In his book A Doll’s House, Ibsen explores the ideological struggle of gender roles in a marriage where the wife Nora must maintain a helpless role and the husband Torvald must appear as the sole familial support. Henrik Ibsen has been able to drive this point home very powerfully in A Doll’s House. Nora and Torvald, the main characters, belong to an ordinary middle-class family and the stereotypes in gender roles are very obvious and are most prevalent in this milieu.
The coming of age of Nora and of women in the fin-de-siecle brought the issue of gender roles in society and the emancipation of women to the fore.
The so called tragedy that befalls Torvald is of a private nature but its enactment has implications for the whole society. “In closing her door on her husband and children, Nora opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women’s” (Finney: 91). The play brings out the hypocrisy behind Torvald’s obsession with keeping up appearances and encouraging Nora to behave in a childish, helpless way to make him feel important and assert his masculine strength.
Nora laments the fact that she had remained a doll-child and a doll-wife all her life.
She had passively accepted this role to conform to the norms of society. She knew that she was expected to play the role of a pretty “featherbrained” woman who needed to be petted and taken care of constantly. She realized that neither her father nor her husband had given her enough credit to be a responsible and mature human being and be taken seriously. She knew that the oft repeated plea “But I can’t get on a bit without you to help me” (Doll’s House, II) was in effect a result of her utter dependence on her husband; a dependence which was encouraged by Torvald and the society at large.
Torvald was protective and caring of Nora but what he actually was trying to achieve was have complete control over her thoughts and actions. He was the mainstay of the family and Nora was the limpet hanging on to his masculine strength and making herself agreeable to him in order to remain in his favor. At the end of the play, the misfortune is more about Torvald’s failure to maintain the illusion of his being the most upright, principled and in short, the most perfect man. His realization that he had fallen in the eyes of a woman whom he felt condescendingly about heightens the sense of tragedy.
He would often preach to Nora about her lack of principles which she had apparently inherited from her father and reprimanded her by calling her “a hypocrite, a liar—worse, worse–a criminal! The unutterable ugliness of it all! –For shame! For shame! ”(A Doll’s House: III). The unmasking of his own hypocrisy and the ugliness of being exposed to be a petty, judgmental and selfish man makes the audience understand that in spite of all his sermonizing, he was the one who lacked any principles as he was ready to drop everything and forget about the whole incident as soon as his own back was covered.
In the final analysis of the ideological struggle depicted in this play, Nora, who was actually happy in enacting her gender stereotype during the beginning of the play and was elevated to a much higher position due to her realization of her identity and the consequent struggle to assert her independence. Nora’s recognition of her transformation from being “simply your little songbird” to a whole human being with potential to grow to be a woman of more substance is the first step towards her trying to resolve the conflict within her.
She also understood that Torvald had always maintained a certain facade with her, which was contrary to his actual being. She says, “I realized that for eight years I’d been living here with a strange man… ” (Doll House: III) and that steeled her determination to begin from scratch and live up to her potential. At the end of the play Nora appears to be strong and determined to the point of being heartless as she abandons her home, husband and children in quest of her true identity and knowledge of the ways of the world.
The topic of feminism in this play deals with double standards and marriage (Finney: 92) A blatant example of this is Torvald’s condemnation of Nora as a “hypocrite and liar” when in reality it is Torvald who is the biggest hypocrite. His tall words about honor and honesty are shallow and he exposes himself as the small, petty person he is in spite of trying to assert himself in the stereotypical masculine role that society assigned to the male gender. Even the minor women characters in the play that of Mrs.
Linde and Anne, the maid, demonstrate strength and fixity of purpose that the male characters Torvald, Dr. Rank and Krogstad fail to display. Ibsen was sensitive to feminine issues and though he himself proclaimed himself a ‘humanist’ rather than a ‘feminist’ his insight into the feminine psyche and his portrayal of women is evident in his memorable plays. He is able to make it clear to the audience that Nora’s helplessness and dependence on Torvald was put on.
It became more obvious when we come to know that Nora had actually forged her father’s signature in order to take a loan to get Torvald to Italy in order to save his life. That she was capable of taking such drastic decisions and has the courage to work at copying and repay the loan to Krogstad without Torvald’s knowledge is a clear indicator that left to her own devises she was quite decisive and better at managing crisis than Torvald.
In conclusion, it is indeed true that Nora Helmer tried her best to enact the gender role assigned to her by the society. However, when ideological differences arose she struggled to cast off the garb of the helpless little lady and emerged a stronger and more mature person. In the play a clear happy ending was not evident and the audience was left to interpret Torvald’s hope for a “most wonderful thing” as a silver lining to an otherwise grim close to the play.