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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen-Free Book Notes
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AUTHOR'S STYLE

After finishing an earlier play, Ibsen wrote a letter saying, "We are no longer living in the age of Shakespeare... what I desired to depict were human beings, and therefore I would not let them talk the language of the gods." This doesn't seem unusual to us today because we expect the major characters in contemporary plays and movies to speak in everyday language. But in Ibsen's day the use of common speech was shocking. Writers in the mid-1800s were largely devoted to the tradition requiring plays to be about larger-than-life heroes who spoke grand and noble language. Even Ibsen's early plays were about heroic events and contained dialogue filled with poetry.

But later he wanted to do something different. He wanted to write realistic plays about the average middle-class people who made up his audience and who spoke the way they did. In A Doll's House, the characters use everyday vocabulary and colloquial expressions. They interrupt each other, correct themselves, and speak in incomplete sentences. This switch to realistic dialogue is considered one of the major breakthroughs in the development of modern drama.


It's also important to note that Ibsen was writing in Dano- Norwegian. For centuries, Norway's art and literature had been heavily influenced by Denmark. Even when a group of authors finally started a Norwegian writers' society, they met in Denmark. Then in the 1800s, Norwegians became very nationalistic. They wanted their own art and their own language. In those days there were only two languages to choose from: a mixture of peasant dialects or a refined mixture of Norwegian and Danish. Ibsen was part of the first generation who had grown up speaking and writing Dano-Norwegian. (Today in Norway, even Ibsen's language sounds old-fashioned and stilted because the language has reduced the amount of Danish and increased the amount of colloquial Norwegian.)

There are several notable differences between Ibsen's original language and English translations. English has many synonyms and uses many modifiers. Dano-Norwegian, on the other hand, tends to be simpler, using fewer words and adjectives. It will use a few very brief, strong images, instead of effusive descriptions. This is evident in A Doll's House in several ways. There are very few metaphors (elaborate word comparisons) or descriptive adjectives. The sparse language lends itself to understatement and to multilevel meanings for single words. Much of the humor comes from understanding the layers of different meaning. Ibsen adds his own strict control of language to this natural Norwegian economy. None of the dialogue is superfluous; it is all packed with meaning. In fact, often the dialogue means more than the character knows it means! An example of this "loaded" dialogue occurs when Torvald talks about how an immoral parent poisons the whole family. He is referring to Krogstad, but Nora's replies refer to herself.

The differences between English and Norwegian make Ibsen's plays somewhat difficult to translate. Ibsen's own wish was "that the dialogue in the translations be kept as close to everyday, ordinary speech as possible." One difficulty, for example, is that Norwegian doesn't use contractions, but English without contractions sounds dry and stilted. Most modern translators try to keep Ibsen's text close to everyday English and the spirit, if not the word, of the original. This means that phrases may change from earlier to later translations depending on current usage. Also, be aware that some versions available in America are British and use distinctly British speech patterns.

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