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A Doll's House Critical Essay

By mrrm1892 Jul 22, 2010 3188 Words
Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ portrays the universal “the need of every human being, whether man or woman, to find out who he or she is and to strive to become that person”. The female protagonist, Nora Helmer, in Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth century play ‘A Doll’s House’ struggles with the pressures of everyday life, due to the personal relationships surrounding her and the strict gender stereotypes of the nineteenth century. Trapped by the consequences of her own naïve sacrifices to love, Nora finds herself forced to decide between her dehumanised role as Helmer’s wife or to step outside socially acceptable codes of behaviour and assert her own dignity and worth as an individual. Responders are immediately aware that the relationship between Helmer and his wife Nora imposes a barrier to Nora fulfilling this need. Throughout the play, we see Helmer degrading and belittling Nora through the chastising tone of “little featherbrain” and belittling terms of endearment such as “my little lark” and “my little squirrel”, a pattern successfully captured by Brian Johnston in 1932 when he claimed that “Nora herself actually is the creation of Torvald’s aesthetic imagination”. We become immediately aware that with the repetition of “my” and the references to animals, Ibsen portrays Nora as a possession of Helmer rather than an individual or person. We can also see by Helmer’s repetition of “little” to portray Nora that he judges her as his inferior. This is further reinforced in the opening scenes of the play, when Helmer objectifies Nora with the repetition of the word “it”. Here, we can see the social injustice where he denies her human identity, suggesting her role in his life is an object for his use. Reflecting the problematic values and customs of its nineteenth century context, Johnston further explains that “It is the very ordinariness of the pair … that makes the play’s analysis of marriage so disturbing”, because the issues here clearly reflect a view of marriage that still pursuits in our own time. Clearly Ibsen’s play offers a resistant world view in its late nineteenth century context where Nora’s perspective of who she is was affected by the societal expectations of the time where “a big salary and lots of bonuses” meant financial security which was a source of happiness, and a wife’s role was to respect and revere a man like Helmer for such material achievement. Here at the start of the text we observe Nora as someone who is indulgent and childlike, with her friend Mrs. Linde describing her fondly as an “extravagant little thing”. Yet modern responders can see beyond the nineteenth century values to quickly recognise the sad irony of Nora’s poor self-image, and quickly recognise the discrepancy of Nora’s perceived happy character.

Looking back at the patriarchal society of the time, we can see that it kept women financially dependent, a point clearly made by Ibsen when his plot is based around society’s edict that “a wife can’t borrow without her husband’s permission”. We gain an even deeper insight into the nature of marriage and the gender roles involved when Nora sees “Torvald, a man, proud to be a man”, with her daunted by the thought that Helmer will feel embarrassed and emasculated should he learn that his “little” wife has assumed financial control. This feminist perspective was captured by the director of the 1981 Munich Production who believed that “Nora is conscious from the outset of her frustration” even while she tried to conform to the role set for her. Here we can see Nora trapped within the “unbreakable pattern of roles and masks and games in which she finds herself confined”. In the beginning when Nora had “hinted that he took out a loan”, he had furiously “lost his temper” saying that she was “featherbrained” and that “his duty as a husband was not to indulge [any of her] little whims”, implying the truth of what Ellis Roberts described in 1912 as “a worthy snob”, Helmer’s derogatory view of Nora. His perspective is reinforced later in the play through his angry tone when discovering her “mistake”, and telling her it was “unbearable” while expressing his disgust at what others might see as her selfless incentive. It is clear to us that Torvald is more worried about his own public image than the marriage he shares with Nora when he is adamant that “It must be hushed up”. Ironically, instead of seeing her action for what it was, we are made fully aware that he merely seeks to keep his good public image, saying that, “we must go on as if nothing had changed between us. In public”, while at the same time coldly declaring, “I can never trust you again”. It is only on when discovering that he had been “saved”, that Torvald changes once again, hypocritically proclaiming “Oh darling, Nora … You can’t believe I’ve forgiven you … Forgiven you for everything”. Clearly influenced by the patriarchal values and customs of the time, Torvald’s feelings for Nora fluctuate depending on how her actions affect him. In order to more effectively convey these ideas about the patriarchal nature of the 19th century, Ibsen employs the character of Mrs. Linde as a foil to Nora, with P.F.D. Tennant making the point that “Ibsen makes use of confidants very frequently” and in fact it is obvious throughout the play, that “Mrs. Linde is Nora’s confidant in A Doll’s House”. Ironically, it is Mrs Linde who appears to have no direction in her “empty” life with “No one left to live for”, and with no man lending meaning in her life. In the opening scenes of the play, the blunt short sentence structure implies the dull nature of her life, and the sense of her not knowing who she is or where she needs to be. With her restricted/ character portrayed through the use of understatements, we are led to pity Kristine Linde who is seen to have absolutely nothing in her life “Not even sad memories”. Here, in the early scenes of the play we are led to see Nora and Kristine as juxtaposed characters, because here, at the start of the play, Nora seems to be happily contented as a wife and mother, with material comforts and the approval of social convention. However, we are shown another side of Nora through the eyes of her friend, because to Kristine, Nora seems excited, outspoken and idealistic, with Mrs Linde’s patronising tone in describing Nora as having “so little idea how difficult life can be”. Clearly foreshadowing the reversal of their roles, Mrs. Linde is insightful when she tells Nora that she is a “babe in arms” and hasn’t experienced anything real yet, an idea that is taken up in 1994 by Gail Finney when she described Nora as “Ibsen’s most famous rebel”. Further reinforcing the idea that gender roles and personal identity are focal to the text, we see the additional use of a foil in the character of Krogstad, a widower with “a houseful of children”. While Krogstad is clearly flawed by social standards that sees him as “morally sick” and “totally depraved”, a person who Helmer claims will “literally make me ill”, Helmer initially presents as the stereotypically perfect husband of his time in assuring Nora that he will “Guide you darling, I’ll protect you. Lean on me”. Yet ultimately, we see that “Kristine and Krogstad’s union is the Christian or Galilean one of self-sacrifice and mutual forgiveness” and therefore, according to Brian Johnston and various other critical appraises, it is Krogstad who can find a fulfilling relationship, while Helmer can’t. Ibsen shows us that Krogstad is capable of mutual love and respect, with Kristine proclaiming, “I trust you, Nils, the man you really are”. Furthermore, unlike Nora, we see that Mrs. Linde can bring out the best in her partner. By contrast, we come to understand that Helmer and Nora are the flawed ones. While Nora believes in “the miracle” of Helmer’s inevitable gift to her of loving self-sacrifice, this is sadly and ironically juxtaposed to Helmer’s belief that “no man sacrifices his honour for the one he loves”. In a dramatic twist on Helmer’s rigidly orthodox social attitudes, the ambiguity of Krogstad’s character and his dramatic metamorphous towards the end of the play is an issue that has created much controversy. Lending some clarity to Ibsen’s purpose, Ronald Gray believes that “Krogstad is a mere pawn of the plot. When convenient to Ibsen, he is a blackmailer because when inconvenient he is converted” lends some clarity to Ibsen’s purpose. However it seems likely that Krogstad serves as a foil to the relationship of Nora and Helmer because while someone as despicable as Krogstad can recognise the value of a good woman, Helmer’s greatest flaw is that he can’t. Similarly juxtaposed to the relationship between Nora and Helmer, Nora and Dr. Rank share a meaningful relationship where Nora feels comfortable, with a sense of familiarity and closeness that becomes obvious when “she puts a macaroon in his mouth”. We gain an even greater insight into Nora’s closer bond with Rank when Mrs. Linde is first introduced to both Dr. Rank and Helmer, with Dr. Rank confiding that, “We often hear your name in this house”, while Helmer seems confused at the identity of Nora’s best friend when he questions, “I’m sorry…Kristine…?” In fact, Ibsen leads us into controversy when he has Nora at one point put her “both hands on his shoulders” implying the possibility of an intimate, flirtatious relationship with Rank which would be seen as inappropriate in its conservative nineteenth century context, and reinforced when she says “Doctor, darling, please don’t die… for me, don’t die”. While Johnston believes that Ibsen employed the fate of Dr. Rank to explore the theme of death and “how sorrow inescapably is woven into life”, forty years later in 1971, Carl Ploug advanced his opinion that “Rank had been inserted in the play solely to demonstrate that Nora, despite her frivolity, is faithful to her husband”. In fact, modern responders can better understand Nora’s actions when she is so restricted in her role as a wife and mother with no right to think about herself. While a nineteenth century responder would fail to understand, we could view Nora’s behaviour as her own subversive way to express her need for a friend such as the kindly Dr. Rank, someone who believes in her and respects her as a person. While in 1939 Sandra Saari purported that “Ideal love is a shared, supremely valued concept of the human conscience for Nora and Rank”, later in the play we can see this as an oversimplification of their marriage, with their relationship becoming more problematic when Rank reveals his deep love for Nora, asking her whether Helmer is “the only one who’d give his life for you?” Here, Nora, inevitably reflecting the values of her own time, becomes shocked that he would say such a thing “that was uncalled for”, even though she had many times throughout the play been very close and flirtatious with him, especially when we see that “she flicks his ear with the stockings”. Here responders can understand Fredereck and Lise-line Marker’s 1971 viewpoint that the relationship between Rank and Nora seems to have a “strange mixture of ignorance and flashes of realization”. Sadly, while modern responders can see the more appropriate couple as Rank and Nora, we are equally aware that it would be condemned by the values and customs of the 19th century, which would deem it as inappropriate to have such a close, intimate relationship outside of marriage. Capturing an even more relevant issue here, in 1912, Ellis Robert’s psychoanalytical interpretation of this failed union, cleverly observed that “Nora was not unfit for marriage; she, the spoilt daughter of a self-indulgent old wastrel, was incapable of it” because of the social attitudes imbued within her. In stark contrast to the mutually respectful relationship of Nora and Dr. Rank, the husband and wife bond between Nora and Helmer has a parent-child dynamic. We see this established earlier in the play, when we learn that Helmer has “forbidden” her to eat her favorite food, “macaroons”. Here we see Helmer as having the right to control Nora and the ability to tell her what she should and should not do. We can follow Nora’s journey towards independence when later on in the play we see that Nora can be the more assertive wife with her choosing to decorate the Christmas tree. As early as 1913 Henry Rose believed that “the transcendent genius of Ibsen…chose a character like Nora…to illustrate…the pre-eminent right of women to the fullest development of her individuality”. Even though Nora is still a product of the strong patriarchal society of the time when we see her choice of gifts of “new suit for Ivar, and a sword; and a horse and a trumpet for Bob; and a doll and dolly's bedstead for Emmy”, responders can identify Nora’s first steps to claiming her own power in this nineteenth century patriarchal society, though she admits that she only wants to “please [them]…all”. However, Krogstad’s threats about Nora’s secret sees a change in Nora as she comes to realize that everything in her life was about to change. When we see “the Christmas tree stands stripped of its decorations and with its candles burned to stumps”, we can clearly recognize that the tree is now symbolic of a shattered Nora, “stripped” of her “decorations” and with her “burned” out “candles”, clearly supporting Michael Meyer’s 1971 comment on Ibsen’s viewpoint that “liberation can only come from within”. While we can recognize Helmer’s controlling and selfish nature throughout the text for what it is, Nora fantasises it, stubbornly choosing to believe in the "miracle” of his deeper, self-sacrificing love for her. We see Nora’s ultimate acceptance of her failed marriage when “the wife discovers the Stranger in her own husband”, with Johnston confirming Nora’s worst fears that “The miracle didn’t happen. I saw you weren’t the man I imagined”. Here she admits, “I’ve stopped believing in miracles”. Now we see that all of Nora’s “Happiness is gone”, with only the “Rags, crumbs, pretence…” remaining. The diction of these leftovers effectively portrays how she feels lonely, cold and cast off in this relationship. By the end of the play, we see that Nora has finally become an independent woman when she is “Changing. No more fancy dress”. Modern responders not tied to the nineteenth century patriarchal attitudes of Ibsen’s time, can believe it when Ronald Gray tells us “Helmer has no feelings, apart from pain at being abandoned, and naïve pleasure in Nora’s beauty”. We can see how hurt and upset Helmer is when Nora proclaims that he can no longer play with his “doll”, but even at this point we can see that Helmer is far too entrenched with the patriarchal ideology of his time, to see past it. Trapped in his own confusion over Nora’s actions sadly, he is only concerned about himself and his own life. Helmer is oblivious to Nora’s change in character. He still feels that she has a “weakness” and that she “didn’t understand” what she was doing. Ironically, we see that through Nora, Ibsen voices his critical views of society, clearly portraying Nora as the victim of male dominance and control as she finally admits to Helmer that “You don’t understand me. And I’ve never understood you”, but here Ibsen’s emphasis is on the sad inability of the genders to relate to each other. In fact, Henry Rose informed us in 1913 that by the close of the play, Nora has reached an awareness of the patriarchal toll that has been taken on her “Reared as a doll-child by her father…Treated as a doll-child by her husband” but now Nora realizes “You’ve done me great wrong, Torvald – you, and Daddy before you”. It becomes evident that her sense of identity has been moulded by the male figures in her life when she tells Torvald “When I lived with Daddy, he told me his views on everything, so I shared his views”. A dramatic change is seen in Nora as she declares, “I’m leaving you”, where instead of the “babe in arms” Ibsen portrays a strong, confident and assertive woman who needs to find herself, with Brian Johnston in 1932 further believing that “The rejection by the wife…is a rejection…of the worldview itself”. From the earlier Nora who sneaked “macaroons” behind Torvald’s back because “You told me not to”, we witness her declaration that there will be “No more forbidding”. When pleading for her to stay, Torvald can only voice societal values such as “your most sacred obligations…To your husband, your children”. Of course his patriarchal attitude is obvious when he puts himself before the needs of the children, firmly believing that it’s all about himself and his social image, and reminding her about “What will people say?”. By leaving Helmer, Nora wishes to reinvent herself through her own rules and value system, although sadly admitting, “I don’t know what that is”, Sandra Saari clarifies Ibsen’s ideas for us when stating that the play was focused more precisely on “the radical transformation of Nora from female to human being”. To the still confused Nora, there is the decision that she will “think about it, when I’ve time, when I’ve gone away”, but here she is clearly portraying how she is more critically aware of her right to determine her own path in life. Here at the end of the play, there is no sign of the Nora, described by Ronald Gray in 1977 as “the silently suffering heroine”, who toyed with the idea that she was “going to kill herself” to protect Torvald so that he didn’t take the blame for her own sake. While a nineteenth century society might agree with Torvald that his honour is more important than her, and that at the end she is “talking – thinking – like a child”, later interpretations, reflecting a variety of contexts, would strongly question this viewpoint. Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ ends with Nora’s absence and Helmer’s lost hope. In a controversial ending to the nineteenth century marriage, the wife leaves. We know nothing of her fate, only of her need and desire to find out who she is and how she is going to strive to become that person. It is an ending that has remained controversial, but later responders have gained a greater sympathy for its female protagonist.

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