Study Notes on A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

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Introduction

Before Ibsen, European theatre was at its lowest ebb. It was felt that theatre no longer reflected serious issues. Rather, theatre had become a vehicle for entertainment. Theatre in the early nineteenth century (pre Ibsen) included historical costume drama, melodrama and the Scribean ‘well made’ play. The Scribean ‘well made’ play was first created by the playwright Eugene Scribe (1791-1861).  The Scribean play was a very simplistic problem play that followed a linear pattern.  Act 1 involved the exposition; Act 2 the crisis and Act 3 saw a resolution and a happy ending. The following are some typical characterisations of the Scribean ‘well made’ play:

  • No depth of psychological characterisation
  • Over elaborate intricacies of plot
  • Playwright was seen as entertainer
  • No individualised characters, instead there were traditional ‘stock types’ presented in each Scribean play – the villain, the woman with a past etc.
  • Allegiance to a happy ending which affirms the status quo of society

Ibsen, having come into contact with Zola’s ideas through the Danish critic Georges Brandes changed all this in his plays.  Zola advocated a move towards problem drama and he challenged dramatists  to be truthful and to represent reality truthfully. For Zola, the realist writer should concern himself with everyday reality. Ibsen heeded Zola’s challenge. He combined the classical Greek Tragedy and the Scribean ‘well made’ play to create his own distinctive ‘theatre of realism’.

A Doll’s House was first premiered in Copenhagen in 1879 in the Royal Theatre.  Ibsen’s plays were written for a predominantly middle-class audience.

The Characters

Within the play there are three major groups of characters:

Torvald Helmer and Dr. Rank possess inherited values and they represent the social masquerade within the society of the time. Torvald remains a bewildered or embittered victim of social determinism while Rank is a victim of biological determinism.

Nora is both a ‘doll child’ and a ‘doll wife’ in this social masquerade. However, in Act 3 she succeeds in rejecting the masquerade.

Mrs. Linde and Krogstad learn to move beyond the masquerade and form a relationship based on truth. Contrast Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s relationship of truth to Nora and Torvald’s marriage.

 The most significant minor character in the play is Anne-Marie. She represents the working class within ‘A Doll’s House’. She is marginalized in terms of economics, class and social morality. Anne-Marie’s character causes us as readers to ask some central questions: Is Anne-Marie a foil for Nora? Is Ibsen advocating liberation for all women or liberation only for some?  ‘A Doll’s House’, therefore, can be described as a feminist text but perhaps it is not feminist enough.

 General Vision and Viewpoint

Ibsen’s contemporaries quite correctly interpreted A Doll’s House as a swingeing attack on conventional bourgeois marriage (although importantly not on marriage per se). It was intended to be a profoundly revolutionary play, deepening the critique of patriarchal attitudes he had initiated in Pillars of Society. As Ibsen saw it, women would spearhead the revolt against the repressive conventions of contemporary society. Men were far more likely to be dominated by the social prejudices of their day because of their role as breadwinner and provider. That is why Nora consciously acts the part of a doll wife, whereas Torvald unthinkingly lives out his role as the authoritarian husband. By the same token, that also explains why Nora achieves insight at the end of the play, while her husband remains bewildered and confused.

 Despite the conscious provocation within it, the play closes on an optimistic note. Nora has left with the positive aim of discovering who and what she is and what she can become. Meanwhile, there is at least a slender ray of hope that Torvald may yet achieve some degree of insight once he has recovered from the initial shock of his wife’s departure. The question he articulates at the end sums up that hope and the difficulty implicit within it: ‘The miracle of miracles…..?’

 It is interesting that the play begins with the door opening to let Helmer into the house, and it concludes with Nora slamming the door in his face.  Throughout the play a certain number of decisions have been taken and choices made by the characters.  For the first time in her life, Nora forces Helmer to face the truth about their marriage.  Roles are reversed.  She recognises that, ‘our home has never been anything but a playroom, where we have never exchanged a serious word on a serious subject’.

 She leaves him, claiming she needs to be freed from the marriage in order to educate herself, and to learn to think about life and its issues.  Helmer is seen as a tragic figure.  He sincerely loved his wife even though he has failed to express it well.  He is left abandoned and alone to look after the family and face the ensuing scandal.  There is a sense that both people need to readdress certain basic issues in their lives such as the reality of what is involved in marriage.

 Visual Symbolism

The play is full of visual suggestions that provide a comment on the action or underline a particular facet of a given character’s responses. We see something of Nora’s extravagance in the Christmas presents she has bought and the excessive tipping of the porter. But in always buying the cheapest clothes we see her resourcefulness in making do. In eating forbidden macaroons she shows her defiance of Torvald, while in asking his advice about her costume for a fancy dress party, we see her skill in flattering and cajoling him. In showing her new silk stockings to Dr Rank, we see her willingness to flirt and exploit her sexuality, but not to the point where it becomes explicit. In her performance of the tarantella, we have an image of the dance of death, an image of the black thoughts filling her mind. The image is reinforced when she pulls a black shawl over her head before attempting to leave the house to commit suicide. Finally, her change of clothes and the donning of everyday dress underlines her determination in the last act of the play to face up to the prosaic reality of her marriage for the very first time.

 Significance of Doors

Ibsen’s first stage direction (p. 23) is both detailed and significant. There are multiple references to ‘doors’, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the open and closed possibilities within the play. Ibsen frames the play with references to ‘doors’. Nora leaves through the same door, a changed individual, at the end of the play.  (Note again the stage direction p. 104.)

 Living Room

When first confronted with the living room it is hard to find much significance attached to it. It is said to be attractive – as a room in a doll’s house is likely to be. The piano (music), the engravings (art) and the books (literature) suggest that at least one of the inhabitants has cultural interests. That is about all. We should realise that there is difference between being a reader (secondary text) and a spectator or member of the audience (primary text).[1] The latter will neither be immediately aware of what is behind the door in the background nor of the fact that it is ‘a winter’s day’ because, after all, they have not read the stage directions!

 However, when we reread the play (highly advised to reread it!!!!), the setting takes on a greater significance. We can see that the room is an expression of Helmer’s taste rather than Nora’s taste. He is the ruler in this household and he is the one who explicitly voices his aesthetic interests. Therefore, as Helmer is gradually revealed as a man hiding behind his socially impeccable façade, the living room takes on other qualities. The properties we took to be signs of genuine cultural interests now appear to be merely status objects, social icons. Like the play title, Ibsen thus invests the setting with a concealed meaning.

 We may also ascribe the fact that the whole action takes place in one and the same room as a sign that Nora is imprisoned in a doll’s house existence – although the room has ‘no fewer than four doors, one of which leads to a fifth and a sixth’. This raises the question of whether this is an open or a closed environment.

 The Christmas Tree

The tree is a central symbol within the play. The Christmas tree may be seen as a symbol of family happiness and security, a natural product of the forests, which has been prevented from full growth, cut or transplanted, then decorated in a domestic environment, like Nora herself. The Christmas tree is dressed and then stripped – which links it with the later fancy dress ball and the costume Nora first dons and later discards… The ‘real’ tree for the children is to be the dressed tree, not its unadorned version. And this links the notion of dress and costume to that of deception and masquerade, which in turn links with Nora’s deception of Torvald about borrowing money and Dr. Rank’s disguising for twenty long years his true feelings for Nora. This, in turn, makes us aware that some kinds of deception, like hiding the unadorned Christmas tree, can be for potentially good purposes.

 The Theme of Patriarchy

A Doll’s House is a comment on the patriarchal society in which it was written. Nora is enslaved by her economic dependency. Ibsen comments on women’s economic dependency on males through Nora. Nora states, ‘a wife can’t borrow money without her husband’s consent.’  However, Nora’s selfless deed for Torvald was, ‘something to be proud and happy about’. She felt empowered because it was, ‘almost like being a man’.

Torvald sees Nora as a pet, an acquisition.  In Act 1, Nora acquiesces to her doll life. Nora is childish in her desire to please him.  Torvald’s pet names are indicative of the balance of power between Torvald and Nora – ‘my little squanderbird, my little songbird, my poor helpless little darling, my little Miss Independent, my clandestine little sweetheart….’  Beneath Torvald’s superficial sweetness to Nora in the pet names he uses, there is an undercurrent of something more sinister. Through these pet names, Torvald is constantly jibing and inadvertently insulting, ‘his little Miss Independent’.

There is never a genuine reciprocal conversation between Nora and Torvald until the final Act.  Contrast Nora and Torvald’s use of language.  Torvald’s use of language in Act 1 and 3 is the language of male discourse, the language of duty and instruction. Nora’s language in Act 1 is the language of female discourse, of petitioning and helplessness.

Within this patriarchal society we witness female instinct pitted against masculine regulative thinking. Male rationality is pitted against female intuition. In effect, we witness the suppressed female versus the suppressing male.

 The central theme of the play hinges on the ‘two kinds of conscience’ Ibsen speaks of in his preliminary notes: Nora’s individualist ethics versus Helmer’s socially determined ones.  The conflict is as old as drama itself and can be traced all the way back to Sophocles’ Antigone. To Helmer Nora’s forgery is a criminal act that cannot be excused; to Nora it is an act fully justified by the circumstances.  Aware that she has done it to save her husband’s life, Nora is even proud of her action. For once she has been able to do something for her husband – ironically it must be without his knowing it. The forgery is both an act of love and an act of independence, and it is difficult to say what is most important to Nora.

 Reflecting the views of a male society, everyone sees Nora as a child to be cared for like a doll. Limited to a family environment, she has few possibilities to satisfy her need for self-respect. Even her children are taken care of by others.  No wonder she relishes her secret knowledge that she has performed an independent act of extreme altruism, an act that is her pride not least because it creates a balance within the marriage. Seemingly totally dependent on her husband, Nora knows that at least once in his life Helmer has been totally dependent on her.

Sample Essay:  Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House can be interpreted as a patriarchal play’.   Discuss.

 Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism and his play ‘A Doll’s House’ possess a dominant patriarchal theme. Nora, the female protagonist, needs to break the perpetual cycle of living a ‘doll’s life’.  The Nora under the dominant rule of her patriarchal husband is girlishly innocent, however intuitively knows Helmer’s psyche. The play can and has been interpreted as a patriarchal play. However, I prefer to concentrate on Ibsen’s more central task, which is the portrayal of human beings.

Ibsen’s attempt to transform Nora from ‘twittering skylark’ (p.24) to an authentic human being is gradual. Various visual motifs within the play illustrate Nora’s enslaved dependency. In Act Two Helmer’s possession of the key is highly significant:

 ‘Mrs Linde – And your husband has the key?

Nora – Yes, he always keeps it.’ (p.75)

Essentially the main message portrayed in this scene is Helmer’s power to unlock the truth. Nora’s eating of macaroons is a visual defiance of Torvald’s control.

The following highlights the notion of progression and metamorphosis within the play. In Act One Nora presents her longing to say ‘Bloody Hell’ to Torvald. With the rehearsal dance of the tarantella Nora succeeds in visually saying ‘Bloody Hell’. Her defiance of Torvald’s guidelines is proof of her first stage in her metamorphosis. The Pygmalion motif is strong in this scene also:

 ‘I’d never have believed it. You’ve forgotten everything I taught you.’

 Mrs. Linde is a major agent in the plot. Her presence acts as a foil for Nora. Tornqvist states that Mrs. Linde ‘the disinherited widow’ contrasts strikingly to Nora ‘the deliberately disinherited widow’. David Thomas believes that each map out their future in diametrically opposed ways. Indeed, Mrs. Linde finds a marriage based on truth that will not negate her autonomy. Just as Linde seeks to redefine her position in society she implores Nora to do likewise.

 In Act Two Mrs. Linde states, ‘oh we’ll soon put that right – the stitchings come away.’ Mrs. Linde restitches Nora’s dress in a metaphorical sense also. She restitches Nora and the plot. The ‘Nora’ who dances the dance of the tarantella in the restitched dress is an altogether different character to the Nora who danced in Capri and was then truly Torvald’s ‘capricious little Capricienne’.

 With the symbolic slamming of the door Ibsen reveals two things. Primarily the impromptu divorce ceremony is finally completed. However, Nora also is transformed. Kierkegaard’s philosophy implores us to confront the possibilities of attaining authentic selfhood, as does Ibsen in his portrayal of Nora.  Kiekegaard’s book the ‘Either/Or’ (1843) was a major treatise on the crucial role of decision and choice in human existence. Ibsen explores these roles of decision and choice through Nora and her attempts to gain authentic selfhood within this patriarchal society.

Nora succeeds in creating her own subjective truth: ‘I must stand on my own feet if I am to find out the truth about myself and about life’. She has metamorphosed into a Kierkegaardian existentialist. The dread in making that leap of faith has been overridden by her willingness to ‘educate’ herself.

There is no doubt in my mind that the woman question is a metaphor for individual freedom. Templeton in her work Ibsen’s Women (Chapter 5:‘The Poetry of Feminism’) talks about the contamination of feminism in Ibsen’s play. Richard Gilman believes that ‘A Doll’s House’ is pitched beyond sexual differences. The essential task in this play is the description of humanity. Nora states, ‘I believe I am first and foremost a human being’.

Critics argue how can Nora evolve from ‘twittering skylark’ to Soren Kierkegaard in a skirt? The answer is simple. Nora, the existentialist heroine, is latent in her character from the beginning. The soliloquies play a major role in charting her development.

Ibsen’s Theatre of Realism provides a forum for debate. Long after the redundancy of the ‘Scribean well-made play’, Ibsen’s theatre surpasses and transcends this formula.. The reason for Ibsen’s success is his continuation after the arrival of Krogstad’s second letter.  Torvald’s moral weakness is exposed.  His true nature stands clear. He is depicted in the final scenes not as the noble altruist of Nora’s ‘miracle of miracles’ but rather a shallow egoist. The absence of what Todorov describes as the fifth stage of narrative development, the reinstatement of the initial equilibrium, ensures that the play ends resonating with questions rather than answers. What faces Nora after the slamming of the door?  Will Nora feel ‘unspeakably empty’ like Mrs. Linde? There is no ‘happy ever after’ in Ibsen’s masterpiece.  Instead he believes that as readers we are collaborators. ‘The real end is found outside the frame; the poet has indicated the direction we have to go, it is now our task, each for himself to imagine it.’

Works Cited

Ibsen, H., A Doll’s House (with commentary and notes), Methuen Publishing Limited, London, 1994

Templeton, Joan, Ibsen’s Women, Chapter 5: The Poetry of Feminism,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gilman, Richard,  The Making of Modern Drama: A study of Büchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke (New York, 1974).

Kierkegaard, S., Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), Victor Eremita (Editor). Alastair Hannay (Translator, Introduction), Penguin Classics:London, 1992.

Thomas, D., 1983. Henrik Ibsen. Macmillan Press.

Todorov, Egil, Ibsen-A Doll’s House, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Tornqvist, E., 1995. Ibsen: A Doll’s House. Cambridge University Press

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[1] By primary text is meant everything that is verbalised in a performance, that is by dialogue; by secondary text that which is verbalised only in the drama text: stage and acting directions, play title, divisional markers (act, scene), cue designations, etc.

 

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