Literary analysis of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
As Meyer says, A Doll’s House is a play about, “the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person”. The play revolves around the life of the protagonist Nora, who breaks away from the shackles imposed on her by the gender roles devised by the patriarchal society, and sets out to discover her true potential as an individual. The play fits the genre of a social tragedy, whereby the protagonist falls prey to the Hippocratic conventions of the society around her. First premiered in 1879, the play is one of the most reproduced works of all times and was considered far ahead of its times in terms of its central message and characterization.
The final door slam of Nora reverberated through many decades, drawing criticism and acclaim in equal measure. The play has an enduring appeal transcending the boundaries of time, and its timelessness can be mainly attributed to the way in which the author, Henrik Ibsen, constructed his characters, with whom the audience were able to establish an immediate connect. This essay is an attempt to explore the ways in which Ibsen has used various literary devices to convey a social message that, an individual’s first duty is to herself, rather than to the rules devised by the society around her.
As most critics agree, theatre in the eighteenth century was a conservative institution and most plays portrayed the lives of women as they were in the past. Only a few pioneers had refused to accept the conservative conventions of theatre, and had the conviction to portray women as they were during their time. A Doll’s house is one of those plays, which showcased the realities of human life as existed in the society during the time the drama was staged.
Ibsen’s plays were always filled with rebellious ideas, and he took on the hypocrisy of the social conventions of his time head on. Known as the ‘father of modernism’, Ibsen through his plays questioned the established rules of morality, and tried to reveal the realities behind the external pretenses of the society. He wrote most of his plays in the Danish language, but had a following throughout the world, and he is considered as the second most performed dramatist in the world only next to Shakespeare.
Though Ibsen opined that the theme of A Doll’s House is more about human rights rather than women rights, the play has been upheld by many women right activists as the first feminist play. The ending of the play was considered scandalous and too controversial for its time, and Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending, against his wishes. In the late nineteenth century, a woman’s foremost duty was considered to be playing the role of a perfect mother and wife. So when Ibsen’s Nora boldly claimed that she was before all else was a human being, many critics were appalled. A German actress denied reprising the role of Nora saying that she would never leave her children, and only in Great Britain did the play run without the modified ending, during its initial staging.
As Kashdan opines to fully comprehend the impact the play had on its immediate audience and the generations that followed, it is important to look at the historical context in which he play was written. Women in Ibsen’s times were oppressed and denied the right to pursue their dreams and passions. A modern day woman takes many things for granted, like her right to have children and write to marry or stay single. However, such liberties would have been denied to her had she been born 150 years ago. A woman in the Victorian era was literally a property of her husband. She did not have the right to hold property in her name and her husband had complete control over her body and possessions. Ibsen, through this play, makes a social commentary on the double standards that prevailed in the nineteenth century marriages and on the expected duties of a man and woman in a marriage.
The story of the play is believed to be inspired by a real life incident, which took place in the life of one Laura Kieler, a friend of Ibsen’s. She was a protégé and a close acquaintance of Ibsen, and though she would later become famous as the real life Nora, Kieler was a well known writer on her own right. Her husband Victor Kieler was suffering from tuberculosis and the doctor advised him to take a holiday in Alps. To finance this trip Laura borrowed money from a Norwegian bank without her husband’s knowledge. When the forgery was exposed, her husband divorced her and committed her to a mental asylum. A Doll’s house reversed this ending and Ibsen made the wife dump her husband, and this ending is thought to be Ibsen’s way of showing his support to his protégé.
Unlike his contemporary playwrights, Ibsen did not write about characters who live in fantasy realms. Ibsen’s heroines were damsels in distress, but a shipwreck, dangerous creatures or a dragon were not the causes of their distress. They were just victims of the moral dualism prevalent in the society. In this play too, the protagonist faces an issue which most of Ibsen’s audience were able to relate to. She wanted to provide her husband with an expensive holiday, which would save his life and in the process commits a felony. She knows that her husband would disapprove her deeds, so she tries to repay the debt all by herself by saving money and doing small jobs.
However, when her husband knows her secret, he confronts her with it instead of coming to her rescue, as expected by her. He calls her liar, hypocrite and compares her with her father. He even questions her moral standings and opines that she is a bad influence on her children. On seeing this hitherto unseen side of her husband, Nora realizes the futility of their relationship. She recognizes the true nature of their marriage and feels the need for breaking away from the relationship, and to explore her life on her own. She explains to her husband that, they are strangers to each other as they hardly understand each other. When her husband reiterates that, as a woman, she has to perform her duty as a wife and mother, she replies saying she is an individual first and a wife/mother later.
This play denounces two human traits that hamper the spirit of an individual –sacrifice and duty. Nora is portrayed as a perfect Victorian woman, who sacrifices herself so that she could be the ideal wife and mother, during the initial part of the play. She buys presents for the entire family for Christmas but does not buy anything for herself, which shows she puts family before herself as expected of her by the society. She even hides the bag of macaroons she bought because her husband does not approve of her indulging in sweets. Her journey from the self-sacrificing wife to an individual, who denounces her delusional existence to venture into a journey of self-realization, is the central conflict of the play. By portraying Nora’s transformation, Ibsen calls for a change in the societal norms concerning the institution of marriage.
Ibsen’s characters reflect the typical stereotypes of the eighteenth century European society. If Nora is the submissive wife, then Torvald Helmer is her dominating and patronizing husband, who trivializes his wife’s feelings and assumes total control of her life. Torvald is what a nineteenth century society would call, an ideal husband and one any girl would be lucky to have. He has a well-paying job; he takes care of his wife and children; and has high moral values. However, he treats his wife like a doll and he thinks himself to be more matured and capable than his wife, just because he is a man. His wife is more like a property to him that he owns, rather than an individual with feelings of her own.
“No one would believe how much it costs a man to keep such a little bird as you.”
His character is a reflection of the gender roles of the society in which Ibsen lived in. Torvald, as the breadwinner of the family, controlled his wife economically and possessed an inflated sense of self-importance. He loathes the very idea of listening to the counsel of his wife and considers it an indignity to act on the words of his wife.
“If it were now reported that the new manager let himself be turned round his wife's little finger- ()
I am to make myself a laughing-stock to the whole staff,”
Like the society in which he is a part of, Torvald blames all the spiteful acts of a child on the mothers.
HELMER. Nearly all cases of early corruption may be traced to lying mothers.
NORA. Why- mothers?
HELMER. It generally comes from the mother's side;
Nora is treated like a caged songbird, and her husband sees her to be a beautiful thing, which gives him entertainment, rather than an equal partner in his life’s journey. He calls her with names such as, ‘songbird’, ‘squirrel’, ‘lark’, ‘featherbrain’, ‘spendthrift’, etc., which basically reduces the role of Nora to a mindless, merry, spoiled woman. As her husband keeps demeaning her, Nora starts confirming to the role assigned to her by her husband, and at times acts in a way that fits the image her husband carries about her. She starts to refer herself with the same names her husband calls her.
“NORA. If your little squirrel were to beg you for something so prettily-“
In Ibsen’s Europe, a woman’s opinions are formed by her father or husband, and she is expected to confirm to those opinions, and never voice the opinions of her own.
“While I was at home with father, he
used to tell me all his opinions, and I held the same opinions.
If I had others I said nothing about them, because he wouldn't
have liked it.”
This reveals how involuntarily a woman transforms into a person, who confirms with the stereotypes associated with her gender, when subjected to repeated reminders about her place in the society.
Not just the character of Nora and Torvald, Ibsen uses other characters too to delineate the hypocrisy of the patriarchal gender norms. Nora’s friend Mrs. Christine Linde is a perfect example, of the tragedy of being born a woman in a society where most of the laws are devised by men. She sacrificed her love for the sake of her family and married the businessman Mr. Linde instead of Nils Krogstad. With her brothers all grown up and her husband dead, she suffers both emotionally and financially.
Though she is portrayed to be an intelligent and world wise woman, she feels insecure without a family. She says to Krogstad that, “I need someone to be a mother to”. These words exhibit how a woman’s life was considered incomplete without playing the society approved role- either that of a mother or a wife. Even Nora sympathizes with her and looks at her as an object of pity, because Mrs. Linde has no children to take care for. When the time comes, Mrs. Linden willingly jumps to the role of mother and wife again, as that is the only resort for a woman of her era to find happiness. Her character is an example of how a single woman would draw social disapproval and sympathy.
While Mrs. Linde’s decision might at the surface seem to be reconfirming to the notions programmed by the Victorian Europe, there is a major difference between Nora and her. While Nora is a captive of her situation, Mrs. Linde agrees to marry Krogstad as his equal. She says to him,
"Nils, how would it be if we two shipwrecked people could join forces? . Two on the same piece of wreckage would stand a better chance than each on their own"
Through this the author sends a message that for a marriage to be happy both women and men should enter into it as equals.
Nora was not just dominated by her husband, but before marriage had her life directed by another male family member, her father. She confesses to Dr. Rank that, being with her husband felt to her like being with her father. This reveals that her father was equally authoritative and allowed Nora little or no freedom. While growing up she was continuously lectured and advised by her father, and after marriage this role was passed on to her husband. So, all through the life of a woman, there is a male family member who directs the flow of her life.
Nora’s rejection of the gender norms does not come as a sudden revelation. She does not decide to reject the traditional role just after witnessing Torvald’s reaction to Krogstad’s first letter. She throughout the play exhibits subtle yet solid acts of gender rebellion. She forges her father’s signature without her husband’s knowledge, thus rejecting both her father and husband’s authority. She secretly earns money to repay the debt, and in the process reprises the role of an earning member of the family, which is traditionally reserved for men. She even takes secret pleasure in the power she gets by earning money, which she discloses in her conversation with Mrs. Linde.
“And yet it was splendid to work in that way and earn money. I almost felt as if I was a man.”
Her dancing the tarantella, which goes way beyond the demands of the art, is an exhibition of both her despair and yearning for liberation. So, Nora is not the innocent and playful doll, that her husband thinks her to be, but a self –sufficient woman with a strong mind, who submits the will of her husband because of love and not because of her gender.
The dialogues exchanged in the decisive last scene of the play between Nora and Torvald exemplifies the double standards that prevailed in the marriage institution of that period. While sacrifice and loyalty were expected from a woman, men were not bound by any of those moral values.
HELMER. But no man sacrifices his honour, even for one he loves.
NORA. Millions of women have done so.
Torvald for the most part of the last scene does not realize his mistakes at all. Men were so used to the unconditional devotion they got from their wives, that they assumed that all they needed to do as a husband is to provide for his wife and children. So according to Torvald, he has been an ideal husband, and it was preposterous of Nora to expect him to sacrifice his honor for the sake of his wife.
The play is a tragedy as it does not have a happy ending. Nora slamming the door on her husband is interpreted by many as the start of a revolution. However, she leaves her husband not with a sense of freedom or elation, but she does so with a lot of pain, disillusionment and anger. She leaves her family, because she feels that her husband has become a stranger and she thinks her children are in better hands than her. She is disappointed in the self-centered nature of her husband. She realizes that if she continues her life the same way, she would just be reduced to an unfit mother and spoiled wife, as her husband labeled her to be. So, Nora sets out to the world to educate herself, and does so with a lot of regrets in her heart, which makes the play a tragedy.
Nora’s epiphany in the end is used by Ibsen, to convey his message to the society. When her husband’s true nature is revealed to Nora, she realizes that all her life she had been a doll passed from one male hand to another.
“I have had great injustice done me, Torvald; first by father, and then by you.”
Each dialogue uttered by Nora during the final confrontation with her husband is etched with Ibsen’s outcry for the need of a breathing space for women, who were repressed in marital relationships. Nora realizes how throughout her life the men folk have arranged her life to fit to their amusement. She finally was willing to denounce the claim her husband had on her life, and stop performing tricks to satisfy her husband.
In his personal notes Ibsen wrote that,
“A woman cannot be herself in modern society. It is an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint.”
His play A Doll’s house is brimming with this social message. Thus, Ibsen has given voice for the repressed feelings of women through his play, by the use of various literary devices, like dialogues, characterization and theme, available at his disposal.
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