The play, A Doll’s House, written by Danish playwright Henrik Ibsen was released amongst great controversy in the late 18th century. This play by Ibsen was considered scandalous for its interpretation of gender roles and the societal norms of 18th century Norway. Central to the arguably feminist agenda of this play is the main character Nora and her relationships with her husband Torvald Helmer, Dr. Rank, her and her husband’s friend and antagonist Krogstad. These relationships are crucial to Nora’s ultimate understanding of herself as they depict the struggle of a woman to develop an independent sense of self in a largely male dominant society. Through a depiction of Nora’s interactions with other main characters in the play, Ibsen takes the reader aboard a difficult journey of self-discovery and feminist awakening. The first and most central relationship to the play is that of Nora and her husband Torvald Helmer. Nora’s relationship with her husband brings forward the complex social issue of gender roles in 18th century Norway and plays an important role in shaping who Nora becomes. In the play, Torvald often addresses Nora in a diminutive manner by calling her such things as “my little Nora”, “my little songbird” and “my little Nora” (Ibsen 128, 150, 151). While these negative comments are masked as terms of endearment, the impact is made none the less. This degrading manner of communication discourages Nora from developing an independent personality and eliminates the confidence needed for Nora to be true to herself. Furthermore, as per the social norms of this era, Nora is taught to accept the views of her husband and to abide by his wishes. As such, Nora plays along with the views of Torvald in an effort to portray the role of the perfect wife. This role playing as husband and wife can be seen in many passages including: “I’ve lived by doing tricks for you” (Ibsen 191) and “Your squirrel would scamper about and do tricks if you’d only be sweet and give in” (Ibsen 159). This ongoing role-playing suppresses Nora’s true personality as she is consistently acting as the ‘perfect’ wife. Finally, due to the traditions of the era in which A Doll’s House takes place, Nora is dependent on the predominant male figure in her life, which was first her father during childhood, and then Torvald. Nora acknowledges that Torvald is the sole decision maker in their ‘partnership’ and holds all of the responsibility. This can be seen in Act 3 when Nora says: “When I lived at home with Papa, he told me all of his opinions, so I had the same ones too; or if they were different I hid them, since he wouldn’t have cared for that. He used to call me his doll-child, and he played with me the way I played with my dolls. Then I came into your house ... and you arranged everything to your own taste, and so I got the same taste as you” (Ibsen 191). As a result of constant deferral and submission to Torvalds’ wants and opinions, Nora has no need to think critically and form her own opinions. This in turn makes it very difficult for Nora to develop a true understanding of herself. However, as the play progresses, Nora begins to recognize her constant submission to Torvald as seen in her remark “But our home’s been nothing but a playpen. I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child” (Ibsen 191). This realization is crucial to Nora’s ultimate understanding of herself as seen later in the play. In summary, Nora’s relationship with her husband Torvald is not unique to the period in which the play takes place and the conceptualization of gender in A Doll’s House “highlights the process of the social construction of maleness and femaleness as oppositional categories with unequal social value” (Feree 868). It is this unequal social value that makes it acceptable for Torvald to treat Nora in a diminutive manner which contributes to Nora’s struggle towards developing an understanding of her.
Nora’s lack of opinions, and unknowing about herself is furthered as society stresses that a woman must be faithful to her husband. Torvald reinforces this on many occasions as he tells her “You loved me the way a wife ought to love her husband” (Ibsen 198) and “Before all else, you are a wife and a mother” (Ibsen 193). Due to this, Nora’s view on her relationship with Dr. Rank, her husband’s best friend, is solely one of friendship. The possibility that their relationship could be more or that her feelings towards Dr. Rank could be more than that of a friend, never occurs to Nora. Nora enjoys Dr. Rank’s company; however due to her ongoing confusion between love and duty to one’s husband, nothing transpires between her and Dr. Rank. Moreover, Nora is blind to the possibility of considering Dr. Rank as a potential suitor as in that period, a woman considers nothing but duty and faithfulness to one’s husband. Nora’s confusion between love and duty is evident when she explains to Dr. Rank why it seems to him that she would prefer to talk with him rather than her husband: “yes - you see, there are some people that one loves most and other people that one would almost prefer to be with” (Ibsen 166). This statement might seem confusing to someone other than Nora, as love should be based on a genuine enjoyment of one’s company; however Nora is unable to understand this. This relationship emphasizes Nora’s confusion with herself, and brings forward the question of: Does Nora even know what love is? As established earlier, Nora has never had the opportunity to formulate independent opinions, interests or preferences and as such it is impossible for Nora to know, understand or recognize love.
The manipulative relationship that Nora experiences with Krogstad is arguably the largest contributor to Nora’s ultimate understanding of herself. When Krogstad explains the gravity of Nora forging her father’s signature in order to obtain a loan to save her husband’s life, Nora responds with: “I don’t know much about laws, but I’m sure that somewhere in the books these things are allowed” (Ibsen 149). Highlighting not only her naivety, but also her lack of understanding in regards to laws and society. This interaction with Krogstad regarding the forged loan was a significant catalyst to Nora’s eventual realization that she not only had very little knowledge of laws and current societal practices but also of life in general. This unbalanced and threatening relationship allows Nora to finally begin to realize her full potential. Because of Krogstad’s threats, Nora is forced to relentlessly defend her husband to Krogstad such as in Act III when she argues: “If my husband finds out, then of course he’ll pay what I owe at once, and then we’d be through with you for good.” These interactions with Krogstad force Nora to, for the first time, stand up for what she believes in. This new found passion and courage can also be seen when she retorts to Krogstad during an argument “you don’t frighten me” (Ibsen 171). Upon realizing that she posses those traits, Nora realizes the full extent to which she had been acting like a doll in her other significant relationships: her husband and father inclusive. In short, this relationship acts as the ultimate catalyst for Nora’s self-realization of her true personality and potential. In conclusion, Nora’s relationships with Torvald, Dr. Rank and Krogstad were central to her ultimate understanding of herself as they put her on the path of self-realization in terms of her personality, opinions and likes. Through these relationships Nora begins to realize her full potential, and she finally recognizes her limited knowledge of life, society and love. Nora’s ultimate decision to leave her children and husband is evidence of her full transformation from a naive, suppressed and dependent woman to a courageous woman. Furthermore, Nora’s ability to rise up against the social and gender norms of the period demonstrates the extent to which she becomes a modern, independent woman. This is also the main reason why Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was so controversial at the time of release, and why it is still celebrated to this day.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Trans. Unknown. New York: dover publications, 1992.Print.
Myra Ferree. "Beyond Separate Spheres: Feminism and Family Research." Journal of Marriage and the Family 52. (1990): 866-884. Print.