by Henrik Ibsen
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eNotes: Table of Contents
1. A Doll’s House: Introduction
2. A Doll’s House: Henrik Ibsen Biography
3. A Doll’s House: Summary
4. A Doll’s House: Summary and Analysis
♦ Summary and Analysis: Act I
♦ Summary and Analysis: Act II
♦ Summary and Analysis: Act III
5. A Doll’s House: Quizzes
♦ Questions and Answers: Act I
♦ Questions and Answers: Act II
♦ Questions and Answers: Act III
6. A Doll’s House: Themes
7. A Doll’s House: Style
8. A Doll’s House: Historical Context
9. A Doll’s House: Critical Overview
10. A Doll’s House: Character Analysis
11. A Doll’s House: Essays and Criticism
♦ Ibsen's Use of Drama as a Forum for Social Issues
♦ Henrik Ibsen
♦ Ibsen's Social Dramas
12. A Doll’s House: Compare and Contrast
13. A Doll’s House: Topics for Further Study
14. A Doll’s House: Media Adaptations
15. A Doll’s House: What Do I Read Next?
16. A Doll’s House: Bibliography and Further Reading
17. A Doll’s House: Pictures
A Doll’s House: Introduction
A Doll's House was published on December 4, 1879, and first performed in Copenhagen on December 21, 1879. The work was considered a publishing event, and the play's initial printing of 8,000 copies quickly sold A Doll’s House
out. The play was so controversial that Ibsen was forced to write a second ending that he called "a barbaric outrage" to be used only when necessary. The controversy centered around Nora's decision to abandon her children, and in the second ending, she decides that the children need her more than she needs her freedom. Ibsen believed that women were best suited to be mothers and wives, but at the same time, he had an eye for injustice, and Helmer's demeaning treatment of Nora was a common problem. Although he would later be embraced by feminists, Ibsen was no champion of women's rights; he only dealt with the problem of women's rights as a facet of the realism within his play. His intention was not to solve this issue but to illuminate it. Although Ibsen's depiction of Nora realistically illustrates the issues facing women, his decision in Act III to have her abandon her marriage and children was lambasted by critics as unrealistic, since according to them, no "real" woman would ever make that choice.
That Ibsen offered no real solution to Nora's dilemma inflamed critics and readers alike who were then left to debate the ending ceaselessly. This play established a new genre of modern drama; prior to A Doll's House, contemporary plays were usually historical romances or contrived comedy of manners. Ibsen is known as the "father of modern drama" because he elevated theatre from entertainment to a forum for exposing social problems. Ibsen broke away from the romantic tradition with his realistic portrayals of individual characters and his focus on psychological concerns as he sought to portray the real world, especially the position of women in society.
A Doll’s House: Henrik Ibsen Biography
Ibsen was born March 20, 1828, in Skien, Norway, a lumbering town south of Christiania, now Oslo. He was the second son in a wealthy family that included five other siblings. In 1835, financial problems forced the family to move to a smaller house in Venstop outside Skien. After eight years, the family moved back to Skein, and Ibsen moved to Grimstad to study as an apothecary's assistant. He applied to and was rejected at Christiania University. During the winter of 1848, Ibsen wrote his first play, Catiline, which was rejected by the Christiania Theatre; it was finally published in 1850 under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme and generated little interest. Ibsen's second play, The Burial Mound, was also written under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme and became the first Ibsen play to be performed when it was presented on September 26, 1850, at the Christiania Theatre.
In 1851, Ibsen accepted an appointment as an assistant stage manager at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. He was also expected to assist the theatre as a dramatic author, and during his tenure at Bergen, Ibsen wrote Lady lnger (1855), The Feast at Solhoug (1856), and Olaf Liljekrans (1857). These early plays were written in A Doll’s House: Introduction
verse and drawn from Norse folklore and myths. In 1857, Ibsen was released from his contract at Bergen and accepted a position at the Norwegian Theatre in Christiania. While there, Ibsen published The Vikings at Helgeland and married Suzannah Thoresen in 1858. The couple's only child, Sigurd, was born the following year.
By 1860, Ibsen was under attack in the press for a lack of productivity—although he had published a few poems during this period. When the Christiania Theatre went bankrupt in 1862, Ibsen was left with no regular income except a temporary position as a literary advisor to the reorganized Christiania Theatre. Due to a series of small government grants, by 1863 Ibsen was able to travel in Europe and begin what became an intense period of creativity. During this period, Ibsen completed The Pretenders (1863) and a dramatic epic poem, "Brand" (1866), which achieved critical notice; these works were soon followed by Peer Gynt (1867). The first of Ibsen's prose dramas, The League of Youth, published in 1869, was also the first of his plays to demonstrate a shift from an emphasis on plot to one of interpersonal relationships. This was followed by Emperor and Galilean (1873), Ibsen's first work to be translated into English, and Pillars of Society (1877). A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), and An Enemy of the People (1882) are among the last plays included in Ibsen's realism period. Ibsen continued to write of modern realistic themes in his next plays, but he also relied increasingly on metaphor and symbolism in The Wild Duck (1884) and Hedda Gabler (1890). A shift from social concerns to the isolation of the individual marks the next phase of Ibsen's work. The Master Builder (1892), Little Eyolf (1894), John Gabriel Borkman (1896), and When We Dead Awaken (1899) all treat the conflicts that arise between art and life, between creativity and social expectations, and between personal contentment and self deception. These last works are considered by many critics to be autobiographical. In 1900, Ibsen suffered his first of several strokes. Ill health ended his writing career, and he died May 23, 1906.
Although Ibsen's audiences may have debated the social problems he depicted, modern critics are more often interested in the philosophical and psychological elements depicted in his plays and the ideological debates they generated.
A Doll’s House: Summary
The play opens on the day before Christmas. Nora returns home from shopping; although her husband is anticipating a promotion and raise, he still chides her excessive spending. In response, Nora flirts, pouts, and cajoles her husband as a child might, and, indeed, Torvald addresses her as he might a child. He hands her more money but only after having berating her spending. Their relationship parallels that of a daughter and father and, indeed, is exactly like the relationship Nora had with her father. Early in this act, the audience is aware that the relationship between the Helmers is based on dishonesty when Nora denies that she has eaten macaroons, knowing that her husband has forbidden her to do so. Nora is visited by an old friend, Kristine Linde. Mrs. Linde tells Nora that she has had some difficult problems and is seeking employment. Nora confesses to Mrs. Linde that she, too, has been desperate and recounts that she had been forced to borrow money several years earlier when her husband was ill. The money was necessary to finance a trip that saved her husband's life, but Nora forged her father's signature to secure the loan and lied to Torvald that her father had given them the money. Thus, she has been deceiving her husband for years as she worked to repay the loan. She tells this story to Mrs. Linde to demonstrate that she is an adult who is capable of both caring for her family and conducting business. Unfortunately, Nora's secret is shared by Krogstad, an employee at Torvald's bank. After a confrontation with Krogstad, Torvald decides to fire Krogstad and hire Mrs. Linde in his place.
A Doll’s House: Henrik Ibsen Biography
Krogstad threatens Nora, telling her that if he loses his job, he will reveal her earlier dishonesty. Krogstad fails to understand that Nora has no influence with her husband, nor does he appreciate the level of dishonesty that characterizes the Helmer marriage. For her part, Nora cannot believe that forging her father's signature—an act that saved her husband's life—could lead to a serious punishment. She cannot conceive that she could be held accountable and has an unrealistic appreciation for how the law and society functions. Still, she is concerned enough to plead Krogstad's cause with Torvald. Torvald refuses to reconsider firing Krogstad and forbids Nora to even mention his name.
Mrs. Linde stops by to help Nora prepare for a costume ball. Nora explains to Mrs. Linde that Krogstad is blackmailing her about the earlier loan. After Nora again begs Torvald not to fire Krogstad, her husband sends Krogstad an immediate notice of his dismissal. Nora is desperate and decides to ask help of Dr. Rank, a family friend. Before she can ask him for his help, Dr. Rank makes it obvious that he is in love with her, and Nora determines that because of this, it would be unwise to ask his help. Krogstad visits Nora once again and this time leaves a letter for Torvald in which Nora's dishonesty is revealed. To divert Torvald's attention from the mailbox, Nora elicits his help with her practice of the dance she is to perform, the tarantella. Finally, Nora asks Torvald to promise that he will not read the mail until after the party.
Alan Hale and Alla Nazimova in a scene from a 1922 production. Act III
Krogstad had years earlier been in love with Mrs. Linde. At the beginning of this act, they agree to marry, and Krogstad offers to retrieve his letter from Torvald. However, Mrs. Linde disagrees and thinks that it is time that Nora is forced to confront the dishonesty in her marriage. After the party, the Helmers return home, and Torvald reads the letter from Krogstad. While Torvald reads in his study, Nora pictures herself as dead, having committed suicide by drowning in the icy river. Torvald interrupts her fantasy by demanding that she explain her deception. However, he refuses to listen and is only concerned with the damage to his own reputation. Torvald's focus on his own life and his lack of appreciation for the suffering undergone by Nora serve to open her eyes to her husband's faults. She had been expecting Torvald to rescue her and protect her, and instead he only condemns her and insists that she is not a fit mother to their children. At that moment, another letter arrives from Krogstad telling the Helmers that he will not take legal action against Nora. Torvald is immediately appeased and is willing to forget the entire episode. But having seen her husband revealed as a self-centered, selfish hypocrite, Nora tells him that she can no longer live as a doll and expresses her intention to leave the house immediately. Torvald begs her to stay, but the play ends with Nora leaving the house, her husband, and her children.
A Doll’s House: Summary
A Doll’s House: Summary and Analysis
Summary and Analysis: Act I
Nora Helmer: a housewife who seems to have a carefree marriage without concerns, but who has a dark secret Torvald Helmer: Nora’s husband, who has recently been promoted to bank director Mrs. Kristine Linde: a friend of Nora’s, now a widow, who suddenly appears after having no contact with Nora for about ten years
Nils Krogstad: a former suitor of Mrs. Linde and a clerk at Torvald’s bank who blackmails Nora Dr. Rank: a friend of the Helmers who is terminally ill with syphilis he inherited and who is secretly in love with Nora
The play’s action occurs in a tastefully furnished room, comparable to a modern-day living room. The décor is indicative of a family that is comfortable and not hard up financially. Nevertheless, the interior design, as Ibsen clearly states, is not lavish; the room is typical of a professional-class, patriarchal family in Norway during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Having just returned from shopping for gifts on Christmas Eve, Nora enters the room, giving orders to the maid and an errand boy who is carrying a Christmas tree; the tree is to be hidden from the children until it is lit that evening.
Nora surreptitiously eats a couple of macaroons after determining that her husband, Torvald, is in his den. Nora eats the macaroons on the sly because Torvald does not want her eating sweets; they could ruin her teeth. From early in the play, it is apparent that Torvald has a lot of rules for Nora, rules which she often finds a way around. Having heard Nora enter, Torvald calls to her. He addresses her by various pet names like “lark” and “squirrel.” While outwardly endearing, these pet names allude to Nora’s subservience. To Torvald, she is a cute, unthreatening animal.
Distracted from his work, Torvald enters the room and chastises Nora for spending too much money. Depending on the production and director, these lines can be delivered either jokingly or seriously. Regardless, by calling his wife a spendthrift and prodigal, he is accusing her of wasting money—his money. Nora reminds her husband that, due to his promotion, they don’t need to worry about money anymore. Torvald disagrees and gives a worst-case scenario where he dies in an accident. The tale illustrates Torvald’s belief that his wife is unfit to understand the worldly concerns of finances and loans. He calls Nora a typical woman and spouts platitudes about the perils of borrowing money. As his lecture on financial stability ends, he takes out his wallet and gives Nora spending money for Christmas; he counts out each bill, as if bestowing a great favor. Nora, at least outwardly, is completely reliant on her husband for money.
Some of Torvald’s pet names for his wife allude to her inability to save money. He calls her, again, a “spendthrift” and, depending on the translation, “my little moneybags.” When Nora asks for money as a Christmas present, he smiles at her indulgently. According to Torvald, Nora wastes money just like her father A Doll’s House: Summary and Analysis
did; Torvald considers the trait hereditary.
Then, Torvald accuses Nora of sneaking sweets behind his back. Lying, Nora denies it. The dialogue is indicative of a relationship based on power and oppression that continues throughout the work. To Torvald, Nora is like a pet who should obey his rules. The dialogue is not based on an equal partnership, but rather is an example of a patriarch attempting to make his wife conform to his ideal of what a wife should be. The conversation is interrupted by the maid announcing two visitors, Dr. Rank, a friend of the Helmers, and Mrs. Kristine Linde, a friend of Nora’s who has dropped in out of the blue after an absence of about ten years. Dr. Rank joins Helmer in the study while Nora and Kristine catch up on each others’ lives. Outwardly, Mrs. Linde is everything that Nora is not. A widow of three years with no children, she must struggle to make ends meet. Nevertheless, she faces her plight with a sense of courage. In direct contrast to Mrs. Linde’s tales of woe, Nora relates how her husband has just been promoted. She is thrilled at the prospect of no longer having to worry about finances while Mrs. Linde is happy just to have enough for the essentials of daily life.
Kristine, like Torvald, considers Nora a spendthrift who does not know the value of money. At this point, Nora reveals a secret which contradicts this assertion:
Torvald was overworked in the first years of their marriage, and his health suffered as a result. Doctors advised him to take an extended vacation in the south. Although there was no money for such a trip, Nora secretly borrowed money, so the two could spend the year in Italy, where Torvald’s health improved. The trip saved Torvald’s life. According to Nora, her father arranged the funds for the trip shortly before he died. Nora then asks about Kristine and learns that her friend never loved her husband. Rather, she married him out of financial necessity, to support her mother and siblings. Now she is all alone, a widow whose mother is dead. Unlike Nora, she doesn’t have a father to help her.
Kristine subtly alludes that perhaps Torvald could get her a job at the bank. Nora agrees to bring the subject up with her husband. Nora then reveals that her life has not been nearly as carefree as Kristine thinks. She admits that, much like Kristine, she took the cares of her family on herself. Her father did not help her finance the trip to Italy; rather, she procured the money in a devious manner. Although she misleads Kristine as to the source of the money, first acting as if she attracted suitors with her beauty, she soon reveals the truth: she has borrowed without the consent of her husband, an act that is illegal in Norway in that era. Nora stresses that the subterfuge was necessary to save her husband’s life. Though he needed the money for his own health, he never would have agreed to a loan. Torvald has remained ignorant as to how Nora procured the necessary funds, and she does not plan on revealing the truth anytime soon. Furthermore, Nora, in contrast to her husband’s assertions, knows a good deal about finances and fiscal responsibility. She struggles to make loan and interest payments. In fact, she secretly does all sorts of part-time work to keep up with the payments. Although she has dreamed of a suitor who would pay her debt, she now sees an end to her obligation with Torvald’s promotion.
The two are interrupted by Krogstad, who has called unannounced on business with Helmer. Nora is disconcerted by his presence and points him to the den. Kristine reveals that she used to know Krogstad. It will become apparent later that the two once courted. Afterward, Krogstad was in an unhappy marriage. Dr. Rank leaves Helmer’s den and chats with Nora. Nora is surprised to learn that Krogstad is an employee at the bank where her husband will work. When Torvald appears from the den, Nora asks him if he will hire Summary and Analysis: Act I
Mrs. Linde. Seeing that she has the necessary skills (and is a widow), Torvald agrees. Everyone exits, save Nora, who is greeted by the nanny, Anne-Marie, and the children. Nora’s happy family-time is rudely interrupted by Krogstad, who appears suddenly, demanding a word with her. Nora dismisses the children. In the ensuing conversation, the dramatic conflict that dominates the rest of the play is outlined: Krogstad is the person who has loaned Nora the money for the vacation in Italy. Afraid that he will lose his position in the bank because Torvald disapproves of his moral character (Krogstad was once caught forging), he appeals to Nora to help him keep his position. When she wavers, he resorts to blackmail. He is aware that Nora forged her father’s name as the guarantor on the initial loan. This is a grave offense to which Nora, horrified, admits. Krogstad exits, vowing to ruin Nora if he is dismissed from the bank.
The children then return, but Nora is clearly rattled. She initially lies to Helmer when he asks if anyone was there. Later, she admits Krogstad asked her for help. Helmer very much disapproves of Krogstad and is not inclined to keep him at the bank. Krogstad is a forger who did not openly confess his crime, which, according to Torvald, makes him a moral coward guilty of lies and pretence. Torvald’s language is very sharp; moreover, he blames Krogstad’s mother (and mothers in general) for creating an atmosphere where a person could grow up to be such a moral failure. He claims it is the mother’s responsibility to instill values. Krogstad is a moral degenerate, and Torvald will dismiss him from the bank. Nora is horrified; naturally, she interprets Torvald’s accusations as a rebuke against her own moral failings. Could she really be poisoning her own home just because she bent the law to save her husband?
Ibsen was a pioneer of the realistic social drama. Unlike playwrights who came before him, he was very concerned with portraying realistic social settings and illustrating a conflict resulting from social pressures and mores. The first act reveals several major themes that develop throughout the play: Marriage as an Unequal Partnership
At the heart of A Doll's House is the marriage between Nora and Torvald—one fairly typical of the era. Is it a good or exemplary marriage? Is it an equitable relationship for the woman? A close analysis of the dialogue shows a very unequal relationship with Torvald holding all the power. In fact, the interactions between husband and wife serve a specific purpose: they illustrate the banality of the discourse between the two. Torvald does not address his wife regarding any subject of substance. Instead, he bestows her with pet names that often begin with the personal pronoun “my” and often include the diminutive “little”: “Is that my little lark?” In this respect, Torvald may think he is flattering his wife. However, he is actually reducing her to a cute, harmless pet—one that is clearly owned. And like a pet, Nora is expected to obey her owner/husband and his petty tyrannical rules: she is forbidden from eating macaroons and must do so on the sly—which she clearly resents. Additionally, when Torvald addresses Nora, he belittles her by constantly bringing up her lack of responsibility with money. Depending on the translation, Nora is “spendthrift,” “prodigal,” and “little moneybags.” All of these terms, spoken affectionately, are passively aggressive.
A Doll's House has few stage directions indicating tone of voice, so there is a great deal of freedom in the manner in which the actor can play the part Torvald. He can be played like a patriarchal tyrant or a fatuous, passive-aggressive sexist. The second option is, perhaps, the better choice; Torvald’s utter obliviousness to his own oppressive behavior is a driving force in the play. He berates his wife for knowing nothing about worldly matters but, ultimately, is himself unaware of the measures she has taken to save his life. Torvald is so self-centered that he continues to see his wife how he wants her to be or how she fails to be his ideal woman; he never sees the actual woman who she is.
Summary and Analysis: Act I
The Subservient Financial Position of Women
Outwardly, Nora is completely beholden to her husband. She relies on him for money, which he doles out one bill at a time, emphasizing his dominant position. The subservient position of women was endemic of the era; women in late nineteenth-century Norway—and many other European countries—were regarded as possessions. The husband was the breadwinner, and the woman was not expected to work; Torvald takes it for granted that Mrs. Linde is a widow when he agrees to get her a position at his bank. As Mrs. Linde’s plight illustrates, a woman’s chief asset in that era was her ability to attract a financially secure suitor, not her ability to earn a living independent of a man. Mrs. Linde must resort to a loveless marriage with an older man in order to help support her mother and two younger brothers. Only after her husband’s death is it socially acceptable for Mrs. Linde to find positions of her own. And even then, the wage barely allows her to make ends meet.
Although outwardly more financially secure than Mrs. Linde, Nora, too, must struggle with a system that makes it difficult for women to earn and control their own money. She cannot apply for a loan without her husband’s or father’s permission. And, she cannot pay off the one that she has procured illicitly without taking all sorts of low-paying positions behind her husband’s back. Additionally, she does not have equal access to the family money but must cajole and play the cute, cuddly pet in order for her husband to dole out money, as if it were an allowance for a wasteful child.
The Hereditary Nature of Evil
Torvald Helmer is unwavering in his opinions and values. Among them is the idea that a person’s character or moral nature is inherited. The children of a mother of low repute will turn out badly. Torvald voices this opinion when he mentions that people like Krogstad end up with moral deficiencies because a mother has failed in her responsibilities.
The theme of inheriting traits, particularly those involving morality, is prevalent throughout A Doll's House. While Torvald errs in his affixing responsibility on the parents, the theme of inherited traits extends to physical sickness, in the case of Dr. Rank, in Act II.
Higher Moral Values vs. Societal Mores and Laws
As Nora reveals to Mrs. Linde, she faced a moral crisis at the beginning of her marriage. Unable to procure, in a legal manner, the funds needed to save her husband’s life, she resorts to forging her father’s name as guarantor of the loan. She places her love and concern for her husband’s well-being above the law. Since she diligently works to pay back the loan, the offense does not seem so severe; it is a crime in definition only. In a higher sense, Nora has not acted in an immoral manner. However, those who adhere to societal standards, like her husband, ultimately have different values. Torvald values social respectability and honor above all else, including actions done out of love; Nora values love over social honor. Consequently, a conflict emerges regarding their prioritization of values.
Summary and Analysis: Act II
On Christmas Day, Nora is alone, pacing and fretting over Krogstad’s threats. Anticipating shame, and considering abandoning her family, Nora briefly discusses with the nanny, Anne-Marie, the possibility of no longer being around her children. Nora tries to distract herself but remains jumpy, as if Krogstad could appear at any minute to ruin her.
Mrs. Linde drops by at Nora’s request to help mend a dress for a fancy ball the next evening in the apartment upstairs. In order to please Torvald, Nora is to dress as a Neapolitan fisher girl and dance the tarantella, a Summary and Analysis: Act II
traditional southern dance.
As Mrs. Linde helps with the mending of the dress, the two women gossip. Nora discusses Dr. Rank’s malady, alluding to inherited syphilis. Although the malady mentioned is “spinal consumption,” there is a strong consensus among critics that this is a euphemism for syphilis, especially considering the cause of the illness; Dr. Rank’s father was dissolute and had many mistresses. As a result of the conversation about Dr. Rank, Mrs. Linde falsely assumes that it is he who lent Nora the money for the trip to Italy. Nora denies it, although at one point, she implies that she has power over Dr. Rank. Since the subject of the loan has been raised, she asks Mrs. Linde for confirmation that one gets an IOU back after a loan is paid in full; she is close to paying off the loan to Krogstad and desperately wants to be finished with him. Mrs. Linde senses that Nora is hiding something from her. However, the two are interrupted by Torvald’s entrance onto the scene.
As usual, the dialogue between Torvald and Nora emphasizes her subservient relationship to him. Torvald insists that it is her duty to give in to her husband’s whims and desires. Nora steers the conversation towards the asking of a favor: Torvald rightly infers that she is, again, asking him to keep Krogstad on at the bank. Torvald is upset that she has the audacity to bring the subject up again, especially since he has already given Krogstad’s position to Mrs. Linde.
Torvald emphatically refuses to rehire Krogstad. He could never bow to his wife’s whim, especially since the entire office knows of his intent to dismiss Krogstad. Furthermore, Torvald bears a personal grudge against Krogstad. The two were friends when they were law students together; as a result, Krogstad addresses Torvald in too familiar a manner given Krogstad’s disgrace and Torvald’s high social standing. Torvald finds this intolerable. When Nora accuses Torvald of being petty, Torvald counters by sending a note of dismissal, via the maid, right in front of Nora. Nora is in despair, begging her husband, but powerless. Torvald is touched by his wife’s powerlessness; he takes it as a sign of love and vows to stay with her even if her raving about misfortune for their family—which is, in his opinion, paranoid—somehow turns out to be true. Of course, Torvald is completely unaware of the circumstances behind Nora’s fear. Torvald changes the subject and tells Nora to practice the tarantella. As he retires to his den, Nora remains in a state of panic. Dr . Rank enters. Instead of entering the den to visit Torvald, he makes a startling confession to Nora: he expects medical tests to confirm his own imminent demise. He does not want to burden Torvald with the ugly facts of his death. Instead, he will lock himself away from sight and send a card announcing his sickness and impending death. Nora refuses to believe him and acts as if he is joking. The two then mention euphemisms for the sexual activities of Dr. Rank’s father, which have caused his illness. Suddenly, Nora realizes that Dr. Rank is not joking about his fatal condition. Nora considers asking Dr. Rank for a huge favor. However, she is dissuaded when Dr. Rank abruptly admits that he loves her. Nora tells him that he has done a terrible thing in admitting this. Although she enjoys playing the coquette around him and has long been aware of his admiration, she thinks it is wrong for him to openly admit his emotional attachment to her. Dr. Rank’s confession makes it impossible for Nora to ask him the favor, which would have been to help in the situation with Krogstad. The two briefly discuss love. Dr. Rank has badly misread Nora because she seems to enjoy his company as much as that of her husband. Nora explains that there is a difference. She also admits, in a roundabout way, that she has always been around dominant men, her father and Torvald. In order to escape from her father, she sought out the servants, who did not always preach to her. Dr. Rank fills a similar role in her life now. She admits that Torvald treats her like her father did.
Summary and Analysis: Act II
The two are interrupted by the maid, holding a note from Krogstad, who is waiting in the back hall. He insists on speaking to Nora. Krogstad is angry at his dismissal and cannot believe that Nora has so little influence over her husband. Although he does not yet want to go to the authorities over the forgery, he will inform Torvald of the situation, which in Nora’s eyes is just as bad. She is despondent. Krogstad correctly infers that she is considering running away. He tells her that she lacks the courage for that, and that only a slight domestic disturbance will result from the scandal. Krogstad is not interested in the money on the loan; rather, he is interested in regaining a sense of social respectability, which his dismissal from the bank makes next to impossible. He mocks Nora’s suicide threat and exits with a flourish, dropping the tell-all letter in the locked letterbox as he leaves. Torvald has the only key to this box. Mrs. Linde reenters with the mended dress. Sensing Nora’s dismay, she realizes that Krogstad is the one who lent Nora the money. However, unlike Nora, Mrs. Linde believes that Torvald’s finding out about the situation is the best possible outcome. Nevertheless, seeing Nora’s panic-ridden state, Mrs. Linde says that she will find Krogstad and speak with him; Krogstad used to court her, and she feels that she may still have influence over him. Mrs. Linde departs, leaving Nora with a faint glimmer of hope that she can assuage the situation and make Krogstad ask for his letter back.
Nora sets about diverting her husband’s attention from the letterbox until Mrs. Linde can accomplish the task. She plays the coquette with her husband and feigns incompetence at the dance, tricking her husband into helping her rehearse rather than opening the letterbox. Although he senses that there is a letter from Krogstad, he is coerced into promising not to open the letterbox until after the dance at the ball the next evening. Dr. Rank’s presence makes Torvald more amenable to Nora’s wish. Mrs. Linde returns and witnesses the scene. The maid announces that dinner is served, and Torvald and Dr. Rank head for the dining room, leaving Nora and Mrs. Linde alone. Mrs. Linde informs Nora that Krogstad has left for the country. She left a note for him but won’t be able to see him until the next evening, when Nora is dancing for her husband. Analysis
The Inequality of the Marriage
At first glance, one might think that the Helmers have a successful marriage—but only at a superficial level. Once we delve beyond the comfort of middle-class security, we see that the foundation of the marriage is built on the utter subservience of the woman. Additionally, Nora’s actions show that—with good reason—she does not truly respect her husband’s value system. Her day is filled with constant acts of subterfuge—some minor, like sneaking macaroons, and some of the utmost importance, like paying back a loan that saved her husband’s life. No matter the level, deceit is a constant in the relationship. This outwardly typical, happy marriage is anything but.
Ibsen’s use of the Christmas holiday as a backdrop to the unfolding drama adds a sense of irony to the play; things are not as they seem. Christmas is normally associated with joy and happiness. However, as the play unfolds, fear and panic become Nora’s primary responses to her surroundings. In place of joy and happiness are obligation, pleading, and a sense of doom. Nora is a plaything to her husband, a marionette or doll. She will dance the tarantella solely because he wants her to, not because she has any inclination to do it on her own. When Nora remarks that it is good of her to give in to Torvald, he reacts with indignation because she is always supposed to do as her husband wishes.
Later, when Nora tries to get her husband to keep Krogstad at the bank, she must resort to playing the cute wife; she intentionally calls herself by the same pet names that Torvald calls her in an attempt to emphasize her helplessness while faced with his boundless power: “Suppose your little squirrel were to ask you ever so nicely for a great big enormous favour.…” She cannot just address her husband as an equal when she wants something; she has to play a role that her husband approves and emphasize her subservient status. But Torvald Summary and Analysis: Act II
will not give in and, in a show of power, hands the letter that dismisses Krogstad to the maid—right in front of Nora—to close the subject and show that he is in charge.
The Inheritance of Immorality
With Dr. Rank, Ibsen continues to broach the theme of heredity and illness. (He continues with this theme in his next play, Ghosts, which addresses the stigma of a sexually transmitted disease). Torvald already believes that a mother is responsible for the moral character of a child. In the case of Dr. Rank, the father is responsible for a congenital disease that has affected his son’s health and that will soon cause his death. Although Nora and Dr. Rank speak in euphemisms, the disease is most likely syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can also be passed on from parent to child. In the nineteenth century, there was no cure for syphilis. After a long period of remission, often lasting decades, the disease would attack the central nervous system in its tertiary or final stage, causing madness and death. Dr. Rank is aware of this and wants to spare his friend, Torvald, “who has a marked aversion to anything ugly.”
Ironically, Torvald, who classifies all people by his perception of their inherited morality and honor, treats Dr. Rank as an equal and close friend. Dr. Rank eats with the family and visits Torvald daily. Nevertheless, Dr. Rank suffers from a disease that is clearly caused by the lax sexual morals of his father. In contrast, Torvald directly attributes the failings in Krogstad’s character (and, later in Act III, Nora’s) to moral failings of the parents. Torvold’s dislike of Krogstad allows him to dismiss him even though Krogstad has three children to support. Torvald remains willfully oblivious to Dr. Rank’s genetic condition while incorrectly attributing the moral failings in Krogstad. This error allows him to flaunt his superiority. Torvald adheres to his value system, which separates the clean (of good birth) from the dirty (of morally lax parents) to the point where his friend, Dr. Rank, wants to spare him any discomfort in viewing what is ugly. Nora’s Relationship with Men
Nora’s conversation with Dr. Rank illustrates that Nora is aware that she has been forced to play a very constrained role her whole life. We finally get a sense that Nora is consciously unhappy about this situation. The line “there are people that you love most, but there are other people you almost prefer being with” is quite sad. Though she is still hedging and not admitting to herself the true reason behind her despair, Nora is fighting boldly to speak out the truth. She would rather spend time with people whom she does not “love,” like Dr. Rank. That way, she can be herself and not play some insipid role. All her life she has conformed to the expectations of dominant men—first her father and then Torvald—who never allow her to act naturally. Dr. Rank misreads Nora’s carefree attitude and natural behavior around him as love. While he is mistaken, Nora does admit that she enjoys his company more than that of her husband. Perhaps she should reevaluate “love,” something she ends up doing in Act III.
In addition to preferring Dr. Rank’s company, Nora also sees him as a potential savior. If Dr. Rank had not foolishly declared his love for her, she would have asked him for the remainder of the money due Krogstad (although this would not have remedied the situation since Krogstad would not have returned the forged IOU). It is precisely because Nora has high moral standards that she does not stoop to taking advantage of Dr. Rank’s natural affection. However, the situation once again illustrates that women are often reduced to using their beauty and company to get out of tight situations.
While one might infer that Krogstad is a villain in the drama, this would be a misinterpretation. He is a blackmailer, but he has been driven to the action out of desperation. He wants to salvage his reputation, and Torvald is intent on ruining it. Krogstad does indeed miscalculate, since he believes that Nora could actually influence her husband in a manner concerning both his professional life and his value system. However, Mrs. Linde at one time had a great deal of influence over Krogstad. In this sense, Krogstad is the opposite of Torvald. While Torvald does not allow himself to be influenced by his wife, Krogstad, as becomes apparent in Act III, commits an action out of love for Mrs. Linde. While not the villain himself, Krogstad is the impetus Summary and Analysis: Act II
which will force Nora to confront the reality that her marriage is a sham.
Summary and Analysis: Act III
The evening after Christmas Day, Mrs. Linde sits alone waiting for Krogstad while music can be heard from the party upstairs. After he appears, the two have a heart-to-heart talk to clear up misconceptions about their split. Years ago, Kristine wrote Krogstad a letter, ending their affair. She intentionally made the break very clear in order to destroy his affectionate feelings towards her. According to her, this was for his own good, so he could get on with his life. However, Krogstad was deeply hurt and felt that she had simply accepted an offer from a more prosperous suitor.
As we learned early in the play, Mrs. Linde felt compelled to enter a loveless marriage in order to help support her mother and brothers. Krogstad felt betrayed and utterly ruined by the course of events. And now, Mrs. Linde is to replace him at the bank. Mrs. Linde surprises him by announcing that she really came to town to renew contact with him; she never truly forgot him. She wants to team up and share her life with him. Krogstad is flattered that, despite his reputation, she still wants him. Although neither mentions the word “love,” it is clear that the two once loved each other and now want to give life together another chance. Mrs. Linde’s offer is sincere and independent of the situation involving Nora. In fact, she has recently decided that Krogstad should not ask for the letter back. Having witnessed the Helmers’ marriage, replete with the lies and intrigue, she is convinced that the secrecy and deception should end. Upstairs, the music stops, indicating the end of the party. Jubilant about being reunited with Kristine, Krogstad departs just before the Helmers return. Nora is still desperately trying to delay the inevitable—her husband’s reading the letter. As Torvald enters his study, Mrs. Linde quickly informs Nora that she must tell her husband everything. While she no longer has anything to fear from Krogstad as far as his making the forgery public, she must still face her husband.
Mrs. Linde departs, much to the relief of Torvald, who has been eying his wife all night and is impatient to have a romantic night with her. However, his plans are thwarted by Dr. Rank, who barges in, inebriated, and asks for a cigar. Rank makes various allusions to his previous conversation with Nora; he is indeed dying, and has drunk a lot of champagne to celebrate the certainty of his fate. He departs, leaving the couple alone. Torvald follows Dr. Rank into the hall in order to empty the letterbox. In addition to noticing that someone has tried to pick the lock, he sees two cards from Dr. Rank that have just been left. The cards have a black cross like a death announcement; Nora explains that Dr. Rank is indeed saying goodbye for good. For Torvald, the mood has been spoiled by the taint of death; a romantic night is impossible. Nora, suddenly firm, implores him to read the rest of the mail.
Torvald, having read Krogstad’s letter, confronts Nora. She is no longer his little “lark” or any other type of pet. Torvald’s language is severe, and the confrontation causes a fateful shift in Nora’s opinion of her husband and the marriage. For the first time, the truth is apparent, not concealed. Torvald calls his wife nasty names (“hypocrite” and “criminal,” depending on the translation) and blames her without asking for or wanting to hear any sort of explanation—it never even occurs to him that she took the loan to save him, out of love and concern. Instead, he cares only about his reputation. He blames Nora’s immorality on her father, who, in his opinion, was no better. She has, in his harsh words, ruined him and left him beholden to men of low morals like Krogstad.
Summary and Analysis: Act III
Given this sudden glimpse into her husband’s true selfish nature, Nora becomes stoical and calmly takes the abuse. Torvald’s diatribe is interrupted by the maid, holding another letter from Krogstad. Although it is addressed to Nora, Torvald grabs it and reads it greedily. Then, he exclaims that he has been saved—Krogstad is returning the IOU. Utterly unconcerned about Nora’s plight, Torvald keeps jabbering about his own good fortune.
Torvald regains his composure and tries to make light of the entire incident, but it has been too much for Nora, who is finally about to take a firm stand against her husband. While Torvald makes a feeble attempt to say he has forgiven her, he does not comprehend that, due to his outburst, it is Nora who would have to forgive. And instead, she chooses to leave him. Quietly, she changes back into an everyday dress and announces that she won’t be sleeping there that night. What’s more, she orders Torvald to sit down—the first firm words she has spoken to him in the entire play—and proceeds to make it clear that there is a definite problem in their marriage, an utter lack of communication. In fact, this incident marks the first time that they talk about a serious matter. Nora claims, “You never loved me. You just enjoyed being in love with me.” She then brings up the play’s title metaphor, the doll’s house. All her life she has been treated like a doll, first by her father and then by her husband. Her eyes are now opened, and she resents her plight as an object for show. At a loss, Torvald, makes things worse every time he speaks. Failing to understand, he offers to educate Nora, as if his influence is not exactly what she is trying to escape. As a rebuttal, Nora resolutely announces that she is leaving him—that very night. She will stay with Kristine and then return to her hometown. Torvald continues to plead with his wife, mentioning the children, but she remains firm. She no longer respects him or what he represents. She no longer believes what religion or society dictate, and she does not respect laws that forbid her from saving her husband’s life; she wants to experience life on her own and make up her own mind.
As the conversation continues, Nora makes it clear that she does not love Torvald anymore; Torvald did not even think of sacrificing his honor for love after reading the first letter from Krogstad. To Nora, this is unforgivable. Torvald is clearly losing the confrontation. To her, he is a stranger. He begins capitulating and begging. He even offers to live with her platonically. But all his appeals are in vain. Nora returns her wedding ring and the keys to the house. A wonder would have to occur for her to stay: according to Nora, they would have to change so much, “that [their] life together would become a marriage.” She departs. The play ends with the sound of a heavy door closing as Torvald pleads alone. Analysis
Problems with Translation
Ibsen wrote in Norwegian, a language not widely known outside of Scandinavia. In fact, most people are acquainted with A Doll's House through an English translation or a translation of the English translation into some third language. Translations of the work abound, since it marks the birth of social realism in drama. However, it is important for the reader to remember that, ultimately, he or she is reading a translation, an interpretation of the original work. And, an interpretation can, unintentionally, betray the original intent. For example, the final confrontation between Nora and Torvald is bound to be different, depending on the exact words and phrases that particular translators choose. Perhaps the best example is the repetition of the Norwegian phrase Det vidunderlige throughout the original text. The closest equivalent in English is “the wonderful thing,” which sounds rather awkward in spoken English. The phrase alludes to a feeling of happiness that is subjective. In his final draft, Ibsen deliberately substituted vidunderligt for mirakler in Nora’s last lines of the play. However, many translators still use the word “miracle” while others opt for “wonder.” The difference is subtle but great: “I don’t believe in miracles anymore” (Hedda Gabbler and A Summary and Analysis: Act III
Doll's House, translated by Christopher Hampton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1989) vs. “I don’t believe any longer in wonderful things happening” (A Doll's House, The Wild Duck and The Lady from the Sea, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp and Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Everyman’s Library, Vermont, 1958). A miracle implies an extraordinary event that cannot happen according to the laws of physics. Ibsen specifically did not choose to make this association. Rather, the second option is closer to his intent. Nora, her eyes opened to the reality of the world, implies with the word “wonder” that she would have to be happy, to experience emotional fulfillment, in order to stay. She no longer believes that she ever was happy, or that future happiness with Torvald is likely. She does not imply that it would take a miracle for the marriage to become a “real marriage.”
This point on translation should not be overlooked. There are minor differences in virtually all the lines of the play, depending on the translation. A close reading of the text should take this into account. The Finality of Nora’s Decision
Most critics have interpreted Nora’s departure as an irrevocable decision. Indeed, Nora does claim that she is leaving forever; the sound of the door closing, which marks the end of the play, indicates a sense of finality. However, this interpretation is, perhaps, too obvious. The very factors that so upset the initial critics, leading them to side with Torvald and regard Nora as an unfeeling mother who deserts her children, are perhaps strong enough to cause a reconciliation later on; the play has only three acts, but one presumes that the characters’ lives continue afterward. Instead of a metaphor for the end of the marriage, the door closing could signify the end of the marriage as it was, an unequal relationship with the husband holding all the power and treating his wife as an object. As is obvious from Torvald’s desperate attempts to keep Nora, any reconciliation would involve a great change in his character and views towards his wife. He would have to love and respect her for the woman she is rather than the woman he wants her to be. Perhaps this is too much for Torvald, which is why so many interpret the departure as final. In any case, the presence of the children and the harsh economic fate that awaits a single woman could eventually propel a reconciliation. It is one thing for feminists to hold Nora up as a shining example of independence, especially since the play ends right after her moment of self-realization. However, it is quite another to predict that Nora will fend for herself, not return to her children, and constantly battle the mores that stigmatize a woman who would leave her husband; if the indignation of critics was so harsh that Ibsen prepared an alternate ending, one could only imagine what a real-life Nora would face in Norway at that time. In a modern American production of A Doll's House, after decades of the Women’s Rights movement, one might more easily assume that the heroine is walking out for good.
Critics often rightly emphasize that Ibsen was not a feminist or proponent of Women’s Emancipation; he firmly believed that a woman’s main societal responsibility was to raise children. In A Doll's House, Ibsen is illustrating a fundamental problem in a society rather than offering any sort of solution that would lead to a radical change in a woman’s role in society.
The marriage that Ibsen portrays is oppressive to one of the participants. The doll metaphor is an indication of a situation that is intolerable to a human being—one does better in classifying Ibsen as an advocate of Human Rights. Nora is not an object, yet she has felt like one her whole life. Ibsen does not absolve Nora from the duties of motherhood. Rather, he shows that, in order for Nora (or a woman like Nora) to become a truly successful mother, she must first follow her heart and learn what it is like to be an individual instead of a doll or toy:
Helmer: Before anything else, you’re a wife and mother.
Summary and Analysis: Act III
Nora: I don’t believe that any more. I believe that before anything else, I’m a human being, just as much a one as you are … or at least I’m going to turn myself into one.… I want to think everything out for myself and make my own decisions.
Nora must be true to herself in order to participate in society in a meaningful manner. Her relationship with her children has been marred by her relationships with her father and husband; she treats her children as dolls, and they are apt to grow up in the same manner, with the same inability to be true to themselves. By the end of the play, Nora realizes that she cannot properly fulfill her duties as a mother until she learns how to become a person first. In this sense, her abandonment of her children is an act of mercy. Marriage
Act III is among the most powerful in modern drama, and because of this, critics are apt to concentrate on the final confrontation rather than the play as an organic whole. This can lead to a misinterpretation. One could wrongly conclude that Ibsen is condemning marriage. While he is certainly condemning the type of marriage that reduces one of the participants to an object, the relationship between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad presents an interesting contrast. Although marriage is not outwardly mentioned, their partnership is sure to be more equitable than the Helmers’. Additionally, Mrs. Linde, who from the beginning of the play already possessed the knowledge and self-respect that Nora seeks at the end of Act III, is not shirking the duties of motherhood. Rather, she volunteers to help raise Krogstad’s children and act as a mother. Moreover, there is every indication that she, like Nora one day, will instill these children with values and an education to help them avoid treating others like dolls.
A Doll’s House: Quizzes
Questions and Answers: Act I
1. Does Torvald think that Nora is responsible with money?
2. What has made Mrs. Linde’s life difficult since she last saw Nora? 3. Why did the Helmers travel to Italy for a year?
4. Why does Krogstad have the ability to blackmail Nora?
5. Is Torvald likely to listen to his wife and keep Krogstad employed at the bank? Answers:
1. Torvald thinks that Nora is a spendthrift who does not know the value of money. According to him, she is always frittering money away on nonessentials.
2. Mrs. Linde married an older man out of necessity in order to support her mother and her two brothers. The marriage was not based on love, and there were no children. Mrs. Linde’s now deceased husband did not leave any arrangements to ensure that Mrs. Linde would be financially secure after his death. The widow struggles to make ends meet.
3. Torvald’s health suffered greatly due to overwork during the first year of their marriage. Doctors advised an extended trip to the south in order to help Torvald recuperate.
A Doll’s House: Quizzes
4. Nora borrowed the money for the trip to Italy from Krogstad. In order to do this, she forged her father’s name as guarantor. Krogstad has power over Nora for two reasons. First, she borrowed money without her husband’s permission. Second, she forged her father’s name, which is illegal. 5. Torvald considers Krogstad reprehensible, a forger—and worse, a moral failure who never directly admits his misdeeds. He plans on dismissing Krogstad and is not likely to listen to Nora’s pleas on his behalf.
Questions and Answers: Act II
1. What is the sickness from which Dr. Rank suffers?
2. Could Dr. Rank have helped Nora with the initial loan?
3. Why is Nora going to dance the tarantella in an outfit of a Neapolitan fisher girl at the ball the next evening?
4. Dr. Rank is dying. Why won’t he inform his friend Torvald of this fact directly? 5. Why might Mrs. Linde have some influence over Krogstad?
1. Dr. Rank suffers from hereditary syphilis. This sexually transmitted disease can be passed form parent to child. In Ibsen’s era, it was incurable and would eventually result in death. Nora and Dr. Rank never mention syphilis directly; however, it is clear from the way they talk about Dr. Rank’s father that the hereditary condition is a result of the father consorting with various mistresses while in the army. 2. Dr. Rank could not have helped Nora with the initial loan because he did not have the money to give. Nevertheless, Nora recognizes that she has a certain power over Dr. Rank and that he would have done anything in his power to help.
3. Nora will dance the tarantella because her husband wants her to. 4. According to Dr. Rank, Torvald does not want to be confronted with ugly realities. This is a very important trait of Torvald’s. He seems to remain willfully oblivious to certain realities; although he accuses his wife of having no mind for finances, it is he who never manages to uncover exactly why they had sufficient funds for a trip to Italy. Dr. Rank realizes that Torvald does not confront ugly realities willingly and wants to spare his friend.
5. Krogstad and Mrs. Linde are old acquaintances. Based on their prior relationship, Mrs. Linde believes that she can influence Krogstad. In Act III, we will learn that Krogstad once courted Kristine. She ended the affair for practical reasons, and they both ended up in unhappy marriages.
Questions and Answers: Act III
1. Why does Mrs. Linde tell Krogstad not to ask for his letter back? 2. After returning from the party, Torvald wants to be alone with his wife for a romantic night. What, initially, spoils the mood?
Questions and Answers: Act I
3. How does Torvald respond to Krogstad’s first letter?
4. What is the relevance of the titl A Doll's House?
5. How does Nora respond to Torvald’s actions after he reads Krogstad’s letter? Answers
1. Mrs. Linde has noticed deceit and dishonesty in Nora’s marriage. She thinks the truth needs to be revealed so the couple can better understand one another.
2. The mood is spoiled by cards that Dr. Rank has put in the letterbox, bidding the Helmers farewell. These cards reveal that he is going to die.
3. Torvald responds by calling his wife nasty names and accusing her of ruining his reputation. His behavior is very selfish; he thinks only of himself. At no time does he offer to sacrifice his reputation for his wife or make any effort to console her for her mistake.
4. Nora’s father used to call her his “doll-child.” To her father, she was some sort of toy or doll that he could play with, a pretty possession. Nora feels that her marriage is a similar kind of relationship. Torvald’s home is a doll house to her.
5. Nora finally takes a firm stand. Appalled by her husband’s behavior, she confronts him and leaves. She no longer wants to have anything to do with him and claims that she is leaving forever. Although the door slams, her final lines before departing indicate that a “miracle” (or “wonder,” depending on the translation) could bring her back; the marriage would have to change and become a real marriage or equal partnership.
A Doll’s House: Themes
Nora Helmer, the "doll" wife, realizes after eight years of marriage that she has never been a partner in her marriage. At the play's conclusion, she leaves her husband in order to establish an identity for herself that is separate from her identity as a wife and mother.
Appearances and Reality
On the surface, Nora Helmer appears to be the ideal wife her husband desires. Torvald sees a woman who is under his control; he defines her every behavior and establishes rules that govern everything from what she eats to what she buys. The reality is that Nora has been maintaining a secret life for seven years and that Torvald and Nora maintain a marriage that is a fiction of suitability and trust. Torvald has a public persona to maintain, and he views his marriage as an element of that public need. When the fiction is stripped away at the play's conclusion, both partners must confront the reality of their marriage. Betrayal
Betrayal becomes a theme of this play in several ways. Nora has betrayed her husband's trust in several instances. She has lied about borrowing money, and to repay the money, she must lie about how she spends her household accounts and about taking odd jobs to earn extra money. But she also chooses to lie about eating sweets her husband has forbidden her. However, Nora trusts in Torvald to be loyal to her, and in the end, he betrays that trust when he rejects her pleas for understanding. Torvald's betrayal of her love is the impetus that Nora requires to finally awaken to her own needs. Deception
Deception is an important theme in A Doll's House because it motivates Nora's behavior and through her the Questions and Answers: Act III
behavior of every other character in the play. Because Nora lied when she borrowed money from Krogstad, she must continue lying to repay the money. But, Nora thinks she must also lie to protect Torvald. Her deception makes her vulnerable to Krogstad's blackmail and casts him in the role of villain. And although Nora does not lie to Mrs. Linde, it is Mrs. Linde who forces Nora to confront her deceptions. Dr. Rank has been deceiving both Nora and Torvald for years about the depth of his feelings for Nora. Only when she attempts to seek his help does Nora finally see beneath the surface to the doctor's real feelings. Torvald, who has been deceived throughout most of the play, is finally revealed in the final act to have been the one most guilty of deception, since he has deceived Nora into believing that he loved and cherished her, while all the while he had regarded her as little more than his property.
Growth and Development
In Act I, Nora is little more than a child playing a role; she is a "doll" occupying a doll's house, a child who has exchanged a father for a husband without changing or maturing in any way. Nevertheless, through the course of the play, she is finally forced to confront the reality of the life she is living. Nora realizes in the final act of A Doll's House that if she wants the opportunity to develop an identity as an adult, she must leave her husband's home. When Nora finally gives up her dream for a miracle and, instead, accepts the reality of her husband's failings, she finally takes her first steps toward maturity. When Nora realizes the inequity of her situation, she also recognizes her own self worth. Her decision to leave is a daring one that indicates the seriousness of Nora's desire to find and create her own identity. Honor
Honor is of overwhelming importance to Torvald; it is what motivates his behavior. Early in the play, Torvald's insistence on the importance of honor is the reason he offers for firing Krogstad, asserting that because he once displayed a lack of honor means that Krogstad is forever dishonored. When he learns of his wife's mistake, Torvald's first and foremost concern is for his honor. He cannot appreciate the torment or sacrifice that Nora has made for him because he can only focus on how society will react to his family's shame. For Torvald, honor is more important than family and far more important than love; he simply cannot conceive of anyone placing love before honor. This issue exemplifies the crucial difference between Nora and Torvald.
Identity and Search for Self
In the final act of A Doll's House, Nora is forced to acknowledge that she has no identity separate from that of her husband. This parallels the reality of nineteenth-century Europe, where a wife was regarded as property rather than partner. Torvald owns Nora just as he owns their home or any other possession. Her realization of this in the play's final act provides the motivation she needs to leave her husband. Pride
Like honor, pride is an important element in how Torvald defines himself. He is proud of Nora in the same way one is proud of an expensive or rare possession. When her failing threatens to become public knowledge, Torvald is primarily concerned with the loss of public pride. Nora's error reflects on his own sense of perfection and indicates to him an inability to control his wife. Rather than accept Nora as less than perfect, Torvald instead rejects her when she is most in need of his support. His pride in himself and in his possessions blinds him to Nora's worth. Because she has always believed in Torvald's perfection, Nora is at first also unaware of her own strengths. Only when she has made the decision to leave Torvald can Nora begin to develop pride in herself.
Sexism as a theme is reflected in the disparate lives represented in this play. Nora's problems arise because as a woman she cannot conduct business without the authority of either her father or her husband. When her father is dying, she must forge his signature to secure a loan to save her husband's life. That she is a responsible person is demonstrated when she repays the loan at great personal sacrifice. In the nineteenth A Doll’s House: Themes
century, women's lives were limited to socially prescribed behaviors, and women were considered to be little more than property; Nora embodies the issues that confronted women during this period. Torvald's injustice cannot be ignored, and Nora's sympathetic loss of innocence is too poignant to be forgotten. Thus, the controversy surrounding sexual equality becomes an important part of the play.
A Doll’s House: Style
This is a three-act play with prose dialogue, stage directions, and no interior dialogue. There are no soliloquies, and thus, the thoughts of the characters and any action offstage must be explained by the actors. The actors address one another in A Doll's House and not the audience. Acts
Acts comprise the major divisions within a drama. In Greek plays, the sections of the drama were signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans, and to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action; they are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Ibsen combined some of the acts. A Doll's House is a three-act play; the exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of both Nora's deception and of the threat Krogstad represents. The climax occurs in the second act when Krogstad again confronts Nora and leaves the letter for Torvald to read. The falling action and catastrophe are combined in Act III when Mrs. Linde and Krogstad are reconciled but Mrs. Linde decides to let the drama play itself out and Torvald reads and reacts to the letter with disastrous results. Naturalism
Naturalism was a literary movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is the application of scientific principles to literature. For instance, in nature, behavior is determined by environmental pressures or internal factors, none of which can be controlled or even clearly understood. There is a clear cause and effect association: either the indifference of nature or biological determinism influences behavior. In either case, there is no human responsibility for the actions of the individual. European Naturalism emphasized biological determinism, while American Naturalism emphasized environmental influences. Thus, Torvald's accusation that all of her father's weakest moral values are displayed in Nora is based on an understanding that she has inherited those traits from him.
Realism is a nineteenth-century literary term that identifies an author's attempt to portray characters, events, and settings in a realistic way. Simply put, realism is attention to detail, with description intended to be honest and frank at all levels. There is an emphasis on character, especially behavior. Thus, in A Doll's House, the events of the Helmers's marriage are easily recognizable as realistic to the audience. These are events, people, and a home that might be familiar to any person in the audience. The sitting room is similar to one found in any other home. Nora is similar to any other wife in nineteenth-century Norway, and the problems she encounters in her marriage are similar to those confronted by other married women. Setting
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for A Doll's House is an unnamed city in nineteenth-century Norway. The action begins just before Christmas and concludes the next evening, and all three acts take place in the same sitting room at the Helmers's residence. The Helmers have been married for eight years; Nora is a wife and mother, and her husband, Torvald, is a newly promoted lawyer and bank manager. They live in comfortable circumstances during a period that finds women suppressed by a social A Doll’s House: Style
system that equates males with success in the public sphere and females with domestic chores in the private sphere. But this is also a period of turmoil as women demand greater educational opportunities and greater equality in the business world. Accordingly, A Doll's House illuminates many of the conflicts and questions being debated in nineteenth-century Europe.
A Doll’s House: Historical Context
In 1888, married women in Norway were finally given control over their own money, but the Norway of Ibsen's play predates this change and provides a more restrictive environment for women such as Nora Helmer. In 1879, a wife was not legally permitted to borrow money without her husband's consent, so Nora must resort to deception to borrow the money she so desperately needs. Ibsen always denied that he believed in women's rights, stating instead that he believed in human rights. The issue of women's rights was already a force in Norway several years before Ibsen focused on the issue, and women had been the force behind several changes. Norway was a newly liberated country in the nineteenth century, having been freed from Danish control in 1814; therefore, it is understandable that issues involving freedom—both political and personal freedom—were important in the minds of Norwegians. Poverty had already forced women into the workplace early in the nineteenth century, and the Norwegian government had passed laws protecting and governing women's employment nearly five decades before Ibsen's play. By the middle of the century, women were granted the same legal protection as that provided to male children. Women were permitted inheritance rights and were to be successful in petitioning for the right to a university education only three years after the first performance of A Doll's House. But many of the protections provided to women were aimed at the lower economic classes. Employment opportunities for women were limited to low-paying domestic jobs, teaching, or clerical work. Middle-class women, such as Nora, noticed few of these new advantages. It was the institution of marriage itself that restricted the freedom of middle-class women. Although divorce was available and inexpensive, it was still socially stigmatized and available only if both partners agreed. The play's ending makes clear that Torvald would object to divorce, so Nora's alienation from society would be even greater. There was no organized feminist movement operating in Norway in 1879. Thus Nora's exodus at the play's conclusion is a particularly brave and dangerous act. There was no army of feminist revolutionaries to protect and guide her; she was completely alone in trying to establish a new life for herself.
Christmas was an important family holiday in Norway and was viewed as a time of family unity and celebration. Thus it is ironic that the play opens on Christmas Eve and that the Helmer family unity disintegrates on Christmas Day. Christmas Day and the days following were traditionally reserved for socializing and visiting with neighbors and friends. Costume parties, such as the one Nora and Torvald attend, were common, and the dance Nora performs, the tarantella, is a dance for couples or for a line of partners. That Nora dances it alone signifies her isolation both within her marriage and in the community. Sources
Nora's forgery is similar to one that occurred earlier in Norway and one with which Ibsen was personally connected. A woman with whom Ibsen was friendly, Laura Kieler, borrowed money to finance a tap that would repair her husband's health. When the loan came due, Kieler was unable to repay it. She tried to raise money by selling a manuscript she had written, and Ibsen, feeling the manuscript was inferior, declined to help her get it published. In desperation, Kieler forged a check, was caught, and was rejected by her husband, who then sought to gain custody of their children and have his wife committed to an asylum. After her release, Kieler pleaded with her husband to take her back, which he did rather unwillingly. Ibsen provides Nora with A Doll’s House: Historical Context
greater resilience and ingenuity than that evidenced by Kieler. Nora is able to earn the money to repay the loan, and her forgery is of her father's signature on a promissory note and not of a check. Lastly, Nora is saved by Krogstad's withdrawal of legal threats so is not cast out by her husband. Instead, she becomes stronger, and her husband is placed in the position of the marital partner who must plead for a second chance. Ibsen provides a careful reversal of the original story that strengthens the character of the "doll" wife.
A Doll’s House: Critical Overview
In Norway, A Doll's House was published two weeks before its first performance. The initial 8,000 copies of the play sold out immediately, so the audience for the play was both informed, excited, and eagerly anticipating the play's first production. The play elicited much debate, most of it centered on Nora's decision to leave her marriage at the play's conclusion. Reaction in Germany was similar to that in Norway. Ibsen was forced to provide an alternative ending by the management of its first German production, since even the actress playing Nora refused to portray a mother leaving her children in such a manner. Ibsen called the new ending, which had Nora abandoning her plans to leave upon seeing her children one last time, "a barbaric outrage to be used only in emergencies." The debate was focused not on women's rights or other feminist issues such as subordination or male dominance; instead, people were consumed with the question, "What kind of a wife and mother would walk out on her family as Nora does?" The play's reception elsewhere in Europe mirrored that of Norway and Germany with the debate still focused largely on social issues and not on the play's challenge to dramatic style.
Another issue for early reviewers was Nora's transformation. Many critics simply did not accept the idea that the seemingly submissive, flighty woman of the first two acts could display so much resolve and strength in the third act. According to Enrol Durbach in A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation, one review of the period stated that Ibsen had disgusted his audience by "violating the unconventional." Many reviewers just could not visualize any woman displaying the kind of behavior demonstrated by Nora. It was beyond their comprehension that a woman would voluntarily choose to sacrifice her children in order to seek her own identity. Durbach argued that the audience and the critics were accustomed to social problem plays but that Ibsen's play presented a problem without the benefit of a ready or acceptable solution. In fact, the critics identified with Torvald and saw his choice of so unstable a wife as Nora as his only real flaw. In 1879 Europe, A Doll's House was a problem play, but not the one Ibsen envisioned. Instead, the problem resided with the critics who were so consumed with the issue of Nora's decision that they ignored the deeper complexities of the play. Early in the first act, it becomes clear that Nora has a strength and determination that even she cannot acknowledge. When her eyes are opened, it is not so much a metamorphosis as it is an awakening. In England, the play was embraced by Marxists who envisioned an egalitarian mating without the hierarchy of marriage and an end to serfdom when wives ceased to be property. But many other Englishmen were more interested in the aesthetics of the play than in its social content. Bernard Shaw embraced Ibsen's dramatic poetry and championed the playwright's work. Since the first performance of A Doll's House in England occurred ten years after its debut in Norway, the English were provided with more time to absorb the ideas presented in the play. Thus the reviews of the period lacked the vehemence of those in Norway and Germany. Rather, according to Durbach, Ibsen was transformed into a liberal championed by English critics more interested in his dramatic poetry than the nature of his argument. In her 1919 book, Ibsen in England, Miriam Alice Franc declared that Ibsen "swept from the stage the false sentimentality and moral shams that had reigned there. He emancipated the theatre from the thraldom of convention." Initial responses in America were even less enthusiastic than in Europe. Many critics dismissed Ibsen as gloomy and pessimistic and as representing the "old world." But by 1905, a production starring Ethel Barrymore was embraced by early feminists. Durbach noted that Barrymore's performance occurred within the context of the American woman's efforts at emancipation, and Ibsen became an "Interpreter of American A Doll’s House: Critical Overview
Life." In his introduction to The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, which was published between 1906 and 1912, William Archer remarked: "It is with A Doll's House that Ibsen enters upon his kingdom as a world-poet." Archer added that this play was the work that would carry Ibsen's name beyond Norway. In a 1986 performance review, New York Times contributor Walter Goodman declared that A Doll's House is "a great document of feminism, and Nora is an icon of women's liberation."
A Doll’s House: Character Analysis
Nora is the "doll" wife of Torvald. She is sensitive, sensible, and completely unaware of her own worth until the last act of the play. She initially appears flighty and excitable. Nora is most concerned with charming her husband and being the perfect wife; she is also secretive and hides her thoughts and actions from her husband even when there is no real benefit in doing so. Rather, deception appears to be almost a habit for Nora. Her husband constantly refers to her with pet names, such as "singing lark," "little squirrel," and "little spendthrift." He pats her on the head much as one would a favorite puppy. She forges her father's signature on a loan, lies to her husband about the source of the money, lies about how she spends the household accounts, and lies about odd jobs she takes to earn extra money. She is viewed as an object, a toy, a child, but never an equal. Her problem is that she is totally dependent upon her husband for all her needs; or she deceives herself into thinking so until the end of the play.
Torvald is a smug lawyer and bank manager who represents a social structure that has decreed an inferior position for women. He is a symbol of society: male dominated, authoritative, and autocratic. He establishes rules for his wife, Nora. Some of the rules, such as no eating of macaroons, are petty and demeaning. He refers to his wife in the diminutive. She is always little, a plaything, a doll that must be occasionally indulged. He treats Nora just as her father did. Torvald has established a system of reward for Nora that responds to her subservient and childlike behaviors. If she flirts and wheedles and begs, he rewards her with whatever she asks. Torvald is critical of Nora when she practices her dance because he wants to keep her passion under control and he is concerned with propriety. He is completely unaware that Nora is capable of making serious decisions and is baffled at the play's conclusion when she announces that she is leaving him. He has failed to consider that she might have any serious needs or that her desires may contradict his own. Torvald is not a Neanderthal or a villain, but he often presents a challenge to students who can find little that is positive in his characterization.
Krogstad is desperate, so initially, he appears to be a villain; in fact, he has been trying to remake his life after having made earlier mistakes. He has also been disappointed in love and is bitter. His threats to Nora reflect his anger at being denied the opportunity to start over and his concerns about supporting his dependent children. Accordingly, he is not the unfeeling blackmailer he is presented as in the first act. Once he is reunited with his lost love, Mrs. Linde, he recants and attempts to rectify his earlier actions. Kristine Linde
Mrs. Linde is a childhood friend of Nora's. She functions as the primary means by which the audience learns of Nora's secret. Mrs. Linde is a widow and quite desperate for work. At one time, she was in love with Krogstad but chose to marry for money so that she could provide support for her mother and younger brothers. At the end of the play, she and Krogstad are reconciled, but it is Mrs. Linde who decides that Nora and Torvald must face their problems. Thus, she stops Krogstad from retrieving his letter and moves the play toward its conclusion.
A Doll’s House: Character Analysis
Dr. Rank is a family friend of the Helmers, who is secretly in love with Nora. Dr. Rank has been affected by his father's corruption; he suffers from syphilis inherited from his father, and he is dying. When Nora finally realizes that Rank loves her, she decides that she cannot ask him for help. Rank's treatment of Nora contrasts sharply with Torvald's. Rank always treats Nora like an adult. He listens to her and affords her a dignity missing in Torvald's treatment. He tells Nora that when he is near death, he will send her a card. It arrives in the same mail as Krogstad's letter and receives little attention in the ensuing melee.
A Doll’s House: Essays and Criticism
Ibsen's Use of Drama as a Forum for Social Issues
Henrik Ibsen elevated theatre from mere entertainment to a forum for exposing social problems. Prior to Ibsen, contemporary theatre consisted of historical romance or contrived behavior plays. But with A Doll's House, Ibsen turned drama into a respectable genre for the examination of social issues: in exposing the flaws in the Helmer marriage, he made the private public and provided an advocacy for women. In Act III, when Nora slams the door as she leaves, she is opening a door into the hidden world of the ideal Victorian marriage. In allowing Nora the right to satisfy her need for an identity separate from that of wife and mother, Ibsen is perceived as endorsing the growing "women question." And although the play ends without offering any solutions, Ibsen has offered possibilities. To his contemporaries, it was a frightening prospect. Bjorn Hemmer, in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, declared that Ibsen used A Doll's House and his other realistic dramas to focus a "searchlight'' on Victorian society with its "false morality and its manipulation of public opinion." Indeed, Torvald exemplifies this kind of community. Of this society, Hemmer noted: "The people who live in such a society know the weight of 'public opinion' and of all those agencies which keep watch over society's 'law and order': the norms, the conventions and the traditions which in essence belong to the past but which continue into the present and there thwart individual liberty in a variety of ways." It is the weight of public opinion that Torvald cannot defy. And it is the weight of public opinion that condemns the Helmer's marriage. Because Torvald views his public persona as more important that his private, he is unable to understand or appreciate the suffering of his wife. His reaction to the threat of public exposure is centered on himself. It is his social stature, his professional image, and not his private life which concern him most. For Nora to emerge as an individual she must reject the life that society mandates. To do so, she must assume control over her life; yet in the nineteenth century, women had no power. Power resides with the establishment, and as a banker and lawyer, Torvald clearly represents the establishment. Deception, which lies at the heart of A Doll's House, also provides the cornerstone of Victorian life, according to Hemmer. Hemmer maintained that it is the contrasts between reality and fiction that motivated Ibsen to tackle such social problems as marriage. Victorian society, Hemmer stated, offered a "clear dichotomy between ideology and practice." The facade of individuality was buried in the Victorian ideal of economics. In the hundred years since the French Revolution economic power had replaced the quest for individual liberty, and a married woman had the least amount of economic power. When Nora rejects her marriage, she is also rejecting bourgeois middle-class values. In this embracing of uncertainty rather than the economic guarantee of her husband's protection, Nora represents the individual, who, Hemmer asserted, Ibsen wanted to make "the sustaining element in society and [who would] dethrone the bourgeois family as the central institution of society." Nora's rebellion at the play's conclusion is a necessary element of that revolution; it is little wonder that Ibsen was so disgusted at the second conclusion he was forced to write. In making Nora subordinate her desires as an individual to the greater need of motherhood, Ibsen is denying his reason for creating the conflict and for writing the play.
A Doll’s House: Essays and Criticism
The question of women's rights and feminist equality is an important aspect of understanding A Doll's House. Ibsen himself stated that for him the issue was more complex than just women's rights and that he hoped to illuminate the problem of human rights. Yet women have continued to champion both Ibsen and his heroine, Nora. Social reform was closely linked to feminism. In her discussion of the role Ibsen played in nineteenth-century thought, which appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Gail Finney explained: "The most prominent socialist thinkers of the day, male and female, saw that true sexual equality necessitates fundamental changes in the structure of society." Thus, in embracing women's equality in A Doll's House, Ibsen is really arguing for social justice. Ibsen supported economic reform that would protect women's property and befriended a number of notable Scandinavian feminists. Finney argued that Ibsen's feminist wife, Suzannah, provided the model for Nora as a strong-willed heroine. Finney devoted part of her essay to the feminist reception of early stage productions of A Doll's House, which Finney maintained, "opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women's movement." Nineteenth-century feminists praised Ibsen's work and "saw it as a warning of what would happen when women in general woke up to the injustices that had been committed against them," according to Finney. Finney indicated that in Ibsen's own notes for this play the playwright asserted that "a mother in modern society is 'like certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the propagation of the race.'" That the prevailing view is that women have little worth when their usefulness as mothers has ended is clear in Torvald's repudiation of Nora when he discovers her deception; she can be of no use to her children if her reputation is stained. That he wants her to remain under his roof—though separate from the family— defines his own need to protect his reputation within the community. Her use, though, as a mother is at an end. Until, that is, Torvald discovers that the threat has been removed. If Nora wants to define her worth, she can only do so by turning away from her children and husband.
Finney refutes early critical arguments that Nora's transformation in Act III is unbelievable or too sudden. Nora's childlike response to Torvald in which she states "I would never dream of doing anything you didn't want me to" and "I never get anywhere without your help'' contrast sharply with the reality of her situation, which is that she has forged a signature and saved her husband's life and has also shown herself capable of earning the money necessary to repay the loan. Thus Nora's submissiveness is as much a part of the deception as other elements of Nora's personality. Finney also argued that Nora's repeated exclamations of how happy she is in Act I and her out-of-control practice of the tarantella are indicative of a woman bordering on hysteria. This hysteria further demonstrates that Nora is a more complicated woman than the child-like doll introduced at the beginning of Act I. Finney noted that Ibsen stated late in his life that "it is the women who are to solve the social problem. As mothers they are to do it. And only as such can they do it." Finney posited that rather than arguing that women are suited only for motherhood, Ibsen really saw motherhood as a vocation that women perform best when it is offered as a choice. When Nora states that she must leave to find her identity because she is of no use to her children as she is, she is giving voice to Ibsen's premise: Nora must have the right to choose motherhood and she cannot do that until she has the freedom to choose. Errol Durbach was also concerned with Nora's role of mother. In a discussion in his A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation that focuses on the critical reception that greeted Nora's decision to leave her children, Durbach offered the review of Clement Scott, an Ibsen contemporary. Scott held that Nora "committed an unnatural offense unworthy of even the lower animals: 'A cat or dog would tear anyone who separated it from its offspring, but the socialistic Nora, the apostle of the new creed of humanity, leaves her children without a pang.'" But Durbach maintained that for Nora to subordinate her own needs to the function of motherhood would be a greater offense, and cited Ibsen's own words to support his claim: "These women of the modern age, mistreated as daughters, as sisters, as wives, not educated in accordance with their talents, debarred from following their mission, deprived of their inheritance, embittered in mind—these are the ones who supply the mothers for the new generation. What will be the result?'' Nora's decision, then, can be described not as an offense, but as a display of strength. Rather than take the easy path, she recognizes that to be a good mother requires more than her presence in the home; she cannot be a model for her children, Ibsen's Use of Drama as a Forum for Social Issues
especially her daughter, if she cannot claim an identity as an individual. Clearly this principle exemplifies Ibsen's stated position that if women are to be mothers of a new generation, they must first achieve a measure of equality as human beings.
Of Ibsen's approach to marriage, Durbach asserted it would be a mistake to read A Doll's House and extrapolate from the play that Ibsen was striking a "militant blow against the institution of marriage." For although Nora slams the door on marriage, Kristine opens the same door. In the same way that a mirror reverses a reflection, Kristine reflects the opposite of Nora. Kristine has already suffered in marriage and has been provided with a second opportunity with the death of her husband. She has the freedom that Nora now seeks. Where Nora has known security and happiness, Kristine has known deprivation and a loveless marriage. As Durbach illustrated, Kristine is clearly a non-doll to Nora's doll. Durbach argued that if feminists want to embrace Ibsen's Nora as a symbol for women's equality, they must also address the problem of Kristine; her choice is the opposite of Nora's and coming to terms with that choice only reveals the complexities of Ibsen's play. As nineteenth-century critics noted, Ibsen presents no solutions, only questions. Source: Sheri Metzger, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Metzger is an adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle University.
The Doll's House is one of the strongest plays that Ibsen has produced. In the way of character-painting, and artful and artistic handling of the situations, he has done nothing better. It is a pity that we could not have had The Enemy of Society, with its strong autobiographic suggestiveness, first; but there is no more characteristic play upon the list, nor one more indicative of the author's mind and power—if only it be read with fairness and appreciation—than the one selected. The heroine of The Doll's House is its light-hearted pretty little mistress, Nora Helmer. She has been eight years the wife of Torvald Helmer, and is the mother of three bright vigorous children. She is her husband's doll. Torvald Helmer calls her his little lark, his squirrel, provides for her every fancy, hugely enjoys her charms of person, forgets that she has a soul—and is sure he loves her most devotedly. Nora has always been a child; her father, a man of easy conscience, has brought her up entirely unsophisticated. She knows nothing of the serious side of life—of its privileges, its real opportunities—nothing of the duties of the individual in a world of action. Nora is passive, she submits to be fondled and kissed. She is happy in her "doll-house," and apparently knows nothing outside her home, her husband, and her children. Nora loves her family with an ideal love. Love, in her thought, is an affection which has a right to demand sacrifices; and in turn is willing to offer up its own treasures, whether life, honor, or even its soul, be the stake. She is not merely ready for such a sacrifice—poor sentimental Nora!— she has already, though in part ignorantly, made it, and has committed a crime to save her husband's life. There is much machinery to carry on the plot; but in spite of the abstract nature of the theme, the episodes are so dramatic and the dialogue so brisk and natural that the drama moves without perceptible jar, and our interest intensifies and the suspense increases until the denouement occurs. Herein lies the secret of the success of this and all the other of Ibsen's kindred dramas. Along with the poet's insight and the cold clear logic of the philosopher, he possesses in an eminent degree the secret of the playwright's art, and knows well how to clothe his abstract dialogue on themes philosophical or psychological, so that the observer follows every incident and every word with an interest that grows more and more intense. It is impossible to tell all of Nora's story here. Miss [Henrietta Frances] Lord's translation will do that best, if only curiosity may be aroused concerning it. Suffice it to say that the catastrophe falls in a situation characteristically dramatic. The curtain descends just as Nora, the wife and mother, turns her back upon husband and children, and passes, by her own free choice, nay, in accord with her relentless insistence, out from her doll-home into the night, and—whither? This is the question that all the hosts of Ibsen's censors are Henrik Ibsen
repeating. Whither? And did she do right to leave her children and her husband? And what a revolutionary old firebrand Ibsen must be to teach such a moral, and proclaim the doctrine that all those unfortunate mismated women who find themselves bound to unsympathetic lords may, and should, turn their back on the home and abandon their offspring to the mercies of strangers! But alack, this isn't the moral of Nora Helmer's story. It was the doll-marriage and the relation between Torvald Helmer and his doll-wife that was at fault. Nora's abandonment was an accidental, though a necessary, episode. It is the denouement of the play, to be sure; but the end is not yet. There is an epilogue as well as a prologue to the drama, though both are left to the reader's imagination to perfect. "A hope inspires" Helmer as he hears the door close after Nora's departure; and he whisperingly repeats her words—"the greatest of all miracles!" This particular phase of wedded life—and perhaps it is becoming not so very infrequent a phase even on this side the water—is a problem which confronts us in society. Is this your idea of marriage? demands Ibsen. Is it a marriage at all? No; he declares bluntly. It is a cohabitation; it is a partnership in sensuality in which one of the parties is an innocent, it may be an unconscious, victim. Nora goes forth, but we feel she will one day return; her children will bring her back. Neither she nor Torvald could have learned the bitter lesson had Nora remained at home. It is the wife at last who makes the sacrifice. How strange it is that so many of the critics fail to see that Nora's act is not selfishness after all! There is promise of a splendid womanliness in that "emancipated individuality" that Ibsen's enemies are ridiculing. There will be an ideal home after the mutual chastening is accomplished: an ideal home—not ideal people necessarily, but a home, a family, where there is complete community, a perfect love. Source: W. E. Simonds, "Henrik Ibsen," in the Dial, Vol. X, No. 119, March, 1890, pp. 301-03.
Ibsen's Social Dramas
No work of Ibsen's, not even his beautiful Puritan opera of Brand, has excited so much controversy as A Doll's House. This was, no doubt, to a very great extent caused by its novel presentment of the mission of woman in modern society. In the dramas and romances of modern Scandinavia, and especially in those of Ibsen and Bjornson, the function of woman had been clearly defined. She was to be the helper, the comforter, the inspirer, the guerdon of man in his struggle towards loftier forms of existence. When man fell on the upward path, woman's hand was to be stretched to raise him; when man went wandering away on ill and savage courses, woman was to wait patiently over her spinning-wheel, ready to welcome and to pardon the returning prodigal; when the eyes of man grew weary in watching for the morning-star, its rays were to flash through the crystal tears of woman. But in A Doll's House he confronted his audience with a new conception. Woman was no longer to be the shadow following man, or if you will, a skin-leka attending man, but an independent entity, with purposes and moral functions of her own. Ibsen's favourite theory of the domination of the individual had hitherto been confined to one sex; here he carries it over boldly to the other. The heroine of A Doll's House, the puppet in that establishment pour rire ["not to be taken seriously"], is Nora Helmer, the wife of a Christiania barrister. The character is drawn upon childish lines, which often may remind the English reader of Dora in David Copperfield. She has, however, passed beyond the Dora stage when the play opens. She is the mother of children, she has been a wife for half a dozen years. But the spoiling of injudicious parents has been succeeded by the spoiling of a weak and silly husband. Nora remains childish, irrational, concentrated on tiny cares and empty interests, without self-control or self-respect. Her doctor and her husband have told her not to give way to her passion for "candy'' in any of its seductive forms; but she is introduced to us greedily eating macaroons on the sly, and denying that she has touched one when suspicion is aroused.
Here, then in Nora Helmer, the poet starts with the figure of a woman in whom the results of the dominant will of man, stultifying the powers and gifts of womanhood, are seen in their extreme development. Environed Ibsen's Social Dramas
by selfish kindness, petted and spoiled for thirty years of dwarfed existence, this pretty, playful, amiable, and apparently happy little wife is really a tragical victim of masculine egotism. A nature exorbitantly desirous of leaning on a stronger will has been seized, condemned, absorbed by the natures of her father and her husband. She lives in them and by them, without moral instincts of her own, or any law but their pleasure. The result of this weakness—this, as Ibsen conceives, criminal subordination of the individuality—is that when Nora is suddenly placed in a responsible position, when circumstances demand from her a moral judgment, she has none to give; the safety, even the comfort, of the man she loves precede all other considerations, and with a light heart she forges a document to shield her father or to preserve her husband's name. She sacrifices honour for love, her conscience being still in too rudimentary a state to understand that there can be any honour that is distinguishable from love. Thus Dora would have acted, if we can conceive Dora as ever thrown into circumstances which would permit her to use the pens she was so patient in holding. But Nora Helmer has capacities of undeveloped character which make her far more interesting than the, to say the truth, slightly fabulous Dora. Her insipidity, her dollishness, come from the incessant repression of her family life. She is buried, as it were, in cotton-wool, swung into artificial sleep by the egotistical fondling of the men on whom she depends for emotional existence. But when once she tears the wrappings away, and leaps from the pillowed hammock of her indolence, she rapidly develops an energy of her own, and the genius of the dramatist is displayed in the rare skill with which he makes us witness the various stages of this awaking. At last, in an extraordinary scene, she declares that she can no longer live in her doll's house; husband and wife sit down at opposite ends of a table, and argue out the situation in a dialogue which covers sixteen pages, and Nora dashes out into the city, into the night; while the curtain falls as the front door bangs behind her. The world is always ready to discuss the problem of marriage, and this very fresh and odd version of L'ecole des Femmes [The School for Wives] excited the greatest possible interest throughout the north of Europe. The close of the play, in particular, was a riddle hard to be deciphered. Nora, it was said, might feel that the only way to develop her own individuality was to leave her husband, but why should she leave her children? The poet evidently held the relation he had described to be such an immoral one, in the deepest and broadest sense, that the only way out of the difficulty was to cut the Gordian knot, children or no children. In almost Nora's very last reply, moreover, there is a glimmer of relenting. The most wonderful of things may happen, she confesses; the reunion of a developed wife to a reformed husband is not, she hints, beyond the range of what is possible. We are left with the conviction that it rests with him, with Helmer, to allow himself to be led through the fires of affliction to the feet of a Nora who shall no longer be a doll. (pp. 113-15) Source: Edmund Gosse, "Ibsen's Social Dramas," in the Fortnightly Review, Vol. XLV, No. CCLXV, January 1, 1989, pp. 107-21. Gosse was a prominent English man of letters during the late nineteenth century. A prolific literary historian, biographer, and critic, he is best known for his work Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907), an account of his childhood that is considered among the most distinguished examples of Victorian spiritual autobiography. Gosse was also a major translator and critic of Scandinavian literature, and his importance as a critic is due primarily to his introduction of Ibsen to an English-speaking audience.
A Doll’s House: Compare and Contrast
• 1879: Congress gives women the right to practice law before the United States Supreme Court. Today: Women attorneys are as common as men in all areas of the law. Acceptance for women in the upper echelons of corporate law proved to be a bigger hurdle than practicing before the Supreme Court. Despite all of the advances made in the area of gender equality, women still earn less than seventy cents for every dollar earned by men.
• 1879: Edison announces the success of his incandescent light bulb, certain that it will burn for 100 hours. Arc-lights are installed as streetlights in San Francisco and Cleveland. A Doll’s House: Compare and Contrast
Today: Electric lights illuminate theatres, businesses, and homes in all areas of the industrialized world and have become a part of the human environment that is so accepted as to go largely unnoticed and often unappreciated.
• 1879: In Berlin, electricity drives a railroad locomotive for the first time. George Seldon files for a patent for a road vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. Today: Transportation based on the earlier combustion engine has been greatly refined and is easy, accessible, and fast. But it is only now that electricity is being researched seriously as a power source for more ecologically prudent transportation.
• 1879: A woman's college, Radcliffe, is founded by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Today: The opportunity for an education has ceased to be a novelty for women in the United States and most of Europe. Yet even in the late 1990s, legal battles are waged over a woman's right to enter a male-only federally subsidized school, the Citadel.
• 1879: The multiple switchboard invented by Leroy B. Firman is invented; it will help make the telephone a commercial success and dramatically increase the number of telephone subscribers. Today: Telephone lines are no longer used only for transmitting conversations, as communications have expanded to include computers and multimedia technology. The video phone and computers that permit visual connection in addition to vocal are now a reality and will likely become common and more affordable for much of the industrialized world.
A Doll’s House: Topics for Further Study
• Feminists are often bothered by the reconciliation between Kristine and Krogstad. Just as Nora is breaking free of the confines of her marriage, Kristine is embracing marriage. Do you agree with some feminists critics that Kristine's decision to reunite with Krogstad negates Nora's flight to personal freedom? Investigate the role of women in late nineteenth-century marriage and compare the two different ways that Nora and Kristine seek to define their identity within the social convention of marital life.
• In a second ending that Ibsen was forced to write, Nora looks at her sleeping children and realizes that she cannot leave them. Instead of seeking her freedom and discovering her identity, she decides to remain in the marriage. Compare the two endings offered for this play. Given the social and cultural context in which the play is set, which ending do you think best reflects the realities of nineteenth-century European life?
• The Helmer's marriage can best be described as a marriage of deception. Torvald has no idea who Nora really is and is in love with the wife he thinks he possesses. Nora is also in love with a vision rather than reality. During the course of the play, these deceptions are stripped away, and each sees the other as if for the first time. The audience also sees the reality of Victorian life. The ideal family and house, the decorated tree and the festivities of the holidays also perpetuate the Victorian myth; but is it a myth? Investigate the economic and social conditions of the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens's view of this society predates Ibsen's by less than half a century, and yet Dickens' s view of the social condition is often regarded as especially bleak and pessimistic. Would you agree or is the artificiality of the Helmer household just as bleak as that outlined in any Dickens novel?
A Doll’s House: Media Adaptations
• A Doll's House was adapted for television for the first time in 1959. The adaptation starred Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer, Jason Robards, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Heckart, and Richard Thomas. A Doll’s House: Topics for Further Study
Sonny Fox Productions. Available on videotape through MGM/UA Home Video, black and white, 89 minutes.
• A Doll's House was adapted for film for the second time in 1973. This version stars Jane Fonda, Edward Fox, Trevor Howard, and David Warner. The screenplay was by David Mercer. World Film services. Available on videotape through Prism Entertainment/Starmaker Entertainment, color, 98 minutes.
• A Doll's House was adapted for film again in 1977. This film stars Claire Bloom. Paramount Pictures. • A Doll's House was adapted for film again in a 1989 Canadian production. Starring Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Anna Massey, and Edith Evans, this is considered a superior adaptation of the play. Elkins Productions Limited. Available on videotape through Hemdale Home Video, color, 96 minutes.
• A Doll's House was adapted for film most recently in 1991. This cast includes Juliet Stevenson, Trevor Eve, Geraldine James, Patrick Malahide, and David Calder. This is an excellent adaptation with some insightful commentaries by Alistair Cooke. PBS and BBC. • In A Doll's House, Part 1: The Destruction of Illusion, Norris Houghton helps the audience explore the subsurface tensions of the play. Britannica Films, 1968. • In A Doll's House, Part II: Ibsen's Themes, Norris Houghton examines the characters and the themes of the play. Britannica Films, 1968.
• A Doll's House, audio recording, 3 cassettes. With Claire Bloom and Donald Madden. Caedmon/Harper Audio.
A Doll’s House: What Do I Read Next?
• Joyce Carol Oates's short story, "The Lady With The Pet Dog," offers an interesting contrast to the way Nora chooses to deal with her marriage. This is the retelling of the Chekhov story, only from the woman's point of view. The theme of deception is also important in this story, since Anna chooses to keep secret important events in her life. Her efforts to escape her marriage and establish a new identity are different from Nora's because she internalizes the changes and so is not forced to confront her husband in the same manner that Nora must.
• In both William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, there is a huge disparity between image and reality. If a character is known by what he/she says or he/she does or by what others say about him/her, then both these plays offer interesting opportunities to compare how the differing perspectives of personality affect the outcome of each play. • Susan Glaspell's Trifles was written almost forty years after A Doll's House. In Glaspell's play, the relationship between men and women is certainly as oppressive as in Ibsen's. The differences in setting, notably the dirt and poverty of the Wrights' home, serve as an interesting contrast to the decor of the Helmers'. Still, the female inhabitants face similar struggle, and Mrs. Wright's chosen method of escape offers an interesting opposition to Nora's.
• James Joyce's short story, "The Dead," can be compared to Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both depict a woman's struggle to become emotionally independent of the husband who seeks to control her. In both cases, there are secrets and deception involved in the wife's past. Both also feature Christmas as a background for some of the play's events.
• In Ibsen's Ghosts, the author further explores the ramifications of a father's actions on his family. As in A Doll's House, this play embraces naturalism as an explanation for human behavior. In the play, the sins of the father become manifest in the son when the son discovers he has inherited his father's venereal disease and that he is in love with his illegitimate half-sister. In A Doll's House, Dr. Rank, too, inherits the venereal disease of his father.
A Doll’s House: Media Adaptations
A Doll’s House: Bibliography and Further Reading
Archer, William. Introduction to The Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen, edited and translated by Archer. Scribner, 1906-1912.
Durbach, Errol. A Doll's House: Ibsen's Myth of Transformation, Twayne Masterworks Studies. Twayne Publishers, 1991.
Finney, Gail. "Ibsen and Feminism," in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane. Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 89-105.
Franc, Miriam Alice. Ibsen in England. The Four Seas Co., 1919, pp. 131-33. Goodman, Walter. Review of A Doll's House, The New York Times, May 14, 1986. Hemmer, Bjorn. "Ibsen and the Realistic Problem Drama," in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, edited by James McFarlane. Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 68-88. Further Reading
Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of World Literature. Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 203-206. This book compresses literary works into easily understood summaries. In addition to plot summaries and character reviews, the editor also addresses historical context and critical interpretations. The Magill compilations provide a reliable, accessible means for students to review texts. Meyer, Michael, ed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, 4th Edition. St. Martin's Press, 1996, pp. 1128-1136. This anthology encapsulates several brief approaches to the study of this play. Excerpts from psychological, Marxist, and feminist readings are provided to assist students with a comparison of the different critical readings possible.
Rickert, Blandine M., ed. Major Modern Dramatists, Volume 2, pp. 1-32. This work provides an introduction to Ibsen drawn from reviews and critical interpretations of his work. Excerpts date from late in the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Compiling this information allows students of Ibsen to see how his plays have influenced succeeding generations.