with its spiritualvocation is not accorded respect or attention.

In John Paul II's analysis of the first chapters of Genesis, he describes the state of "original innocence", in which the man and the woman are free to perceive the full reality of the person of the opposite sex without the "shame" that arose after the first sin. This "shame" is not about nudity but about the nakedness of living without God, which is sin. This sin leads to reducing the other person to "an object for myself". Without sin, it was possible to have the purity and peace of the "interior gaze which creates precisely the fullness of the intimacy of persons".[10] This is what married couples seek, but this fullness is now only possible through grace won by Christ, who came to restore this interior peace and purity (although wecannot return to the first state of innocence since we live in a world corrupted by sin). This is why marriage needs to be lived within the community of grace as a sacramental order of the Church. This is what Christ came to restore from the "hardness of heart" which led Moses to allow divorce (Mt. 19:8). To persevere in this grace, to grow in the love and understanding needed, marriage requires the duration of permanency, the commitment of the vow.

Ibsen's women, Nora and Ellida, are willing to forsake their marriage and ignore the vow that they made in order to assert their own will and self-realisation. But will this assertion bring them true happiness? The views they express call into question the foundation of marriage, the commitment to life-long love of a spouse, the importance of the marriage vow and what is required to make it a valid guarantee of the indissolubility of the marriage. The validity of this vow is not just a vague choice of the mind or a romantic promise. Nor is it an empty formality. It is composed of both an interior freedom of consent to the reality of married life as an indissoluble union, and a concrete consummation of bodily conjugal unity. In the theology of the body, the expression "spousal meaning ofthe body" indicates that the body itself reveals that it is created for the gift of one-flesh unity of man and woman, a gift of the fullness of their humanity, their womanhood and manhood, their destiny in God, and the fruitfulness of children. This concrete, physical reality with its spiritual dimension is not something that can be taken lightly or lightly tossed away. Tearing it apart has painful repercussions, not only for the couple and their children, but also for society. The social fabric is seriously weakened when marriage is destabilised. "What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mt. 19:6).

What is important for a woman in making this commitment and living it out is a strong sense of self-possession rooted in an awareness of her human dignity before God and the importance of the gift of her womanhood in marriage. When this is firm, she will be able to require respect from her husband and to give him respect for his gift of masculinity. Nora appears to have begun her marriage without firm self-possession, but this does not mean she needs to leave her husband to acquire it. If the husband has entered into marriage with a lack of self-mastery over his egoism, concupiscence or domineering attitudes, he can be helped to develop greater respect for the dignity and free personhood of his wife. If a couple realise they started their marriage on a poor basis, it does not follow thatthey can reject their marriage vow; it should lead them to seek the grace to ground their relationship in the real freedom of the truth and goodness of their being, lived for God and for each other. Ibsen's plays notably lack any inference that there is a need for grace, repentance for sin, or forgiveness - all of which are essential for living the reality of indissoluble Christian marriage in a fallen world.

Many of Ibsen's plays end darkly, often with a divorce or suicide ending a relationship. This creates a lack of hope or confidence in the institution of marriage, provides poor models for women, and lacks positive social and moral norms. Nora reacts against being only a wife and mother, and thereby rejects both marriage and family. Rudolf Binion, professor of Modern European History at Brandeis University, quotes Ibsen as saying: "In time, all people will live on the sea when the land becomes swallowed up. Then family life will cease."[11] Ibsen apparently viewed the family as a constriction on the individual, whose nature was to be a free and wild species. "Marriage...has ruined the human race," Ibsen stated.[12] His plays Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, and Wild Duck, for example, contain tragic views of marriage betrayed by characters who are imprisoned in self-centered seeking and lack the real self-possession of a person who knows he is created by God and who "finds himself by making a sincere gift of himself".


[1] Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (Boston: Richard G. Badger. 1914), 25.

[2] Henrik Ibsen, Four Major Plays, Translated by James McFarlane and Jens Arup (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) viii.

[3] Martha Fletcher Bellinger, A Short History of the Drama (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1927), 320.

[4] Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 47.

[5] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortia, 43.

[6] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, A Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), Sec. 17.5.

[7] Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes, 24.

[8] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 57.

[9] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, A Theology of the Body, Sec. 15.2.

[10] Ibid., 13.1.

[11] Rudolph Binion, Past Impersonal (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005) 15. Binion includes Ibsen with a large group of writers of the 1879-1914 period who described catastrophic family situations in their literature. This phenomenon Binion traces to guilty tensions originating in the radically new practice of contraception. "Smaller tighter families, at closer emotional quarters but divided generationally, made for heightened domestic tensions that for the most part got spelled out or acted out only in novels or plays," Binion concludes. In A Doll's House, he notes, "unpregnant Nora, eight years married, her three children all old enough to run on stage, had apparently put a halt to childbearing beforethe curtain rose."

[12] Ibsen, The Wild Duck (New York: Norton, 1968), 83.

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