Ibsen’s Combining of New and Old in a Modern Perspective in A Doll’s House

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Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is an excellent example of modernist drama which encompasses elements of the classics which have come before. While centered upon the relations between the two main characters, Nora and Torvald Helmer, the play examines their relationship, the way in which they interact with modern society as well as with other characters. It examines such themes as the role of men and women in society, their relationship with social class and the emerging empowerment of women in society. It also demonstrates such classic themes as patriarchal relationships and the role of honor and reputation. Ibsen uses the themes and values of the past to better frame the more contemporary ideas and themes that would dominate theatrical works to come and firmly cement his play like a brilliant work of modern drama.

While Ibsen’s play was written in the late nineteenth century, it still displays other characteristics of classical dramatic works. At the time of the industrial revolution, though society was still very much patriarchal, the independence of women was becoming more prominent, thus diminishing the authority and necessity of male dominance. Torvald represents the values of classic drama as the male figure who clings to honor and proper behavior in the eyes of society and does not benefit from or embrace the changes of the time. The relationship between Torvald and Nora, for instance, at the beginning of the play, is very traditional. Nora conforms to the classic, and at this point in history, the slightly dated trope of the obedient wife, the showpiece of her husband. In fact, the title of the play, A Doll’s House, refers to the relationship that Nora has with her husband. He is her doll, her plaything, and this shows how the old-fashioned values and classical theater stereotypes are still in place at the start of the play. This is quite evident in the dialogue between the two characters. Helmer’s opening lines to Nora are “Is my little lark twittering out there?” and “Is my little squirrel bustling about?” (Ibsen 3) demonstrating that while these are still expressions of endearment and affection for her that they are still both references to the captivity in which Torvald keeps Nora. To him, she is more of a trophy than a real person.

Torvald is a prideful man who works to ensure that his family is in want of nothing. His hard work and dedication have merited him a promotion and the promise of his new increase in salary has Nora eagerly anticipating what their future will hold. His response to her frivolity allows the reader to observe his narrow view of society and how he clings to the past traditions: “That is like a woman! But seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debt, no borrowing. There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt. We two have kept bravely on the straight road so far, and we will go on the same way” (Ibsen 6).  From these sentiments, not only are Torvald’s old-fashioned values evident, but also his continued objectification of his wife and of women in general. It is also because of his adherence to these archaic ideas that cost him the one thing he loves, the thing he discovers at the close of the play is truly more important to him than his honor. With these final words, “Nora! Nora!  Empty. She is gone. . . .The most wonderful thing of all--?” (Ibsen 79). Torvald shows that although he is a relic of the past, he is not without the possibility of change.

Within the play, there is represented the middle class, where in the past there had merely been the common people and the nobility. This shift into social classes demonstrates a new complexity that had not been present in earlier theater. In the classic drama, there was only the lower class and the nobility—there was no crossing these lines. Ibsen presents the Helmers as a family who has gradually worked their way to the upper echelons of the middle class, a new concept in drama. This upward social mobility created modern and complicated problems that Ibsen has deftly intertwined with the classic themes of honor and loyalty. The element of the play that defines it as a work of modern theater, however,  is in the character of Nora. Ibsen does a marvelous job of using her character to frame the play in traditional theatrical themes at the opening and then to pull it into modern day by the close. Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora going behind her husband’s back in order to provide for the family in their time of need demonstrates a stronger, more three-dimensional female character that had been seen in the classical theater when female characters were often either deceitful monsters or helpless victims.

Nora Helmer is the personification of the modernization of the female character.  She begins the play as Torvald’s puppet, a macaroon sneaking, an ornamental idea rather than an individual.  It is in her act of money borrowing and forgery where the first elements of Nora’s character can be seen.  She did what she did for the good of her family, a fiercely independent act which foreshadows what is to transpire for her character by play’s end.  The act was in direct opposition to the will of both her father and her husband, the two individuals who have provided her with the only elements of a world view that she has in her sheltered life. To commit an act in such bold contradiction to their beliefs is the act of a fearless individual, which is essentially what Nora will become by her exit at the end of act three. She is not fearless in the conventional sense, as she has many anxieties, but in that, she is unafraid to face change. 

Nora’s personal torment after she learns of Krogstad’s intent to expose her indiscretions was the genesis of her emerging character.  The days she spent fretting about the consequences that would befall her upon Torvald’s discovery of her actions begin a process that culminates in the metamorphosis of Nora into the independent woman she becomes. Nora’s embracing of her own independence and casting off of the binds of her husband’s sheltering influence is also a representation of the emerging role of women in not only modern theater, but in society as well.  It is not until Nora’s forgery is revealed to Torvald that she is truly able to clearly see that he is not the man she thought he was and that their marriage is nothing more than an illusion. She is appalled that Torvald would choose to let her suffer the blame rather than accepting it himself, an accusation to which he declares, “I would gladly work night and day for you, Nora--bear sorrow and want for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves” (Ibsen 77). She immediately responds, “It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done” (Ibsen 78), declaring not only her independence from Torvald but as a woman in general.  

The conclusion of the play is most representative of its identity of modern drama. In the theater of the past, women had only two options when faced with unhappy situations in life. They would simply endure as Linda Loman did throughout Death of a Salesman, or they would take their lives to escape their situations as do both Ophelia and Jokasta in Hamlet and Oedipus the King respectively. Nora, for a moment, considers this way out when confronted by Krogstad, but his words to her, “Under the ice, perhaps? Down into the cold, coal-black water. . . People don't do such things, Mrs. Helmer” (Ibsen 51) make her realize that this is not the course of action to take. Rather than relapse into the obedient, frightened creature she had once been, she rather charges toward the independent, liberated woman she would become. Upon hearing Torvald choose his honor over her, Nora knows what she must do. She says to him, “In all these eight years--longer than that--from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject. . . you have never understood me. I have been greatly wronged, Torvald--first by papa and then by you. . . You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me” (Ibsen 72-3), signifying the consequences of his decision. Nora is not dismissed or rejected by Torvald, but rather he is rejected by her. Her decision to leave defines the modern woman and a bold step forward in modern drama.

Ibsen’s play swings back and forth between traditional drama themes and modern. It seems that Ibsen was not conflicted by doing this, but rather signifies the transition that was occurring. While paying homage to the dramatic works of the past, Ibsen also paves the way for the modern works that were to follow. His depiction of the traditional character of Torvald with the evolving character of Nora allowed him to show his audience the beauty and tradition of the way things had been while still introducing them to the way things were going to be.

Work Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. The Gresham Press, 1889.