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Drama

Analysis of Torvald Family Issues and Patriarchal Society in Henrik Ibsen’s Novel The Doll’s House

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen presents the strict and doomed Helmer family. Throughout the play, Nora is the doll in Torvald’s house, beautiful and obedient – the perfect wife. She is treated as a child, a play-thing, and someone he needs to watch over. In order to fulfill the role Torvald, her father, and society expect of her, she pretends to be someone she is not. Torvald is completely invested in his patriarchal role, too. Nora appears trapped in her traditional Victorian home-life; however, Torvald is a product of his society just the same.

Ibsen renders Torvald a doll through patriarchal constraints, a typical Victorian male who values status and authority in all aspects of his life. His expectations are catered to by his society, and he accepts that fact irrevocably, enabling him to remain comfortable in his dominance, his privilege, for there is no need to contemplate the cost others pay to provide that comfort. This seemingly static reality denies any adjustment or sacrifice on Torvald’s part, so he remains trapped in his state. Ultimately, by portraying Torvald’s role as a doll in the house of society, Ibsen challenges traditional Victorian ideals and suggests that the patriarchy is a grand trick that both empowers and restricts men.

Torvald’s role at home is a representative product of his place in society. He embraces the beliefs of the patriarchy that a man’s role is to protect and guide his family, thus Torvald is confident that Nora “should not think of going against [his] wishes” (Ibsen 4). The patriarchy gives him a status of empowerment, so all Nora does for him is not niceties, but necessity. His rhetorical question that it is “Nice?—because [she does] as [her] husband wishes?” (33) solidifies his bemusement and presents a slight paradox within the patriarchy. For someone who is supposed to care for his family, his wishes must be granted first. Torvald’s pet names for Nora serve to secure his role as the emotional and intellectual superior of the house. Her efforts are just that of another woman’s, never amounting to anything, so she follows Torvald’s instruction.

Without Torvald, Nora “can’t get on a bit” during the tarantella; she welcomes him to “criticize [her] and correct [her]” (47). This brings him “great pleasure”, guiding his “helpless little mortal” wife (47), yet only if she wishes him to, as to make it seem like a service to her; a dutiful husband tending his wife. Of course Nora would want his help, considering Torvald, as a man, has the reputation that “everything [he does] is quite right” (57). Torvald is accustomed to praise and expects obedience because what a man says goes. Nora describes “being with Torvald is a little like being with Papa” (42) because both, as men, have a strong influence in her life, power over her actions, and a similar role in society—take care of the little lady.

With such power in society is the burden to maintain it. Appearance is vital to the preservation of high status; any liabilities must be immediately eliminated. That is why Torvald had zero tolerance for Krogstad’s informalities at work. His lack of respect for Torvald’s superior titles made it “extremely painful” and “intolerable” (35), so, to combat the demeaning and detrimental effects to his image, he removed Krogstad from office. This self-preservation is also shown in Torvald’s refusal to reinstate Krogstad at the pleas of his wife. He will not “make [himself] ridiculous before [his] whole staff” (35) by becoming subject to outside influence. His wife’s opinions hold no importance over his image and reputation. Another problematic aspect of his society is Torvald’s need to be better than other men.

After his dismissal, Krogstad poses a threat to Torvald’s reputation, with the potential to cause “unspeakable harm” through “most scurrilous newspapers” (36), yet when Nora suggests calling the letter back this is an insult to Torvald, as if he is afraid of Krogstad’s vengeance; however, Torvald says he is “man enough to take everything upon [himself]” (36) in an attempt to prove his masculinity, which the patriarchy has paradoxically made fragile. Torvald even finds superiority with his late friend, Dr.Rank, referring to his life as “sufferings and…loneliness…like a cloudy backdrop to [the Helmer’s] sunlit happiness” (61). The pursuit of social acceptance compels Torvald to dismiss his friend’s previous importance, instead presenting an egotistical and apathetic front. Once again, there is no room for vulnerability—only himself. As an agent of the patriarchy, Torvald must present a perfect family with him as the sole provider; he will never admit faults or embrace vulnerability. Thus, Nora feels compelled to hide the loan from him, lest she “upset [their] mutual relations together” (12); he would be humiliated to know he owed his wife anything. Her act breached social codes and subverted gender norms that Torvald, and others in a similar position, has counted on for his whole identity and worldview.

Torvald lives in ignorance, so clouded by the illusion of the patriarchy, and shapes all his ideals around it. His wife, who “ought to love” him, should lean on him where he can “advise and direct” her, for without that “womanly helplessness”, he “should not be a man” (64). Torvald is in control of a woman’s life, a subordinate, yet his life is contingent on her. This underlying reliance disguises as love for Nora, therefore he cannot understand how he and her Papa have wronged her. She made nothing of her life, however Torvald, through the lens of the patriarchy, sees it as her needing his guidance. He isn’t limiting her, but helping her prosper. These ignorant views prevent Torvald from connecting with others, thus he is unable to comprehend why Nora would leave, especially in such a vulnerable position where she admits she needs to educate herself through experience. At first, Nora believes Torvald loves her, that “he would never…hesitate to give his life for [her]” (40), but that is an illusion of the patriarchy.

Men care for their families, yet when the time comes to make a sacrifice, selfishness replaces that. Torvald does not feel it is his responsibility to give up what he has for someone else. It is a facade of protection. With values so deeply rooted in society, it is unfathomable that Nora would disregard what people say and “desert [her] home, [her] husband, and [her] children” (68). Torvald questions her “place in [her] home” and her lack of “a reliable guide” (68) as he tries to explain her duty through how he views his own role set by his guide—the patriarchy. He “would gladly work day and night…but no man would sacrifice his honour” (70); this grip on power and reputation upholds the patriarchy.

Their perfect family crumbles right in front of his eyes, for Nora does “not understand the conditions of the world in which [she lives]” (69). Torvald, on the other hand, accepts that the patriarchy, which is—and has been—his worldview, rules his life. Although Torvald says he can “become a different man”, Nora sees that is only possible “if [his] doll is taken away from [him]” (70). Torvald is completely shaped by the patriarchy, and the only chance of his transformation is changing the ways of society.

Patriarchal ideas of man’s ascendancy ruthlessly exploit women, and Ibsen presents the Helmer’s as a doll house of society where everything looks and functions perfectly: Torvald the protector, the dominating hero, and Nora the fragile, helpless “doll” who needs protection. However, to subvert the patriarchal constraints placed upon both men and women, Ibsen shines light on Torvald’s equal imprisonment as both agent and victim of the patriarchy. His dominance comes with a price, and Ibsen symbolizes this illusion of the patriarchy in the motif of Torvald’s obsession with appearances.

Society constructed Torvald to be a true Victorian male who values reputation and social acceptance above all else—always focusing on the wrong things. His role is to present a perfect family; there is no personal growth. When Nora leaves, she frees Torvald “from all [his] obligations”, granting “perfect freedom on both sides” (71). Torvald, so secure in his position, cannot fathom change; he still wants to “help [Nora] if [she] is in want”, supporting her in the only way he knows—with money, the illusion of support, protection.

However, Nora only wants “the most wonderful thing of all” (72): the freedom that sacrificing reputation and power for another would bring Torvald if he put the patriarchy behind him. Nora’s humanist decision represents that the only way to free oneself, man or woman, is to escape the system (or, in her case, completely dismantle it), thereby collapsing the patriarchy in her household and shaking the foundations of Torvald’s entire worldview. There is ambiguity in Torvald’s true understanding as he ponders Nora’s words, leaving the possibility for readers to decide what they would be willing to do for change, for change is impossible without serious action. Changes in society require changes in perception.

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