First performed in Denmark of 1879, “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen shocked Europe with its controversially courageous ideas. Although the play undeniably paints a sympathetic salutation to the plight of women during the 18th and 19th century, Ibsen repudiated the piece as being of solely feministic construct, declaring it a humanistic piece.
In fact, when he was being honored by the Norwegian Society for Women’s Rights, Ibsen himself stressed that his general intent as a writer was not to solely bring light to the plight of women when he asserted that, “True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose.
My task has been the description of humanity” (Ibsen Letters 337). Upon further examination, it becomes evident that the feminist ideals that are present in “A Doll’s House” culminate as merely a symptom of an all-encompassing epidemic. Through the characters of Torvald, Nora, Krogstad, and Christine, Ibsen underlines the lethality of a marriage diseased by societal pressure, and the hope of a union that is free from fallacy, yet by no means fault.
Torvald is a caricature of the chauvinistic male products of the patriarchal prison that perpetuated throughout society in the 18th century. A result of embracing the role that society has assigned him, is the projection of those societal ideals onto his own environment. Unfortunately, society has misconstrued Torvald’s interpretation of love, and what it means to be a ‘good’ man/husband; he believes he loves his wife, but what he loves is the idea of her. He loves the idea of her as a dazzling doll that he can dress and disregard, or a child whom he can control and (pretend to) protect. Torvald reflects his assumptions of his wife’s inferiority in many ways:
He refers to her as “Little Squirrel/Skylark/Songbird” (Ibsen 1352), he indicts her of “think[ing] and talk[ing] like a heedless child” (Ibsen 1401), and he accuses her of not “understand[ing] the conditions of the world in which [she] live[s]” (Ibsen 1400). These assumptions culminate in an insurmountable amount of irony. While Torvald accuses his wife of being ignorant to the world around her, it is he that is in fact unaware of the
harsh realities of his life.
During a time when Torvald became ill, Nora committed forgery of her father’s name to yield the necessary funds that permitted they travel to receive the medical attention required to save her husband’s life, an act that Nora fruitlessly fights to ensure remains unbeknownst to her husband. Additionally, Torvald is kept unaware of Dr. Rank’s impending death by both the doctor, and by his wife, Nora. Rank tells Nora, “Helmer’s refined nature gives him an unconquerable disgust at everything that is ugly” (Ibsen 1377), directly alluding to Torvald’s superficial nature and his inability to face the unpleasant realities of life.
Thus, it is Torvald that does not “understand the conditions of the world in which [he] live[s]” (Ibsen 1400); however, his ignorance is not of his own doing. Further irony is offered to Torvald’s patronizing pet names for his wife. Torvald’s use of naturally elusive animals in reference to his obedient wife invokes images of unnaturally caged creatures, a reflection of Nora (and all women) as ‘caged’ within society’s assigned role to women as, and capable of, lesser than what Ibsen revolutionarily believed to be their actual worth and ability. The superficial standards of society have conditioned Torvald to believe that Nora depends on him (and thus, the more important he is), and that she, as a woman, is emotionally and mentally childlike (and thus, the stronger and wiser he is).
Furthermore, Torvald casts himself a heroic role in his own fictional theatrical production when he tells Nora, “I have often wished that you might be threatened by some great danger, so that I might risk my life’s blood, and everything, for your sake” (Ibsen 1394). Torvald, enthralled by Nora’s dazzling demeanor, fantasizes about how he might rescue her from some great danger.
However, shortly after his chivalrous charade, Torvald, having learned the details of Nora’s debt, has the opportunity to do just that, and fails miserably. Nora’s husband shows no appreciation for her intelligence or intention in performing an act that could have been avoided had Nora been capable of exceeding the superficial barriers imposed by society (such as attaining a credible career, or the ability to acquire a loan). Additionally, Torvald lacks even slight consideration of his wife’s feelings in light of the details of her loan, despite the fact that her actions saved his life. He rejects her as both a wife to him, and a mother for their children.
Furthermore, he asserts that he wants her to remain in his house and pretend
that all is well with their marriage asserting that “From this moment happiness is not the question; all that concerns us is to save the remains, the fragments, the appearance” (Ibsen 1396). Thus, Torvald’s harsh and selfish reaction to the insight of Nora’s crime is far from heroic, and prompts Nora’s revelation of her husband and marriage: “You don’t understand me, and I have never understood you either–before to-night” (Ibsen 1397). Ironically, Nora has also been at fault for deceiving her husband of her true nature prior to this proclamation.
Nora, who has never lived alone–she went directly from the care of her father to that of her husband–has been conditioned to believe that a woman’s “happiness is dependent on the happiness of the head men in her life” (Northam 251). This belief results in a façade that Nora fabricates and flaunts as an embodiment of a woman/wife consistent with the ideals of her father, husband, and society at large.
As Torvald gently chides Nora throughout the play, Nora good-naturedly responds to, and even plays into, his criticisms. She has learnt to coax her husband into submission of what she asks by appealing to what she knows he finds desirable in her. Nora’s character shifts from initially struggling to define self-fulfillment, to the astoundingly audacious pursuance of it on conclusion. Ibsen carefully constructed the character of Nora so that her independence and precaution are consistently shown as persistently trying to outshine her adolescent-like dependence and unpredictability. Although her father, husband, and societal standards have perforated any practical understanding concerning gender roles, she has retained enough intrinsic wisdom to confront an emergency, perhaps an implication of Ibsen’s faith in the commendable innate characteristics of women at large.
The fact that she confronts her and her husband’s inability to pay for treatment of her husband’s pressing illness by means of a forgery provides credence to her independence of thought; the carelessness of the act however, reflects her lack of sophistication.
The collision of wisdom and childishness within Nora’s character enables her to test by experience the social hypothesis which declares that duties to the family are the most sacred. To her dismay, Nora realizes that despite her diligence towards her dues as both mother and wife, her marriage is not one of true love. Nora concludes the play with the world famous slam of the door as she releases herself from the infectious incubator in which she has so long been entrapped by fault of her husband, society, and her own self-deception.
She declares her right to tend to “other duties just as sacred…Duties to [her]self” (Ibsen 1399) in her flight to freedom. Subsequently, her conclusive and dramatic exodus offers Torvald a chance for liberation (and perhaps even redemption). When Torvald claims he has “it in [him] to become a different man” Nora responds, “Perhaps–if your doll is taken away from you” (Ibsen 1401). This is a direct implication of Nora’s realization not only of her own imprisonment, but also her insight regarding the contribution her role as Torvald’s doll has had towards her husband’s conditioning. This, in addition to her own self-realization, adds subtle yet substantial reinforcement to the humanistic nature of the play.
Nils Krogstad, from whom Nora acquired the scandalous loan and has been blackmailed her since, is a character that can be reasonably stigmatized as a grade-A villain (A is for antagonist). However, although Krogstad undoubtedly uses some villainous tactics over the course of the play, there are in fact indications throughout that, underneath Krogstad’s villainous exterior, there is, at least to some degree, a respectable man who can then be recognized as another victim caught in the stranglehold of society.
Krogstad’s former fiancée, Mrs. Christine Linde had brutally severed her relationship with him when she was left fatherless, her brothers and ailing mother to care for, and without means for monetary support. Since a woman of the 18th century could not take out a loan, nor acquire a high-paying job, Christine’s circumstances necessitated that she marry a man with money. Eventually, Krogstad married and had children but when his wife passed away, he was left to raise and support his children alone. Under the pressure of his circumstances, Krogstad commits forgery, and is consequently viewed by the community as having a “diseased moral character” (Ibsen 1360).
Thus, Christine’s rejection of Krogstad for a man whom could provide monetary support, combined with “society’s reaction to his petty crime performed to support his family out of reasonable desperation” (Hardwick 294), has programmed Krogstad to believe that to be a man worthy of a woman’s love or societal acceptance, he must be a man of flourishing financial standing, thus tragically fating him to a decade of self-suffering through petty crime and blackmail (Hardwick 294).
When Christine’s brothers are grown, and her mother and husband have passed away, the newly independent, and, while of by no easy means, self-sufficient Christine perpetually “found life profoundly depressing and aimless without the anchor of a husband and children” (Northam 252). Christine does not find happiness again until she reunites with Krogstad, telling him “I want to be a mother to someone, and your children need a mother. We two need each other” (Ibsen 1388). For a play that is often painted as a feminist paean, Christine’s proclamation is an awfully traditional assertion. Her tenacity to jump back into the role of wife and mother could be defined as tragic: society has conditioned her to believe that the only way she will feel satisfied in her role as a woman is to play the part of wife and mother. On the other hand, Christine makes her statement not out of ignorance, but as a woman well aware of life without men.
Thus, Christine’s dissatisfaction may not be a nod to the tragic conditioning of women to fit the role of wife and mother, but an acknowledgement of the intrinsic inclination that we as humble humans feel regarding a need and desire for love. Christine and Krogstad, who reunite towards the end of the play, contrast the relationship of the Helmers in that the foundation of the new found relationship is one of mutual understanding and equality. Christine says to Krogstad, “Nils, how would it be if we two shipwrecked people could join forces? […]
Two on the same piece of wreckage would stand a better chance than each on their own” (Ibsen 1388). Perhaps the point Ibsen is trying to perpetuate in the reunion of Christine and Krogstad is that “the most wonderful thing of all” (Ibsen 1403) is, in fact, a marriage, a marriage that is “a wonderful thing” despite the imperfections of the individual, or within the relationship, a marriage that depicts what Nora defines as “a real wedlock” (Ibsen 1402).
Although it can’t be entirely denied that Ibsen is making a statement on the rights of women in this era, a greater feat is his illustration of the institution of marriage as flawed by fallacious fronts. Ibsen’s greatest achievement in “A Doll’s House,” however, is not the judgment it passes on the institution of marital union, but the warning it perpetuates: “It is of no use lying to one’s self” (Ibsen 1376). Ibsen incorporates implication of hope in the union of Christine and Krogstad, a union that may be full of imperfection, but is free of fallacious fronts. Ibsen illuminates the issue of societal pressure through the intricacies of each, Torvald, Nora, Krogstad, and Christine, to underline an issue that goes far beyond feminist
ideals, and perhaps even more impressively, an idea that transcends time.
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