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A Doll House

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Topics: Henrik Ibsen
A Doll House
A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen Analysis
Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House makes the argument that above all, a successful marriage can only be based in trust, mutual honesty, and equality. Honesty and trust go hand in hand, and only when both parties are honest enough to trust each other can a marriage work. The play begins with Torvold criticizing the idea of being in debt when in actuality his wife (Nora) owes a great deal of money that she borrowed to finance a trip to Italy that saved his life. Torvold does not know of the debt because Nora keeps it secret from him. Though Nora is at fault for keeping secrets from him, Torvold is not innocent himself. He treats Nora like a child in both personal and financial matters bringing inequality to the relationship. The dishonesty and mistrust in their relationship reaches a climax at the end of the play when she leaves him.
A Doll's House is takes place during what should be a typical Christmas with Nora and Torvold Helmer. Their relationship for the time they have been married has had a foundation of deception on Nora's side that was a response to Torvold's efforts to rule over Nora. Ibsen skillfully shows the reader an everyday example of this in the symbol of the Macaroons. At the beginning of the play, Nora is eating macaroons but puts them away when he begins talking to Torvold. Through their conversation, the reader can infer that she is actually hiding them from Torvold who scolds her for getting simple luxuries like candy. Finally, when Torvold confronts her about having macaroons on her, she lies telling him he's mistaken.
Using such a trivial, everyday example, Ibsen shows the mistrust that permeates both sides of the relationship. Nora buys macaroons even though Torvold tells her not to eat them; Torvold accuses her of having macaroons without any evidence except conjecture and the fact that it's Christmas time. This is also a small example of the feelings of superiority that Torvold has over Nora. He keeps her from enjoying simple pleasures in life, treating her like a child. During the conclusion he goes far as to say, "Oh, you think and talk like a heedless child." When Nora accuses him of treating her unequally, their exchange expertly summarizes the outlooks of the two characters. Helmer says, "I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora -- bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves." Nora shoots back by saying, "It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done."
Throughout A Doll's House, Ibsen makes the agreement that relationships can only last with trust and the equality it begets.

Plot Overview
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Plot Overview
A Doll’s House opens on Christmas Eve. Nora Helmer enters her well-furnished living room—the setting of the entire play—carrying several packages. Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, comes out of his study when he hears her arrive. He greets her playfully and affectionately, but then chides her for spending so much money on Christmas gifts. Their conversation reveals that the Helmers have had to be careful with money for many years, but that Torvald has recently obtained a new position at the bank where he works that will afford them a more comfortable lifestyle.
Helene, the maid, announces that the Helmers’ dear friend Dr. Rank has come to visit. At the same time, another visitor has arrived, this one unknown. To Nora’s great surprise, Kristine Linde, a former school friend, comes into the room. The two have not seen each other for years, but Nora mentions having read that Mrs. Linde’s husband passed away a few years earlier. Mrs. Linde tells Nora that when her husband died, she was left with no money and no children. Nora tells Mrs. Linde about her first year of marriage to Torvald. She explains that they were very poor and both had to work long hours. Torvald became sick, she adds, and the couple had to travel to Italy so that Torvald could recover.
Nora inquires further about Mrs. Linde’s life, and Mrs. Linde explains that for years she had to care for her sick mother and her two younger brothers. She states that her mother has passed away, though, and that the brothers are too old to need her. Instead of feeling relief, Mrs. Linde says she feels empty because she has no occupation; she hopes that Torvald may be able to help her obtain employment. Nora promises to speak to Torvald and then reveals a great secret to Mrs. Linde—without Torvald’s knowledge, Nora illegally borrowed money for the trip that she and Torvald took to Italy; she told Torvald that the money had come from her father. For years, Nora reveals, she has worked and saved in secret, slowly repaying the debt, and soon it will be fully repaid.
Krogstad, a low-level employee at the bank where Torvald works, arrives and proceeds into Torvald’s study. Nora reacts uneasily to Krogstad’s presence, and Dr. Rank, coming out of the study, says Krogstad is “morally sick.” Once he has finished meeting with Krogstad, Torvald comes into the living room and says that he can probably hire Mrs. Linde at the bank. Dr. Rank, Torvald, and Mrs. Linde then depart, leaving Nora by herself. Nora’s children return with their nanny, Anne-Marie, and Nora plays with them until she notices Krogstad’s presence in the room. The two converse, and Krogstad is revealed to be the source of Nora’s secret loan.
Krogstad states that Torvald wants to fire him from his position at the bank and alludes to his own poor reputation. He asks Nora to use her influence to ensure that his position remains secure. When she refuses, Krogstad points out that he has in his possession a contract that contains Nora’s forgery of her father’s signature. Krogstad blackmails Nora, threatening to reveal her crime and to bring shame and disgrace on both Nora and her husband if she does not prevent Torvald from firing him. Krogstad leaves, and when Torvald returns, Nora tries to convince him not to fire Krogstad, but Torvald will hear nothing of it. He declares Krogstad an immoral man and states that he feels physically ill in the presence of such people.
Act Two opens on the following day, Christmas. Alone, Nora paces her living room, filled with anxiety. Mrs. Linde arrives and helps sew Nora’s costume for the ball that Nora will be attending at her neighbors’ home the following evening. Nora tells Mrs. Linde that Dr. Rank has a mortal illness that he inherited from his father. Nora’s suspicious behavior leads Mrs. Linde to guess that Dr. Rank is the source of Nora’s loan. Nora denies Mrs. Linde’s charge but refuses to reveal the source of her distress. Torvald arrives, and Nora again begs him to keep Krogstad employed at the bank, but again Torvald refuses. When Nora presses him, he admits that Krogstad’s moral behavior isn’t all that bothers him—he dislikes Krogstad’s overly familiar attitude. Torvald and Nora argue until Torvald sends the maid to deliver Krogstad’s letter of dismissal.
Torvald leaves. Dr. Rank arrives and tells Nora that he knows he is close to death. She attempts to cheer him up and begins to flirt with him. She seems to be preparing to ask him to intervene on her behalf in her struggle with Torvald. Suddenly, Dr. Rank reveals to Nora that he is in love with her. In light of this revelation, Nora refuses to ask Dr. Rank for anything.
Once Dr. Rank leaves, Krogstad arrives and demands an explanation for his dismissal. He wants respectability and has changed the terms of the blackmail: he now insists to Nora that not only that he be rehired at the bank but that he be rehired in a higher position. He then puts a letter detailing Nora’s debt and forgery in the -Helmers’letterbox. In a panic, Nora tells Mrs. Linde everything, and Mrs. Linde instructs Nora to delay Torvald from opening the letter as long as possible while she goes to speak with Krogstad. In order to distract Torvald from the letterbox, Nora begins to practice the tarantella she will perform at that evening’s costume party. In her agitated emotional state, she dances wildly and violently, displeasing Torvald. Nora manages to make Torvald promise not to open his mail until after she performs at the party. Mrs. Linde soon returns and says that she has left Krogstad a note but that he will be gone until the following evening.
The next night, as the costume party takes place upstairs, Krogstad meets Mrs. Linde in the Helmers’ living room. Their conversation reveals that the two had once deeply in love, but Mrs. Linde left Krogstad for a wealthier man who would enable her to support her family. She tells Krogstad that now that she is free of her own familial obligations and wishes to be with Krogstad and care for his children. Krogstad is overjoyed and says he will demand his letter back before Torvald can read it and learn Nora’s secret. Mrs. Linde, however, insists he leave the letter, because she believes both Torvald and Nora will be better off once the truth has been revealed.
Soon after Krogstad’s departure, Nora and Torvald enter, back from the costume ball. After saying goodnight to Mrs. Linde, Torvald tells Nora how desirable she looked as she danced. Dr. Rank, who was also at the party and has come to say goodnight, promptly interrupts Torvald’s advances on Nora. After Dr. Rank leaves, Torvald finds in his letterbox two of Dr. Rank’s visiting cards, each with a black cross above the name. Nora knows Dr. Rank’s cards constitute his announcement that he will soon die, and she informs Torvald of this fact. She then insists that Torvald read Krogstad’s letter.
Torvald reads the letter and is outraged. He calls Nora a hypocrite and a liar and complains that she has ruined his happiness. He declares that she will not be allowed to raise their children. Helene then brings in a letter. Torvald opens it and discovers that Krogstad has returned Nora’s contract (which contains the forged signature). Overjoyed, Torvald attempts to dismiss his past insults, but his harsh words have triggered something in Nora. She declares that despite their eight years of marriage, they do not understand one another. Torvald, Nora asserts, has treated her like a “doll”to be played with and admired. She decides to leave Torvald, declaring that she must “make sense of [her]self and everything around her.” She walks out, slamming the door behind
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Key Facts full title · A Doll’s House author · Henrik Ibsen type of work · Play genre · Realistic, modern prose drama language · Norwegian time and place written · 1879, Rome and Amalfi, Italy date of first publication · 1879 tone · Serious, intense, somber setting (time) · Presumably around the late 1870s setting (place) · Norway protagonist · Nora Helmer major conflict · Nora’s struggle with Krogstad, who threatens to tell her husband about her past crime, incites Nora’s journey of self-discovery and provides much of the play’s dramatic suspense. Nora’s primary struggle, however, is against the selfish, stifling, and oppressive attitudes of her husband, Torvald, and of the society that he represents. rising action · Nora’s first conversation with Mrs. Linde; Krogstad’s visit and blackmailing of Nora; Krogstad’s delivery of the letter that later exposes Nora. climax · Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter and erupts angrily. falling action · Nora’s realization that Torvald is devoted not to her but to the idea of her as someone who depends on him; her decision to abandon him to find independence. themes · The sacrificial role of women; parental and filial obligations; the unreliability of appearances motifs · Nora’s definition of freedom; letters symbols · The Christmas tree; New Year’s Day foreshadowing · Nora’s eating of macaroons against Torvald’s wishes foreshadows her later rebellion against Torvald
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Analysis of Major Characters
Nora Helmer
At the beginning of A Doll’s House, Nora seems completely happy. She responds affectionately to Torvald’s teasing, speaks with excitement about the extra money his new job will provide, and takes pleasure in the company of her children and friends. She does not seem to mind her doll-like existence, in which she is coddled, pampered, and patronized.
As the play progresses, Nora reveals that she is not just a “silly girl,” as Torvald calls her. That she understands the business details related to the debt she incurred taking out a loan to preserve Torvald’s health indicates that she is intelligent and possesses capacities beyond mere wifehood. Her description of her years of secret labor undertaken to pay off her debt shows her fierce determination and ambition. Additionally, the fact that she was willing to break the law in order to ensure Torvald’s health shows her courage.
Krogstad’s blackmail and the trauma that follows do not change Nora’s nature; they open her eyes to her unfulfilled and underappreciated potential. “I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald,” she says during her climactic confrontation with him. Nora comes to realize that in addition to her literal dancing and singing tricks, she has been putting on a show throughout her marriage. She has pretended to be someone she is not in order to fulfill the role that Torvald, her father, and society at large have expected of her.
Torvald’s severe and selfish reaction after learning of Nora’s deception and forgery is the final catalyst for Nora’s awakening. But even in the first act, Nora shows that she is not totally unaware that her life is at odds with her true personality. She defies Torvald in small yet meaningful ways—by eating macaroons and then lying to him about it, for instance. She also swears, apparently just for the pleasure she derives from minor rebellion against societal standards. As the drama unfolds, and as Nora’s awareness of the truth about her life grows, her need for rebellion escalates, culminating in her walking out on her husband and children to find independence.
Torvald Helmer
Torvald embraces the belief that a man’s role in marriage is to protect and guide his wife. He clearly enjoys the idea that Nora needs his guidance, and he interacts with her as a father would. He instructs her with trite, moralistic sayings, such as: “A home that depends on loans and debt is not beautiful because it is not free.” He is also eager to teach Nora the dance she performs at the costume party. Torvald likes to envision himself as Nora’s savior, asking her after the party, “[D]o you know that I’ve often wished you were facing some terrible dangers so that I could risk life and limb, risk everything, for your sake?”
Although Torvald seizes the power in his relationship with Nora and refers to her as a “girl,” it seems that Torvald is actually the weaker and more childlike character. Dr. Rank’s explanation for not wanting Torvald to enter his sickroom—”Torvald is so fastidious, he cannot face up to anything ugly”—suggests that Dr. Rank feels Torvald must be sheltered like a child from the realities of the world. Furthermore, Torvald reveals himself to be childishly petty at times. His real objection to working with Krogstad stems not from -deficiencies in Krogstad’s moral character but, rather, Krogstad’s overly friendly and familiar behavior. Torvald’s decision to fire Krogstad stems ultimately from the fact that he feels threatened and offended by Krogstad’s failure to pay him the proper respect.
Torvald is very conscious of other people’s perceptions of him and of his standing in the community. His explanation for rejecting Nora’s request that Krogstad be kept on at the office—that retaining Krogstad would make him “a laughing stock before the entire staff”—shows that he prioritizes his reputation over his wife’s desires. Torvald further demonstrates his deep need for society’s respect in his reaction to Nora’s deception. Although he says that Nora has ruined his happiness and will not be allowed to raise the children, he insists that she remain in the house because his chief concern is saving “the appearance” of their household.
Krogstad
Krogstad is the antagonist in A Doll’s House, but he is not necessarily a villain. Though his willingness to allow Nora’s torment to continue is cruel, Krogstad is not without sympathy for her. As he says, “Even money-lenders, hacks, well, a man like me, can have a little of what you call feeling, you know.” He visits Nora to check on her, and he discourages her from committing suicide. Moreover, Krogstad has reasonable motives for behaving as he does: he wants to keep his job at the bank in order to spare his children from the hardships that come with a spoiled reputation. Unlike Torvald, who seems to desire respect for selfish reasons, Krogstad desires it for his family’s sake.
Like Nora, Krogstad is a person who has been wronged by society, and both Nora and Krogstad have committed the same crime: forgery of signatures. Though he did break the law, Krogstad’s crime was relatively minor, but society has saddled him with the stigma of being a criminal and prohibited him from moving beyond his past. Additionally, Krogstad’s claim that his immoral behavior began when Mrs. Linde abandoned him for a man with money so she could provide for her family makes it possible for us to understand Krogstad as a victim of circumstances. One could argue that society forced Mrs. Linde away from Krogstad and thus prompted his crime. Though society’s unfair treatment of Krogstad does not justify his actions, it does align him more closely with Nora and therefore tempers our perception of him as a despicable character
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Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Sacrificial Role of Women
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen paints a bleak picture of the sacrificial role held by women of all economic classes in his society. In general, the play’s female characters exemplify Nora’s assertion (spoken to Torvald in Act Three) that even though men refuse to sacrifice their integrity, “hundreds of thousands of women have.” In order to support her mother and two brothers, Mrs. Linde found it necessary to abandon Krogstad, her true—but penniless—love, and marry a richer man. The nanny had to abandon her own child to support herself by working as Nora’s (and then as Nora’s children’s) caretaker. As she tells Nora, the nanny considers herself lucky to have found the job, since she was “a poor girl who’d been led astray.”
Though Nora is economically advantaged in comparison to the play’s other female characters, she nevertheless leads a difficult life because society dictates that Torvald be the marriage’s dominant partner. Torvald issues decrees and condescends to Nora, and Nora must hide her loan from him because she knows Torvald could never accept the idea that his wife (or any other woman) had helped save his life. Furthermore, she must work in secret to pay off her loan because it is illegal for a woman to obtain a loan without her husband’s permission. By motivating Nora’s deception, the attitudes of Torvald—and society—leave Nora vulnerable to Krogstad’s blackmail.
Nora’s abandonment of her children can also be interpreted as an act of self- sacrifice. Despite Nora’s great love for her children—manifested by her interaction with them and her great fear of corrupting them—she chooses to leave them. Nora truly believes that the nanny will be a better mother and that leaving her children is in their best interest.
Parental and Filial Obligations
Nora, Torvald, and Dr. Rank each express the belief that a parent is obligated to be honest and upstanding, because a parent’s immorality is passed on to his or her children like a disease. In fact, Dr. Rank does have a disease that is the result of his father’s depravity. Dr. Rank implies that his father’s immorality—his many affairs with women—led him to contract a venereal disease that he passed on to his son, causing Dr. Rank to suffer for his father’s misdeeds. Torvald voices the idea that one’s parents determine one’s moral character when he tells Nora, “Nearly all young criminals had lying -mothers.” He also refuses to allow Nora to interact with their children after he learns of her deceit, for fear that she will corrupt them.
Yet, the play suggests that children too are obligated to protect their parents. Nora recognized this obligation, but she ignored it, choosing to be with—and sacrifice herself for—her sick husband instead of her sick father. Mrs. Linde, on the other hand, abandoned her hopes of being with Krogstad and undertook years of labor in order to tend to her sick mother. Ibsen does not pass judgment on either woman’s decision, but he does use the idea of a child’s debt to her parent to demonstrate the complexity and reciprocal nature of familial obligations.
The Unreliability of Appearances
Over the course of A Doll’s House, appearances prove to be misleading veneers that mask the reality of the play’s characters and -situations. Our first impressions of Nora, Torvald, and Krogstad are all eventually undercut. Nora initially seems a silly, childish woman, but as the play progresses, we see that she is intelligent, motivated, and, by the play’s conclusion, a strong-willed, independent thinker. Torvald, though he plays the part of the strong, benevolent husband, reveals himself to be cowardly, petty, and selfish when he fears that Krogstad may expose him to scandal. Krogstad too reveals himself to be a much more sympathetic and merciful character than he first appears to be. The play’s climax is largely a matter of resolving identity confusion—we see Krogstad as an earnest lover, Nora as an intelligent, brave woman, and Torvald as a simpering, sad man.
Situations too are misinterpreted both by us and by the characters. The seeming hatred between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad turns out to be love. Nora’s creditor turns out to be Krogstad and not, as we and Mrs. Linde suppose, Dr. Rank. Dr. Rank, to Nora’s and our surprise, confesses that he is in love with her. The seemingly villainous Krogstad repents and returns Nora’s contract to her, while the seemingly kindhearted Mrs. Linde ceases to help Nora and forces Torvald’s discovery of Nora’s secret.
The instability of appearances within the Helmer household at the play’s end results from Torvald’s devotion to an image at the expense of the creation of true happiness. Because Torvald craves respect from his employees, friends, and wife, status and image are important to him. Any disrespect—when Nora calls him petty and when Krogstad calls him by his first name, for example—angers Torvald greatly. By the end of the play, we see that Torvald’s obsession with controlling his home’s appearance and his repeated suppression and denial of reality have harmed his family and his happiness irreparably.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Nora’s Definition of Freedom
Nora’s understanding of the meaning of freedom evolves over the course of the play. In the first act, she believes that she will be totally “free” as soon as she has repaid her debt, because she will have the opportunity to devote herself fully to her domestic responsibilities. After Krogstad blackmails her, however, she reconsiders her conception of freedom and questions whether she is happy in Torvald’s house, subjected to his orders and edicts. By the end of the play, Nora seeks a new kind of freedom. She wishes to be relieved of her familial obligations in order to pursue her own ambitions, beliefs, and identity.
Letters
Many of the plot’s twists and turns depend upon the writing and reading of letters, which function within the play as the subtext that reveals the true, unpleasant nature of situations obscured by Torvald and Nora’s efforts at beautification. Krogstad writes two letters: the first reveals Nora’s crime of forgery to Torvald; the second retracts his blackmail threat and returns Nora’s promissory note. The first letter, which Krogstad places in Torvald’s letterbox near the end of Act Two, represents the truth about Nora’s past and initiates the inevitable dissolution of her marriage—as Nora says immediately after Krogstad leaves it, “We are lost.” Nora’s attempts to stall Torvald from reading the letter represent her continued denial of the true nature of her marriage. The second letter releases Nora from her obligation to Krogstad and represents her release from her obligation to Torvald. Upon reading it, Torvald attempts to return to his and Nora’s previous denial of reality, but Nora recognizes that the letters have done more than expose her actions to Torvald; they have exposed the truth about Torvald’s selfishness, and she can no longer participate in the illusion of a happy marriage.
Dr. Rank’s method of communicating his imminent death is to leave his calling card marked with a black cross in Torvald’s letterbox. In an earlier conversation with Nora, Dr. Rank reveals his understanding of Torvald’s unwillingness to accept reality when he proclaims,“Torvald is so fastidious, he cannot face up to -anything ugly.”By leaving his calling card as a death notice, Dr. Rank politely attempts to keep Torvald from the “ugly” truth. Other letters include Mrs. Linde’s note to Krogstad, which initiates her -life-changing meeting with him, and Torvald’s letter of dismissal to Krogstad.
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Christmas Tree
The Christmas tree, a festive object meant to serve a decorative purpose, symbolizes Nora’s position in her household as a plaything who is pleasing to look at and adds charm to the home. There are several parallels drawn between Nora and the Christmas tree in the play. Just as Nora instructs the maid that the children cannot see the tree until it has been decorated, she tells Torvald that no one can see her in her dress until the evening of the dance. Also, at the beginning of the second act, after Nora’s psychological condition has begun to erode, the stage directions indicate that the Christmas tree is correspondingly “dishevelled.”
New Year’s Day
The action of the play is set at Christmastime, and Nora and Torvald both look forward to New Year’s as the start of a new, happier phase in their lives. In the new year, Torvald will start his new job, and he anticipates with excitement the extra money and admiration the job will bring him. Nora also looks forward to Torvald’s new job, because she will finally be able to repay her secret debt to Krogstad. By the end of the play, however, the nature of the new start that New Year’s represents for Torvald and Nora has changed dramatically. They both must become new people and face radically changed ways of living. Hence, the new year comes to mark the beginning of a truly new and different period in both their lives and their personalities

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