A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen 1879
At the beginning of the play, it is made clear that Nora adores her three young children. There is a scene in which ‘she and the children laugh and shout and romp in and out of the room’ as they play hide-and-seek, and ‘shouts of laughter are heard’. During all of this frivolity, there is a knock at the door, but nobody hears it because they are too busy playing. This scene exemplifies Nora’s love for her children and shows how much they love her. When they enter the room while Nora is with her friend Christine, Nora fauns over her darlings, expressing ‘Oh, you sweet blessings! Look at them Christine! Aren’t they darlings?’
It is clear that Nora loves her children very much, and this helps her husband, Torvald, to have power over her. In a fit of rage, he tells her ‘I shall not allow you to bring up the children; I dare not trust them to you.’ Here, he tries to take control of the situation by taking away Nora’s right to her children. This is a huge threat to a woman, because of her maternal instincts.
Nora’s love for her children provides all the more shock when she leaves them. She says ‘goodbye, Torvald. I won’t see the little ones. I know they are in better hands than mine. As I am now, I can be of no use to them.’ She makes the ultimate sacrifice, giving up her children because she knows she cannot help them. She has been so trapped in her own home that she is even willing to leave those most precious to her, her children, to escape from Torvald and her suffocating existence ‘I will often think of you and the children and this house.’
Empowerment Through Escape
At the end of the play, Nora decides to leave her husband and stultifying existence to figure out what she wants out of life ‘I must educate myself- you are not the man to help me in that. I must do it for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now.’ Through leaving all she has at home, Nora hopes to ‘understand myself and everything about me.’ For this, she believes she ‘must stand quite alone,’ and it is ‘for that reason I cannot remain with you any longer’. Although the play ends upon her leaving, it ends with the feeling that Nora will find herself- it ends on a hopeful note, the audience feeling positively about Nora’s future.
Torvald belittles his wife when it comes to her intelligence- he believes that because she is a woman, she could not possibly have intelligent ideas of her own. When she asks Dr Rank about his latest investigation, he laughs ‘Just listen!-little Nora talking about scientific investigations!’ He finds it amusing that his ;little squirrel’ could talk about anything intelligible, because she is just a housewife, his ‘featherhead’ and ‘spendthrift’. It is interesting to note that when she tells him she has been a spendthrift, he says ‘that is like a woman’, by which he means she is oblivious to her situation and the male-dominated world.
In the heat of an argument, Torvald calls Nora a ‘blind, foolish woman’, and says ‘you have loved me as a wife ought to love her husband, but you had not sufficient knowledge to judge the means you used’ to borrow money to save her husband’s life, because she is only a woman.
At the end of the play, Nora says poignantly ‘I must try and educate myself’, showing what a strong and intelligent woman she really is, even if her husband cannot appreciate it.
A Woman’s Role
It is obvious in the play that Torvald believes his wife’s sole duty is to him, saying that her most sacred duties are those ‘to your husband’. When Nora says to him ‘don’t you think it’s nice of me, too, to do as you wish?’ to which he replies ‘nice?- because you do as your husband wishes? Well, well, you little rogue, I’m sure you did not mean it in that way’. To him, it is her job to look after him as she is his wife. He takes for granted everything she does for him as what she should do, not an act of kindness. He cannot believe she would have her own priorities, thinking a wife’s sole concern should be her husband and children.
In the beginning of the play, while talking to her friend, Nora exclaims her enjoyment in ‘keeping the house beautifully and just how Torvald likes it!’ She also boasts about the power she and Torvald have now that he is manager of the bank, then quickly revises it to how much power Torvald has ‘it’s perfectly glorious to think that we have- that Torvald has so much power over so many people’. She does not hold any power herself, as she is just the submissive wife.
At the end of the play, Nora finally comes to an understanding that her husband does not appreciate her as a human being, saying ‘our home has become nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll wife, just as I had been papa’s doll child. She comes to the conclusion that she does not ‘believe that anymore. I believe that above all else, I am a reasonable human being, just as you are’. This realization that there should be equality in a marriage and a wife’s duty is not solely to her husband, but also to herself, is radical for this time, and is what drives Nora to leave her husband.
Men and Marriage
Nora and Torvald’s union is far from idyllic. Nora is controlled by her husband – he has all the power in the relationship, and she lets him get away with it. This is exemplified in the first scene where Nora has macaroons, and a close family friend, Dr Rank, comments ‘what, macaroons? I thought they were forbidden here?’ She then has to hide them from Torvald. This is one way in which Ibsen makes it clear that Torvald has control over his wife- telling her what she can and cannot eat.
Another method Torvald uses to gain power in the relationship is belittling her. He ‘affectionately’ calls her his ‘skylark’, his ‘little squirrel’, his ‘little wife’. Not only is she constantly referred to as little, but he always describes her as his, as if she is a possession, something he owns. ‘Why shouldn’t I look at my dearest treasure?- all the beauty that is all my very own?’
He also verges on verbal abuse, shouting at her ‘you have destroyed all my happiness. You have ruined all my future. It is impossible to think of!.. And I must sink to such miserable depths because of a thoughtless woman!’ when all she did was try to save his life. He continues ‘what a horrible awakening! All those eight years- she was my joy and pride- a hypocrite, a liar- worse, worse- a criminal! For shame! For shame!’
Most men of the time sought women that would not be ‘a forced slave, but a willing one; not a slave merely, but a favourite’. So men like Torvald enslaved the minds of their wives and made them feel dependant on their husbands. Torvald manipulates Nora into believing that she is reliant on him for everything, even aspects regarding her personal choice, shown blatantly when she says ‘it is absolutely necessary, Torvald, but I can’t get anywhere without your help’. Men greedily held all the power- women were constricted by a society in which men wrote the laws, prosecuted criminals, and judged women on their own point of view. Women suffered because men only looked after themselves. Ibsen wrote that women were a blessing to men because it gave them ‘a glimpse of that non-logical, intuitive way of thinking’ which ‘had an inspiring and cleansing effect’.
Ibsen uses the characters of Kristine and Krogstad to demonstrate how a marriage should be- they have a mature relationship founded on honesty and free choice. It is also used to contrast Nora and Torvald’s relationship. John Stuart Mill argues how a marriage should be formed- that a man should not force a woman into marriage, but rather through founding a marriage based on ‘equal conditions’. However, the society of that time produced mainly middle-class, egotistical men who gained the pleasure of control through subordinating their wives. In the play it is evident that Kristine initially marries a man for immoral reasons- money and stability. However, she returns to the one she loves, where she founds a marriage based on love, honesty and care.
Social/ Historical Context
One critic said that the performance of ‘A Doll’s House’ was ‘a revolutionary action, a daring defiance of cultural norms of the time’. These ‘cultural norms’ are the ideals and values of ‘Bourgeois respectability’- financial success, upward social mobility, freedom from financial debt and moral guilt (or at least the appearance thereof) and a secure, stable family based upon traditional patriarchal lines. The patriarchal ideal was supported and reinforced by the social structure in which women had very little political or economic power; wherein they were economically, socially, and psychologically dependant on men, marriage, and motherhood.
As mentioned above, Nora and Torvald live in a society that values money, contracts, and conventional respectability very highly. The people who do not live up to these expectations are shown to be outsiders, living distressed lives. This is illustrated by the characters of Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, through their stories, but also through their appearances. In great contrast to Nora and Torvald’s apparent good health, these two have aged prematurely, so much so that Nora has difficulty recognizing Kristine at first. Those that society disapproved of or did not have a secure middle-class status were frozen out.
Ibsen characterizes Nora and Torvald as faithful conformists of social roles, and then dramatizes the negative effects of these roles in an effort to provoke audiences of that period to rethink their deeply ingrained beliefs. Torvald is the head of the household- he supplies the money, makes and enforces the rules, and dominates over his wife. This is shown clearly in the scene where Nora has to hide her macaroons, explaining ‘Torvald had forbidden them’. Today, as men and women are (for the most part) regarded as equals, we view this as completely unjust, but this is what was expected of him to be a man. Society shaped Torvald, and Torvald shaped Nora. He is the way he is because he wishes to appear a respectable man, as his position at the bank requires him to. He does not wish to end up like Krogstad.
It is possible that by choosing to conform to society, Torvald may be unaware of the subordination of women, and if this is so it is more a flaw in society than Torvald himself. John Stuart Mills writes in his essay ‘The Subordination of Women’, ‘a person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury’. In the play, Torvald ignores Nora’s plead for justice by facing society and demanding change, rather he succumbs to society by condemning Nora for her actions.
Nora feels suppressed by her role as a wife and mother. She gets fulfillment out of working, as it makes her feel important, ‘almost like a man’. However, she cannot work because Torvald will not allow her to. She has always been what her husband and father, symbols of society, want her to be. Her statement that she has lived her life ‘performing tricks’ and being ‘pretty and charming’ highlight her suppression, and makes the audience aware of the demeaning, unethical aspects of inequality.
This is helped in no way by Torvald and his use of animal names such as ‘skylark’ and ‘squirrel’ for Nora. It suggests that he does not love her as an equal, but as a pet. Worse, he calls her his ‘possession’. Using these patronizing and demeaning terms in regards to his wife highlights the social norm of treating woman as inferior, and provokes the audience to question the authority of that norm.
During Nora and Torvald’s final conversation, Torvald tells his wife ‘no man would sacrifice his honourfor the one he loves’ to which Nora replies ‘hundreds of thousands of women have’. It is obvious that these two have different ideas about what honourmeans. Torvald is saying, in effect, that no man would abandon his earned social position, the public recognition he has attained, and his identity in the eyes of his fellow citizens for a personal relationship. What Nora’s response means is that many, many women have sacrificed their integrity, their person sense of their identity, and their self-generated sense of themselves in the service of society, particularly to men and in marriage.
The ideal of bourgeois respectability in the eighteen hundreds was constantly challenged. By the time Ibsen wrote his own challenge to it, a new era of uncertainty towards all things conventional had already begun. The position of women was a particularly explosive issue because the whole social, political, and economic structure was set by the patriarchal ideology. If women were to have independence, the whole structure of society would have to be remade. It was an apocalyptic idea that thrilled many women and intellectuals, but terrified the ruling and middle classes, so that each move in this direction- women’s suffrage, revised marriage laws, advances in women’s education- felt almost too radical a change.
‘A Doll’s House’ is said to have ‘opened the door to a whole new world for women’, and led to the gain of freedom and equality for women in Europe. It was interpreted as an endeavor to resolve gender inequality, for the liberation of women in society; Ibsen was held in high regard as a feminist writer. However, he would not allow anyone to ‘make him one of them’, although his resentment of oppression was in no way squandered. At a meeting with the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights, he announced ‘I must disclaim the honourof having consciously worked for women’s rights.. to me it has been a question of human rights’. Ibsen wrote not only to free woman of their gender roles, but men also. He rebelled against the conventions of society by refusing to comply with their expectations of gender.
Ibsen was writing in a time when women were enslaved to a certain extent in their roles as women, and where restrictions were imposed on them by a male dominant culture. Girls were raised to believe that they had neither self-control, nor self-government but that they must surrender to the control of males. John Stuart Mill wrote that women were ‘wholly under the control of men and each in private being under the legal obligation of obedience to the man with whom she had associated her destiny’.
The last decades of the nineteenth century saw radical change. The western world was beginning to enter a period of huge alterations; revolutions in social, economic, political, cultural and scientific areas. Nobody knew exactly what was coming, and it was anticipated with a mixture of hope and dread. Nora slamming the door of her doll-house abandoning the only world she has ever known, stepping into an unknown future is symbolic of the major unforeseeable events looming over the people of Ibsen’s time.