In his play, A Doll's House, Henrik Ibsen bravely depicts a female protagonist, Nora Helmer, who dares to defy her husband and forsake her "duty" as a wife and mother to seek out her individuality. The feminist issues in A Doll's House seem almost contemporary, although it was written more than a century ago. When Ibsen wrote this play in 1879, Nora's behaviour was subject to controversy, since most people still believed that a woman's place was in the home. A Doll's House challenges this patriarchal view and shows the audience a fresh perspective on a woman's life. Many women could relate to Nora's situation. Like Nora, they felt trapped in a doll's house by their husbands and their fathers; however, they believed that the rules of society prevented them from stepping out of the shadows of men. Through this play, Ibsen stresses the importance of women's individuality.
The characters of this play help to support Ibsen's opinions. Nora's initial characteristics are that of a bubbly, child-like wife who is strictly dependent on her husband. This subordinate role from which Nora progresses emphasizes the need for change in society's view of women. For Nora, her inferior, doll-like nature is a facade for a deeper passion for individuality that begins to surface during the play and eventually fully emerges in the ending. An example of this deep yearning for independence is shown when Nora tells her friend, Kristina Linde about earning her own money by doing copying. Nora explains, "it was tremendous fun sitting [in her room] working and earning money. It was almost like being a man" (A Doll's House, 162). Mrs. Linde is an inspiration to Nora, because Kristina has experienced the independence that Nora longs for.
Even though Nora seeks to be independent, she uses her role of subordination to her advantage. By deceiving her husband, Torvald, into thinking that she can do nothing on her own, she ensures that he never suspects her of forging her father's name to borrow 800 cronen from Krogstad in order to save Torvald's life. When Krogstad threatens to expose the truth, Nora must use her craftiness to distract Torvald and sway him into letting Krogstad keep his job. Unfortunately, she is not able to change his mind, but she does succeed in diverting his suspicions of her motives. She praises him and lulls him into a false sense of security by telling him that "[n]o one has such good taste as [he has]" and then goes on to ask him if he could "take [her] in hand and decide what [she is] to go as" for the dance. She confesses to him that she "can't do anything without [him] to help [her]". These statements lead him to believe that he is the one to "rescue" her, when it is in fact Nora who is trying to rescue him from dishonour. Later on, when Krogstad puts a letter in Torvald's mail, explaining everything that Nora has done, Nora uses her charms once more. She pretends that she has forgotten the tarantella so that Torvald will spend all his time with her and think nothing of the mail that awaits him. Nora truly believes that by deceiving her husband, she is protecting him from worry. Because of Nora's deception, the person that Torvald believes her to be is quite different from the person she actually is. He believes that she is a "spendthrift," infatuated by expensive things when in reality, she saves her money to pay back Krogstad and buys cheap clothing and gifts. Torvald thinks that she is submissive to him, as a good wife should be, but she defies him by eating forbidden macaroons and lying to him. These contrasting sides of Nora's personality reveal her confusion about her path in life. She soon comes to realize the she must take the path that is right for her and no one else. She discovers that Torvald is not the man she thought him to be and that he knows nothing of who she really is. In her sudden awareness, she says to Torvald, "you don't understand me. And I've never understood you - until tonight". They have lived as strangers to each other. Nora's progression from a submissive housewife to an opinionated, independent woman represents the future progression of women in society.
Torvald's role illustrates society's inaccurate perception of women. He sees her only as a one-sided character with little or no opinions of her own. As Nora comments,"I came to have tastes as yours...or I pretended to". Nora's father also contributes to her oppression. "He used to tell [Nora] his opinion about everything, and so [she] had the same opinion". Torvald only continues the behavior that she had come to expect from her father. These male figures in Nora\'92s life not only limit her beliefs and actions, but also limit her happiness. She admits that she has "never been happy....only gay". Torvald is surprised at this, because he never bothered to think of her feelings, he only assumed that she would feel the same way as he did. To the outside world, Torvald seems to be an admirable, honest man with high moral standards. Nora mentions that "[h]e won't touch any case that isn't absolutely respectable". He is a good provider to his wife and children, working so hard to support them that he made himself physically ill. These are characteristics which make a decent and enviable husband. Contrary to his appearance, Torvald is actually a cruel and cowardly man who is more concerned about his honour than his family. His true nature is revealed when he reads the letter that Krogstad has written. Instead of taking the blame for what Nora has done, as she believes he will do, Torvald blames Nora for wrecking his happiness and ruining his future. He decides that he will try to cover up what she has done and she will live in his house, but she will not raise his children. Torvald's actions are ironic because earlier in the play, when Nora is upset about Krogstad, he comforts her by stating that whatever happens, "[he] shall have the necessary courage and strength. [Nora] will see that [he] is man enough to take it all on [himself]". Minutes later, when Torvald finds that he is saved from shame, he retracts everything he has said to her in his anger, and acts as if nothing has happened. It is only when his honour is not at risk that he realizes that his wife was only acting out of love for him. Through Torvald's character, Ibsen discards the public view of man to expose a more realistic depiction of male superiority.
The detailed stage directions are a way to help the audience to see the characters as Ibsen visualized them. Peter Watts describes how Ibsen sees his characters as if from out of a mist until they gradually emerge into clear images (17). The stage directions reflect Ibsen's realistic view of his characters. He writes down every movement, however slight it might seem. After Krogstad pays Nora a visit for the first time, the stage directions play a large role in displaying Nora's anxiety. "She starts to busy herself by tidying the children's clothes, but soon stops". Soon, she moves on to her needlework, but after only a stitch or two, she stops. She begins "busily decorating the tree" until her husband comes home. It is easy for the audience to see that Nora is uneasy, and by keeping herself busy, she distracts herself from her fears. Ibsen's stage directions are effective in creating greater depth and feeling in his characters, making them more real to the audience.
Ibsen uses animal imagery in the play's dialogue to portray Torvald's feelings towards his wife. When Torvald hears Nora humming as she enters the house, he asks, "[i]s that my little skylark twittering out there". This is appropriate since she is in high spirits and humming cheerfully like a bird. He goes on to refer to her as a scampering little squirrel. A squirrel hides and stores food, much as Nora does with her bag of macaroons. When Torvald uses these petnames, he often pairs them with possessive adjectives, for example, he calls her "my darling little songbird" and "my skylark". This shows that he views Nora as his possession, not as an individual. She plays along with him in order to get what she wants. For instance, when Nora tries to convince Torvald to let Krogstad keep his place as the Bank, she says to Torvald,"[y]our squirrel will scamper about and do all her tricks, if you'll be nice and do what she asks". Despite all of Nora's persuasion, Torvald dismisses Krogstad. Nora is upset by her husband's decision, and Torvald calms her down, telling her not to look like a "frightened dove". A dove is often seen as a symbol of peace, and Ibsen uses this popular representation to show Nora's efforts at maintaining peace and order. The animal imagery is used again, later on in the play, after Torvald reads Krogstad's second letter. Torvald forgives Nora for what she has done, saying his "great wings will protect [her]". He observes that Nora is like a "hunted dove that [he] saved from the talons of a hawk". Again, the dove is used to describe Nora, because Torvald wants her to be docile and helpless like a little dove. Ibsen effectively uses animal imagery to express the way Torvald sees Nora, giving the audience clues to Torvald's dominating and possessive nature.
The setting of this play is significant to its theme. A Doll's House was written during the Victorian era, a conservative time that was intolerant to beliefs that were not shared by society as a whole. Controversy was caused not only by the time, but by the place where the play was set. In Scandinavia and the surrounding areas at this time, most dramas characterized the role of women as the comforter, helper, and supporter of man. This play expressed a new theme that Scandinavia had rarely experienced; therefore, the play was not readily accepted. In fact, the original version of A Doll's House was banned in Germany because the theme was too "unpalatable"(18). Ibsen had to write a new ending where Torvald forces Nora to see her sleeping children and finds herself unable to leave them, thus male superiority is restored and Woman is put in her proper place. A Doll's House did not play outside Scandinavia and Germany for ten years, but when it did, A Doll's House was the first play to make Ibsen widely known outside Scandinavia. The popularity and controversy this play received was no doubt due to its daring theme of the liberation of a woman. The society in which Ibsen lived influenced this theme's development. Nora and Torvald's home represents a microcosm of the patriarchal Victorian society, and her struggles to break free from the constraints of her dominating husband represents Ibsen's views on the freedom of women.
The story of Nora, a complicated woman with feelings and opinions of her own, has an impact on society's view of women and also on women's view of themselves. A Doll's House combines realistic characters, fascinating imagery, explicit stage directions, and an influential setting to develop a controversial theme. Ibsen expresses to the audience his hope for the "miracle" of true equality, when neither men nor women abuse the power that society gives them. When Nora sheds her doll's dress and steps out into the real world, she opens up a new realm of possibilities for all women.
Ibsen, Henrik. A League of Youth/ A Doll's House/ The Lady From the Sea. Trans. Peter Watts. England: Clays Ltd., 1965.