A Dolls House
New Theatrical Tradition in A Doll’s House
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.
Henrik Ibsen’s Portrayal of Gender Roles as Depicted in This Play, A Doll’s House
Materialist Feminism in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
The nature of man is inherently oppressive. In every documented civilization, there exists or has existed a class system which identifies certain individuals as “lesser” than their superiors. In ancient Rome, the patricians ruled over the plebeians, and women were not counted as citizens; in ancient Greece, non-Greeks were used as slaves; and in France and England the oligarchy ranked above the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Whether by race, gender, sexuality, disability, or social status, humans have established a system of oppression in which these inferiors are not allotted the same privileges as the elite class. Oppression can occur in many forms: physical brutality, cultural imperialism, psychological coercion, or materialist control. As long as the hoi polloi are willing to accept these disparities, the persecution continues Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House exposes society’s economic and material barricades as they apply to women, resulting in a separate class of oppression presented in his play. By examining A Doll’s House through the lens of materialist feminism, readers can empathize with Nora’s struggles and gain a better understanding of Ibsen’s motivation for writing this socially transformative piece.
The term “materialist feminism” is a relatively new concept, which emerged from previous critical theories of Marxism and socialist feminism (Hennessy and Ingraham 5). The theorist credited with the divergence between materialist feminism and earlier precedents is Christine Delphy, a prominent figure in feminist criticism who expanded upon the work of French activist Simone de Beauvoir. Since documenting her theories in The Main Enemy: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression in 1977, Delphy’s work has received recognition among feminist theorists and sociologists. Materialist feminism is rooted in Marxism; however, Delphy – along with many other feminist critics – felt that Marxism “had not adequately addressed women’s exploitation and oppression” (Hennessy 7). In The Main Enemy, Delphy identifies the two key differences between Marxist feminism and materialist feminism, stating that “[Marxism] does not take account of the oppression common to all women” and “[Marxism] is centered not on the oppression of women, but on the consequences of this oppression for the proletariat” (1). Thus, for the last four decades, Delphy’s term has been used to describe the materialist oppression specific to women. According to Lois Tyson, author of Critical Theory Today:
[Delphy] focuses her analysis on the family as an economic unit. Just as the lower classes are oppressed by the upper classes in society as a whole, she explains, women are the subordinates within families. As such, women constitute a separate oppressed class, based on their oppression as women, regardless of the socioeconomic class to which they belong. (97-98)
As Tyson explains, Christine Delphy’s materialist feminism acknowledges the oppression unique to women. This form of oppression is achieved primarily in the household, as women are “subordinates” controlled through economic and material means. Historically and in many cultures, men are considered the head of the household, meaning that they are typically the breadwinners and the family spokesmen; they retain complete control within their families from allocating finances, to determining what their family members read, wear, and even eat.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Henrik Ibsen wrote his sociological plays – The Pillars of Society, Ghosts and an Enemy of the People, and A Doll’s House – in which he addressed contemporary issues. According to Michael Meyer, a renowned Ibsen biographer, these plays had a far greater impact than any newspaper, debate, or book written on the subjects he addressed (Henrik Ibsen: The Master Playwright). Since its debut in 1879, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has been among the most controversial plays. The progressive feminist themes caused an uproar among men and women alike. One actress, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, refused to perform the play as written, forcing Ibsen to revise the ending and exclude Nora’s dramatic exit (Byatt). Although these reactions have faded over the years, readers and audiences still struggle to understand how a woman could leave her husband and children. However, a materialist feminism critique serves to help readers better understand the reasons behind Nora’s ultimate decision to leave her family.
The primary use of oppression in A Doll’s House takes the form of economic injustice; the women of the play are controlled through financial means. Nora appears to be well cared for by her husband, yet still faces economic oppression in her own home. In Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression, Christine Delphy claims:
[a]ll contemporary “developed” societies . . . depend on the unpaid labour of women for domestic services and child-rearing. These services are furnished within the framework of a particular relationship to an individual (the husband). They are excluded from the realm of exchange [i.e., these services are not treated like the jobs people do for money outside their own home] and consequently have no value. They are unpaid. Whatever women receive in return is independent of the work which they perform because it is not handed out in exchange for that work (i.e., as a wage to which their work entitles them), but rather as a gift. (60)
According to Delphy, women’s work is not any less important than men’s, yet women are considered “nonworkers.” Any compensation they do receive is unrelated to the work performed. She proceeds to discuss how “dominant classes make the classes in their power do the productive work . . . the pre eminent sex does less work” (61). Women perform the tasks that men do not want to do; therefore, their work is never done. Materialist feminism analyzes these more subtle ways in which men assert power over women. Nora, like most women, contributes her fair share of work, yet her work is deemed less important because it involves child care and home maintenance. These jobs are no less important than jobs outside the home, but because they yield no income, her work is undervalued and underappreciated. Men can confine women to domestic work and claim the money they earn outside the home is theirs to allot as they see fit. Within the first few lines of Ibsen’s play, Nora calls her husband, Torvald, over to see her most recent purchase, to which he responds, “Has my little spendthrift been making the money fly again . . . . Come come; we can’t afford to squander money” (Ibsen 2). This text implies that Torvald maintains control of the finances and monitors Nora’s spending. Shortly after this incident, Nora says, “You might give me money, Torvald. Only just what you think you can spare” (Ibsen 2). Again, Nora is asking for extra money, indicating that she has no control over the family’s finances and proving Delphy’s claim that any money received is merely a “gift.” Without any money of her own, Nora must rely on her husband to care for her. Therefore, requiring women to work within the home without compensation is a common – and often overlooked – form of oppression.
Although Delphy focuses her analysis primarily on the family unit, she also acknowledges that patriarchy is “a system,” and, therefore, extends beyond the confines of the home (Close to Home 3). Ibsen’s play reveals how financial oppression exists on a larger scale. In the play, Nora mentions Torvald’s recent illness, presumably brought on by the stress of his job and the birth of their youngest child. The doctor suggested that Torvald take a trip to get away for a while, but Torvald refused. Nora, having no financial freedom, had to go about other ways of trying to convince her husband. She tells Christine Linde:
I told him how I longed to have a trip abroad, like other young wives; I wept and prayed; I said he ought to think of my condition, and not to thwart me; and then I hinted that he could borrow the money . . . He said I was frivolous, and that it was his duty as a husband not to yield to my whims and fancies . . . . (Ibsen 8)
In this situation, Torvald again asserts his control over the finances by refusing to pay for the trip; however, it is also apparent that Nora lacks the financial freedom to obtain the money elsewhere. Nora cannot take out a loan in her own name, but must forge her father’s signature for a loan. Her father, already quite ill, conveniently passed away soon afterward so that her secret could remain hidden. Furthermore, Nora has no means to repay her own loan because she does not earn her own income due to her oppression within the home. Instead, each time that Torvald gives her a stipend for household necessities, Nora stores away half of the money to pay towards the loan. So while Delphy claims patriarchy begins at home, the “system” she refers to expands to create a thoroughly oppressive society.
While Nora is the primary focus of economic oppression in A Doll’s House, the patriarchal system Delphy describes is also evident in an examination of Christine Linde, Nora’s childhood friend that comes to visit her in Act 1. Christine reveals that she once loved Krogstad, the banker in charge of Nora’s loan. However, in order to provide for her own family, she elected to marry Mr. Linde, a considerably wealthy man. This decision allowed her to care for her mother and her younger brothers until they were old enough to provide for themselves. She tells Nora, “My mother was still alive, you see, bedridden and helpless; and then I had my two younger brothers to think of. I didn’t think it would be right for me to refuse him” (Ibsen 6). She puts her family’s needs ahead of her own and marries a man she does not really love. Late in the play, when Krogstad asks why she did not wait for him, Christine replies, “You ought not forget that I had a helpless mother and two little brothers. We could not wait for you, Nils, as your prospects then stood” (Ibsen 33). When her husband dies, Christine is left childless and penniless. As a woman, Christine was not permitted to take over her husband’s business. With no one to take over, Mr. Linde’s business soon went bankrupt, forcing Christine to find work in order to survive. Due to social paradigms, however, Christine is unable to find steady work. Instead, she must perform odd jobs in areas considered “women’s work,” such as sewing and needlework. Christine’s initial marriage for the purpose of supporting her family is an example of patriarchy. Because of the way the system is set up, her best option was to marry a wealthy man. Furthermore, her inability to provide for herself financially after her husband’s death serves as further evidence of the extensive oppression women – especially single women – faced during this time period. A single woman could scarcely find any work, let alone take out loans or secure gainful employment. Christine is only able to acquire a job because Nora’s husband comes into a large promotion and Nora pleads with him on Christine’s behalf.
Materialist Feminism, like Marxism, is often centered on the financial aspects of a society in relation to literature; however, one of the benefits of using a materialist critique instead of a Marxist criticism is that the application of a materialist criticism can extend beyond finances to explore the many facets of oppression. One of the first instances of materialist oppression occurs in the first scene of A Doll’s House and utilizes a French biscuit called a macaroon (sometimes spelled “macaron”). According to Delphy in Close to Home, “food prohibitions – even when internalized – remain as constraints, especially since they are linked to a necessarily transitory status” (49). This explains how Torvald uses the macaroons as another form of materialist oppression. Torvald comes home and notices the sweet smell on Nora’s breath. He asks her, “Hasn’t the little sweet-tooth been playing pranks today . . . Hasn’t she even nibbled a macaroon or two?” (Ibsen 3). Rather than tell Torvald the truth, Nora conceals the fact that she has been eating macaroons and responds with, “I shouldn’t think of doing what you disapprove of” (Ibsen 3). In this statement, Nora reveals the true nature of their relationship early on in the play. She is so bound and subjugated in her marriage that she cannot even decide for herself what to eat, and she feels the need to lie to her husband when she breaks his rules. Nora is treated like another one of Torvald’s children, to the extent that he dictates every aspect of her life. Beyond this, he uses other characters to control her when he is not around. For example, when Nora offers a macaroon to Dr. Rank, a close family friend, he responds with “What! Macaroons! I thought they were contraband here” (Ibsen 11). Nora then lies, claiming Christine brought the macaroons, still unwilling to admit her disobedience to her husband even when he is not present.
Perhaps a more obvious display of Torvald’s control over Nora is the lock on the letterbox which prevents Nora from retrieving the mail without Torvald’s permission. According to Delphy, “it is about as accurate to say that the wives of bourgeois men are themselves bourgeois as to say that the slave of a plantation owner is himself a plantation owner (The Main Enemy 36). Therefore, women are merely production workers, not co-owners or partners within the production force. Nothing within the household belongs to the wife because they are considered as employees paid in upkeep. Collecting the mail seems like a fairly innocent chore, yet Torvald asserts his power by using a lock and key to prohibit Nora from accessing what does not belong to her. Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, is the executor of Nora’s fraudulent loan. When Nora convinces Torvald to hire Christine, she unknowingly puts Krogstad’s position in jeopardy, forcing him to extreme measures. He discovers Nora’s crime while reviewing her loan, which was supposedly signed by her father. However, the loan is dated several days after the death of her father, as Nora did not yet know of her father’s death when she forged his name. Krogstad reveals this fact to Nora, saying:
I had left the date blank; that is to say, your father should himself have dated his signature . . . . Your father died on the 29th of September. But look here: he has dated his signature October 2nd! Is not that remarkable, Mrs. Helmer? Can you explain it? It is noteworthy, too, that the words “October 2nd” and the year are not in your father’s handwriting, but in one which I believe I know. Well, this may be explained; your father may have forgotten to date his signature, and somebody may have added the date at random, before the fact of your father’s death was known. There is nothing wrong in that. Everything depends on the signature. Of course it is genuine, Mrs. Helmer? It was really your father himself who wrote his name here? (Ibsen 15)
Krogstad uses this leverage to blackmail Nora into reinstating his position. When his plan is unsuccessful, Krogstad writes a letter to Torvald and places it in the family mailbox. After Krogstad places his letter in the box, Nora and Christine plot how they might retrieve it. Christine asks, “And your husband has the key,” to which Nora responds “Always” (Ibsen 30). Nora tries to keep Torvald occupied so that Christine can pick the lock, but the women are ultimately unsuccessful in preventing Torvald from reading the letter. Therefore, the lock and key serve as an important form of oppression, which prevented Nora from intercepting the letter and ultimately lead to her downfall.
Upon receiving the letter, Torvald immediately enacts another form of materialist oppression on his wife, this time by using his own children as objects. According to Delphy in The Main Enemy, the Latin word “familia” includes land, slaves, women and children, all of which are “owned by the father (27). This is demonstrated in Torvald’s initial reaction to Krogstad’s letter, when Torvald says:
The thing is so incredible, I can’t grasp it. But we must come to an understanding. Take that shawl off. Take it off, I say! I must try to pacify him in one way or another – the matter must be hushed up, cost what it may. As for you and me, we must make no outward change in our way of life – no outward change, you understand. Of course, you will continue to live here. But the children cannot be left in your care. I dare not trust them to you . . . . Henceforward there can be no question of happiness, but merely of saving the ruins, the shreds, the show . . . . (Ibsen 40)
Torvald tells Nora that the children cannot be left in her care, which would suggest that he sees the children as his possessions to do with as he sees fit. He also maintains his own control over Nora’s life, insisting they will they will continue to live together and pretend nothing has happened, though their marriage is effectively over. Ordinarily, a split between parents would result in split custody, but because Torvald “owns” everyone and everything within his house, he alone has the power to determine what is best for his children. He refuses to allow Nora future contact with them, for fear that she is unfit to raise them, though she has done nothing to diminish her capabilities as a mother. Nora is also guilty of treating her children like dolls. She plays with them whenever she desires and sends them with a nurse when she is finished with them. Near the end of Act II, the children specifically ask for their mother, but she refuses them because it is not a convenient time for her. Nora’s treatment of her children resembles that of a young girl playing with dolls and abandoning them when she is finished. In his article, “Nora as a Doll,” Michael Wiseman of Inquiries Journal points out that Nora’s treatment of her children is reflective of her own treatment. He states, “Nora, having grown up as a manipulated tool of others, is under the impression that manipulation of others is a societal norm” (Wiseman). She continues the tradition in Act I when she gives her young daughter her own doll to play with. However, after recognizing her own mistreatment, Nora acknowledges her own wrongdoing in treating her children like dolls, saying, “And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them” (Ibsen 42).
Finally, Nora herself is materialized as an object of control. Torvald continually refers to Nora by pet-names such as “skylark” and “squirrel.” In doing so, not only is Torvald asserting his power over his wife, but he is also dehumanizing her. Even the title of the play materializes Nora, making her the “doll” with which Torvald plays. According to Michael Wiseman, “Nora Helmer spends most of her on-stage time as a doll: a vapid, passive character with little personality of her own. Her whole life is a construct of societal norms and the expectations of others” (Wiseman). He dresses her up in fine clothes and dictates every aspect of her life. He plays with her when he desires to be in her company, but he leaves her to her own devices when he is finished. Nora admits that she and Torvald have never had a serious conversation in their marriage. This further exhibits how Nora is treated more like a child or a plaything than a wife and partner. In her grand monologue, Nora describes her own role as an object in Torvald’s games:
While I was at home with father, he used to tell me all his opinions, and I held the same opinions. If I had others I said nothing about them, because he wouldn’t have liked it. He used to call me his doll-child, and played with me as I played with my dolls. Then I came to live in your house . . . I mean I passed from father’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your taste, and I got the same tastes as you, or I pretended to . . . . When I look back on it now, I seem to have been living here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and father have done me a great wrong. It is your fault that my life has come to nothing . . . . And you have always been so kind to me. But our house has been nothing but a playroom. Here I have been your doll wife, just as at home I used to be papa’s doll child. . . That has been our marriage, Torvald. (Ibsen 42)
In this grand monologue, Nora reveals the extent of her life’s oppression. In her childhood home, she was controlled by her father; throughout her marriage, she has been controlled by Torvald. Nora compares herself to a doll and claims she has been living like a “beggar,” and performing tricks, such as dancing the tarantella for Torvald at their party. Nothing belongs to Nora, and her work is of little importance to Torvald. Instead, she is treated as a child, having no influence in her own life. In this way, even Nora herself can be considered an object of materialist oppression.
Not all scholars support the application of a materialist feminism critique to literature. Nora is often seen as impetuous and irresponsible for leaving her children, which is why the initial controversy over this play was so dramatic. In “The Dollhouse Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen,” Joan Templeton, a renowned Ibsen scholar, notes that critics of a feminist analysis argue that Nora is simply an “irrational and frivolous narcissist; an ‘abnormal’ woman; a ‘hysteric’; a vain, unloving egoist who abandons her family in a paroxysm of selfishness” (29). She covertly disobeys her husband’s wishes and risks his career for a vacation, proving that she is impetuous and irresponsible. She hides her sweets and lies about them, which demonstrates that she is “deceitful” and “manipulative” (30). Torvald’s pet names for Nora serve to represent her inability to comprehend complex issues. Based on these interpretations, Nora’s final exit and her decision to leave both her husband and her children is often deemed rash and foolish. As a result, Nora’s character as a whole is regarded as inconsequential.
All of these challenges towards Nora’s character are true, and in fact, Ibsen did not set out to write a feminist play. Rather, his purpose in writing A Doll’s House was to address even deeper issues – those of the human condition. At a banquet honoring Ibsen in 1898, Ibsen himself stated:
I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having consciously worked for the women’s rights movement . . . .True enough, it is desirable to solve the women problem, along with all the others, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity. (“Speeches and New Letters” 65)
These arguments do not discredit a materialist critique, but rather extend these analyses beyond feminism. Nora’s struggles are not unique to women (though materialist feminism focuses specifically on the oppression of women); they represent the forms of oppression used throughout history on all “lesser” individuals.
An examination of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House through the lens of materialist feminism reveals acute oppression that manifests in many ways. Nora’s primary issue lies in the fact that she has no financial freedom and, therefore, no independence apart from her husband. She works as an unpaid housewife, left with no money of her own and forced to rely on Torvald. This extreme consequence is what makes her ultimate decision so intense; by leaving Torvald, she is walking into a world that does not provide any support for women. She chooses financial uncertainty over her current situation, adding an additional depth to an ending that is sometimes considered impetuous and foolish by critics. Nora is not just acting impulsively and abandoning her children; she is demanding change so that they can have the life that she never could. By applying a materialist analysis to A Doll’s House, it is clear that there are many avenues by which individuals can be oppressed. It takes a person of influence – such as a well-regarded author – to enact change and move closer to the ever-elusive idea of equality.
The Institution of Marriage and Morality
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 Dynamic Between Appearance and Reality
“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.
Christina’s Character Motivation and Struggles
In Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, Christian Linden (or Linde) must give up her own life to provide for her mother and younger brothers, and finds herself a newfound freedom once widowed. However, Ms.Linden is unhappy having no family to work for and struggles as the only character in the play that is driven by morals instead of social normalities. Her example, though attended by conflict, plays into the idea that obeying societal rules will lead an unfulfilling life.
Each character in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House is greatly influenced and swayed by society, one of the main ones being Christina Linden, because she must fulfill her duties and hastily marry a man for his money instead of being with someone she genuinely loves. Ms.Linden’s life rapidly changed after the death of her father, and she had to assume control of her household and provide for her needy family, and this opportunity opened an unusual position for Christina because women never hold power within their homes. Unfortunately, Ms.Linden is now a widow and must work for her own wages, but she doesn’t have anyone to share her earnings with. In a “catching-up” conversation with Nora, Christina openly admitted that Nora lives a cushioned life and must be delighted “to have what [she] need[s],” (Ibsen 13) because Christina was left with no place to call home or any children to care for from her previous marriage.
Although Christina values the independence she found after her husband died, she can’t help but yearn for someone “to live for” (Ibsen 16) and share a life with, because she has these natural instincts to nurture people as either a wife or mother. Christina struggles between the idea of being independent and having complete control of herself, or opening up to the possibility of forfeiting some of that newfound freedom in order to be happy in a marriage like Nora. As a widow, Christina is perceived as being meek and helpless, so employers will often offer her jobs out of pity. Society doesn’t necessarily throw away widowed women, but it does look down on them, so if Christina were to accept society’s rules, she’d be unhappy. Marriage is a way to encage and prohibit women from exercising any kind of power, so either route Christina chooses, she’ll ultimately have to sacrifice an enjoyable part of her life.
Moreover, Christina’s tendency to drive her actions based on moral values instead of instinctual wants or societal norms is a conflict throughout Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, because Christina must influence those around her so they can understand her decisions. Christina is willing to be submissive, because she finds “no happiness in working for one’s self,” (Ibsen 90) and being alone isn’t ideal for a nurturing woman. Being mostly driven by her superego, Christina bases her decisions on her interpretation of morality and does not consider societal norms, so she finds no problem in a woman having control over herself, because she can see past gender and look at all humans as equals. This sort of ideology conflicts with society’s perception of gender, because women are meant to be subservient to a man until every male in their life is dead.
Christina pleads with Krogstad, claiming that she needs “someone to tend…and [his] children need a mother,” (Ibsen 91) in an attempt to convince Krogstad that a morally stable family consists of two heads in the household. Although Christina wants to be Krogstad’s bride, she is not willing to give up her professional life, so she offers herself as the primary breadwinner in the household. This kind of assertion is not allowed by society, because women are not meant to outrank their spouse and are certainly not allowed to be the sole provider for a family. Krogstad, who is mainly driven by his ego, must consider the social consequences of Christina’s actions, but also understands the argument and ultimately decides that any life with Christina is better for himself and his children. Christina passed herself off as being self-reliant and proud of her role as widow in society, but she was enticed by the idea of having a family to come home to at the end of the work day. Being forced into a loveless marriage then the unstableness of being a widow had Christina in society’s watchful eye, but she struggled to throw away the idea of finally being happy with a family and power at the same time.
Thankfully, Christina never gave up on her hopes, and she eventually found the loving and prideful life she dreamed of with Krogstad and his children. Had Christina given in to society’s expected role for her, she’d be stuck in a never ending cycle of coming back from a rigorous work day to an empty home. Indeed, Christina Linden found happiness in going against the societal expectations of both a woman and a widow, which she wouldn’t have done if she wasn’t constantly yearning for a family to love and care.
Reading A Doll’s House Through Aristotelian Ideas
Considered the precursor of Western dramatic criticism, Aristotle’s notes on The Poetics arms modern readers with the language by which tragedy is evaluated and judged. In this essay I will examine how Aristotle’s classical vision of tragedy flourishes in modern plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Particularly, I will argue that Ibsen’s form of realism employs Aristotle’s ideal of plot as “what is capable of happening according to the rule of probability or necessity” to achieve a social or political reaction where tension between Nora and her audience allow her to be portrayed as a tragic character (Aristotle pg. 127). The focus here is not on Nora and Torvald’s life story of feminine exploitation, but rather on how the play’s three-act plot structure adds to the fear and pity of dramatic tragedy.
From the outset, Ibsen faces a conflict between illustrating a “realistic” story supported by historical, internal, external, and subconscious supporting details between characters and the need to boil down to only the details necessary for the plot to convey a strong social message. Without artistic selectivity, the play would need to elaborate on every detail contributing to Nora’s subservient disposition. Nora’s father, mother, Mr. Krogstad, Mrs. Linde, and every other character would have an equal right to representation, and Nora would become merely loose connective tissue. Aristotle considers this problem when he states that the beginning of a tragedy “need not necessarily follow on something else” so the plot isn’t distracted and lost within a mass of introductory detail. Rather, the play should find a starting point where “after it something else naturally is or happens” (Aristotle pg. 127). By the beginning of the play Nora has experienced a long history of subjugation to Torvald and her father, which Ibsen effectively conveys via a single event, the loan fiasco.
Another Aristotelian element evident in A Doll’s House is peripety, or the “shift of what is being undertaken to the opposite of the way previously stated” (Aristotle, pg. 128). Ibsen depicts peripety via a series of causes and effects with predictable consequences. For example, Nora’s naiveté in signing Krogstad’s loan in her father’s name and Krogstad’s insecure job position create a situation in which Nora’s secret may be revealed. The audience can see the inevitable consequence of Nora’s actions, feeling Aristotle’s “fear and pity” for her.
Each act includes peripety: in the first, Nora and the audience come to understand that Nora’s idyllic relationship with Torvald is a farce; in the second, that Nora’s wishing away of the problem causes it to come about; in the third, that Torvald will not forgive her, ending the dream of the “most wonderful thing” that necessarily must end their relationship. Ibsen brings about these revelations in only three acts using carefully programmed characters and aesthetic selectivity.
Nora demonstrates many characteristics of Aristotle’s tragic character. While the foreseen disaster within Nora’s relationship with Torvald may be said to inspire audience fear, her inability to stop or prevent the collapse inspires audience pity. She is “neither a paragon of virtue and justice,” nor does she “undergo the change to misfortunate through any real badness or wickedness but because of some mistake” (Aristotle pg. 129). Nora truly believes she has committed no crime, rhetorically asking Mrs. Linde whether “it [is] indiscreet to save your husband’s life” in order to “keep up a beautiful charming home” the way he likes it (Ibsen Act 1 lines 411-412, 496-497).
One could say Nora’s tragic flaw, or hamartia, is her loyalty; she’s willing to sacrifice her individuality, indulgences and hope for financial freedom in order to save her husband’s life and maintain her relationships with the men of her life. The audience feels pity for Nora because it can see that by acting independently to be loyal, Nora violates Torvald’s belief that loyalty requires complete dependency else it become betrayal. Though Nora cries she has loved Torvald “more than all this world” he repudiates her by calling her a hypocrite, liar and criminal (Ibsen Act 3 lines 432, 444-445). The central peripety of the play occurs when Nora realizes that Torvald is no longer worthy of her loyalty, she turns her loyalty inward and risks her safety in order to find out who she really is.
However, one may argue that Nora exhibits realist complexities when she takes personal pride in the power she believes she has exercised in “saving” Torvald. In her candid discussion with Mrs. Linde, she disdainfully exclaims that there’s “no art” to winning the lottery, revealing that she thinks herself to be a “wife with a little business sense… who knows how to manage” the loan with Krogstad (Ibsen Act 1 lines 394, 400-401). If she were singularly loyal (like many tragedian heroes are singularly courageous, quick witted, etc.) she would take great shame in her betrayal of Torvald’s wishes. Instead, she appears to revel in her own business savvy. I would argue that this case only magnifies Nora’s dependency since the audience is painfully aware of her naiveté in negotiating the loan; her attempts at individuality are marred by a loyalty to Torvald that never allowed her to become educated in the ways of the world nor to properly recognize the mistake she has made. The tension between Nora who believes herself to have acted justly and the audience who can objectively view her mistake further enhances the fear and pity at the heart of Aristotle’s vision of tragedy.
Ultimately, Ibsen achieves a marriage between portraying issues and settings pertinent to everyday life while at the same time selectively and artistically dramatizing the play’s plot into an Aristotelian tragedy. To call the play a realist production would do injustice to the plot’s internal logic and archetypal method of achieving a social message. However, to call it a tragedy would unfairly cheapen the importance of very real and historically timely sexism pervading the average 19th century middle class Norwegian home. Instead, A Doll House is to be seen as a melding of the two ideals by seizing Aristotle’s tragedian model form with adjustments to suit realist content.
Aristotle. The Poetics. The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W. B. Worthen. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2007. 123-31.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W. B. Worthen. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2007. 548-71.
Henrik Ibsen’s Description of Women’s Rights as Depicted in His Play, A Doll’s House
Gender Roles in A Doll House
Most works of literature are heavily influenced by the time in which they were written. They often become subject to multiple interpretations based on historical significance. In A Doll House, written in 1879 by Henrik Ibsen, much of the emphasis is placed on the gender roles present in that period of time. Gender roles have only recently evolved from what they were for many centuries. In the first years in which this play was performed, viewers were quite offended by some of the choices that Ibsen made. In fact, some directors opted to change the ending so that Nora returned to her husband. This alternate ending fit better within the expectations of society at the time (Brunnemer 9). Although Ibsen claims he did not intentionally write this play as a catalyst for women’s rights, it has since become a major theme in discussions about this text. The main character, Nora Helmer, is central in developing theories about gender roles in this play. Commentators generally classify Nora as “(1) a feminist heroine; (2) a courageous, possibly tragic, human being; (3) [or] a spoiled brat whose decision to leave her home and family is just playacting” (Lingard). Ibsen uses each of his characters to portray the zeitgeist of his time period; one where women were subject to their husbands and the laws of society.
The theme of feminism seems abundantly clear and intentional throughout the play. Ibsen begins the story with Nora being a stereotypical housewife in the 1800s. In Helmer’s first line, he refers to his wife as a “lark”. He goes on to call her other pet names like “squirrel” and “spendthrift” (Ibsen, “A Doll House” 1598-1599). He appears to be talking down to her in order to exert his authority over her. By establishing their relationship in the beginning, Ibsen paints the picture of a typical household during this time period and allows the ending to be that much more dramatic.
It is important to establish Nora as a typical wife early on in order to achieve the full effect that Ibsen intended with the ending. In the final scene, she realizes that she does not have to remain as her husband’s “doll,” she can be independent. The courage that it would take for a woman to leave her husband in a time where women were so oppressed is what convinces me that feminism is a central and intentional theme in A Doll House.
According to Professor Joan Templeton of Long Island University, Ibsen’s life serves as a testament to his real motive in writing A Doll House. The story is based off of Ibsen’s good friend Laura Petersen Kieler. Laura was married to a man with an extreme fear of debt. She borrowed money in secret to finance a trip to Italy, hoping the vacation would help her husband recover from tuberculosis. Although she worked hard to repay the loan, it was not enough. She forged a check, and her husband soon discovered her crime. Her husband left her, claiming she was “an unfit mother” and she was placed in an insane asylum (Templeton, “The ‘Doll House’ Backlash” 35).
Knowing that Ibsen wrote this story about an event so near to his heart, it is difficult to believe that he did not have some anger about how unfairly his friend was treated because of her gender. He blamed her husband for allowing her to do “unworthy work” and for not caring about her physical well-being. She did everything in love, yet she was treated like a monster (Templeton, “The ‘Doll House’ Backlash” 35).
Critics of the feminist theme in A Doll House often cite Ibsen’s own words at a Norwegian Women’s Rights Festival in 1898. He says, “I thank you for the toast but must disclaim the honor of having consciously for the women’s rights movement.” Instead, Ibsen goes on to say,
“To me it has seemed a problem of humanity in general. And if you read my books carefully you will understand this. True enough it is desirable to solve the problem of women’s rights along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity” (Ibsen, Speeches and new letters 65).
This statement brings up the theory that A Doll House is not really a play about feminism, but rather a greater message about humanity in general. In this theory, Nora represents Everyman. Supporters of this viewpoint, such as Eric Bentley, claim that “the play would be just as valid were Torvald the wife and Nora the husband” (qtd. in Brunnemer 10).
Templeton makes one of the best cases for the feminist theme. She has spent much of her life studying the text and researching Ibsen’s life to develop her argument. One statement that I was particularly impressed with was her idea to remove gender altogether. What, then, would remain of the story? She says,
“Now let us remove the ‘woman question’ from A Doll House; let us give Nora Helmer the same rights as Torvald Helmer, and let him consider her his equal. What is left of the play? The only honest response is nothing, for if we emancipate Nora, free her from her dollhouse, there is no play; or, rather, there is the resolution of the play, the confrontation between husband and wife and the exit that follows, the only crisis and denouncement that could properly conclude the action” (Templeton, “The ‘Doll House’ Backlash” 32).
If A Doll House is about the everyman, than why is it so important that the main character is a female? If she were given no gender identity, there would be no story. Her departure is only significant because it was so uncommon for a woman to leave her husband in those days. Had a man left his wife in this play, critics would still be talking about the wife and what a tragedy it is to be a single mother in a time where women had so few rights. Either way, there is a focus on the fact that Nora is a woman; that is the backbone of this story.
Other critics find their evidence within the play. In comparing the first two acts with the final act, there seems to be a disconnect between the “two Noras.” The first viewers of the play responded that “A Doll House did not have to be taken as a serious statement about women’s rights because the heroine of act 3 is an incomprehensible transformation of the heroine of acts 1 and 2” (qtd. in Templeton, “The ‘Doll House’ Backlash” 29). By this reasoning, Nora can be dismissed altogether and her exit in the last scene becomes merely “silly theatrics.” There are certainly some qualities about Nora that can be used to discredit her as a feminist heroine. For example, in the first act she is eating macaroons, but when her husband asks if she has been eating sweets, she lies. Even when asked multiple times, she continually denies having had any sweets (Ibsen, “A Doll House” 1601). On one hand, one might say that her eating what she wants despite her husband’s orders alludes to her feminist acts to come. However, others say,
“Even Nora’s sweet tooth is evidence of her unworthiness, as we see her ‘surreptitiously devouring the forbidden macaroons,’ even ‘brazenly offer[ing] macaroons to Doctor Rank, and finally lying in her denial that the macaroons are hers’; eating macaroons in secret suggests that ‘Nora is deceitful and manipulative from the start’ and her exit thus ‘reflects only a petulant woman’s irresponsibility” (qtd. in Templeton “The ‘Doll House’ Backlash” 30).
Another argument against Nora’s role as a “heroine feminist” is her flirtatious exchange with Doctor Rank. Using sexuality to one’s benefit is the exact opposite of feminism. This is one point on which I am willing to concede. I do not fully understand how this fact supports the proposed themes of feminism or humanity; this seems to support the claim that Nora is merely a selfish individual. However, Ibsen is certainly entitled to add details for the sole purpose of creating drama, even if it somewhat contradicts the underlying theme.
The final argument against Nora is that, upon leaving, she abandoned her children, leaving them with the very man who treated her as a doll. In response to Templeton’s article, “The ‘Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen’s Life, Betsy Bowden of Rutger University wrote”
“…Nora slams that door and runs away, leaving her beloved children in the hands of a monster, to be distorted as she says she has been. If one imagines the children, awakened by that slamming door, coming in to face their father across the room, one sees that the male-oppressive cycle must begin all over again if there is no heroic woman in the house to resist it. Deserted Little Ivar and Bob will be clones of Torvald, little Emmy doomed to repeat her mother’s sad story” (qtd. in Templeton, “Ibsen’s Nora”).
It is certainly difficult to imagine how a mother could leave her children. It may not have been the most honorable thing to do, but do not forget that Ibsen was modeling Nora after his dear friend. In real life, Laura lost her children because she had no choice. Ibsen simply wanted to give Nora the power in this scenario while still achieving the same effect of losing everything. It seems unfair that people often criticize a man that leaves his children less than a woman that does the same. Just because Nora is a woman does not mean she should have to stay in an emotionally abusive marriage for the sake of her children, and taking the children away from their father at this time would have been nearly impossible.
There certainly are valid cases for each side of this argument. It seems evident that Ibsen was making a greater statement when he wrote this play; either about women or about humanity in general. It is possible that Ibsen was apprehensive about overtly supporting such a controversial issue in his time. Or, perhaps he knew that focusing the play on such a prominent issue would help draw attention to his underlying theme. Either way, it seems that A Doll House will always be a widely disputed historical play. Despite how far the world has come in establishing equal rights, gender will always be a controversial subject in literature.
Nora Regaining Her Independence
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.
The Christmas Season, the Christmas Tree, and the New Year in A Doll’s House, a Play by Henrik Ibsen
The importance of A Doll’s House being set during the Christmas season is because the Christmas season is easily relatable and this can help the reader to make inferences about what is going on through familiarization. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Ibsen uses the Christmas season, the Christmas tree and the new year to symbolize many different things. He uses the Christmas season to portray the marriage between Nora and Torvald, the New Year to portray new beginnings for all of the characters, most prevalently Nora, Torvald and Krogstad, and the Christmas tree itself to portray Nora and her inner conflict as well as the materialistic nature of Christmas.
The Christmas season also leads to the theme of materialism. Nora and Torvald are focused on materialistic things, such as money, the tree and the Christmas presents. Also, one main thing that is materialistic that is focused on a lot throughout the book is Nora’s clothing. She is dressed up like a doll throughout the play and her clothes are a big materialistic item that is focused on. Torvald is constantly concerned with making sure that Nora looks the right way and will not have it any other way. The mood of the play is also introduced through the Christmas season. In the stage directions at the beginning of act 1, it is mentioned that Nora is humming a tune and in high spirits. The Christmas season can be seen through this in the aspect that during this time of year people are often cheery and happy. The reader can almost picture Nora and/or Torvald wearing an ugly Christmas sweater.
Ibsen uses the Christmas tree to symbolize Nora. This symbolism is very important because it gives information about Nora’s character. Ibsen is using a familiar item and season to set the scene for a story. It is expressed in the story that much like a Christmas tree she is at times dressed up and through most of the story, she is empty on the inside. She is compared to a Christmas tree in that, she can be dressed up and taken down as simply as the tree. The tree is destroyed at one point in the story and that is relevant in that it is comparable to how the forgery of the letter is destroying Nora. Krogstad is tearing her down as easily as Torvald is dressing her up. She does not care much for herself in that she is very child-like and depends on Torvald for a good portion of this story.. She is full of motherly responsibilities and she isn’t happy in her marriage. Her secret (the forgery of the letter) is eating her up alive and destroying her marriage.
A motif demonstrated in A Doll’s House is the unreliability of appearances. This is used to uncover some details about the characters, especially Nora and her marriage. Nora seems put together and happy when she’s not. She seems like the perfect wife and she is hiding the biggest secret of all from her husband. Torvald’s marriage seems fine but it is teeming with secrets. In A Doll’s House, this motif plays a big role. Not only for Nora and Torvald, but for Christine and Krogstad as well. Krogstad is more than meets the eye. He starts in this story as a revenge stricken man and he wishes nothing but harm to Nora and Torvald’s marriage. Christine shows him that he has more inside of him than that. In A Doll’s House, Christine is used as a christ figure. Much like Christ, Christine takes in someone who is less than perfect, Krogstad. She is also a hard worker and is self-sufficient. She has the motivation to help those who need it, which is comparable to Christ. She shows these attributes in many ways, not only helping Krogstad, but Nora as well.
The Christmas season is symbolic of Nora and Torvald’s marriage. Their marriage seems happy and perfect on the outside when in reality it is not. There are secrets destroying their marriage from the inside out. In the Christmas season, there are often secrets because parents pretend, for little children at least, that Santa is the one bringing the presents when in reality the parents are the ones providing gifts for their children. The Christmas season also serves as a tool for familiarization, being that it helps the audience to understand the mood of the story. The Christmas season is easily relatable for most or all people, even those who celebrate a different holiday.
The new year symbolizes the new beginnings for Nora and Torvald as well as for the other characters in the story. Nora now has freedom from her parental obligations and can explore a new carefree life away from Torvald. She is free from all of her secrets and lies. She is free to start over without all of the stress of her past. She also must learn to be a more independent person. With freedom comes independance. To be independent, you must be strong. Torvald also has to start over and learn how to grow as a man. From Torvald’s perspective, the new year symbolizes growth and a new way of thinking. He has to learn how to be a new person, who is less demeaning and strict. He needs to learn that he can’t control others. While for Christine and Krogstad the new year simply symbolizes a new beginning as they can begin to start over together and forget all of their past mistakes.Christine must teach him to grow and he must learn to be the man she wants him to be. All of these new beginnings are symbolic of the freedom that they can now experience as new people or people that are trying to change their ways.
The Christmas season is symbolic for many things and is important for the reader to get a clear picture of what is going on. Through this, the audience can learn about the marriage between Nora and Torvald and the secrets that are being hidden by Nora, specifically the letter and forgery, which the macaroons are a symbol of. The Christmas season is also a symbol of materialism and is important for establishing the mood of the play as Christmas is usually cheery and bright. The Christmas tree is symbolic of Nora in that she is not completely put together and can be taken down as simply as a tree. An example is the attempt to ruin her that is attempted by Krogstad. The new year is symbolic of new beginnings and opportunities to change for all of the characters, most prevalently Krogstad, Nora and Torvald. As a simple rephrasing, the Christmas season is symbolic of the marriage between Nora and Torvald, the Christmas tree is symbolic of Nora and the materialistic nature of Christmas, and the new year is symbolic of the new beginnings for Krogstad, Nora, Torvald and the other characters in A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen.
“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen
In A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen, Henrik consider traditional aspect of men and women back on the early age. In the play “A Doll’s House,” Nora represent the conventional feminine basic of the age. She seems defenseless and purview herself through patriarchal assumption, which proclaim a woman’s social character at this time period, a wife and also a mother.
In term, of male perspective measures feminine strategy during that time. Nora chooses to break up with her family to become on her own as an independent woman. Nora makes that decision to gain and assert her personality through social identity. Nora reality is instead a demonstration of her selfishness than her rebellious humor. In this play, it means that no gender parties can be treated as unconditionally just or unjust.
This paper acknowledges numerous demonstration of justice and injustice in the relationships between the main characters, the transformation of Nora’s expectation for the future. As many readers may capture, there was a significant change with one character in general, which is Nora. It is kind of easy to see that Torvald, her husband is a wooden character, impressive and seemingly without humor or tender feeling, both at the beginning of the play and at the end of the play as well.
Krogstad is also one dimensional a pretty lawless who has spent his life trying to get by without ever possess to his larcenous habit. Mrs. Linde doesn’t change that much either’ in evidence, she seems to be chorus just inserted into an activity to move it from one situation to another one. Dr. Rand is intended for only one change, which is death. The addition of Dr. Rand to the action is merely a small confusion in Nora’s life; she has larger anguish than whether a death is in love with her. Nora’s confusion, regardless of what some judgment, are not those of a person changing and developing.
Alternatively, hers are the confusion of having always been developing and by choosing to play a role that has to admit her to continue to live. By the end of the play, those situated on the side of Nora are also upon to take obligations for their actions. Torvald for instance fail. “At the first hint that his carefully planned toy life is about to go astray, Torvald caves into Krogstad’s demands, “making him even more hypocritical than Krogstad.” (Rosefeldt, 2003). In reality, Rosefeldt seems the play from the outlook that it is a drama not about a woman’s awakening, but is preferably a play that accord with the condemnation of patriarchy. In the play “A Doll’s House” Nora Helmer play the role protagonist.
After Nora’s secret been reveal, the author demonstrate on how Nora life constantly reconstructs. As Nora husband’s gets a promotion to become a bank manager in his hometown, persuaded Nora that she will live a fear life forward. Nora’s appear to be change as her secret has been discover. The play begins at Christmas time, and keep going in the new year. Nora was passionate about the new life she want to start. But a optimal experience begins to be awkward when Mrs. Linde came to visits she’s one of Nora friend. Mrs Linde seeking for a new life, she need a job to have a better life. She come to Helmer’s house to asked Nora about her husband position at the bank so she can talk to her husband to give her a job.
Torvald is happy to gives Mrs. Linde a job position at the bank, still Nora is naive because that step is closer for her secret to reveals. Nora recognizes her husband’s capability to overture Mrs. Linde a job as the adventure in is progress. Nora has an interest to help Mrs. Linde get the job, there is a conflict with Mr. krogstad knows all about Nora’s secret, and Mr. Krogstad is a danger to lose his job.