Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”, written in 1879 is an iconic play as an acclaimed piece of literature with overtones of social controversy challenging relevant mores of the time it was written which remain valid for consideration today. The play is excellent in its structure in the traditional three act drama with full use of dramatic tools of irony, conflict, protagonists and antagonists. Additionally, the play has remained socially relevant with its undertones of social critique and potential influence on feminism. This essay explores the play as it is and what it means. Like any great piece of art, it is both technically superior as well as timeless. In Henrik Ibsen’s, “A Doll’s House”, the main characters include Torvald Helmer husband of Nora Helmer, Nils Krogstad, a subordinate at Helmer’s workplace, and Dr. Rank, a family friend. Nora is the play’s protagonist with Krogstad as antagonist. Both Torvald and Dr. Rank represent foils for Nora and Krogstad. The play depicts a seemingly happy household with clearly defined social stations representative of nineteenth century living. Women were wives and mothers subordinated to the role of making their husband’s leisure time as pleasant as possible. It is revealed early in the play that Nora has engaged in nefarious activity that Krogstad is blackmailing Nora with. The blackmail presses Nora into reconsidering her social role. She’s frustrated and unsatisfied by her limited powers as a woman in the nineteenth century. She’s attempting to reconcile years of resentment against her upbringing as a, “Doll-child” for her father to the, “Doll-wife” to Torvald (Act 3.1). For the duration of their marriage, Nora has been playing the role of the dutiful wife, all the while she’s been quietly rebelling. Throughout the play the dangers of social shame are resolved but Nora remains determined to find her true individual identity and she ultimately abandons her husband and children.
“A Doll’s House” remains an important play using the form of drama to dramatize relevant social ideals. Formulaically the play uses irony, deception, conflict, protagonists, and antagonists in an artful manner to both entertain and enlighten. An underrepresented ironic foil is the character of Dr. Rank. He adores Nora, is a man of wealth, and would be happy to carry Nora away to have as his own. Nora considers this option during the play. Ironically, Dr. Rank was born with a terminal illness. He ultimately succumbs to this disease at the beginning of the third act. Nora too was born with a terminal illness, that of bondage to social constructs. Upon the news of Rank’s death, Nora lays to rest her bondage and seeks out to find her individual self essentially, the death of her “doll life”. This is an excellent use of dramatic foil and irony in this classic play. However, the play has been considered more critically for its commentary of social mores and ideas of feminism.
The 1921 critique by Herbert Stewart presents one view of what Ibsen was attempting to say about social ideals with the characters of Ibsen’s plays. Stewart believes that Ibsen was challenging modern ideal’s in his plays. “We do not as a rule exercise our own consciences but accept as authoritative something we call an ‘ideal’, and that this ideal has been made not by us, but for us” (Stewart, 238). They are not often challenged except in meaningful art like “A Doll’s House”. Nora represents a character fully engaged in the womanly duties with a secret past and tendency to rebellion. As the real Nora becomes harder to conceal, “Nora escapes from each precipice by plunging headlong over another and concludes in the end that if she had been a less womanly woman, and more a woman of business, it would have been better for all concerned” (Stewart, 240). It is suggested that if Nora was a woman of reason, that things would have turned out better and one exchange between Helmer and Nora illustrates the divergence of perceptions between these characters:
“Helmer: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother. Nora: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are-or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and the views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them” (Ibsen, Act 3.1)
It seems quite simple to Helmer that Nora’s place is as a wife and mother, but Nora disagrees in direct challenge to the social mores of the time. Helmer believes that he should be the sole guide for Nora and that the drama caused by her actions only endears Nora to him more motivating his need to care for her:
Helmer: You have loved me as a wife ought to love her husband. Only you had not sufficient knowledge to judge of the means you used....I will advise you and direct you. I should not be a man if this womanly helplessness did not just give you a double attractiveness in my eyes” (Act 3.1).
By this point in the play, Nora has already made up her mind that she is going to leave Helmer. These quotes support Stewart’s notion that Ibsen is using drama to challenge ideals of the time. For some, Nora is a protagonist in the great social play involving feminist perspectives - much like in Paradise Lost, but scholars are critical of considering Nora as a feminist icon, rather, she is more of a conflicted person, and her actions would be relevant whether she was a male of not. Her conflict is not ultimately with her gender role, but with her personality.
In 1989, one hundred and ten years after its initial publication Joan Templeton considers the feminist effect of Ibsen’s Nora. Between the original publication and then feminism had evolved to the point where these conclusions are drawn, “A Doll [sic] House, represents a woman imbued with the idea of becoming a person, but it proposes nothing categorical about women becoming people, in fact, its real theme has nothing to do with the sexes” (Templeton, 28). This supports Stewarts assertion from 1921 that the struggle for Nora was not so much about gender roles as it was about individualism. For modern application it is more salient to consider Nora as any other character struggling to cope with an identity crisis. Throughout literature, characters have found themselves in morally precarious positions and have been confronted by ethical choices.
Conflict and choices are the hallmarks of great works of art. “A Doll’s House” remains one of Ibsen’s most celebrated works. It’s been critically evaluated for its social meaning for over a century and a half. Understanding the era when it was written and appreciating the modern era enriches the experience. Social constructs were present then and are present now. Not many plays can transcend social evolution like this one can. Depicted in this play seems unthinkable in context of the time. However, considered today, families are broken often because one spouse or another is not fully whole themselves. This play prompts critical thought on social norms.
This essay has shown that Ibsen has successfully used dramatic form to illustrate important social phenomena developing a play of intrigue. His use of irony and conflict create a realistic presentation of a situation that artfully addressed relevant issues. The most important message from Ibsen’s work is the commitment to reason and to continuously reassess social institutions. It’s not always necessary to change something, but it’s important to understand why something is.
Ibsen, Henrik. "A Doll's House." A Doll's House. The Project Gutenberg Ebook of A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen, 13 Dec. 2008. Web. 28 Feb. 2013. <www.gutenberg.org/files/2542/2542-h/2542-h.htm#act3>.
Stewart, Herbert. "Ibsen and Some Current Superstitions." The North American Review 213.783 (1921): 237-246. www.jstor.org. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Templeton, Joan. "The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen." PMLA 104.1 (1989): 28-40. www.jstor.org. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.