A problem play is a play in which the characters discuss some problem of modern life and the plot works out this problem. A Doll’s House (1879), which is one of Henrik Ibsen’s most prominent realistic prose dramas, is recognized as the pioneer of the genre of realism in theatre. Since this play focuses on controversial issues and social problems, it is often referred to as a problem play. Ghosts, An Enemy of the People and The Wild Duck are some of Ibsen’s other problem plays. There are also certain characteristics that are displayed by a play, namely the play takes place in a contemporary setting, social problems are the subject of debate of the play and everyday people and situations are presented in the play. Apparently, all these traits of a problem play are embodied in A Doll’s House, and by critically analyzing the setting, character development, symbolism in the play, this paper will prove that it is indeed a problem play.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen was one of the first serious works of drama in which contemporary social problems are depicted from a realistic perspective. Many found the play shocking because characters and situations are portrayed as they would be in life. Nora, the main character of the play, can be viewed as both a protagonist and antagonist, or perhaps neither. Like a real individual, she has positive qualities and flaws. Even Nora’s husband is an intricate character who is both good and bad. From this perspective, difficult and complicated social issues are confronted by the characters quite well. Ibsen’s A Doll’s House would not be a problem play if it was not presenting some social issue or problem, and the social issue that is put forward by this play is that of the gender roles and the treatment of women in the late 19th century.
The nature of the relationship between Nora and her husband Torvald is revealed when they interact with each other for the first time. Torvald seems to use several diminutive pet names to refer to his wife, for instance “my little lark” (Ibsen), “my little squirrel” and “my little spendthrift.” Every time he refers to her as if she is a possession of his. At one point he even admits that her beauty is “mine, all my very own” (Ibsen). All of this reveals his view of the relationship with his wife, Nora. Rather than a companion and a partner, Nora is more of an amusement and possession to her husband. This does not mean that Torvald is not a good man or a good husband; his actions simply reflect opinions that were considered acceptable in the late 19th century male-dominated society.
Nora’s husband treats her like child, never consulting her on important matters, leaving barely any responsibilities to her, and even in the house her responsibilities are minimal. She admits that “The maids know all about everything in the house—better than” she does (Ibsen). Nora does not even seem to fully take on the responsibility of raising her children, most of the times, her nanny is the one taking care of the children and taking on her motherly responsibilities. Moreover, Nora herself seems to act like a child. For instance, when she sneaks macaroons into her pocket and nibbles on them. When her husband sternly asks her about them, she blatantly assures him that she has not touched them, lying to him. Of course, Nora’s childishness and her lack of responsibilities again reflect the treatment of women in the late 19th century.
The overall setting of the play, the late 19th century society, further supports the fact that Ibsen’s A Doll House is a problem play and the main social issue that this play presents is because of the male-domination in this society. Although the 19th century society can be viewed as a contemporary setting for the play, yet women were not regarded as independent beings. Both fathers and husbands considered women their possession. In the whole society of that time, every man assumed that women were nothing more than an accessory and that neither freedom nor individual rights were necessary for them. It is also mentioned in the play that “when a wife deserts her husband’s househe is legally freed from all obligations toward her” (Ibsen), just as Nora does towards the end of the Act III. This suggests that marriage was merely a utilitarian contract between men and women of the time, rather than a lasting emotional relationship.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House is rich in symbolism, and the symbols that Ibsen has used in the play further reflect the social issue that this problem play is trying to present. Nora herself is a symbol in the play. She symbolizes the doll-like treatment that the women received in the society of that time, and she herself is treated like a doll-child. She says that both her father and her husband have committed “a great sin” against her by preventing her from growing up, which also explains her childlike behavior and the pet diminutive names that Torvald uses to refer to her. She is even dressed up like a doll for the southern Italian dance, the Tarantella; as a result she ends up acting out the symbol of a doll in a doll house.
Nora’s position in her household and perhaps the position of every other woman in the late 19th century society are symbolized by the Christmas tree that is mentioned in the play. Just like the Christmas tree, Nora and the other women in that society served nothing but a decorative purpose in their households. They added charm to their homes and were delightful to look at, but that was all, but their place in society was nothing beyond that. Also, as the second act begins, the Christmas tree is mentioned as “disheveled,” which corresponds with Nora’s psychological condition, which was started to wear out in this act. The New Year that both Nora and Torvald look forward to is also a symbol in this play. Although the New Year does not bring the changes they had been expecting to come in their lives, the New Year does change their personalities and lives dramatically, and Nora is able to escape her doll house, and the social issue this problem play presented is solved.
Thus, many things about the role of men and women in the late 19th century are revealed in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The responsibilities of men and women were very specific in this society and both were expected to fulfill them. However, men regarded women as the weaker gender, they knew they had to provide for them, but they did not believe they had to confide in them or consult with them. Even civil law of that time reflected this since women were not able to make financial decisions or take out a loan independently. This is what stemmed the underlying issue in Ibsen’s play because of which Nora had to forge her father’s signature to borrow money. Moreover, this clearly reflects the broader social issue that this play is presenting, i.e. gender roles and the treatment of women in the late 19th century, and thus, A Doll’s House is indeed a problem play.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll's House (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover Publications, 1992. Print.
Wojtczak, Helena. "WOMEN'S STATUS IN MID 19TH-CENTURY ENGLAND." hastingspress.co.uk. HastingsPress. Web. 11 Dec 2012.