Truth or illusion? When the fantasy world people create in order to cope with the absurdity of life is brought too far into reality, it becomes hard to distinguish between authenticity and fiction. This ambiguity is apparent in both Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which marital relationships are solely based on illusion. Both couples in the dramas use illusions to avoid feeling the truth and the pain of failures. Yet, in the end, they are forced to wake up from the fake world in which they have lived and by openly expressing their feelings create hope for progress. It is essential to strip away illusion in order to experience life truthfully and fully.The relationship between Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is troubling from the very beginning, for it was founded upon illusion. Martha married George not because of who he really was, but, because of who she imagined he could become. As she tells Nick in the first act, “I got the idea about then of marrying into the college…which didn’t seem to be as stupid as it turned out” (Albee 79). Her father was the president of the College in New Carthage, and Martha, being his only child, hoped to gain control of it herself through marriage. Thus, she married the illusion of George, who also bought into it himself. Yet, when they realized that this illusion is not real, because George didn’t have “the guts to” (Albee 85) succeed her father, their marriage was hurt significantly.Yet, the dominant illusion in George and Martha’s lives lies in the seed of their relationship. Because they couldn’t have any children of their own and lived a miserable life, they decided to create an imaginary child. Thus, the binding force in their relationship is also an illusion. Although Albee does not tell the audience directly of the child’s unreality until the very end, he provides clues that imply this throughout the play. The first hint is provided when George warns Martha not to “start in on the bit about the kid” (Albee 18) as their two a.m. guests arrive at the door. The boy’s physical perfection ‘blond haired, blue eyed’ also foreshadows the fact that he is an illusion. Then, as George and Martha use the kid to attack each other, their bizarre insults adds to the unreality of the boy. Martha first says that George used to make him sick all the time and George counterattacks by claiming that “the real reason our son…used to throw up all the time was… [because] he couldn’t stand… you fiddling at him” (Albee 120). Finally, in the last act when George informs Martha that their son has been “killed” and Martha tells him that he “cannot decide these things” (Albee 232) it becomes apparent, even to Nick, that their son is merely a creation of the mind. Through Martha’s reaction, however, it can be seen that the blurring of illusion and reality can cause something that is solely delusional to have a very real emotional impact.Similarly, in A Doll’s House Nora and Torvald’s whole marriage is built on illusions. The characters’ untruthfulness and dishonesty towards each other marks their whole relationship. This is first revealed when Torvald asks Nora whether or not she broke any rules today and had “taken a bite at a macaroon or two” (Ibsen 6). Despite the fact that the audience had just seen Nora pop macaroons into her mouth as she came in, Nora completely denies it and tells Torvald falsely that “I should not think of going against your wishes” (Ibsen 6). Ibsen uses situational irony here to show that their whole marriage is based on fake appearances.The greatest deception in their relationship, however, is in the form of Nora’s secret debt. When Torvald was ill, she secretly borrowed money from Krogstad in order to travel to a southern climate to improve his condition. Until this day, Nora has not mentioned the matter to her husband and had been secretly repaying the debt, for she claims that Torvald and their marriage cannot sustain the knowledge of this secret. “How painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything. It would upset our mutual relations altogether;” (Ibsen 13). Thus, Torvald’s ‘manly independence’ is only an illusion making the basis by which they treat each other also fake.Illusions are so common in both dramas that they mix in with reality until even the characters find it hard to differentiate between what appears to be true and what is false. In fact, in most of Albee’s play, George and Martha are engaging in emotional and psychological ‘games.’ This becomes evident when Martha says to the bewildered Nick that “there is only one man in my life who has ever…made me happy…George” (Albee 189-190). Despite continuously insulting and humiliating George, Martha still truly loves him. With this paradox Albee hints that their arguments are merely part of a game and that not everything is as it appears to be. Martha supports this idea when she advises Nick that he should not “always deal in appearance” (Albee 190). Furthermore, the only reason Martha seduces Nick is to get George’s attention and make him jealous. Yet, George acts as though he is indifferent and starts reading a book while Martha sexually entertains Nick. Later, it becomes apparent when George releases his fury alone on stage that he was only pretending not to care. Thus, their actions may all be false appearances. Nick even comments at the end that he doesn’t know when George and Martha are lying. By blurring the lines between truth and illusion, Albee shows that it is not important whether something is a lie or not, yet the importance lies in how people choose to exist in a situation that they’ve found themselves trapped.As a result of the lies between Nora and Torvald, the roles they each assume in their marriage are merely appearance. Nora, for example, takes the role of a child-wife and mother who is completely dependent on Torvald and who is a spendthrift when it comes to money. Torvald also supports this illusion through the names he uses to refer to her. For example, he calls Nora “my little squirrel” and “my little skylark” (Ibsen 4). Ibsen uses animal imagery to show that Torvald regards Nora as a small helpless creature. Nora in turn strengthens her fabricated role by acting as she knows Torvald wants her to be. The full falseness of her actions only becomes clear in the last scene of Act One when Nora tells Torvald that she absolutely needs his help, even with such a trifling issue as picking a costume for the upcoming ball. “Torvald, couldn’t you take me in hand and decide what I shall go as…I can’t get along a bit without your help” (Ibsen 27). The audience knows, however, that Nora is not as helpless as she acts, for she had decided all by herself the important issue of borrowing money in order to save Torvald’s life. Thus, the Nora Torvald thinks he is married to is merely an illusion, and Torvald cannot tell the difference between the fake, helpless Nora and the real one.Furthermore, Torvald takes the role of Nora’s protector, who would risk his life in order to save her. This is “the wonderful thing” (Ibsen 48) that Nora thinks is going to happen when Torvald finds out about her debt and forgery. Since women at that time could not sign a loan, even if it was for the sake of their family, Nora forged her father’s signature when she borrowed money from Krogstad, who now threatens to expose and humiliate her. Torvald, however, has also led her to believe that he will rescue her from this problem. He even tells Nora after he finds out that his best friend, Dr. Rank, is dying: “Do you know, Nora, I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life’s blood and everything for your sake” (Ibsen 58). Yet, this was only an illusion of Torvald that Nora actually believed. When the time comes for him to find out about the debt, Torvald proves that he was a hypocrite and vulgarly abuses Nora for bringing this shame upon him and even renounces her as his wife.At the end of each drama all these illusions are destroyed forcing the characters to come face to face with reality. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George resolves the play by declaring the death of their imaginary son, who “drove into a large tree” as “he swerved to avoid a porcupine” (Albee 231). This is a form of paradox where Albee uses illusion to destroy another illusion. Though the boy, when he was a secret, provided a means of binding George and Martha together, after he was introduced to the real world, he became a source by which they attacked each other. Thus, George realizes that their kid has been brought too far into reality resulting in a negative effect on their marital relationship. As a result, he sacrifices the boy, who can be seen as a Christ figure, in order to save their marriage. In fact, Albee entitles the last Act “The Exorcism” referring to George’s exorcism of the destructive power of their illusory son on their marriage. When George tells Martha at the end that “It will be…better” she answers with “I don’t…know” (Albee 240). Although there is uncertainty as to whether or not their marriage will make it, at least now there is hope for progress because they can finally live honestly and truthfully without illusions. Yet, they must now experience reality no matter how painful it is, which scares Martha. Thus, the title of the play can, in fact, be translated into “who’s afraid to live without illusions?”In A Doll’s House, the illusion of Nora and Torvald’s marriage is also destroyed giving them a chance to progress as individuals. At the end, when Torvald’s reaction to the news of Nora’s forgery is far from what she expected, she realizes that she has been living with a complete stranger. Nora admits to him that “when the wonderful thing did not happen, then I saw you were not the man I had thought you” (Ibsen 66). Discovering that her husband confuses appearance with value and that he is more concerned with his position in society than with the emotional needs of his wife, Nora is forced to confront her personal worthlessness. She realizes that she has been living in a “doll’s house” and that her husband has been “playing with her just as… [she] used to play with her dolls” (Ibsen 63). In fact, their first honest expression of feeling happens at the end when Nora confronts Torvald about her conclusions. Thus, she destroys their “doll house” by deciding to leave her husband and search for her identity. This creates hope for truthful human relationships in the future. Perhaps in years to come, Nora and Torvald will also be able to restore their marriage.Both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Doll’s House question the entire fabric of marital relationships. The marriage between each couple in the dramas was solely based on illusion. This in turn blurs the line between reality and fantasy and creates unreal, meaningless lives. A life of illusion is wrong because it produces a false content in life. Only by expressing true feelings and emotions can relationships actually progress.
In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the path to self-realization and transformation is depicted by the main character, Nora Helmer. She is a woman constrained by both her husband’s domineering ways as well as her own. From a Jungian perspective, Nora’s lack of a developed contrasexual force, or animus, is the stumbling block to her achieving personal freedom. The author achieves this by creating in Nora the “archetype of transformation,” which allows her to change from a child-like object belonging to her husband Torvald Helmer, into an independently thinking, self-realized woman.The outset of the story characterizes Nora as a childish plaything who is controlled by her husband. From a Jungian perspective, her persona points to the lack of balance of her animus. One indication of this is the way Nora tries to persuade Torvald to do something she wants. “NORA: Your squirrel would scamper about and do tricks, if you’d only be sweet and give in” (Ibsen 196). Nora doesn’t feel she can be upfront with Torvald, so she relies on silly and flirtatious methods of persuasion. This behavior is prevalent during most of the play. In fairness though, Torvald refers to his wife in childlike ways. Nora is merely responding to his views of her as a pretty little object. HELMER: “Now, now, the little lark’s wings mustn’t droop. Come on, don’t be a sulky squirrel…” (Ibsen 172). It is this circle of belittlement and control that is fostering within Nora the inhibition of her animus. According to Jung, “the animus is the corresponding representative of the masculine contrasexual elements in the psychology of women” (Edinger 4 of 9). That is to say, it is the animus that represents the masculinity in a woman. For Nora to be able to pull away from her husband, or her family, she would first need to focus her contrasexual energies. However, this would be difficult for Nora to achieve due to numerous reasons, one of which involves the past. As author Cheryl Jarvis points out, “Historically, our culture has suppressed what we once called ‘male’ characteristics (power and independence) in women…” (Jarvis 4 of 6). In other words, the historical restrictions placed on male/female characteristics helps contribute to the shortage of contrasexual energies. It is with this in mind that one can understand some of the reasons for Nora’s persona. The persona is “…the partially calculated public face an individual assumes towards others. The persona is composed of various elements, some based on the individual’s personal propensities and others derived from the society’s expectations and the early training of parents and teachers” (Edinger 3 of 9). That is, the persona of an individual is the face they show in public. Given that it’s developed by many means, one including the early training of parents, it is clear that Nora, from an early age, would be at a disadvantage in the development of her animus. A clear example of this is in the way she speaks about her father’s method of raising her. NORA: “When I lived at home with Papa, he told me all his opinions, so I had the same ones too; or if they were different I hid them, since he wouldn’t have cared for that. He used to call me his doll-child, and he played with me the way I played with my dolls” (Ibsen 220). Her antics and undeveloped sense of power and independence stem from her father’s treatment of her as an unthinking child. Nora’s life is a continuation of the circle of belittlement and control her father began implementing at an early age, except this time it is with Torvald. However, as Ibsen proves with the character of Mrs. Linde, Nora’s chance for transformation and self-realization is not at all impossible.Mrs. Linde can be seen as an ideally transformed and contrasexually developed woman. Ibsen provides in her a glimpse into the possible future of Nora’s personal maturity. A good example of this is when Mrs. Linde speaks to Nora about relationships and Nora’s childlike behavior. MRS. LINDE: “Now listen, Nora; in many ways you’re still like a child. I’m a good deal older than you, with a little more experience” (Ibsen 194). Ibsen gives Mrs. Linde a sense of maturity and experience by having her state that she is older and implying that she is wiser. As Jarvis states regarding the need for contrasexual development, “The task of the second half of life, said Jung, is to claim our contrasexual energies – in other words, to find our missing selves” (Jarvis 4 of 6). The second half of life involves one’s search for his or her contrasexual force. The cultivation and balance of a person’s animus thus becomes one of the focal points of midlife. Ibsen further illustrates Jarvis’ point when Mrs. Linde speaks to Krogstad about her personal change. MRS. LINDE: “I’ve learned to be realistic. Life and hard, bitter necessity have taught me that” (Ibsen 210). It is apparent that she has had a hard life, from which she has learned to be an independent thinker and has achieved self-realization. With her wisdom, she sees the need for Nora to be honest about her predicament. Being mature, experienced, and perceptive allows her to see accurately the problems the couple has. This is made clear when she is again speaking to Krogstad regarding the letter he has dropped into Torvald’s mailbox. MRS. LINDE: “Yes, in that first panic. But it’s been a whole day and night since then, and in that time I’ve seen such things in this house. Helmer’s got to learn everything; this dreadful secret has to be aired; those two have to come to full understanding; all these lies and evasions can’t go on” (Ibsen 211). Mrs. Linde observes the need for Nora to be honest with Torvald, even if the marriage might suffer irreparable damage. She sees that the Helmer household is “…a nursery for hypocrisy and repression, possessiveness and lies” (Thompson 2 of 5). Besides the visible aspects of Nora’s marriage, she is made aware of Thompson’s viewpoint by the things Nora reveals about her relationship to Torvald. NORA: “You see, Torvald loves me beyond words, and, as he puts it, he’d like to keep me all to himself” (Ibsen 194). Nora, unknowingly, makes obvious to Mrs. Linde such things as the possessive nature of Torvald. Through her attained self-realization and contrasexual development, she provides Nora with an example of what can become of a woman who changes her persona and attempts to find her “missing self.” This is achieved through the advice she gives to Nora as well as the examples of financial independence she provides. Case in point, MRS. LINDE: “Yes, so I had to scrape up a living with a little shop and a little teaching and whatever else I could find. The last three years have been like one endless workday without rest for me” (Ibsen 177). Mrs. Linde’s description of self-support and independence gives Nora a living example of achieved self-realization, one that is worthy of emulation.The last act of the play depicts Nora’s transformation. From a Jungian perspective, the breaking away from Torvald proves that she has begun to develop her masculine side. Ibsen, from the beginning, created in Nora the archetype of transformation, which “…pertains to a psychic process of growth, change, and transition. It can express itself in many different images with the same underlying core of meaning… The theme of death and rebirth as well…” (Edinger 6 of 9). This archetype applies to individuals who change, or mature, mentally. In A Doll’s House, Ibsen expresses the image of change and transition with Nora. During most of the play, she is aware of her limitations in her role as “wife” and she consciously plays the part of Torvald’s pet. However, this changes in the last act. Nora finally confronts her husband and allows herself to reveal her innermost feelings regarding her role as his wife. NORA: “I don’t believe in that any more. I believe that, before all else, I’m a human being, no less than you – or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you too. But I can’t go on believing what the majority says, or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them” (Ibsen 222). Nora, for the first time in her life, has revealed openly and with confidence a personal need. She tells Torvald that she no longer believes in the traditional views society holds of marriage. Most important though, is her newfound need to think things through for herself. Nora further depicts this when she responds to Torvald’s claim of her being childlike and naive. NORA: “….But now I’ll begin to learn for myself. I’ll try to discover who’s right, the world or I” (Ibsen 222). Admitting that she is indeed inexperienced with the ways of the world, she is nevertheless willing to begin being an independent woman. The need to become self-realized has come to fruition. “To become whole…women who need to develop their ‘masculine’ traits are pulled outward, away from home and family life” (Jarvis 4 of 6). As Nora begins to realize the stifling nature of her marriage and her husband’s lack of self-sacrifice, she sees the need to pull away from him. NORA: “Good. Well, now it’s all over. I’m putting the keys here. The maids know all about keeping up the house – better than I do. Tomorrow, after I’ve left town, Kristine will stop by to pack up everything that’s mine from home. I’d like those things shipped up to me” (Ibsen 224). Nora’s decisiveness regarding the choice to leave Torvald is made clear and her contrasexual energy is beginning to show. From a Jungian point of view, Nora’s path to self-realization and transformation begins to take shape with her final resolve to separate herself from Torvald. Since the theme of death and rebirth are expressions of the “archetype of transformation,” the death of Nora’s marriage allows her transformation to begin taking shape. She is beginning to develop her masculine side by taking charge of her life and thinking for herself. No longer is she a mere “doll.”In the end, a Jungian analysis of “A Doll’s House” gives insight into Nora’s character and shares Ibsen’s view of the importance of personal development and acquired independence. The main character starts off as a childish girl who succumbs to her husband’s demands and behaves as if unable to think for herself. However, Ibsen shows that underneath Nora’s surface is a woman screaming to be free. Although naive, she is not completely silly, but rather uses that persona to fill a role she feels is demanded of her. This would not be the case if her sense of contrasexual prowess, stemming from her animus, had been effectively developed. But, as Jung defined with the archetype of transformation and Ibsen illustrated with Nora’s beginnings of self-realization, the psychic process of change takes time, effort, and often a revelatory experience.Works Cited:Edinger, Edward F. “An Outline of Analytical Psychology.” Quadrant. New York: 1968.
Henrik Ibsen’s well known play, A Doll’s House, has long been considered a predominantly feminist work. The play focuses on the seemingly happy Helmers, Nora and Torvald, who appear to have an ideal life. Nora is charming, sweet, and stunningly beautiful, and Torvald is a wealthy and successful banker. Of course, the couple has gone through difficult times in the past; in their first year of marriage, the couple was very poor and struggling to make ends meet when Torvald fell ill. Nora confesses that they needed to travel to Italy to give Torvald time to recuperate, and in order to finance such a trip, she was forced to take out a loan from one of Torvald’s coworkers, telling her husband the money was from her father. However, when Nora speaks of these tough times, it seems to merely emphasize the good fortune the couple has fallen into now. Wealthy, attractive, and prominent, the Helmers appear to be the perfect family. Yet the old adage holds true: appearances are deceiving. As Nora reveals more about how she has been secretly working to pay off the loan to Krogstad, Torvald’s coworker, it becomes clear that there is a great deal of tension under the calm surface of the couple’s home life. This tension mounts as Torvald tells Nora that he wants to fire Krogstad from the bank, and Krogstad subsequently threatens to reveal Nora’s lies to her husband if she does not find a way to save his job. The play’s action escalates, finally culminating in Torvald’s discovery of a letter Krogstad has written, revealing the truth about Nora’s loan. Upon learning that his wife has deceived him, Torvald becomes irate, and is immediately concerned with preserving his own image—even though Nora’s deception enabled Torvald’s recovery, for which he would presumably be grateful. At this point, Nora’s transformation from a silly, childish girl to an intelligent, independent woman is complete. She realizes that Torvald saw her only as a doll and leaves him.Audiences and critics have a number of varying reactions to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but the most shared conception of the play is that it is, without a doubt, a feminist text. In her article entitled “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen,” Joan Templeton discusses the numerous ways in which A Doll’s House is indeed a play that addresses the issue of feminism and women’s rights. She states that:[W]hen Nora discovers that she has duties higher than those of a ‘wife and mother,’ obligations she names as ‘duties to myself,’ she is voicing the most basic of feminist principles: that women no less than men possess a moral and intellectual nature and have not only a right but a duty to develop it (Templeton 32).Templeton argues that Nora’s very transformation from childlike and naive to motivated and strong-willed is in its very essence feminist; moreover, the feminism of the play is prevalent regardless of whether or not Ibsen intended it to be so. And it seems fairly probable that Ibsen did not in fact intend A Doll’s House to be read as strongly feminist, stating at a banquet given to him by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League that he “must disclaim the honor of having worked consciously for the women’s rights movement…my task has been the description of humanity”(Templeton 28). Upon reading such a statement, it seems clear that Ibsen did not write A Doll’s House with the intention of penning a landmark feminist work.Following that logic, there are a number of other critics who strongly disagree with Templeton’s assertion that Nora (and consequently the play as a whole) is inherently feminist. British play critic Michael Billington is one who disagrees with this interpretation of the play as feminist. Upon seeing a production of A Doll’s House at the Southwark Playhouse in London, Billington writes that, “Far from a straightforward feminist clarion call, the play becomes a complex study of two people who both have to reconstruct their identities” (Guardian Unlimited). Here, Billington changes the focus from the character of Nora, who is the central tenet of Templeton’s argument, to the dynamics of the relationship between Nora and Torvald. In this way, the focus becomes less about Nora struggling with her sense of self, and more about the identities of both characters. Similarly, in a rebuttal of Templeton’s essay on feminism in A Doll’s House, Michael Werth Gelber writes, “In the dollhouse of Torvald and Nora, both husband and wife suffer from arrested development, which neither may eventually outgrow” (Gelber 361). Billington and Gelber, along with many others, seem to read Ibsen’s classic as humanist rather than feminist, arguing that Ibsen’s message was not that women should strive to find themselves, but that all people should engage in a search for true identity.A Doll’s House was written and published in 1879, and as such, Ibsen was certainly aware of the prevailing attitudes concerning women. Prior to the 20th century, women were expected to obey their husbands and concern themselves only with matters of frivolity and entertainment. In fact, years earlier United States President Thomas Jefferson summed up the attitude of the time when he addressed the issue of women and literacy, saying that, “Female education should concentrate on ornaments and the amusements of life…dancing, drawing, and music” (www.vst.cape.com). Women were not expected to educate themselves or become independent, which ensured complete reliance on their husbands. These widespread beliefs were surely known to Ibsen, and while he claims that his purpose was never to call attention to women’s issues, the concept of feminism played at least a subconscious role in the writing of A Doll’s House. At the same Norwegian Women’s Rights League banquet where he claimed that addressing women’s rights was not his intention, Ibsen states, “I am not even quite clear as to just what this women’s rights movement really is…It is the women who shall solve the human problem” (Gelber 361). Although Ibsen claims that he is unaware of the women’s rights movement, he places the responsibility of dealing with the human rights movements in the hands of women, showing that at the very least, he has a deep respect for and confidence in women.A Doll’s House features a protagonist who is meant to be an example to women and humans alike, displaying the importance of finding a sense of self and a true identity. Women and men, both then and now, can look to Nora to see the ways in which one really must find his/herself. When Nora finally realizes that she is only a doll to Torvald, she says, “I’ve been performing tricks for you, Torvald. That’s how I’ve survived. You wanted it like that…It’s because of you I’ve made nothing of my life” (Ibsen). Although relationships resembling Torvald’s hold over Nora were much more common in the 1870s, they are not obsolete even today. However, dominance now can occur both ways; in some relationships, women control the men just as men control the women in others. In this way, the feminist and humanist themes of A Doll’s House still apply to modern times.It is difficult to say with absolute certainty what Ibsen truly intended when he wrote A Doll’s House. Did he mean for Nora to become a groundbreaking figure in female literature? Or was she simply a character who realized that her only obligations and duties were to herself, regardless of her gender? A closer look at the play only seems to confuse the matter. For example, one can examine her comments to Mrs. Linde on what it means to Nora to be “free.” She says, “Free. To be free, absolutely free. To spend time playing with the children. To have a clean, beautiful house, the way Torvald likes it” (Ibsen). A supporter of reading the text as humanist rather than feminist might argue that this is hardly the sort of statement a female activist would make. Yet proponents of the play as a feminist text would probably refute this claim, saying that this statement precedes the point in the play where Nora makes her astounding transformation, and that this comment comes from an altogether different character: one who has not yet discovered the true responsibilities of womanhood.After what seemed like endless exploration of the play, I found it incredibly difficult to come to a concrete conclusion on whether this text is humanist or feminist. Yet perhaps that isn’t what is important. Perhaps Ibsen didn’t intend the play to be read definitively as one or the other, but to be read by each individual reader in whichever way he/she wanted to read it- feminist, humanist, neither, or both. Both readings of the play are equally valid, equally supportable, and equally interesting. And more importantly, neither detracts from the sheer mastery of Ibsen’s use of language and overall writing style. A Doll’s House, whether it be feminist, humanist, or even communist, is a play that encourages growth, self-empowerment, and independence.Works CitedBillington, Michael. “A Doll’s House.” Guardian Unlimited 8 Nov. 2003.Gelber, Michael Welth. Ibsen and Feminism. PLMA, Vol. 104, No. 3. May 1989. p. 360-362. www.jstor.org..Reflecting on Race, Class, and Feminism. 26 Nov. 2003. www.vst.cape.com.Templeton, Jean. The Dollhouse Backlash: Feminism, Criticism, and Ibsen. PMLA, Vol.104, No. 1. Jan. 1989. p. 28-40. www.jstor.org.
In A Doll’s House by Ibsen, the author takes the preconditions and viewer expectations of the play format established by earlier writers and uses them to shock his audience rather than lull them into oblivion with simple entertainment. Ibsen inherits these preconditions and expectations from two main theatrical trends, the tragic tradition and the well-made play tradition. By manipulating these two formats, he arrives at a theater experience that is truly innovative, one that involves not only the history of the dramatic stage but its future.The history of the tragic tradition is one that determines its various influences and expectations within A Doll’s House. The “rules” of this format were set out by Aristotle in his Poetics, namely the 1 – 2 punch of pity and fear: an undeserved fate paired with a similar reality. Audiences watched as an uncomfortably familiar character was wrecked onstage by a cruel and unearned turn of fate. The effect was one of catharsis – viewers fears were fulfilled vicariously through the tragic format, leaving the audience in a purged state where they had witnessed but not actually participated in man’s downfall. This format obviously laid the framework for Ibsen – his characters are familiar, his fate is unmerited, and his struggle is painfully and intimately emotional and mental. But although Ibsen uses the tragic tradition as a chassis, his car is completely different from the classic tragedy. Pity is updated and deepened from a simple twist of fate to a moral questioning of societal restraints and predestinations – Nora and Torvald’s struggles with classism and the necessary façade of European bourgeois society demand the viewer to approach fate not as an uncontrollable, inhuman outside force but an animal of our own creation, a built-in wrecker inside the machine of human civilization and social culture. Ibsen also brings this evolution to the idea of fear – the characters that were once royalty with similar dilemmas are now middle-class bourgeoisie who could be ones neighbors. Going to the theater evolved from the vicarious experience to the reflective experience – audiences were watching themselves in their own living rooms onstage. The gender stereotyped, male-dominated universe and capitalistic system that ruled both the work-world and the household were not only familiar themes to Ibsen’s audience – they were their themes. Nora’s flittering, doll-like exterior and Torvald’s patronizing, patriarchic and idiotic character are all slight exaggerations of the common middle-class household. Thus Ibsen took the tragic tradition and used its characteristics to modernize the dramatic stage, creating a whole new class of theater that shocked the audience with its brutal criticism.Ibsen also used the influences of the well-made play tradition to transform modern theater. The well-made play produced theater slickly-oiled like a machine, with a format specifically designed to entertain the audience and release them for at least a few hours from the daily grind of their lives. The settings were fantastical, the jokes were crude and repetitive, and the plot was often known beforehand. The well-made play’s format contained four main characteristics, the obligatory first act exposition, the climax, the dénouement, and the object that moves and controls the plot. Ibsen took these rules and applied them in a way that converted them into a very mockery of themselves – the first act is almost ridiculous in its gender stereotyping and melodramatic tension. The characters own superficiality is a critique, while the gradual unraveling of the perfect world Nora and Torvald inhabit is like a fantastical journey through reality. The climax of Nora’s departure is scathingly shocking to the bourgeois audience, and Torvald’s empty hope at the final end suggests not only an essential void to his character but also the scarily implacable nature societal customs and façade-building rules over middle-class citizens. The letter and IOU from Krogstad are the obvious objects that control the plot, but even there Ibsen modernizes the well-made format. Traditionally the object was a trivial and humorous trifle, such as the glass of water in The Glass of Water, but in A Doll’s House the objects represent the enveloping and detrimental influence of the capitalistic bourgeois system, a culture in which all morality is based upon money.Ibsen thus utilizes the rich inheritance of the tragic and well-made play traditions to modify and even perverse the classic formatting of theater. His stylistic and character-based innovations brought about a realism in theater unheard of until his modernist perspective changed the face of the dramatic stage. In A Doll’s House, this perspective is brought to life, as a whole set of characters reveal a society unto itself.
When Nora Helmer slammed the door shut on her doll’s house in 1879, her message sent shockwaves around the world that persist to this day. “I must stand quite alone,” Nora declares, “if I am to understand myself and everything about me” (Ibsen 64). After years of playing the role of a superficial doll, Nora transforms into an assertive and determined woman. While significant events throughout A Doll’s House hasten her sudden actions, the true cause of Nora’s transformation stems from a revolution from within. Ibsen dramatizes Nora’s discovery of identity by means of various literary techniques. By the finale of the play, Nora has survived a searing deconstruction of a false sense of self, the doll, and experiences an equally painful emergence of a new being, one devoid of the social pressures and expectations that had haunted her for years. Through her myth of transformation, Nora proves to be an ideal tragic hero.In the unreal world of A Doll’s House, all roles and assumptions are illusive; “wife” and “mother” are the types of facades that represent the game of happy family wherein dolls masquerade as human beings. The double character of Nora is slowly revealed. She is simultaneously a “macaroon-nibbling child-wife and a heroine of the ethical life” (Durbach 63). Nora’s struggle to find her identity can be carefully examined via her confrontations with the other major characters of the story. In these experiences, the audience becomes increasingly aware of Nora’s thought processes and true characteristics. As the play progresses, the doll dies and the walls of the doll’s house begin to crack; Nora Helmer becomes a different person.Nora’s unraveling starts with the arrival of Christine Linde to the Helmer’s doll house. A childhood friend of Nora, Linde appears to be everything that Nora is not. From the moment she enters the play, she becomes a total juxtaposition to Nora: a displaced, independent traveler steps into the home of an immature and lush housewife. The image of “doll” versus “not-doll” is quite clear as the pale, thin and miserable Linde dresses in shabby traveling clothing while Nora talks of her lavish dress for an upcoming party. Nora chatters on about her supposedly happy family life, almost as if she is excited to have a new guest in the doll’s house that she can “play” with. Christine tells of the tragedy that has struck her her husband has died, leaving her no money or children. Linde teases Nora, saying that she knows “so little of the burdens and troubles of life” (Ibsen 10). “You are just like the others,” responds Nora. “They all think that I am incapable of anything really serious that I have gone through nothing in this world of cares” (10). Nora is quick to defend herself, pointing out that she borrowed money, without Torvald’s knowledge, to pay for the trip to Italy. What began as a physical juxtaposition of contrasting appearances now becomes a pattern of contrasting images with respect to womanhood. “One by one, Mrs. Linde has shed the ties (and the roles that they imply) that confine the woman to the doll’s house and define the angel in the late Victorian home: the unloved and unloving husband is dead, which frees Christine from Nora’s role as wife; there are no children, which frees her from Nora’s happily purposeful maternity; there is no house, no property, which frees Christine from dollydom itself, from Nora’s happy housekeeping in her bourgeois paradise” (Durbach 95-96). Yet for all the independent values she personifies, Linde also exemplifies to Nora that the real world outside of the doll’s house is cold, harsh, and unloving. Nora gets a better taste of the real world in her encounters with Nils Krogstad. Parallel irony is evident between these two – both are guilty of forgery. Krogstad is a mirror that reflects back at Nora the image of a man whose fatal error causes him to be a victim of society. Although Krogstad’s motive for confronting Nora is to secure his post in her husband’s bank, his entrance definitely threatens the security of the doll’s house. If Linde is Nora’s opposite, then Krogstad is her parallel. Beneath the skin, he and Nora are both criminals. It is extremely ironic that Krogstad threatens to blackmail Nora in an effort to gain respect. He proves that desperate people can do desperate things, as Nora almost learns later in the play. In her second encounter with Krogstad, the two outcasts discuss suicide and the courage it takes to go through with it. NORA: I have courage enough for it now.KROGSTAD: Oh, you can’t frighten me. A fine, spoilt lady like you NORA: You will see, you will see.KROGSTAD: Under the ice, perhaps? Down in the cold, coal-black water? And then, in the spring, to float up to the surface, all horrible and unrecognisable, with your hair fallen out-NORA: You can’t frighten me.KROGSTAD: Nor you me. People don’t do such things Mrs. Helmer. (Ibsen 43-44)His demand pushes Nora over the edge of indecision and gives her the courage to accept the responsibility and consequences for her actions. By the finale of the play, the audience realizes that Krogstad is not the villain of the tale. Rather, her husband is the true villain (to be discussed later). Similar to Krogstad’s wretchedness mirroring Nora’s deceit, Krogstad’s eventual moral recovery and change parallels her metamorphosis of spirit.Before this final meeting with Krogstad, however, Nora confronts the dying Dr. Rank. Death and disease are indeed significant themes in the play from Krogstad’s moral sickness to Rank’s physical disorder. In Dr. Rank, Nora sees the mirror of her own inevitable death. He is the main representation of the disease motif, calling himself the “most wretched of all [his] patients” (37). Because he suffers for his “father’s youthful amusements,” Rank demonstrates another theme of the story that corruption and malevolence are hereditary. Ostensibly, Nora is afraid that her deceit will taint her children, and she takes means to ensure their well being should she disappear As Dr. Rank slowly dies throughout the play, Nora’s wooden doll shell disintegrates and decays simultaneously. But in Nora’s case, a new autonomous woman is born. As her last resort, Nora attempts to use her sexual prowess to obtain money from Rank. Her major moral miscalculations encourage Rank to admit his embarrassing declaration of love for her. A sense of darkness penetrates the stage, and Nora is caught in the struggle between doll and woman. Her old self, the doll, would have continued to play the role of the seductress, acquire the money, and use Dr. Rank to her liking. Yet, in this defining moment, Nora’s newfound morality wins out – “Bring in the lamp,” she instructs the maid (40). By calling for light, Nora desires the restoration of the cheery atmosphere to the doll’s house. Nevertheless, however, the dramatic effect of calling for light underscore the fact that Nora has a sudden insight into the darkness and ugliness of dollydom. Her illusions are dissipated by a self-consciousness and willpower long missing from her doll character. By realizing the evil within the doll’s house and within herself, Nora decides to put an end to dollydom. For her, however, the opposite of dollydom is death the doll’s house is all she knows. Nora decides that her Tarantella dance will be her final mortal performance, for she views the end of the party not only as the termination of her marriage, but also the last moments of her life. The scene in which the dance is practiced has much underlying significance. Nora wants Torvald’s full attention to keep his thoughts away from the Krogstad’s ruinous note in the letterbox. In many ways, her life is hanging from a thread:HELMER: My dear darling Nora, you are dancing as if your life depended on it.NORA: So it does. (47)Her tarantella is also a symbolic death dance that Rank, fittingly, plays for her on the piano. Her frantic and frenetic movements symbolize the maelstrom she is caught in. At the very epicenter, though, the dying doll finally abandons herself, albeit to chaos, despair, and uncertainty, so that the woman can emerge. In this way, the tarantella embodies her loss and regaining of identity. The true question, nevertheless, is whether or not Nora will resort to suicide.Dr. Rank appears again at the beginning of Act III, and both he and Nora know, or at least think, that they will soon die: NORA: Sleep well Dr. Rank.RANK: Thank you for that wish.NORA: Wish me the same.RANK: You? Well, if you want…to sleep well. And thanks for the light. (57)Nora has learned from Dr. Rank’s stoical acceptance of necessity how to face death without hysteria. These two reflect each other one final time, as Nora lights his cigar. Metaphorically, this moment “rekindles the poignant memory of what each has lost in each other…the sustaining fire, the light, the ardor of a joyful life” (Durbach 89). One last illusion remains before Nora can fully commit to her decision. The “wonderful thing,” as she terms it, will confirm her beliefs that “when the world falls apart, Torvald will remain a pillar of altruistic self-sacrifice and prove himself a man worthy to die for” (64). Throughout the course of the play, he constantly treats her like a child, especially through his diminutive language and controlling mentality towards her. For years she has played the role of the doll, his “skylark” and “squirrel,” to achieve her wishes. Because of this manipulation, Nora is convinced Torvald will take the onus of the blame upon himself when the doll’s house comes tumbling down. “I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger,” he asserts, “so that I might risk my life’s blood, and everything for your sake” (Ibsen 58). As the male puppet in the house, Torvald, like Nora, has come to believe in the doll identity so resolutely that the idea replaces the reality.Torvald’s reaction to the knowledge of his wife’s deceit, while unanticipated by Nora, is expected by the audience. He falls apart in the last fifteen minutes of the play, wondering how the incident will reflect on him. After Krogstad’s apology, Torvald’s attitude turns about-face he tells Nora that although they can no longer be the loving couple they once were, they ought to stick together to maintain the appearance of a happy family life. Nora, in her ultimate epiphanous experience, realizes what the audience understood all along, that independence is necessary to free herself from the world of fantasy and false romantic expectations that the doll’s house represents. She recognizes that all of her tastes and beliefs stem either from Torvald or her father. Torvald, although insufferable at times, is the one true support in her life. When the male doll shatters, it is utterly unbearable to her. Rather than remain part of a marriage based on an intolerable lie, Nora chooses to leave her home and discover for herself the individuality that has long been denied to her. Only an innocent creature can brave the perils of the outside world to find her identity. Why doesn’t Nora commit suicide? After witnessing her husband’s collapse, she refuses to submit to a world that traps her inside of a doll’s house, a world that would punish her for an act prompted by love and compassion. Death would have been the easy way out; Nora has the profound courage to move forward from the comfortable darkness of happy illusions to the terror and light her new life may reveal. She seeks the terror out, asking question after question even if they uproot her very existence. By defying the status quo, her place in society, Nora protests against the limitations of being a woman. What is it that is tragic about Nora? She lives through a deconstruction of a false sense of self, a doll comfortable and secure in it’s social position, and experiences an equally excruciating emergence of a new identity, an independent woman bereft of certainties and assumptions. In her struggle, we share her pain; in her victory, we share her triumph. She truly is a tragic hero.According to Ibsen, the tragic hero goes through an agonizing process in which a false identity is lost and a new one is gained. The tragic hero loses lykke, “a term encompassing all of life’s superficial and fleeting happiness,” says Ibsen (Durbach 59). Lykke clearly defines Nora early in the play. Ultimately, says Ibsen, the tragic hero gains gl¦de, “the profound joy of clearsightedness and insight” (59). Even though the play’s open ending leaves the audience wondering whether or not Nora will gain gl¦de, it is the nature of her heroic temperament to seek it out; and we should like her chances. The advantages of Nora’s departure from dollydom are difficult to grasp for some, even incomprehensible for people like Torvald. He confronts her with questions that challenge her decision: “You don’t consider what people will say?,” “Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?,” “Can you not understand your place in your own home?,” “Have you not a reliable guide in such matters as these?,” ” Have you no religion?” (Ibsen 64-65). “Here are all the notations of human identity, social existence and psychological security,” writes researcher Errol Durbach. They are “the functions that and name us, the unequivocal certainty of our place in the world, the ambiguous value system that enables us to act with confidence, all the reassuring signs God’s in heaven, all that’s right with the world” (60). By leaving the doll’s house, Nora challenges the precepts of society. As a prerequisite for discovering her own identity, she must recreate this value system through an intense investigation of the world. To confront reality is to understand herself.Nora’s transformation is truly remarkable the child we meet at the beginning is not the same woman who slams the door shut at the end. By exploring her relations with other characters in the play and analyzing Ibsen’s literary techniques, Nora’s heroic change is observed in various stages; it did not just happen overnight. Her myth of transformation is universal, for she inspires her audience to take chances in their lives, to challenge ancient precepts, to stand up for what they believe in, and to ultimately find happiness. WORKS CITEDDurbach, Errol. A Doll’s House: Ibsen’s Myth of Transformation. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Four Great Plays By Ibsen. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. New York: Bantam, 1958. 3-68.
The donning of her [dancing] dress has brought about the turning point of her life.-Barbara Fass LeavyDress and outward appearance have historically played a significant role in the plot development of fairy tales. Perhaps the most famous dress in our collective memory is that which was bestowed upon Cinderella by her fairy godmother. A less prevalent dress, though by no means less important, is seen in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora’s Italian tarantella costume is in fact functionally similar to Cinderella’s ball gown. Although they are obtained in different ways, and ultimately achieve different ends, dresses in both Cinderella tales and A Doll’s House serve the same purpose of allowing the heroine to transcend beyond the constraints society has placed on her.In Cinderella stories, elaborate dresses, the presence and absence of them, play a pivotal role in the protagonist’s ability to overcome her hardships, and to achieve her true potential. Elisabeth Pantajja, in her essay ³Going up in the World: Class in Cinderella,’ ² examines the role of clothing as a ³political tool of the petit-bourgeoisie² (99). The removal of certain types of clothes, she argues, is representative of removal of social status. Class, and inferred class by clothing, is the crux of the limitations imposed on a Cinderella character. In many versions, Cinderella’s clothes are lost at the beginning of the tale. ³They took away her beautiful clothes, dressed her in an old grey smock, and gave her some wooden shoes,² reads the first scene of the Brothers Grimm version . In ³Donkeyskin² the protagonist’s clothes are not forcefully taken from her. Rather circumstances necessitate that she not don them, but instead wear only the old donkey’s skin. In both of these cases the removal of fine clothing is symbolic of demotion. Extending that metaphor to a more general interpretation, it is symbolic of pushing the character out of a realm in which she once belonged. In the case of Cinderella stories, the realm just happens to be that of a higher social order.In the modern interpretation of the Swan Maiden Tale, A Doll’s House, bodily covering is also initially lost. This is inferred at the beginning of Act II in A Doll’s House when the Nursemaid says ³I finally found it, the box with the fancy dress costumes² (35). ³Finally², implies that they were being sought, a factor that becomes more relevant when their plot line function is served. Barbara Leavy parallels this brief discovery scene with the point in the Swan Maiden tale when the swan wife discovers her long lost feathers. The fact that the costumes are for a masquerade, not an everyday event, is worthy of note as they thus symbolize entrance into another world that is not the ordinary. That Nora already owned the dress, the feathers per se, indicates that she had once before been part of this other place. Extending the literal imagery of the masquerade to the more abstract realm, one could say that this other place from which she was being held captive, was a world in which she has agency. Unlike Cinderella figures, Nora does not initially realize that she has been held captive in another world. Like the Cinderella figure, though, wearing her special dress facilitates her transcendence of the forces that are in essence holding her captive. The re-discovery, or re-establishment of such clothing is more subtle in the Cinderella tales. In the Brothers Grimm version, beautiful dresses are ³tossed down² from a fairy godmother-esque Hazel tree. In Donkeyskin, as the clothing is never taken away, the re-discovery seems to occur on a weekly basis. ³She cleaned herself, then opened her chestand first put on the dress of the moon² Perrault writes, ³this sweet pleasure kept her going from one Sunday to the next² (112). Through this rediscovery of her gowns, Donkeyskin prepares for the moment when those dresses will allow her to overcome her lessened social stature. Likewise, the magical appearance of the classic Cinderella’s dress, as well as the re-discovery of the Nora’s Italian costume, fashion transformations themselves, foreshadow the more significant non-physical transformations to come.How exactly the various dresses allow the characters to break out of their constrained roles is where the two stories diverge. In the Cinderella tales, the protagonist is passive. In the classic tale, it is the prince who takes a proactive role. Grimm’s version tells that She looked so beautiful in the dress of gold that they thought she must be the daughter of a foreign kingThe prince approached Cinderella, took her by the hand and danced with her. He didn’t intend to dance with anyone else and never let go of her hand. Whenever anyone else asked her to dance he would say: ³She is my partner.² (119)There is a direct link between how beautiful the dress made her look, and the prince’s interest in her. The extent to which the prince takes possession of her is important to the story line as it is that feeling of possession, repeatedly asserted throughout the three day wedding affair, which motivates the prince to seek out Cinderella, ultimately bringing her back up the social ladder by marrying her. In Donkeyskin, it is only when the prince sees the princess in her elegant gowns that he is overcome by her beauty, and thus begins his pursuit of her. Though the disclaimer ³No matter what her dress was like, the beauty of her face, her lovely profile, [etc.]moved him a hundred times more² (113) is in the text, it is difficult to discount the fact that she was indeed wearing her special dress when she captured his attention. It is hard to imagine that he would have been equally awestruck had she been wearing her usual donkey skin. In both versions of the Cinderella story, the dress serves a function of capturing attention. This attention capture induces the prince to begin the ultimately successful pursuit of the Cinderella character. Through marriage to the prince Cinderella gains noble status, thus, with direct credit to the dress, moving beyond what was originally her constricting social situation.Ibsen’s Nora is a much more proactive character than Cinderella though she too uses her festive dress to overcome her social constriction. Unlike the Cinderella characters, the different worlds of social classes are not Nora’s concern. Rather, her differing worlds are separated on the axis of gender. Throughout the play Nora exists in a world distinct from her husband. From the overt closed door of his office, to the money-borrowing secret she harbors from him, the two exist in entirely separate planes. The dress itself is one of the few links their worlds have, and even that is quite tangential. In Act II Nora tells Kristine that Torvald wants her to go to the masquerade as a Neopolitan fishing lass and dance the tarantella, the dance she learned when they were in Italy. Moments after she has Kristine help her mend her ³costume² (40) Torvald enters the room: NORA: No, it was Kristine. She was helping me with my costume. I think it’s going to look very niceHELMER: Wasn’t that a good idea of mine, now?NORA: Wonderful! But wasn’t it also nice of me to let you have your way?HELMER: Nice of you- because you let you husband have his way? All right you little rogue, I know you didn’t mean it that wayYou’ll be wanting to try the costume on I suppose. (40)The presence of the dress, and its associated power struggles are highlighted briefly in this scene. Torvald had wanted Nora to learn to dance in Italy and also bought the dress for her. What Torvald does not realize, and perhaps even Nora doesn’t realize at this point is the effect the dress and its associated dance will have on their relationship. Even the presence of the dress in discussion has given Nora more agency. Her slip up almost gave Torvald a clue that she knows more than she generally lets on.Though the audience does not see the actual performance of the dance in costume at the masquerade ball, the recount by Torvald highlights necessary elements and indeed it is the aftermath that is more important than the actual performance. ³She dances the tarantella² and ³there was wild applause² (67) describes Torvald. One can imagine Nora performing the frenzied dance, all the while coming to the realization that she must leave the world she knows. Though it is possible, it is hard to imagine the dance being performed without the elaborate costume. The costume serves to transform Nora to a ³beautiful vision² (67), simultaneously transforming her spirit into one of realization, enlightenment of her situation and what options she has. At the end of Act III, Nora has transformed into a much more serious and straightforward character. She speaks conservatively, often in brief sentences compared to Torvald’s long descriptions of how he is going to save her.In her book In Search of the Swan Maiden, Leavy examines the power struggle and issue of ownership of the costume. ³Insofar as all of Nora’s possessions belong to Torvald, they remain in his control² states Leavy (299). They are illustrative of Torvald’s control of Nora, the societal constraints that she must overcome. Torvald’s tries to exercise his control of the clothes, and by extension Nora, when he learns her secret. ³Take that shall off. Take it off I tell you!² (76) Torvald exclaims. But Nora, having danced the tarantella, and even if momentarily, entered a realm other than the doll’s house she knows, has increased her resolve. As the scene progresses, her control over her clothing, as well as her life, increases. When Torvald asks what she is doing, she replies ³Taking off this fancy dress² (78). Torvald is surprised when she is not preparing herself for bed, and she then replies ³Yes, Torvald, I’ve changed² (79). The significance of this statement goes far deeper than changing her dress. In wearing the dress, Nora had an epiphany. She realized that her life was A Doll’s House, and that she didn’t want to live it that way. In removing the dress, she has cast off not only Torvald’s ownership, but also the societal constraints holding her within her contrived world.Nora’s chronological dress changes, from ordinary to elegant and back to ordinary and her corresponding attitude change indicate that a transformation occurred while wearing the costume. In Leavy’s words, ³The donning of her dancing dress has brought about the turning point in her life² (298) Thus, it was the dress itself that facilitated Nora’s true change, a realization that perhaps never would have occurred had she not performed the special dance in the special dress. Unlike the Cinderella characters, Nora goes back to her original clothes. This difference can be attributed to the differing societal constraints and outcomes. While the Cinderella characters assimilate into another confined realm – high society culture they enter in marriage, Nora is entering into a world unknown, a world presumably free of the confinement and ownership that her costume represented.When the clock struck midnight in the Cinderella tale, the dress had served its function. It was then the prince’s turn to take action. In A Doll’s house, when the clock struck twelve on the masquerade, Nora’s dress too, had served its purpose. However, it was Nora who took the initiative this time. Her dress, like the Swan Maiden’s feathers, had reminded her of her own world, her own agency and the realm outside of the dollhouse. Though Cinderella and Nora started in different situations, were victims of different societal constraints, and had quite different ends to their stories, for both it was a dress that provided a window of opportunity, a possibility for transcendence beyond their initial circumstances. Perhaps, though, just perhaps both lived happily ever after.
‘Ibsen’s knowledge of humanity is nowhere more obvious than in his portrayal of women’ (Joyce). Discuss and illustrate:In his often quoted ‘Notes for a Modern Society’ Ibsen stated that, ‘in practical life, woman is judged by masculine law, as though she weren’t a woman but a man – a woman cannot be herself in modern society’. These thoughtful reflections attracted much positive acclaim from feminists at the turn of the century, despite Ibsen’s emphatic declaration that ‘I am not a member of the Women’s Rights League’ (McFarlane, p.90). The extent to which Ibsen did directly sympathize with the feminists is still debated today, but this is largely irrelevant when considering his portrayal of women. More engaging is the idea that Ibsen did indeed have a vivid insight into women’s nature, and a fervent interest in the manner in which it was affected by contemporary society. This resulted in the creation of colorful female protagonists such as Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler, whose character traits are not only entertaining for the purpose of the drama, but also remarkably well-observed. Ibsen’s equally convincing portrayal of marital relationships should not be overlooked; his emphasis on the Victorian husband’s attitude towards his wife is particularly telling.The manner in which the behavior of married couples was dictated by society is explored by Ibsen in A Doll’s House, partly through Torvald’s blind determination to adhere to the right set of rules. David Thomas goes so far as to say that ‘Torvald unthinkingly lives out his role as the authoritarian husband’ as ‘men were far more likely to be dominated by the social prejudices of their day’ (p.73). Ibsen highlights this notion by giving Torvald a dominant role over Nora which is sometimes almost comical in its intensity. He takes delight in perceiving his wife as a silly childlike figure, affectionately taunting her by referring to ‘you and your frivolous ideas’, and moaning in what is clearly an approving manner that she is ‘just like a woman’ (p.2). When she takes an interest in Dr. Rank’s health matters, Torvald exclaims gleefully, ‘Look at our little Nora talking about laboratory tests!’ (p.71). He is not unlike a proud father, amused that his daughter has expressed naÔve curiosity regarding a matter of which she clearly understands nothing. This interpretation of Nora’s words enhances his status of power and gives him the satisfaction that his wife is as unknowing as she should be. It could be argued that throughout the play Torvald is subconsciously deluding himself by understanding Nora’s actions in this inaccurate way. He is certainly disgusted by the idea of her secret involvement with Krogstad’s business matters, warning her that ‘little song-birds must keep their pretty little beaks out of mischief’ (p.31). This allegorical language is probably for his benefit as much as hers: he is reluctant to address directly the possibility that his wife is intrigued by matters which, under society’s rules, should exclude her completely. When he discovers the extent of her deception, he is moved by his anger and fear by describing the situation as ‘utterly squalid’ (p.75), but upon realising that he is ‘saved’ his first inclination is to comfort ‘poor little Nora’ (p.77). Torvald is clearly anxious to return to the previous state of decorum in which his wife was simply his little pet, flattering himself that ‘I wouldn’t be a proper man if I didn’t find a woman doubly attractive for being so obviously helpless’ (p.78). Here Ibsen reminds the audience of Torvald’s main aspiration: to live the life of ‘a proper man’.With Jorgen Tesman, Ibsen portrays a husband who succumbs less obviously to society’s expectations of a good marriage, but who is nonetheless always quietly encouraging his wife to act more appropriately. Elizabeth Hardwick even suggests that ‘Hedda’s husband is much more of a girl than she is’ (McFarlane, p.100), and it is true that he is fascinated by ‘medieval domestic crafts’ (p.202). Perhaps he is subconsciously trying to make up for the lack of domestication within the household of a woman who is disgusted by the ‘smells of lavender and pot-pourri’ (p.207). More obviously, Jorgen has a habit of constantly seeking Hedda’s approval and attention, encouraging her to ‘think of that, Hedda’ three times in a few lines of text (p.182-3). Her mechanical response of ‘yes, I’m thinking’ to these appeals clearly reflects her disinterest, and yet poor Jorgen is never deterred from trying to obtain his wife’s devotion. Similarly, his allusions to her suggested pregnancy are an almost pathetic endeavor to encourage discussion of the topic within the household. ‘Isn’t she blossoming?’ (p.192), he asks Brack suggestively, trying to portray her as a healthy mother-to-be. This recalls Torvald’s comment to Mrs. Linde as Nora greets the children, proclaiming contentedly that ‘the place now becomes unbearable for anybody except mothers’ (p.22). Like Jorgen, he revels in the idea of his wife being preoccupied by her maternal instinct, as in the eyes of society this is a perfect demonstration of the good wife’s most essential quality.Ibsen’s understanding of different types of women is very apparent in his female characters’ various attitudes towards pregnancy and motherhood. On the rare occasions when Nora refers to her children, she speaks of them as ‘such sweet little things’ (p.15), ‘my sweet little darlings’ (p.22) and ‘my pretty little dollies’ (p.22), suggesting that while she is not lacking maternal feeling, she sees her children primarily as toys to play with and show off when it suits her. Her final decision to leave because of her ‘duty to [her]self’ (p.82) is unhampered by feelings of true guilt towards her children, in striking contrast to the alternative German ending to the play when, ‘trembling’, she declares that ‘I cannot leave them’ (p.88). The fact that Ibsen dubbed this conclusion ‘a barbaric outrage’ (Thomas, p.74) shows that he specifically intended for Nora to be portrayed as a woman who was not exhaustively dedicated to family life: he knew that not all women share the same priorities and wanted to make society aware of this.Ibsen’s sensitivity concerning the thought process of women is made apparent with the contrast between the approaches of Hedda, Miss Tesman and Thea Elvsted to pregnancy. Jorgen’s old aunt has devoted her life to raising him, asking insistently ‘Isn’t it the only joy I have in this world, to help you along your road, my darling boy?’ (p.174). Her maternal instinct is never questioned, from the moment when she eagerly prompts Jorgen about the pregnancy, asking for news of ‘any prospects’ (p.172). As for Thea, her childlessness causes her to cling onto Lovborg’s manuscript: Ibsen neatly demonstrates that some women will always need something to nurture. Her reaction to Lovborg’s account of destroying the manuscript is striking, as she ‘shrieks’ and declares, ‘For the rest of my life it’ll be as though you’d killed a little child’ (p.243). This dramatic reaction to the destruction of something which is not, after all, even human contrasts effectively with Hedda’s cool detachment from the notion of pregnancy. She almost seems sickened by the idea, irritably begging Miss Tesman to ‘leave me be’ (p.178) when she is questioned about it. Her reaction to Brack’s hints of ‘a natural aptitude’ for a certain ‘vocation’ which ‘most other women’ (p.209) possess is a similarly rankled ‘Oh be quiet I say!’ (p.209). Perhaps Hedda realises she is not like ‘most other women’ in this sense and at moments like these vents her frustration at being different and misunderstood.Hedda Gabler is certainly one of Ibsen’s most complex female characters. It seems clear that she is hungry for power, to such an extent that she wants Tesman to go into politics, simply ‘because I’m bored’ (p.207); her fervent curiosity about a world that ‘a young girl – isn’t supposed to know about’ (p.219) explains her time spent with Lovborg. Her love for pistols is surely representative of her desire to be part of the man’s world she has so little access to – the fact that at one point Brack has to ‘ease the pistol out of her hand’ (p.199) shows her reluctance to release this method of escapism (which is ultimately permanent) from her mundane life. She is very unsure of her own character, unable to explain her bitchiness towards Miss Tesman concerning the hat. ‘These things just suddenly come over me. And then I can’t resist them. Oh, I don’t know myself how to explain it’ (p.206). This confusion renders her less cruel, explaining her snappiness and making her a more sympathetic character. With this portrayal Ibsen demonstrates an understanding of the thought process behind women’s actions: her behavior, although often rash, is never simply cruel or violent for the sake of it.The depth of Nora’s character is a final example of Ibsen’s perception of the less obvious elements of a woman’s personality. Her manipulative powers are almost admirable; she manages to make the most of her role as Torvald’s frivolous doll wife to obtain certain rewards. For instance, she offers to ‘wrap the money [which she is requesting] up in some pretty gilt paper’ (p.4), knowing expertly how to make her ideas superficially more acceptable to Torvald, who soon agrees to hand over the money. Ibsen is clearly a sharp observer of women’s coyness as is apparent in his stage directions which show Nora ‘toying with her coat buttons, and without looking at [Torvald]’ (p.4) ñ the playwright seems fully aware of the double sided nature of a woman’s charm. One of her most impressive achievements, gaining enough money for her husband’s recovery, arguably depicts her as a heroine who bravely takes the initiative when circumstances dictate it, despite her ‘featherbrained’ exterior.’I believe that first and foremost I am an individual’ (p.82) is surely the most significant line in the play. Not only does it reflect Ibsen’s admirable open-mindedness for his time, but also a real understanding of women and their desire to be seen as something other than half of a marriage. By portraying his male characters, especially Torvald and Jorgen, as rather dull conformists who do not (or will not) understand the potential of women, Ibsen makes his own perceptions particularly convincing and refreshing.EDITION USED: Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
In his play ‘A Doll’s House’ Henrik Ibsen provides the audience with an insight into life in 19th Century Norway and the injustices that existed in society at the time. Throughout the narrative Ibsen uses the Nora and Torvald’s relationship as a vehicle through which he explores the constitution of marriage and the morality of this kind of relationship, particularly the rigid gender roles that were prominent within the society.
In the play, a woman is expected to accept her societal role, acquiescing to her husband in all things, by subtly highlighting the inequality of this, Ibsen explores the morality of their relationship. One of the first thing Torvald says to address his wife is “You mustn’t disturb me!” Here, the imperative creates a very forceful tone, establishing unequal power dynamics within the relationship, indicative of the inequalities that existed between men and women in the mid-19th Century. Men adopted the dominant role that came so naturally to them in such a phallocentric culture, in which women were denied the same rights as men. Critic Brian Downs states “When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, the institution of marriage was sacrosanct”, and this notion emphasised by how naturally Nora and Torvald embrace the sharply defined marital roles, despite how it leads to the morality of their relationship becoming questionable, as indeed, these marital roles were unequal in that the male carries the weight of power within the relationship. Furthermore, through the fact that Nora in no way contests being talked down to by her husband, Ibsen makes a stark criticism of the way in which 19th Century Norwegian women had been conditioned by society to ignore this kind of behaviour, to the extent where they do not even acknowledge the injustice of it. Indeed, Torvald’s borderline aggressive speech towards Nora, as well as her apparent ignorance of the inequality of their marriage, causes the audience to question the morality of their marriage, as Ibsen subtly criticises the constitution.
Additionally, Nora’s dishonest nature is prominent throughout the text, as she lies repeatedly to her husband; this implies that Nora does not value morality as an important aspect of marriage. When questioned by Torvald about whether or not she indulged in a treat from the pastry shop, Nora responds emphatically with “Certainly not.” The ease with which Nora is able to lie to her husband suggests it is second-nature to her, perhaps even impulsive; the fact that Nora has this level of disrespect for the trust which her husband places in her speaks volumes about the way in which women viewed marriage in the 19th Century. Women did not necessarily marry out of love, but instead out of obligation or want of money or status; this outlook does not bode well for a woman’s moral responsibility in a relationship – if she does not love her husband, she is more likely to be inconsiderate of the moral responsibility a spouse places in their partner. However, Nora does appear to have Torvard’s best interests at heart, after all, “it was [her] who saved Torvald’s life”, and from this is can be inferred that Nora really does love Torvald. However, it could be argued that, at this point in the narrative, Ibsen is subtly implying that Nora is deceiving herself, since as marriage in the 19th Century was an institution traditionally rooted in the patriarchy that promotes male superiority and power over women. It is this that causes the reader to question how a women of the period could be truly happy in a relationship of that nature, and indeed, whether or not a women’s apparent satisfaction, such as Nora’s, was merely a pretence. Critic Jenette Lee supports this in her description of how “the problem of A Doll’s House, for instance, is not concerned with the marriage relations of Nora and Helmer, but with the character of Nora”; in light of this view, an audience could conclude that Nora’s outlook of marriage, whereby she does not value morality in her relationship, was one common of women in 19th Century Norway.
Furthermore, Ibsen touches on how men in the 19th Century were shallow in their pursuit of women. Nora foreshadows at time “when [she’s] no longer pretty”, “when Torvald no longer loves [her] as he does now”, which reveals the superficial nature of marriage in 19th Century Norway, whereby men seemingly valued appearance extremely highly in a relationship, indeed before other more important qualities. From this it could be construed that men were rather immoral within their marriages – as Ibsen implies Torvald would cease to love Nora if she were to lose her outward beauty. This is indicative that he does not value their relationship very highly and this indeed reflects attitudes of men of the period in which the play is set; subsequent to the heavily phallocentric society in which they lived, men of the 19th Century had little respect for women and generally viewed them as solely as a means of fulfilling the stereotypical notion of a marriage. Here, Ibsen criticises men of the time, implying they were complicit in enabling social injustices to be so prominent in 19th Century society, their blatant lack of respect for the opposite gender intensifying inequalities that existed between men and women.
In conclusion, during the entirety of his play ‘A Doll’s House’, Ibsen thoroughly explores and exposes the inequalities that existed between men and women in the mid-19th Century. He highlights how both men and women prevent vast social change by continually conforming to the gender roles that existed within marriage. In exploring the constitution of marriage and the morality of this kind of relationship, Ibsen reveals how little value morality had in relationships at the time, particularly in that of Nora and Torvald.
The opening of the play ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen provides the audience with an introduction to the protagonist Nora and an insight into the nature of her marriage with Torvald. Even from this early point in the play Ibsen explores the constitution of marriage in 19th Century Norway, particularly the rigid gender roles that this created within the society. To an extent, Nora conforms to the role of the typical subservient wife, but the audience also encounters elements of independence in her character that have the potential to prevail later on in the play.
In the opening of the play, there is a sense, albeit subtle, of entrapment whereby Nora is trapped in her marriage and in her home, and indeed subservient to their husbands. The stage directions determining Nora’s actions, such as “jumps up and claps her hands” or “tosses her head”, are slightly erratic and establish at atmosphere of restlessness, subsequent to Nora being housebound and repressed. Ibsen purposely leads the audience to believe that Nora, to an extent, is actually unaware of her own repression, since she never actually says she feels as such (it is only implied through her movements), and is therefore instructively subservient to Torvald; in no way does she attempt to challenge the inequality in their relationship. In doing so, Ibsen subtly highlights how, because this structure of a marriage was so widespread in 19th Century Norway, women were seemingly oblivious to their own lack of freedom. Even if, at this point in the play, Nora was consciously unhappy in her marriage, divorce would have been financially and emotionally overbearing for a woman living in Norway during the 19th Century and thus it is unlikely that women even considered this a viable choice to make, instead choosing to remain subservient, rather than go against the social norm. Jenette Lee describes how “the problem of A Doll’s House, for instance, is not concerned with the marriage relations of Nora and Helmer, but with the character of Nora”, emphasising the idea that women like Nora were perhaps lacking in the strength of character needed to liberate themselves, and thus remained subservient.
Furthermore, throughout the opening of the play, Torvald constantly belittles Nora by repetitively comparing her to small, animals, for instance, when he refers to her as “my little songbird” or “my squirrel”. The use of animalistic imagery firmly establishes the power dynamics within Nora and Torvald’s marriage, Nora appearing to be the subservient one at this point. The explicitly patriarchal society in which the entirety of the play will be set is also established, indeed an accurate reflection of Norwegian society in the 19th Century. The extensive use of possessive pronouns is also indicative a stereotypical marriage of the time, whereby men adopted the dominant role that came so naturally to them in such a phallocentric culture, in which women were denied the same rights as men. Critic Brian Downs states “When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, the institution of marriage was sacrosanct”, and this notion emphasised by how naturally Nora and Torvald embrace the sharply defined marital roles; Torvald is possessive and patronising towards Nora, who accepts this, even pandering to it when she speaks forebodingly of “when I’m no longer pretty…when Torvald no longer loves me as he does now”. From this Ibsen makes it explicit that Nora is aware of the shallow nature of her husband’s love and subtly criticises women of the period for conforming to marital stereotype of being a subservient wife.
On the contrary, it could be argued that it is primarily Torvald who fits the archetype of a husband in 19th Century Norway, since Ibsen almost immediately reveals to the audience that Nora has been working to pay off her debt and lying about it to her husband. Indeed, this was not an act done in subservience, but rather independence. Nora even goes as far as to describe the experience as “almost being like a man”. Whilst it is clear that, in lying to her husband, Nora is disrespecting the institution of marriage, the notion of women working became increasingly popular in Norway during the 19th Century, and thus Nora’s actions could be perceived as innovative and admirable, particularly to an audience of the period in Norway, who were gradually becoming more comfortable with the concept of women in the workplace. Ibsen was known for his feminist beliefs, and by portraying Nora as independent, it could be said that Ibsen’s intention was to create a role model for Norwegian women of the time, encouraging them to defy the roles in which society has placed them, as Nora has done through this act of deceit. Hattie Morahan, an actress who has played Nora in ‘A Doll’s House’ described how “there is something timeless about [the play]”, and from this it could be said that Nora’s independence has remained influential, even for women of contemporary audiences.
In conclusion, Nora is shown to be both independent and subservient from her husband in the opening of the play. For the most part she is the latter, indeed conforming to the gender roles that existed within marriage during 19th Century Norway. However, Nora does present elements of independence from her husband and in demonstrating this; it was Ibsen’s intention to highlight the flaws that existed within the constitution of marriage during the aforementioned period.
“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, in many ways, addresses the divide between the concept of work itself and the perceptions of one’s own work. In reality, a person’s idea of work can differ from the kind of work actually done. When people think of the word “work,” images that come into mind include physical labor or any type of visible and tangible job or career. Household duties and production, however, is hardly ever accounted for. The emotional and mental labor of being placed in a specific gender role is also hard work. There is no monetary compensation involved. Instead, the protagonist of the play, Nora, is dedicated to the subtle rewards of keeping up appearances, both her own and her family’s. This facade shows how a woman’s place at home or at work is solely based off producing a certain image at all times. Women are trapped by society’s forced idealistic view of who they should be, and true freedom is compromised when a sense of control and individuality is lost.
In the beginning of the play, Nora’s idea of the work she does equates to the work she is expected to do by her husband, Torvald. However, the play gets complicated when this divide is realized. Nora holds the family’s reputation in her words, behavior, and actions. She is dedicated to making her husband happy at all costs and even protects him to do so, much to Torvald’s dismay. Keeping up appearances is itself a form of work in this play and the theme evolves into something that is largely self-destructive. Nora is oppressed not only by both societal forces and her own husband. She is living a life she knows is a lie, and it almost acts as a daily performance. She acts unintelligent and child-like so as to validate Torvald’s masculinity and power. The image of the perfect housewife that she represents replaces her individuality and personhood with the illusion of a happy family and a husband to be envious of.
Torvald teases Nora and calls her belittling names like his “little squirrel” and “skylark.” (Ibsen 4). He toys with her emotions using the promise of money and materialistic items. In a way, Torvald controls Nora. Although, Nora may very well be aware of his control over her, she accepts it and her role as subservient and dependent on the man in her life. She succumbs to the role of the victim and this role becomes her work and her work begins to define who she is. The image she chooses to represent for the sake of a good reputation causes her to lose herself and become only an object of affection and Torvald’s “trophy wife.”
Nora perceives her work as performance. “Your squirrel would run about and do all her tricks if you would be nice, and do what she wants…I would play the fairy and dance for you in the moonlight, Torvald.” (Ibsen 39). She also uses her physical appearance and takes advantage of her feminine features in order to get her way. “If your little squirrel were to ask you for something very, very prettily—?” (Ibsen 39). Nora’s words confirm that she is putting on an act as the woman of the house and acknowledges that her “tricks” and childlike demeanor serves to please Torvald.. She constantly depends and works on this image of herself and falls victim to the lie itself. The more a person lives a lie, the greater the chance the lie will consume that person. Nora’s manipulation eventually ended up manipulating not only Torvald, but also and more importantly, herself. “To be able to be free from care, quite free from care; to be able to play and romp with the children; to be able to keep the house beautifully and have everything just as Torvald likes it!” (Ibsen 17). Here, Nora is addressing her desire for a state of freedom where she will no longer feel anxious or stressed. Ironically, she is referring to all the things that restrict or limit her including her husband who controls her. She thinks she can find true freedom confined in a traditional domestic sphere with Torvald. This quote is critical to her evolution and eventual change in beliefs as the play continues and Nora realizes what freedom really means to her. Thus, the true nature of her work is realized and she grows from it. Nora was manipulated by her own lies and the expectations of others, specifically the men around her. The expectation itself became an emotionally and mentally taxing workload and constraint. It is this sort of oppression from men and society that continue to hurt women and ultimately erase their importance and potential.
Nora’s idea of work evolves as the play continues. She has lived her life acting for and pleasing her husband. The climax of the play complicated Nora’s idea of working in a specific manner to preserve her marriage when she realize the truth about Torvald’s intentions and his relationship with her. When Nora admits to committing a crime to save Torvald’s life, he admits that to him, the illusion of happiness was more important than the reality of happiness itself. He stated, “From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments,the appearance—” (Ibsen 71). Nora chose to save Torvald’s life but Torvald did not reciprocate or show any sign of empathy. In fact, when he received the news that he was in the clear from trouble, he excitedly proclaimed that his life is saved, not Nora’s. Nora then realizes the selfish nature of Torvald’s affections and how he possesses no real love for her. It is then when the she realizes that keeping up appearances erases her existence and does nothing for her as an individual. Her idea of who controls her work has shifted from a man’s hold to her own.
“I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so.You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.” (Ibsen 74). Nora is aware that putting on an act will only hurt her in the end. She thought she was happy pleasing her father and then her husband when all she truly felt was remorse and emptiness. She understands that her life and behavior has been a performance forced by the pressures of society and her husband in order to create a fabricated image of an ideal family. During this turning point, Nora knows that she no longer has to please men and has the ability to be a real person. She can exist without Torvald’s presence and without his subtle or immediate control over her. Nora’s perspective on the type of work she does and why she does it changed for the better in Act III.
Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” describes work in ways that are sometimes ignored. Nora’s idea of work is pleasing her husband and maintaining his version of who he thinks she should be and how she should act. This lie causes her to lose individuality and creates a performance out of her life. Nora worked to be the perfect wife and paid little attention to what she wanted. Her goals and beliefs were set aside for a man. Although in many ways, Nora worked to manipulate Torvald, she still ended up hurting herself in the process of constantly being someone she is not. Her work was defined and orchestrated by a man. Oppressive societal forces directs women to look and act a certain way at all times for the sake of maintaining an image. Unsurprisingly, Nora was not keeping up her appearance any more than she was keeping up Torvald’s.