19 October 2009
Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll’s House"
A Doll’s House is a play about society and the role we are given in it. The focus of the play is on women, with Nora as the main character. Even though this play is the story of Nora, who is a female, you would think that the play is directed mostly towards women and their lives, but the author did it in a way that everyone in general can understand it and it has a very important meanning to each and everyone of us. Ibsen is asking us to think about our world and our place in it. While Nora finds herself in this story, Ibsen is encouraging the entire audience to question their reality and find themselves, just like Nora did. Born in 1828, Henrik Ibsen was a 19-century Norwegian playwright, theater director, dramatist and a poet. He is often referred to as "the father" of modern theater. In his work, he usually asked his audiences a new set of moral questions. His early plays were written in Norway where he was criticized a lot and his work there was rejected by the audience because many of his plays were considered shocking and scandalous. Ibsen was often accused of revealing “truths which society preferred to keep hidden” (The Columbia Encyclopedia). He then moved to Italy and where he wrote the majority of his works. Ibsen is best known for his realistic social plays where he “rebelled against society’s conventions through which the perpetuation of empty traditions restricts all intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth” (The Columbia Encyclopedia). Also, he is very well known for his depiction of 19th-century woman which is what we see in A Doll’s House as well as other plays such as Ghosts, Rosmersholm, and Hedda Gabler. The events of the play revolved around Nora and her struggle with her role in society, considering all of the social obligations that were expected from a woman at that time, which still exist today. The story began on Christmas Eve. Nora and Torvald were preparing to enjoy their Christmas. Kristine Linde, a friend of Nora arrived and Nora confessed to her that she secretly borrowed money and had been paying it back secretly. Nils Krogstad arrived whom Torvald was firing. We then found out that Krogstad was the one that Nora had borrowed the money from and he threatened to tell Torvald about it if he did not get his job back. Nora could not convince Torvald not to fire Krogstad and was very afraid that Torvald will learn about her secret. Nora was hoping her husband would take the blame for the loan and protected her as good husband should, but instead Torvald reacted very angrily and was only concerned about himself. Krogstad sent another letter saying that he will forget about the loan. Torvald then said he will forgive Nora. To Nora, the whole thing was an eye-opener for Nora. She realized that she is nothing but a doll to Torvald. Nora packed her bag and left, and as Nora was exiting, the play ended. The main idea in the story is the individual’s role and the place of woman in society. The story is one of Nora’s struggles to find herself in the play, a struggle to find her freedom as a woman and as an individual. Throughout the play we see that Nora is not a person who knows herself, She is more of a person that was created by her place in society. She plays the role of Torvald’s wife and a role as her father’s daughter but no role of her own. For this, Ibsen is making us see how we are controlled by society and how we do not have to just accept these roles that are given us by others or by society itself, but instead we should question these roles. At the end of the play, Nora decides to do exactly this at the end of the play saying, “…I can’t be satisfied anymore with what most people say, or with what’s in books. I have to think things through for myself and come to understand them.” (Ibsen 1081). The place of women is being questioned in the play. There is a focus on how women are being forced into certain roles. Templeton describes the play from a feminist viewpoint saying, “patriarchy’s socialization of women into servicing creatures is the major accusation in Nora’s painful account to Torvald of how first her father, and then he, used her for their amusements... How she had no right to think for herself, only the duty to accept their opinions. Excluded from meaning anything, Nora has never been subject, only object” (Templeton 142). Based on this theme, Nora’s rejection of this role is a powerful comment on the ability of women to rise above where society places them. Before talking more about the play in a more detailed manner, we have to consider the setting of the play. The play was written in 1879. This time period was a very different one from today. Women had very few rights and they rarely worked. Their only roles were to be housewives, take care of the home and raise the children. Based on this time frame, we can view Nora’s actions very differently, as one critic says after considering the setting of the play “in this context, Nora’s exit at the end of the play is not just an act of self-assertion; it is also an act of bravery - one that most women in Ibsen’s contemporary audience would never contemplate, let alone carry out” (Kirszner 293). In the play, Torvald is the character who represents how society sees women. He believes in the narrow role of women as wife and mother and also sees women as helpless. We see the way he views his wife by the pet names he gives her, constantly referring to her in childish ways, such as in the line “is that my little lark twittering” (Ibsen 1033). We can also notice how seeing Nora as childish actually makes Torvald feel manlier. Nora is aware of this and recognizes it when she says “Besides, how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his masculine pride, to know that he owed me anything! It would completely upset the balance of our relationship. Our beautiful happy home would never be the same” (Ibsen 1041). The relationship between Nora and Torvald acts as the turning point of the story. Before Nora changes, we see that Torvald treats Nora childishly, while Torvald takes on the role of father to his wife. One critic goes even further, saying that Torvald’s actions with Nora are as a result of his failure as a man, “he was only able to deal with Nora as a doll because if he dealt with her as a person, he would first have to come to terms with himself and his failure to live up to the moral codes of his society and his profession” (Urban). This approach shows us something greater about the relationship, it shows us that in some way Nora is actually supporting her husband by taking on her role as child, even as he supports her. There is a complexity to the relationship. After Nora changes though, we see the relationship has changed with Nora now responding intellectually to her husband and questioning him, as we see in these lines: “Torvald: Nobody sacrifices his honour for the one he loves. Nora: Hundreds and thousands of women have done it” (Ibsen 1082). In these lines we see that it may now be Torvald that must question his place in the world. In this we see a complexity in that we are not only talking about the place of women but the place of all people in society. We see that Torvald is not the villain of the story, but a man that is acting out his role, just as Nora was. Nora’s father also plays an important part in the play as he represents how Nora has not grown up. Nora is a woman who exists as she does because of the obligations of society. She has not chosen her role, she has simply accepted it. We see that she has moved directly from her father’s care to her husbands. This is emphasized by the fact that she has taken her nursemaid from her father’s house to her husbands. We also see it referred to where her husband scolds her over money, saying that her being irresponsible is a trait that she inherited from her father. This inheritance from her father has a much greater meaning than the context in which it is used. It refers to the fact that all of Lora’s beliefs and feelings toward Torvald are inherited from her father. We see that Nora accepts this role and does not question it. Instead she plays her part, she acts childishly like she is expected to, she demands what she needs from her husband and her husband as the provider does what he needs to do to provide. Essentially, Nora lives in shelter here, while once her father protected her, now we see her husband does. Throughout the play Nora is acting like a child and that is what defines her character. This also serves to emphasize that Nora is not herself, but is what she was born as. As a child we generally accept our role of daughter, but then later grow out of this role and find ourselves. Nora however, has not made this change; she has remained in the role that was given to her, without making a decision herself about who she is. The fact that Nora is a product of her childhood is also emphasized by the interaction of Nora and Torvald in the opening scene. Torvald saying “Is that my little lark twittering...my squirrel bustling...?” (Ibsen 1033). These comments are just the sort of thing that might be expected of a father speaking to a child. Nora manipulating her husband in a playful way is also a perfect example of children trying to get their parents to get them something that they want. We have to look at these things because it shows us that Nora is not being herself, her actions are not hers; they are a product of her childhood. It is like she has not grown up; she has simply accepted her husband as a new father figure. It is in the play itself that she actually grows up, when her beliefs about her husband are no longer the same and she comes to a new understanding. She realizes that her father and her husband both have one thing in common; they see her as a doll, not as an individual with their own opinions. She realizes that her whole life has been based on illusion, not reality. It is this realization that forces her to make her brave choice at the end and decide to leave her husband. We see now that Nora has grown up, she has become aware of herself and her place in the world. We can also see in the play how the end point does not really represent the end of the play. We have seen that Nora has now grown up and realized that she has no identity of her own. After this point we can expect that she will reassess her situation. The realization that her life was based not on her own conscious choice, but on circumstance and society would be a major one for any individual. What we see here is Nora’s immediate reaction to the shock of her realization. With time, one could expect that Nora would rethink her place. The fact that she is given a place by society is not something Nora can run from, it is a fact of the society of the time. While Nora may initially reject her husband it is likely that in time, she would reevaluate and return to her husband, though as a grown woman with a fuller awareness of why she is there. We can also see this alluded to when we consider the relationship of Krogstad and Kristine. At the start of the play this couple was separated by dishonesty, whereas Nora and Torvald appeared to be the happy couple. By the end of the play Krogstad and Kristine have agreed to face their past mistakes and their relationship looks promising. At the end of the play Nora and Torvald are in the same state of disagreement as Krogstad and Kristine were initially. The meaning of this may be that the second couple is a sign of hope and of the future for Nora and Torvald, suggesting that by being aware of themselves, they too can resolve their problems. Krogstad and Kristine can then be seen as foreshadowing the future of Nora and Torvald. Overall, A Doll’s House is the story of Nora, with all the events and characteristics of the play meant to show her journey from unknowingly assuming a role in society, to coming to understand her role. The focus is on Nora so that the audience can follow Nora on her journey. The main message though is greater than Nora. The message is that all individuals should question society and their place in it. Works cited
Templeton, J. Ibsen’s Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997
Kirszner, L., & Mandell, S. A Doll’s House. Philadelphia: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.
“Ibsen, Henrik.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. Sixth edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Ibsen, H. A Doll’s House. In Four Major Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Urban, W.L. Parallels in A Doll’s House. 1997.