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.
Cinderella and A Doll’s House: Comparing the Role of Dress
The donning of her [dancing] dress has brought about the turning point of her life.
-Barbara Fass Leavy
Dress and outward appearance have historically played a significant role in the plot development of fairy tales. Perhaps the most famous dress in our collective memory is that which was bestowed upon Cinderella by her fairy godmother. A less prevalent dress, though by no means less important, is seen in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora’s Italian tarantella costume is in fact functionally similar to Cinderella’s ball gown. Although they are obtained in different ways, and ultimately achieve different ends, dresses in both Cinderella tales and A Doll’s House serve the same purpose of allowing the heroine to transcend beyond the constraints society has placed on her.
In Cinderella stories, elaborate dresses, the presence and absence of them, play a pivotal role in the protagonist’s ability to overcome her hardships, and to achieve her true potential. Elisabeth Pantajja, in her essay Going up in the World: Class in Cinderella, examines the role of clothing as a ‘political tool of the petit-bourgeoisie’ (99). The removal of certain types of clothes, she argues, is representative of removal of social status. Class, and inferred class by clothing, is the crux of the limitations imposed on a Cinderella character. In many versions, Cinderella’s clothes are lost at the beginning of the tale. They took away her beautiful clothes, dressed her in an old grey smock, and gave her some wooden shoes, reads the first scene of the Brothers Grimm version. In “Donkeyskin” the protagonist’s clothes are not forcefully taken from her. Rather circumstances necessitate that she not don them, but instead wear only the old donkey’s skin. In both of these cases the removal of fine clothing is symbolic of demotion. Extending that metaphor to a more general interpretation, it is symbolic of pushing the character out of a realm in which she once belonged. In the case of Cinderella stories, the realm just happens to be that of a higher social order.
In the modern interpretation of the Swan Maiden Tale, A Doll’s House, bodily covering is also initially lost. This is inferred at the beginning of Act II in A Doll’s House when the Nursemaid says I finally found it, the box with the fancy dress costumes (35). Finally, implies that they were being sought, a factor that becomes more relevant when their plot line function is served. Barbara Leavy parallels this brief discovery scene with the point in the Swan Maiden tale when the swan wife discovers her long lost feathers. The fact that the costumes are for a masquerade, not an everyday event, is worthy of note as they thus symbolize entrance into another world that is not the ordinary. That Nora already owned the dress, the feathers per se, indicates that she had once before been part of this other place. Extending the literal imagery of the masquerade to the more abstract realm, one could say that this other place from which she was being held captive, was a world in which she has agency. Unlike Cinderella figures, Nora does not initially realize that she has been held captive in another world. Like the Cinderella figure, though, wearing her special dress facilitates her transcendence of the forces that are in essence holding her captive. The re-discovery, or re-establishment of such clothing is more subtle in the Cinderella tales. In the Brothers Grimm version, beautiful dresses are tossed down from a fairy godmother-esque Hazel tree. In Donkeyskin, as the clothing is never taken away, the re-discovery seems to occur on a weekly basis. She cleaned herself, then opened her chest and first put on the dress of the moon? Perrault writes, this sweet pleasure kept her going from one Sunday to the next (112). Through this rediscovery of her gowns, Donkeyskin prepares for the moment when those dresses will allow her to overcome her lessened social stature. Likewise, the magical appearance of the classic Cinderella’s dress, as well as the re-discovery of the Nora’s Italian costume, fashion transformations themselves, foreshadow the more significant non-physical transformations to come.
How exactly the various dresses allow the characters to break out of their constrained roles is where the two stories diverge. In the Cinderella tales, the protagonist is passive. In the classic tale, it is the prince who takes a proactive role. Grimm’s version tells that She looked so beautiful in the dress of gold that they thought she must be the daughter of a foreign king? The prince approached Cinderella, took her by the hand and danced with her. He didn’t intend to dance with anyone else and never let go of her hand. Whenever anyone else asked her to dance he would say: She is my partner. (119)
There is a direct link between how beautiful the dress made her look, and the prince’s interest in her. The extent to which the prince takes possession of her is important to the story line as it is that feeling of possession, repeatedly asserted throughout the three day wedding affair, which motivates the prince to seek out Cinderella, ultimately bringing her back up the social ladder by marrying her. In Donkeyskin, it is only when the prince sees the princess in her elegant gowns that he is overcome by her beauty, and thus begins his pursuit of her. Though the disclaimer No matter what her dress was like, the beauty of her face, her lovely profile, [etc.] moved him a hundred times more (113) is in the text, it is difficult to discount the fact that she was indeed wearing her special dress when she captured his attention. It is hard to imagine that he would have been equally awestruck had she been wearing her usual donkey skin. In both versions of the Cinderella story, the dress serves a function of capturing attention. This attention capture induces the prince to begin the ultimately successful pursuit of the Cinderella character. Through marriage to the prince Cinderella gains noble status, thus, with direct credit to the dress, moving beyond what was originally her constricting social situation.
Ibsen’s Nora is a much more proactive character than Cinderella though she too uses her festive dress to overcome her social constriction. Unlike the Cinderella characters, the different worlds of social classes are not Nora’s concern. Rather, her differing worlds are separated on the axis of gender. Throughout the play Nora exists in a world distinct from her husband. From the overt closed door of his office, to the money-borrowing secret she harbors from him, the two exist in entirely separate planes. The dress itself is one of the few links their worlds have, and even that is quite tangential. In Act II Nora tells Kristine that Torvald wants her to go to the masquerade as a Neopolitan fishing lass and dance the tarantella, the dance she learned when they were in Italy. Moments after she has Kristine help her mend her costume (40) Torvald enters the room: NORA: No, it was Kristine. She was helping me with my costume. I think it’s going to look very nice?
HELMER: Wasn’t that a good idea of mine, now?
NORA: Wonderful! But wasn’t it also nice of me to let you have your way?
HELMER: Nice of you- because you let you husband have his way? All right you little rogue, I know you didn’t mean it that way? You’ll be wanting to try the costume on I suppose. (40)
The presence of the dress, and its associated power struggles are highlighted briefly in this scene. Torvald had wanted Nora to learn to dance in Italy and also bought the dress for her. What Torvald does not realize, and perhaps even Nora doesn’t realize at this point is the effect the dress and its associated dance will have on their relationship. Even the presence of the dress in discussion has given Nora more agency. Her slip up almost gave Torvald a clue that she knows more than she generally lets on.
Though the audience does not see the actual performance of the dance in costume at the masquerade ball, the recount by Torvald highlights necessary elements and indeed it is the aftermath that is more important than the actual performance. She dances the tarantella² and ³there was wild applause (67) describes Torvald. One can imagine Nora performing the frenzied dance, all the while coming to the realization that she must leave the world she knows. Though it is possible, it is hard to imagine the dance being performed without the elaborate costume. The costume serves to transform Nora to a beautiful vision (67), simultaneously transforming her spirit into one of realization, enlightenment of her situation and what options she has. At the end of Act III, Nora has transformed into a much more serious and straightforward character. She speaks conservatively, often in brief sentences compared to Torvald’s long descriptions of how he is going to save her.
In her book In Search of the Swan Maiden, Leavy examines the power struggle and issue of ownership of the costume. Insofar as all of Nora’s possessions belong to Torvald, they remain in his control? states Leavy (299). They are illustrative of Torvald’s control of Nora, the societal constraints that she must overcome. Torvald’s tries to exercise his control of the clothes, and by extension Nora, when he learns her secret. Take that shall off. Take it off I tell you! (76) Torvald exclaims. But Nora, having danced the tarantella, and even if momentarily, entered a realm other than the doll’s house she knows, has increased her resolve. As the scene progresses, her control over her clothing, as well as her life, increases. When Torvald asks what she is doing, she replies Taking off this fancy dress (78). Torvald is surprised when she is not preparing herself for bed, and she then replies Yes, Torvald, I’ve changed (79). The significance of this statement goes far deeper than changing her dress. In wearing the dress, Nora had an epiphany. She realized that her life was A Doll’s House, and that she didn’t want to live it that way. In removing the dress, she has cast off not only Torvald’s ownership, but also the societal constraints holding her within her contrived world.
Nora’s chronological dress changes, from ordinary to elegant and back to ordinary and her corresponding attitude change indicate that a transformation occurred while wearing the costume. In Leavy’s words, The donning of her dancing dress has brought about the turning point in her life (298) Thus, it was the dress itself that facilitated Nora’s true change, a realization that perhaps never would have occurred had she not performed the special dance in the special dress. Unlike the Cinderella characters, Nora goes back to her original clothes. This difference can be attributed to the differing societal constraints and outcomes. While the Cinderella characters assimilate into another confined realm – high society culture they enter in marriage, Nora is entering into a world unknown, a world presumably free of the confinement and ownership that her costume represented.
When the clock struck midnight in the Cinderella tale, the dress had served its function. It was then the prince’s turn to take action. In A Doll’s house, when the clock struck twelve on the masquerade, Nora’s dress too, had served its purpose. However, it was Nora who took the initiative this time. Her dress, like the Swan Maiden’s feathers, had reminded her of her own world, her own agency and the realm outside of the dollhouse. Though Cinderella and Nora started in different situations, were victims of different societal constraints, and had quite different ends to their stories, for both it was a dress that provided a window of opportunity, a possibility for transcendence beyond their initial circumstances. Perhaps, though, just perhaps both lived happily ever after.
Illusion and Reality in A Doll’s House
Truth or illusion? When the fantasy world people create in order to cope with the absurdity of life is brought too far into reality, it becomes hard to distinguish between authenticity and fiction. This ambiguity is apparent in both Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which marital relationships are solely based on illusion. Both couples in the dramas use illusions to avoid feeling the truth and the pain of failures. Yet, in the end, they are forced to wake up from the fake world in which they have lived and by openly expressing their feelings create hope for progress. It is essential to strip away illusion in order to experience life truthfully and fully.
The relationship between Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is troubling from the very beginning, for it was founded upon illusion. Martha married George not because of who he really was, but, because of who she imagined he could become. As she tells Nick in the first act, “I got the idea about then of marrying into the college…which didn’t seem to be as stupid as it turned out” (Albee 79). Her father was the president of the College in New Carthage, and Martha, being his only child, hoped to gain control of it herself through marriage. Thus, she married the illusion of George, who also bought into it himself. Yet, when they realized that this illusion is not real, because George didn’t have “the guts to” (Albee 85) succeed her father, their marriage was hurt significantly.
Yet, the dominant illusion in George and Martha’s lives lies in the seed of their relationship. Because they couldn’t have any children of their own and lived a miserable life, they decided to create an imaginary child. Thus, the binding force in their relationship is also an illusion. Although Albee does not tell the audience directly of the child’s unreality until the very end, he provides clues that imply this throughout the play. The first hint is provided when George warns Martha not to “start in on the bit about the kid” (Albee 18) as their two a.m. guests arrive at the door. The boy’s physical perfection ‘blond haired, blue eyed’ also foreshadows the fact that he is an illusion. Then, as George and Martha use the kid to attack each other, their bizarre insults adds to the unreality of the boy. Martha first says that George used to make him sick all the time and George counterattacks by claiming that “the real reason our son…used to throw up all the time was… [because] he couldn’t stand… you fiddling at him” (Albee 120). Finally, in the last act when George informs Martha that their son has been “killed” and Martha tells him that he “cannot decide these things” (Albee 232) it becomes apparent, even to Nick, that their son is merely a creation of the mind. Through Martha’s reaction, however, it can be seen that the blurring of illusion and reality can cause something that is solely delusional to have a very real emotional impact.
Similarly, in A Doll’s House Nora and Torvald’s whole marriage is built on illusions. The characters’ untruthfulness and dishonesty towards each other marks their whole relationship. This is first revealed when Torvald asks Nora whether or not she broke any rules today and had “taken a bite at a macaroon or two” (Ibsen 6). Despite the fact that the audience had just seen Nora pop macaroons into her mouth as she came in, Nora completely denies it and tells Torvald falsely that “I should not think of going against your wishes” (Ibsen 6). Ibsen uses situational irony here to show that their whole marriage is based on fake appearances.
The greatest deception in their relationship, however, is in the form of Nora’s secret debt. When Torvald was ill, she secretly borrowed money from Krogstad in order to travel to a southern climate to improve his condition. Until this day, Nora has not mentioned the matter to her husband and had been secretly repaying the debt, for she claims that Torvald and their marriage cannot sustain the knowledge of this secret. “How painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything. It would upset our mutual relations altogether;” (Ibsen 13). Thus, Torvald’s ‘manly independence’ is only an illusion making the basis by which they treat each other also fake.
Illusions are so common in both dramas that they mix in with reality until even the characters find it hard to differentiate between what appears to be true and what is false. In fact, in most of Albee’s play, George and Martha are engaging in emotional and psychological ‘games.’ This becomes evident when Martha says to the bewildered Nick that “there is only one man in my life who has ever…made me happy…George” (Albee 189-190). Despite continuously insulting and humiliating George, Martha still truly loves him. With this paradox Albee hints that their arguments are merely part of a game and that not everything is as it appears to be. Martha supports this idea when she advises Nick that he should not “always deal in appearance” (Albee 190). Furthermore, the only reason Martha seduces Nick is to get George’s attention and make him jealous. Yet, George acts as though he is indifferent and starts reading a book while Martha sexually entertains Nick. Later, it becomes apparent when George releases his fury alone on stage that he was only pretending not to care. Thus, their actions may all be false appearances. Nick even comments at the end that he doesn’t know when George and Martha are lying. By blurring the lines between truth and illusion, Albee shows that it is not important whether something is a lie or not, yet the importance lies in how people choose to exist in a situation that they’ve found themselves trapped.
As a result of the lies between Nora and Torvald, the roles they each assume in their marriage are merely appearance. Nora, for example, takes the role of a child-wife and mother who is completely dependent on Torvald and who is a spendthrift when it comes to money. Torvald also supports this illusion through the names he uses to refer to her. For example, he calls Nora “my little squirrel” and “my little skylark” (Ibsen 4). Ibsen uses animal imagery to show that Torvald regards Nora as a small helpless creature. Nora in turn strengthens her fabricated role by acting as she knows Torvald wants her to be. The full falseness of her actions only becomes clear in the last scene of Act One when Nora tells Torvald that she absolutely needs his help, even with such a trifling issue as picking a costume for the upcoming ball. “Torvald, couldn’t you take me in hand and decide what I shall go as…I can’t get along a bit without your help” (Ibsen 27). The audience knows, however, that Nora is not as helpless as she acts, for she had decided all by herself the important issue of borrowing money in order to save Torvald’s life. Thus, the Nora Torvald thinks he is married to is merely an illusion, and Torvald cannot tell the difference between the fake, helpless Nora and the real one.
Furthermore, Torvald takes the role of Nora’s protector, who would risk his life in order to save her. This is “the wonderful thing” (Ibsen 48) that Nora thinks is going to happen when Torvald finds out about her debt and forgery. Since women at that time could not sign a loan, even if it was for the sake of their family, Nora forged her father’s signature when she borrowed money from Krogstad, who now threatens to expose and humiliate her. Torvald, however, has also led her to believe that he will rescue her from this problem. He even tells Nora after he finds out that his best friend, Dr. Rank, is dying: “Do you know, Nora, I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life’s blood and everything for your sake” (Ibsen 58). Yet, this was only an illusion of Torvald that Nora actually believed. When the time comes for him to find out about the debt, Torvald proves that he was a hypocrite and vulgarly abuses Nora for bringing this shame upon him and even renounces her as his wife.
At the end of each drama all these illusions are destroyed forcing the characters to come face to face with reality. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George resolves the play by declaring the death of their imaginary son, who “drove into a large tree” as “he swerved to avoid a porcupine” (Albee 231). This is a form of paradox where Albee uses illusion to destroy another illusion. Though the boy, when he was a secret, provided a means of binding George and Martha together, after he was introduced to the real world, he became a source by which they attacked each other. Thus, George realizes that their kid has been brought too far into reality resulting in a negative effect on their marital relationship. As a result, he sacrifices the boy, who can be seen as a Christ figure, in order to save their marriage. In fact, Albee entitles the last Act “The Exorcism” referring to George’s exorcism of the destructive power of their illusory son on their marriage. When George tells Martha at the end that “It will be…better” she answers with “I don’t…know” (Albee 240). Although there is uncertainty as to whether or not their marriage will make it, at least now there is hope for progress because they can finally live honestly and truthfully without illusions. Yet, they must now experience reality no matter how painful it is, which scares Martha. Thus, the title of the play can, in fact, be translated into “who’s afraid to live without illusions?”
In A Doll’s House, the illusion of Nora and Torvald’s marriage is also destroyed giving them a chance to progress as individuals. At the end, when Torvald’s reaction to the news of Nora’s forgery is far from what she expected, she realizes that she has been living with a complete stranger. Nora admits to him that “when the wonderful thing did not happen, then I saw you were not the man I had thought you” (Ibsen 66). Discovering that her husband confuses appearance with value and that he is more concerned with his position in society than with the emotional needs of his wife, Nora is forced to confront her personal worthlessness. She realizes that she has been living in a “doll’s house” and that her husband has been “playing with her just as… [she] used to play with her dolls” (Ibsen 63). In fact, their first honest expression of feeling happens at the end when Nora confronts Torvald about her conclusions. Thus, she destroys their “doll house” by deciding to leave her husband and search for her identity. This creates hope for truthful human relationships in the future. Perhaps in years to come, Nora and Torvald will also be able to restore their marriage.
Both Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Doll’s House question the entire fabric of marital relationships. The marriage between each couple in the dramas was solely based on illusion. This in turn blurs the line between reality and fantasy and creates unreal, meaningless lives. A life of illusion is wrong because it produces a false content in life. Only by expressing true feelings and emotions can relationships actually progress.
Close Reading of Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s Confrontation in Act III: Themes and Ideas that Influence the Plot
As one of the leaders of the realist movement in drama, Henrik Ibsen earned his reputation for creating plays that accurately depict the details of ordinary peoples’ lives. The first two acts of A Doll’s House are safe territory, following the accepted conventions of dramatic writing in Ibsen’s portrayal of life in a lavish Victorian household. The third and final act, however, features a groundbreaking breach of tradition, as it ignores both the conventional rules drama and the social conventions of its era. While many critics have discussed Nora Helmer’s shocking decision to abandon her household in the play’s final scene, the overlooked beginning of the third act is a pivotal turning point in the play’s progression. The meeting between the characters of Mrs. Christine Linde and Nils Krogstad launches the plot into its memorable unresolved climax, offers a suspenseful twist for the play’s audiences, and breaks a few gender stereotypes as well.
Critics and audiences alike have praised Ibsen for his memorable, three-dimensional ensemble characters throughout his vast body of work. While A Doll’s House is first and foremost a character study of Nora Helmer and her marital relationship with Torvald, the minor characters also offer a realistic slice of the Victorian lifestyle and assist in conveying the play’s themes and ideas. Throughout the first two acts of the play, Mrs. Linde acts as a foil to Nora’s character. Her proactive, practical nature contrasts starkly with Nora’s idealistic, dream-filled approach to life. While Nora is brimming with hope, working hard to fulfill her duties and maintain the facade of a happy housewife, Mrs. Linde represents the women who were not fortunate enough to live the Victorian woman’s dream. In the scene, Mrs. Linde reveals to Krogstad that her marriage to an old, wealthy man was driven, not by romance, but by duty to her suffering mother and underage brothers (Ibsen 50). Ever since then, Mrs. Linde continues, she has emptied her life of luxurious fantasies and taken on various jobs to support her family. Up until her meeting with Krogstad, it appears that Mrs. Linde is a negative character in comparison to Nora. While Mrs. Linde has refused to submit to a male figure and has endured many hardships in her “unspeakably empty” life, Nora has fulfilled her womanly duties and is now pampered by Helmer in a comfortable home (Ibsen 10). In the final act, this message is reversed completely and Mrs. Linde turns into a positive foil for Nora.
As Mrs. Linde and Krogstand share their feelings with one another, the former lovers admit to being “two shipwrecked people…clinging to some wreckage” (Ibsen 50-51). They have both suffered as a result of Mrs. Linde’s decision to escape a romantic life with Krogstad in order to assume responsibility for her family. Consequently, they have both learned to become reasonable people, as Mrs. Linde approves of Krogstad’s decision “not to believe in fine speeches” (Ibsen 50). As they reminisce on their difficult life lessons, the two choose to reunite and are both thrilled with the idea. After Krogstad’s exit, Mrs. Linde even joyfully proclaims, “What a difference!” at the prospect of leading a life with someone to support and for whom to care (Ibsen 52). The arrangement that the couple agrees upon is a shocking violation to gender roles in the Victorian age, since Mrs. Linde will be providing their income through her position at Helmer’s bank. Through these two characters, Ibsen indicates that true happiness is not found through material posessions in patriarchal housholds, but through an equal relationship in which the two lovers understand one another. In the beginning of their conversation, Mrs. Linde claims that Krogstad “never properly understood [her]” in their days of courting (Ibsen 49).This sentiment is echoed by Nora later in the play immediately before she abandons her husband. Mrs. Linde and Krogstad represent the healthy relationship that Nora comes to realize she lacks. In her final conversation with Helmer, it is safe to assume that Nora’s “duties to [her]self” are the same ones Mrs. Linde has fulfilled through her independent lifestyle (Ibsen 65). In fact, the play’s famous final line is extremely ambiguous. However, should “the most wonderful thing of all” happen to Nora and Helmer, then their relationship will echo Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s love. Should the Helmers reunite after Nora’s exit, it must be because they have changed enough for their “life together [to] be a real wedlock” (Ibsen 68). This can only happen if Nora learns to be independent like Mrs. Linde, and if Helmer learns to submit to his wife in the same fashion that Krogstad does to his lover. In many ways, Krogstad’s reunion with Mrs. Linde serves to transform the audience’s perspective on happiness and gender roles, as it sets the stage for A Doll’s House’s controversial finale.
While Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s meeting serves Ibsen’s agenda to shock audiences of the time, their conversation deceptively acts like a pending resolution to the climax of Nora’s financial situation. After Nora reveals to Mrs. Linde that Krogstad has left a letter to expose her debt to her husband and publicly humiliate the Helmers, Mrs. Linde claims that she has left Krogstad a note to try to ammend the situation before Helmer opens the letter (Ibsen 48). This initially appears to be the climax of the play, as the third act opens with Krogstad going to see Mrs. Linde at the Helmers’ household. While this scene initially seems like Mrs. Linde’s manipulative attempt to convince Krogstad to take back his letter, the audience observes an unanticipated twist when Mrs. Linde instructs Krogstad not to do so because the matter must be exposed in order for the Helmers to have a “complete understanding between them” (Ibsen 52). Despite her seemingly malicious actions, Mrs. Linde has positive intentions for Nora as she aims to liberate her from false happiness. She states to Krogstad, “A woman who has once sold herself for another’s sake, doesn’t do it a second time,” indicating that she will not sacrifice her personal happiness for duty once more (Ibsen 52). The line may also be interpreted as Mrs. Linde’s refusal to sell herself by driving Nora to do so and suffer through a passionless life for her husband’s sake.
In his masterful construction of A Doll’s House, Ibsen has granted Mrs. Linde and Krogstad a scene that would at once resolve the play’s obvious conflict about Nora’s financial dilemma, while subtly drawing attention to Nora’s inner conflict and driving the play into its famous cliffhanging climax. The pairing of Mrs. Linde and Krogstad complements the play’s messages towards gender equality, as it depicts a happy ending for a couple that has defied gender roles before the audience witnesses the dramatic failure of a conventional patriarchal marriage. Though this scene has not been granted the spotlight of the play’s finale, it is essential to understand the impact of the ending as it presents a couple for which “the most wonderful thing of all” has happened in a very unconventional way.
Ibsen, Henrik. Four Great Plays. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. New York, USA; Bantam Books, 1981.
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.
Existential Models of Love in A Doll’s House and The Seducer’s Diary
According to Soren Kierkegaard, there are three categorizations of people based on their motive and actions: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In The Seducer’s Diary, Kierkegaard presents the character of Johannes as a typical aesthete who centers his life on the single-minded pursuit of personal pleasure. The story follows his romantic pursuit of Cordelia, the latest in a long list of young women he has conquered and abandoned. In contrast, Henrik Ibsen’s character of Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House seems to be Johannes’ opposite in his motivations, in his approach to relationships with women, and in what he thinks the purpose of such relationships is. Whereas Johannes is obsessed with the gratification of his personal desires at the expense of society, Torvald derives gratification from conforming to societal standards to the greatest extent possible, even at the expense of personal relationships.
Torvald’s ethical urge to live up to society’s standards prompts his concern for his reputation and his desire for the admiration of others, and contributes to his belief that Nora should serve to promote his social standing. Torvald’s extreme sensitivity to others’ perceptions of him can be seen as his motivation for the treatment of those around him. For example, Torvald admits that Krogstad’s tainted past is not a serious issue, and that his hard work is a boon to the bank, but desires to fire the man because of personal vanity. It is the possibility of Torvald’s previous association with Krogstad being revealed that makes the man’s employment “unbearable” and “excruciating” for Torvald, as Torvald now views as his former friend as beneath him. Torvald clearly places his colleagues’ perception of him above what it seems should be more important to a future manager: a diligent labor force that will benefit the bank. Torvald refuses to even acknowledge Nora’s arguments on Krogstad’s behalf, indignantly saying, “What if it was rumored around now that the new bank manager was vetoed by his wife?” and then concluding, “We’ll put a stop to this for good,” seeming to refer to both the issue of Krogstad’s employment and Nora’s lack of support for his decisions. In doing so, Torvald reprimands Nora’s impertinence in questioning him, and demonstrates his assuredness in his own judgment and his doubt in Nora’s, thereby cementing his status as the ultimate decision-maker in the household. Obviously, there is no hesitation on Torvald’s part to deprive a man of employment and belittle his wife’s opinions. Developed for the purposes of display, Nora’s beauty is viewed by her husband as her most significant attribute. In fact, through his small rules and insistences, it can be seen that he values his wife’s potential to make a captivating exhibition and boost his status in the eyes of others more than the degree of her actual enjoyment in participating in such an act. Macaroons, for example, are “forbidden” an act of maintenance because they will “ruin [Nora’s] teeth,” though she loves them. Parties Nora performs at must be exited early as to not “spoil the effect” of her performance and satisfy Torvald’s physical needs, though Nora begs to stay longer.
In these acts, Torvald takes on an air of maintaining and developing an investment in a very precise, calculated manner. After watching Nora dance the tarantella, Torvald critiques her performance as “too naturalistic,” showing that he requires even the recreational activities in his life to strictly follow the guidelines of propriety. Torvald seems to value his project for its “overwhelming success” as evidenced by “a tumultuous hand,” more than the teaching process, even questioning if their rehearsals were time “well-spent.” Interactions between Nora and Torvald are characterized by his attempts to refine her abilities as a prestige symbol. Therefore, it can be seen that Torvald is willing to sacrifice much and devote much energy to maintaining and advancing his reputation, which he feels relies on his close adherence to ethical standards society sets for him.
The pleasure Johannes obtains is intellectually derived from observing the psychological effects of his calculated emotional manipulation of young women. In his seductions, Johannes exhibits the aesthetic quality of flouting societal norms for the sake of a sensually fulfilling experience. His devotion to seeking and mastering beauty consumes his entire identity. He states, “I ascertain how [love] has taken shape in her, and I fashion myself in its likeness,” showing his personality to be fluid and to exist precisely to facilitate his conquests. Enjoying the practice of art on life, Johannes’ engineering of emotional, physical, and psychological “absolute surrender” from a woman are obviously outside what is condoned by the social order. Johannes has no intention of making any commitment to the women and considers “[receding] from [a girl’s being] is a masterpiece” because he alters their lives forever. This additionally allows him to ascertain the emotional authenticity of surrender. Johannes is thus honest with himself about his purely selfish aesthetic intentions, in contrast to Torvald, who forces or imagines the compliance of others when it is not forthcoming, as in the case of Krogstad’s dismissal. Johannes is able to do this because he focuses less on outward appearance, which only titillates him briefly in the beginning of an affair, and more on controlling and molding the time he spends with Cordelia, paying special attention to the emotions his words and actions prompt in her. He finds Cordelia attractive for her purity and the lack of “interestingness” due to living a paradoxically sheltered life in which she is “granted freedom but…no opportunities [are] offered to her.” With a woman as full of unfulfilled potential such as her, Johannes enjoys the process in which he makes her “interesting” by imprinting himself on her psyche, bringing about her sexual awakening, and then abandoning her once he has become entrenched as part of her identity. Johannes states that “in art, the most interesting always reflects the artist,” and succeeds in this by remaining a powerful part of Cordelia’s life. When “the memory [of Johannes] awakens in her soul, she forgets the fault and the guilt, she remembers the beautiful moments.” This ultimately marks the triumph of Johannes’ skill a seducer, artist, and aesthete over Torvald’s treatment of Nora in accordance to bourgeois standards and his own ego, because after both men betray the women they love, Cordelia still longs for Johannes because the significance of their time together is the difference between her relationship and Nora’s.
Johannes has a greater sense of self awareness than Torvald in that he recognizes the distinction between the possible paths his life could take, and devotes himself entirely to the aesthetic. He even mocks society’s stance, saying he himself is above reproach because he has “never…given a girl a promise of marriage” out of his “respect for the ethical.” Johannes ridicules the conventions that Torvald so painstakingly follows as hollow. The importance society places on vows and responsibility in a relationship, is rendered useless and unnecessary in obtaining intimacy with a young woman if one is skillful enough to appeal to her emotionally. Though the aesthetic person’s ultimate goal is to escape the boring and create interesting situations (and in Johannes’ case, interesting people), Johannes is not above acting boring as yet another manifestation of his emotional manipulation. Paradoxically to derives aesthetic pleasure, Johannes must pretend to be ethical when he sets up Edvard and Cordelia’s courtship. Johannes employs dissimulative behavior to render subtle impressions in carrying on an exceedingly mundane conversation on agriculture and bookbinding with Cordelia’s aunt to “produce the most unpleasant contrast to Edvard’s uncertainty.” Johannes’ action is not ethical in that it is an essential step in his seduction of Cordelia- her exposure to men weaker than Johannes, therefore rendering Johannes more desirable. Like his aesthetic engagements, Johannes’ discussions, though having the appearance of conventionality to the point of dreariness, they actually mocks the ethical as unimaginative. He feigns enthusiasm butter as the “glorious result of nature and art” to highlight the exalting of ordinary ideas by ethicists. Johannes assumes this ethical role so well however, it seems that Cordelia’s aunt is “bewitched.” Johannes is an extreme aesthete, but is not so immersed in his chosen viewpoint that he cannot understand how society expects him to act, and to assume this role when his art requires.
Torvald, in turn, also is capable of displaying aesthetic qualities, both in line with what society expects of him and against it. Torvald’s method of examination of Nora’s beauty involves an interior fantasy that is reminiscent of Johannes’ aesthetic reflections. Torvald imagines he is seeing Nora for almost the first time by, “[speaking] so little to [her], [keeping] away from [her], and only [sending] a stolen glance in [her] direction now and then” as part he acts his own fantasy they are recently acquainted and “no one suspects there is anything between [them].” In doing so he can supposedly freshly appreciate Nora’s beauty each time and feel the excitement and mystery of a blossoming relationship. That Nora derives satisfaction from this examination, is a given for him, but a delusion in reality. Torvald’s rejoinder of, “You won’t? Am I not your husband?” to her refusal of his romantic advances marks him as the type of seducer Johannes disdains to be. Johannes has similar tactics to keep young ladies enticed by a “clandestine manner,” saying “only when no alien suspects our love, only then does it have meaning.” Therefore, Torvald wrongly imagines Nora is in a state of complete compliance, only to be met with refusal, while Johannes manipulates those he pursues to actually achieve such a state. Johannes, pursues this same excitement of mystery and conquest, but it in its actual form, not an imagined one. Being an aesthetic constitutes in part, of having no regard for responsibilities beyond those required to gratify oneself. Torvald certainly abandons his conventional responsibilities as a husband when Nora’s forgery is discovered. In stating, “When I’m gone from this world, you’ll be free,” Nora may be talking about exiting Torvald’s life or even committing suicide. However, Torvald does not assume his usual socially acceptable role a protector and father-like figure to his wife in response, but brusquely makes light of the statement. Torvald asks Nora, “what good [your absence] would ever do to me?” implying the only significance of Nora’s wellbeing to Torvald is how it impacts him (Ibsen 106). While the well-being of a man was considered of greater importance than the wellbeing of a woman during this time period, Torvald is excessive in his selfishness. He is no longer acting on a purely ethical impulse as this question would most likely not have reflected well on Torvald’s character had he posed it in the public. Even in private conversations, Torvald usually holds himself to patronizing declarations of care towards his wife, previously proclaiming,” I’ve wished you were in some terrible danger, just so I could stake my life and soul and everything, for your sake” (104). Ironically, now that Torvald finds himself in this position, he does not act in the socially acceptable and chivalrous way he previously promised. Much less than risking his soul for Nora’s sake, Torvald can’t even bring himself to risk his reputation. The fact that such a grand sentiment was expressed in private shows that Torvald’s ethical behavior is not just reserved for settings with onlookers. It confirms Torvald’s break with acceptable behavior in favor of an exclusive concern for his own needs is as extreme as that of any devotee of aestheticism.
Though Torvald is inclined to base his actions on ethical principals, and Johannes on the pursuit of aesthetic rewards, neither fit exactly in these categories. Both can dip into the opposite category, Torvald when he feels threatened and Johannes when it is necessary for his ultimate quest pleasure. Thus, the different methods of living outlined by Kierkegaard are not so universal as to encompass and perfectly describe every aspect and tendency of every character. Though Ibsen was a supporter of Kierkegaard’s work, it is uncertain if Ibsen specifically had in mind the philosophical definition of the ethical while creating the character of Torvald. However, keeping these groupings in mind while examining the interaction of these characters with their environment is useful in understanding their motivations.