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.
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