There are a few repeated claims that always puzzle me when I do my marking.
One of them is that Nora, of A Doll’s House, is subject to Victorian norms.
When a student makes such a claim it’s a grand opportunity for his/her A1 English teacher to gently point out how anglocentric we can be–that ‘we’ can find shared attitudes across cultures, but ‘our’ norms are not everyone else’s, even when they are similar. Why would we assume that 19c Norwegians gained their values, conventions, and sense of etiquette from the UK?
One could, of course, argue that anyone who lived during the reign of Queen Victoria can be considered Victorian, but that argument 1) isn’t made and 2) the definition isn’t very convincing when the most important politics occurring in Norway at the time were between it and Sweden. The English were rather busy elsewhere. Maybe there is a link that I’m unaware of, in which case, please edify me.
Perhaps part of the problem is where students do their reading and research about the literature they study before writing their World Literature assignments. For example, I just did a search and both Wikipedia and the E-notes guide to A Doll’s House use ‘Victorian’ (the latter eight times) in relation to the social milieu in the play.
I’m not saying students shouldn’t read e-notes (or other guides or Wikipedia). They are a starting point. But we do need to strongly urge them to read more widely than that and to assess the claims in sources. Having some relevant hard copy resources put in (the reference sections of) our libraries and reminding students that books exist in paper form is helpful. There are all kinds of interesting factoids they might find useful when interpreting the play.
While the World Literature assignment in itself is not designated as a research exercise, it can’t hurt to get students to do a little background reading and/or viewing about Ibsen, his Norway and women’s place in it.
Personally, I would do this after they have come to the text just by themselves and then set them a partly guided research exercise. This makes it easier for them to recognize how learning about the context of the work (socio-historical, cultural) can help them to come to perhaps better understandings and interpretations, while still honoring their reactions as members of the 21st century with specific personal, familial, cultural, national and regional backgrounds (and these profiles are becoming increasingly complex). It certainly helps them unpack their knower assumptions in a way they might not do otherwise.
This process will be officially built into the ‘new’ Language A Literature course, where students will have orals exploring how their position in time and place differs from what they are encountering in the work prior to doing their ‘supervised writing’.
Of course, there is the danger of students beginning to work too much outside of the text. It’s not uncommon to get introductions which provide the socio-historical context of the work, without giving the reader any clue as to why they are being told what they are being told. Interpretive claims must precede cultural ones. Providing information regarding the cultural background has to be used to help make an argument about why a certain understanding has been reached about an aspect of the work–and it’s always best to provide an authoritative source for this kind of information, in order to be convincing.
So… I would:
- divide them up and have those doing the same question(s) <see below> present their findings as a group.
- ask them to try to corroborate what they have found in more than one source, and to indicate the extent to which they feel they can be sure of the information and why.
- insist that they provide a variety of sources, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ and practice their referencing skills while at it.
- ask them to identify aspects of the play where their understanding has been influenced based on their reading.
I would not give them the ‘answers’, because the whole point of the exercise is for them to approach the work in an exploratory manner and to demonstrate independence of thought.
- Can the people of 19C Norway be considered Victorian? Why or why not?
- What were relations between Sweden and Norway like at the time and why?
- Who was Laura Kieler (maiden name Laura Smith Petersen) and what happened to her?
- What religious assumptions might have been made by the majority of Ibsen’s audience about marriage, men and women?
- What financial rights did women in Norway have/not have in 1879?
- How would divorce have been viewed by the majority of Ibsen’s audience?
- What was required for a couple to get a divorce?
- To what extent could ‘feminism’ be considered a ‘movement’ in Norway at the time Ibsen wrote the play?
- What can you find out about how Ibsen viewed marriage and relationships between men and women?
- Why did the actress who played Nora in Germany refuse to take part until Ibsen changed the ending? How did he change it?
- What was expected of children in relation to their parents at the time and why?
- What was believed about the influence of parents on their children at the time and why?
- Find out what you can about social classes and their relations in Norway.
- What employment opportunities and protection were available to women at the time Ibsen wrote the play? Consider both lower and middle class women.
- Do some research about the origin of Christmas and Christmas trees.
- What can you discover about the Tarantella?
- What else do you find interesting in your reading about Ibsen and Norway of the late 1870s?
- To what extent do you find the above similar and/or different to your own assumptions, experiences, and background?
Finally, it would be great if those who have taught A Doll’s House would add a comment recommending helpful resources they have used with their students.
Thanks in advance!