Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ibsen and the Name-of-the-Father

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ibsen and the Name-of-the-Father

Article excerpt

In the final scene of Samfundets stotter [Pillars of Society], Bernick, the town's leading citizen and ideal father, learns the dangers of having his name in lights. In Et dukkehjem [A Doll House], Nora forges the name of her father and risks damaging her husband's good name, and in Gengangere [Ghosts], Helene Alving builds an orphanage in her husband's name in order to rid herself of his legacy. In these plays, Henrik Ibsen offers remarkable insight into the nineteenth-century preoccupation with the family and the role of the father. Equally impressive, however, is Ibsen's correlation of the male family name with the rise and fall of the patriarch's authority. Jacques Lacan uses the phrase "Name-of-the-Father" ("nom-du-pere") to clarify the authority of the father and the power of the word, and he offers an unusual way for modern readers to gain new insight into Ibsen and his singular awareness of what might be called a nineteenth-century crisis of authority.

After the French revolution in 1789, questioning the role of patriarchal father-figures, in all of their various manifestations, became a familiar European preoccupation. Another challenge to the father took a new, perhaps less political, but still equally powerful form in the work of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection could not be put into place without challenging creationism and the traditional Christian belief in a divine Father. During the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, challenges to traditional patriarchal authority ranged from various social, political, and scientific developments to the Women's Movement.

Ibsen's social plays consistency dramatize some of the conflicts chat arose during this century within the nuclear or bourgeois family.(1) A prominent theme within a number of his social dramas is the weakening or displacement of the male protagonist, usually a husband and father whose awareness of his role as a "father figure" shapes his behavior. In Sanfundets stotter (1877), Et dukkehjem (1879), and Gengangere (1881), one discovers an intense questioning or resistance to the role of husband and fadher.(2) Significantly, this questioning is directed not only at the individual male characters (Bernick, Torvald, and Captain Alving) but at the society and the patriarchy which they represent.

In each of Ibsen's first three social dramas, supposedly dominant males turn out to be weak, and each one of these men represents some significant aspect of the local patriarchy. Bernick in Samfundets stotter is a consul and the town's leading citizen; Torvald in Et dukkehjem is a banker and a respected citizen, and in Gengangere Captain Alving, before his death, was a member of a powerful family chat symbolized prestige and wealth in his community; Pastor Manders, the living male protagonist in Gengangere, as irritating as he is, represents the church. In each of these plays, in quintessentially Ibsen fashion, dhe or a name of dhe husband/fadher symbolically represents familial and social authority.

When dhe female protagonists challenge patriarchal authority, they do so by undermining in one form or another both dhe dominant male and his family name. One could try to analyze the significance of this rebellion in Freudian terms, but since to some extent Freud can be viewed as one of the last great attempts to preserve the authority of the male and his emblematic phallus, it seems more useful to use Jacques Lacan, the philosopher and teacher who revised and illuminated some of Freud's ideas within the context of modern critical theory.(3)

The following analysis, focusing narrowly on the specific theme of the father, briefly identifies the relevant thematic elements in the plots of Samfundets stotter and Et dukkehjem, then turns to Lacan to suggest the complex significance of the "Name-of-the-Father" in those plays, and, finally, in Gengangere. One sees the first trace of Ibsen's use of the name of the husband/father as a symbol for the destructive elements of the current patriarchal society in Samfundets stotter. …

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