A Doll’s House: Revolution From Within
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.
Durbach, 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.
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