'A Doll's House' is classified under the 'second phase' of Henrik
Ibsen's career. It was during this period which he made the transition
from mythical and historical dramas to plays dealing with social problems.
It was the first in a series investigating the tensions of family life.
Written during the Victorian era, the controversial play featuring a female
protagonist seeking individuality stirred up more controversy than any of
his other works. In contrast to many dramas of Scandinavia in that time
which depicted the role of women as the comforter, helper, and supporter of
man, 'A Doll's House' introduced woman as having her own purposes and
goals. The heroine, Nora Helmer, progresses during the course of the play
eventually to realize that she must discontinue the role of a doll and seek
out her individuality.
David Thomas describes the initial image of Nora as that of a doll
wife who revels in the thought of luxuries that can now be afforded, who
is become with flirtation, and engages in childlike acts of disobedience
(259). This inferior role from which Nora progressed is extremely
important. Ibsen in his 'A Doll's House' depicts the role of women as
subordinate in order to emphasize the need to reform their role in society.
Definite characteristics of the women's subordinate role in a
relationship are emphasized through Nora's contradicting actions. Her
infatuation with luxuries such as expensive Christmas gifts contradicts her
resourcefulness in scrounging and buying cheap clothing; her defiance of
Torvald by eating forbidden Macaroons contradicts the submission of her
opinions, including the decision of which dance outfit to wear, to her
husband; and Nora's flirtatious nature contradicts her devotion to her
husband. These occurrences emphasize the facets of a relationship in
which women play a dependent role: finance, power, and love. Ibsen
attracts our attention to these examples to highlight the overall
subordinate role that a woman plays compared to that of her husband. The
two sides of Nora contrast each other greatly and accentuate the fact that
she is lacking in independence of will.
The mere fact that Nora's well-intentioned action is considered
illegal reflects woman's subordinate position in society; but it is her
actions that provide the insight to this position. It can be suggested
that women have the power to choose which rules to follow at home, but not
in the business world, thus again indicating her subordinateness. Nora
does not at first realize that the rules outside the household apply to
her. This is evident in Nora's meeting with Krogstad regarding her
borrowed money. In her opinion it was no crime for a woman to do
everything possible to save her husband's life. She also believes that her
act will be overlooked because of her desperate situation. She fails to
see that the law does not take into account the motivation behind her
forgery. Marianne Sturman submits that this meeting with Krogstad was her
first confrontation with the reality of a 'lawful society' and she deals
with it by attempting to distract herself with her Christmas decorations
(16). Thus her first encounter with rules outside of her 'doll's house'
results in the realization of her naivety and inexperience with the real
world due to her subordinate role in society.
The character of Nora is not only important in describing to role
of women, but also in emphasizing the impact of this role on a woman.
Nora's child-like manner, evident through her minor acts of disobedience
and lack of responsibility compiled with her lack of sophistication further
emphasize the subordinate role of woman. By the end of the play this is
evident as she eventually sees herself as an ignorant person, and unfit
mother, and essentially her husband's wife. Edmond Gosse highlights the
point that 'Her insipidity, her dollishness, come from the incessant
repression of her family life (721).' Nora has been spoonfed everything
she has needed in life. Never having to think has caused her to become
dependent on others. This dependency has given way to subordinateness, one
that has grown into a social standing. Not only a position in society, but
a state of mind is created. When circumstances suddenly place Nora in a
responsible position, and demand from her a moral judgment, she has none to
give. She cannot possibly comprehend the severity of her decision to
borrow money illegally. Their supposed inferiority has created a class of
ignorant women who cannot take action let alone accept the consequences of
'A Doll's House' is also a prediction of change from this
subordinate roll. According to Ibsen in his play, women will eventually
progress and understand her position. Bernard Shaw notes that when Nora's
husband inadvertently deems her unfit in her role as a mother, she begins
to realize that her actions consisting of playing with her children happily
or dressing them nicely does not necessarily make her a suitable parent
(226). She needs to be more to her children than an empty figurehead.
From this point, when Torvald is making a speech about the effects of a
deceitful mother, until the final scene, Nora progressively confronts the
realities of the real world and realizes her subordinate position.
Although she is progressively understanding this position, she still clings
to the hope that her husband will come to her protection and defend her
from the outside world once her crime is out in the open. After she
reveals the 'dastardly deed' to her husband, he becomes understandably
agitated; in his frustration he shares the outside world with her, the
ignorance of the serious business world, and destroys her innocence and
self-esteem. This disillusion marks the final destructive blow to her
doll's house. Their ideal home including their marriage and parenting has
been a fabrication for the sake of society. Nora's decision to leave this
false life behind and discover for herself what is real is directly
symbolic of woman's ultimate realization. Although she becomes aware of
her supposed subordinateness, it is not because of this that she has the
desire to take action. Nora is utterly confused, as suggested by Harold
Clurman, 'She is groping sadly in a maze of confused feeling toward a way
of life and a destiny of which she is most uncertain (256).' The one thing
she is aware of is her ignorance, and her desire to go out into the world
is not to 'prove herself' but to discover and educate herself. She must
strive to find her individuality.
That the perception of woman is inaccurate is also supported by the
role of Torvald. Woman is believed to be subordinate to the domineering
husband. Instead of being the strong supporter and protector of his
family, Nora's husband is a mean and cowardly man. Worried about his
reputation he cares little about his wife's feelings and fails to notice
many of her needs. The popular impression of man is discarded in favor of
a more realistic view, thus illustrating society's distorted views.
Ibsen, through this controversial play, has an impact upon
society's view of the subordinate position of women. By describing this
role of woman, discussing its effects, and predicting a change in
contemporary views, he stressed the importance of woman's realization of
this believed inferiority. Woman should no longer be seen as the shadow of
man, but a person in herself, with her own triumphs and tragedies. The
exploration of Nora reveals that she is dependant upon her husband and
displays no independent standing. Her progression of understanding
suggests woman's future ability to comprehend their plight. Her state of
shocked awareness at the end of the play is representative of the awakening
of society to the changing view of the role of woman. 'A Doll's House'
magnificently illustrates the need for and a prediction of this change.