Critical Essay A Doll House

Authored by Shannon Cron

Since A Doll’s House first premiered in 1879, critics have been voicing opinions about the production. Although the historical and social context of Ibsen’s time varies greatly with that of today––particularly the role of women––critics have always found A Doll’s House to be relevant to society. In 1879, critics saw Nora’s actions as shocking and scandalous for a woman, whereas today, critics tend to see Nora’s actions as a way of reinforcing an individual’s right––regardless of gender––to protect themselves.

First off, during Ibsen’s time, many critics were shocked––negatively and positively––by Nora’s character and her choice to abandon the pillars of upper-middle class society by leaving her family (or, put more simply, her ability to make a choice on her own).  Some critics found A Doll’s House to be relatable as well as influential in potentially changing social norms. One review––written in 1879 for the Social Demokraten––reacted positively, proclaiming:

“Finally an event at The Royal Theatre, and an event of the first class! This play touches the lives of thousands of families; oh yes there are thousands of such doll-homes, where the husband treats his wife as a child he amuses himself with, and so that is what the wives become. . . Who, after seeing this play, has the courage to speak scornfully about run-away wives? Is there anyone who does not feel that it is this young and delightful young woman’s duty, her inescapable duty, to leave this gentleman, this husband, who slowly sacrifices her on the altar of his egotism, and who fails to understand her value as a human being” (Social Demokraten)

In saying that “there are thousands of such doll-homes,” it becomes clear to a modern audience that  Nora and Torvald’s relationship was typical in a Norwegian, upper-middle class home in the late 19th century (Social Demokraten). This quote also indicates that Nora’s behavior was not common, and that this play presented a radically different viewpoint. According  to the Social Demokraten, Ibsen not only presented a radical viewpoint, but one that audiences might have willingly latched onto.

However, other critics feared just that. Some critics responded negatively to Nora’s strength and independence, believing the ideas Ibsen presented mould negatively impact audience members.  For example, Erik Vullum––a Norwegian Journalist––wrote in his 1879 review of A Doll’s House:

“I am thinking about the fact that it is Nora, that is, the woman, who acts as a spokesman both when it comes to the dissolution of the marriage and to entrusting the children she herself has borne to the care of a nanny. There is something indescribably unnatural in this, and therefore, in the final instance, artificial. Even if one can accept that there possibly may exist a woman who has done such a thing, one still feels dissatisfied to the utmost degree when it appears to be something that perhaps also has the sympathy of the author. If a woman, warped by a certain contemporary school of thought, can persuade herself that she is protecting her independence, freedom and honour by behaving à la a trumpet of doom over a dispirited husband and letting him sink down into his well-deserved ruin, there is no need for it in the female nature as such”(Vullum).

Given the expectations of women in the late 1800’s, Nora’s  choice to leave her home was not something that was seen in upper middle class Norwegian society––and certainly not seen on stage. Vullum dismissing her as “unnatural” and deeming her actions “artificial” demonstrates how shocking Nora’s character was to audiences at the time (Vullum).

Other critics recognized the boldness of Nora’s departure as well. Amalie Skram, a Norwegian journalist writing in the 1880’s, saw A Doll’s House as a “warning,” suggesting that while audiences see Nora’s strength, they should not fail to notice the problems with her decision (Skram).  Skram continued:

“When the woman first has risen, she will never let herself be stopped again. Like Nora, she will let the duties that her doll-life gave birth to fall dead to the ground, because the work with her own, neglected self will absorb and annul everything else. Even a mother’s love is torn up with the roots and thrown away in pain, because the waters of the Deluge in the moment of wakening has passed over her soul and washed away everything that used to grow in there. She will fight until she has total understanding of her human worth, of her sovereign right to choose her place and take up her life’s work without being relegated to marriage as an institution of maintenance”(Skram).

From this perspective, Nora’s actions were not only unheard of but also a bad influence on the audience. If spectators were to model their own lives after Nora’s actions,  they might also get lost in the “deluge” and forget all of her responsibilities (Skram). This “awakening” might be freeing for a woman, but ultimately her desire to live for herself puts her family at risk because she would no longer have time to care for it (Skram). Therefore, according to Skram, the message that A Doll’s House sends is dangerous for society, even if it liberates Nora.

Fredrick Peterson, an 1880’s Norwegian journalist, expressed similar concerns, particularly about A Doll’s House‘s affect on the institution of marriage. He explained:

“The lack of reconciliation has wide-reaching consequences for the effect of this play within the world of readers. As far as marriage is concerned, it is far too easy to get ideas which simultaneously thoroughly annul it, and suppress the woman from the equality with the man which the execution of the principles of Christian marriage finally have granted her”(Peterson).

This quote shows how much social standards and expectations influenced people of that time and how appalled some people were at Ibsen’s willingness to speak out about its flaws.

Although critics such as Skram, Peterson and Vullum found A Doll’s House to be a negative influence for audiences, other critics found these types of views to be inaccurate. Expanding on the depth of Nora’s character, William Archer writes:

“If she were really and essentially the empty headed doll we hear so  much about, the whole point of the play would be gone. . . The critics in fact, sublimely unconscious of the way in which they thereby drive home the poet’s irony fall into the very same misunderstanding of Nora’s character which makes Helmer a byword for masculine stupidity and are no less flabbergasted than he when the doll pulls out of her masquerade dress and turns out to be a woman after all. And Nora is not really childish, still less she is ‘neurotic'”  (Archer).

Archer explained that the misunderstanding of Nora’s character, and furthermore, the misunderstanding of husbands to wives, and to people in society, is a major theme of the play. In other words, critics become so caught up in how dramatically Nora’s actions contradict  the expectations of the upper middle class that they misunderstand the message that is much less political than it is about human nature and our relationships with each other.

Critics today lean more on Archer’s side, typically recognizing Ibsen’s ability to stage humanity. Although critics of Ibsen’s day were distracted by his portrayal of a strong woman making her own decisions, the play is less about gender roles and more of humanity as a whole. Michael Meyer explains:

“A Doll’s House is no more about women’s rights than Shakespeare’s Richard II is about the dive right of kings, or Ghostsabout syphilis or An Enemy of the People about public hygiene. Its theme is the need of every individual to find out what kind of person he or she really is and strive to become that person” (Meyer).

Although it is easy to interpret A Doll’s House as a play promoting feminist ideals, A Doll’s House is about more than a woman fighting for her rights. Joan Tempelton stated, “Ibsen’s Nora is not just a woman arguing for female liberation; she is much more. She embodies the comedy as well as the tragedy of modern life,” proving that Nora’s actions are not a pro-feminist device, but a way to depict humanity (Templeton 28).

Past and present, critics are intrigued by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  No one denies that Ibsen’s play made an impact on society in the late 1800’s, whether they agreed with it or not. As time passed, critics continued to recognize how this play’s themes transcend it’s 19th century context to relate to the lives of people today.

Works Cited

 Archer, William. The Theatrical ‘world’ London: W. Scott, 1894. Print.

Meyer, Michael Leverson., and Michael Leverson. Meyer. Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971. Print.

Petersen, Fredrick. “Henrik Ibsen’s Drama “A Doll’s House”.” Aftenbladet [Kristiania] 9 Jan. 1880: n. pag. National Library of Norway. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Skram, Amalie. “A Reflection on A Doll’s House”. Dagbladet [Kristiania]  19 Jan. 1880: n. pag. National Library of Norway. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

Templeton, Joan. “The Doll House Backlash: Criticism, Feminism, and Ibsen.” PMLA104.1 (1989): 28-49. JSTOR. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

Unknown, “‘A Doll’s House’, A Play in 3 Acts by Henrik Ibsen. Social Demokraten 23 Dec. 1879: n. pag. National Library of Norway. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Vullum, Erik. “A Doll’s House”. Dagbladet [Kristiania] 13 Dec. 1879: n. pag. National Library of Norway. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

 

 

 

 

A Doll’s House Critical Essay

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Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ portrays the universal “the need of every human being, whether man or woman, to find out who he or she is and to strive to become that person”. The female protagonist, Nora Helmer, in Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth century play ‘A Doll’s House’ struggles with the pressures of everyday life, due to the personal relationships surrounding her and the strict gender stereotypes of the nineteenth century.

Trapped by the consequences of her own naive sacrifices to love, Nora finds herself forced to decide between her dehumanised role as Helmer’s wife or to step outside socially acceptable codes of behaviour and assert her own dignity and worth as an individual. Responders are immediately aware that the relationship between Helmer and his wife Nora imposes a barrier to Nora fulfilling this need.

Throughout the play, we see Helmer degrading and belittling Nora through the chastising tone of “little featherbrain” and belittling terms of endearment such as “my little lark” and “my little squirrel”, a pattern successfully captured by Brian Johnston in 1932 when he claimed that “Nora herself actually is the creation of Torvald’s aesthetic imagination”. We become immediately aware that with the repetition of “my” and the references to animals, Ibsen portrays Nora as a possession of Helmer rather than an individual or person. We can also see by Helmer’s repetition of “little” to portray Nora that he judges her as his inferior.

This is further reinforced in the opening scenes of the play, when Helmer objectifies Nora with the repetition of the word “it”. Here, we can see the social injustice where he denies her human identity, suggesting her role in his life is an object for his use. Reflecting the problematic values and customs of its nineteenth century context, Johnston further explains that “It is the very ordinariness of the pair … that makes the play’s analysis of marriage so disturbing”, because the issues here clearly reflect a view of marriage that still pursuits in our own time.

Clearly Ibsen’s play offers a resistant world view in its late nineteenth century context where Nora’s perspective of who she is was affected by the societal expectations of the time where “a big salary and lots of bonuses” meant financial security which was a source of happiness, and a wife’s role was to respect and revere a man like Helmer for such material achievement. Here at the start of the text we observe Nora as someone who is indulgent and childlike, with her friend Mrs.

Linde describing her fondly as an “extravagant little thing”. Yet modern responders can see beyond the nineteenth century values to quickly recognise the sad irony of Nora’s poor self-image, and quickly recognise the discrepancy of Nora’s perceived happy character. Looking back at the patriarchal society of the time, we can see that it kept women financially dependent, a point clearly made by Ibsen when his plot is based around society’s edict that “a wife can’t borrow without her husband’s permission”.

We gain an even deeper insight into the nature of marriage and the gender roles involved when Nora sees “Torvald, a man, proud to be a man”, with her daunted by the thought that Helmer will feel embarrassed and emasculated should he learn that his “little” wife has assumed financial control. This feminist perspective was captured by the director of the 1981 Munich Production who believed that “Nora is conscious from the outset of her frustration” even while she tried to conform to the role set for her. Here we can see Nora trapped within the “unbreakable pattern of roles and masks and games in which she finds herself confined”.

In the beginning when Nora had “hinted that he took out a loan”, he had furiously “lost his temper” saying that she was “featherbrained” and that “his duty as a husband was not to indulge [any of her] little whims”, implying the truth of what Ellis Roberts described in 1912 as “a worthy snob”, Helmer’s derogatory view of Nora. His perspective is reinforced later in the play through his angry tone when discovering her “mistake”, and telling her it was “unbearable” while expressing his disgust at what others might see as her selfless incentive.

It is clear to us that Torvald is more worried about his own public image than the marriage he shares with Nora when he is adamant that “It must be hushed up”. Ironically, instead of seeing her action for what it was, we are made fully aware that he merely seeks to keep his good public image, saying that, “we must go on as if nothing had changed between us. In public”, while at the same time coldly declaring, “I can never trust you again”. It is only on when discovering that he had been “saved”, that Torvald changes once again, hypocritically proclaiming “Oh darling, Nora … You can’t believe I’ve forgiven you … Forgiven you for everything”.

Clearly influenced by the patriarchal values and customs of the time, Torvald’s feelings for Nora fluctuate depending on how her actions affect him. In order to more effectively convey these ideas about the patriarchal nature of the 19th century, Ibsen employs the character of Mrs. Linde as a foil to Nora, with P. F. D. Tennant making the point that “Ibsen makes use of confidants very frequently” and in fact it is obvious throughout the play, that “Mrs. Linde is Nora’s confidant in A Doll’s House”.

Ironically, it is Mrs Linde who appears to have no direction in her “empty” life with “No one left to live for”, and with no man lending meaning in her life. In the opening scenes of the play, the blunt short sentence structure implies the dull nature of her life, and the sense of her not knowing who she is or where she needs to be. With her restricted/ character portrayed through the use of understatements, we are led to pity Kristine Linde who is seen to have absolutely nothing in her life “Not even sad memories”.

Here, in the early scenes of the play we are led to see Nora and Kristine as juxtaposed characters, because here, at the start of the play, Nora seems to be happily contented as a wife and mother, with material comforts and the approval of social convention. However, we are shown another side of Nora through the eyes of her friend, because to Kristine, Nora seems excited, outspoken and idealistic, with Mrs Linde’s patronising tone in describing Nora as having “so little idea how difficult life can be”.

Clearly foreshadowing the reversal of their roles, Mrs. Linde is insightful when she tells Nora that she is a “babe in arms” and hasn’t experienced anything real yet, an idea that is taken up in 1994 by Gail Finney when she described Nora as “Ibsen’s most famous rebel”. Further reinforcing the idea that gender roles and personal identity are focal to the text, we see the additional use of a foil in the character of Krogstad, a widower with “a houseful of children”.

While Krogstad is clearly flawed by social standards that sees him as “morally sick” and “totally depraved”, a person who Helmer claims will “literally make me ill”, Helmer initially presents as the stereotypically perfect husband of his time in assuring Nora that he will “Guide you darling, I’ll protect you. Lean on me”. Yet ultimately, we see that “Kristine and Krogstad’s union is the Christian or Galilean one of self-sacrifice and mutual forgiveness” and therefore, according to Brian Johnston and various other critical appraises, it is Krogstad who can find a fulfilling relationship, while Helmer can’t.

Ibsen shows us that Krogstad is capable of mutual love and respect, with Kristine proclaiming, “I trust you, Nils, the man you really are”. Furthermore, unlike Nora, we see that Mrs. Linde can bring out the best in her partner. By contrast, we come to understand that Helmer and Nora are the flawed ones. While Nora believes in “the miracle” of Helmer’s inevitable gift to her of loving self-sacrifice, this is sadly and ironically juxtaposed to Helmer’s belief that “no man sacrifices his honour for the one he loves”.

In a dramatic twist on Helmer’s rigidly orthodox social attitudes, the ambiguity of Krogstad’s character and his dramatic metamorphous towards the end of the play is an issue that has created much controversy. Lending some clarity to Ibsen’s purpose, Ronald Gray believes that “Krogstad is a mere pawn of the plot. When convenient to Ibsen, he is a blackmailer because when inconvenient he is converted” lends some clarity to Ibsen’s purpose.

However it seems likely that Krogstad serves as a foil to the relationship of Nora and Helmer because while someone as despicable as Krogstad can recognise the value of a good woman, Helmer’s greatest flaw is that he can’t. Similarly juxtaposed to the relationship between Nora and Helmer, Nora and Dr. Rank share a meaningful relationship where Nora feels comfortable, with a sense of familiarity and closeness that becomes obvious when “she puts a macaroon in his mouth”. We gain an even greater insight into Nora’s closer bond with Rank when Mrs. Linde is first introduced to both Dr.

Rank and Helmer, with Dr. Rank confiding that, “We often hear your name in this house”, while Helmer seems confused at the identity of Nora’s best friend when he questions, “I’m sorry…Kristine…? ” In fact, Ibsen leads us into controversy when he has Nora at one point put her “both hands on his shoulders” implying the possibility of an intimate, flirtatious relationship with Rank which would be seen as inappropriate in its conservative nineteenth century context, and reinforced when she says “Doctor, darling, please don’t die… for me, don’t die”.

While Johnston believes that Ibsen employed the fate of Dr. Rank to explore the theme of death and “how sorrow inescapably is woven into life”, forty years later in 1971, Carl Ploug advanced his opinion that “Rank had been inserted in the play solely to demonstrate that Nora, despite her frivolity, is faithful to her husband”. In fact, modern responders can better understand Nora’s actions when she is so restricted in her role as a wife and mother with no right to think about herself.

While a nineteenth century responder would fail to understand, we could view Nora’s behaviour as her own subversive way to express her need for a friend such as the kindly Dr. Rank, someone who believes in her and respects her as a person. While in 1939 Sandra Saari purported that “Ideal love is a shared, supremely valued concept of the human conscience for Nora and Rank”, later in the play we can see this as an oversimplification of their marriage, with their relationship becoming more problematic when Rank reveals his deep love for Nora, asking her whether Helmer is “the only one who’d give his life for you? Here, Nora, inevitably reflecting the values of her own time, becomes shocked that he would say such a thing “that was uncalled for”, even though she had many times throughout the play been very close and flirtatious with him, especially when we see that “she flicks his ear with the stockings”. Here responders can understand Fredereck and Lise-line Marker’s 1971 viewpoint that the relationship between Rank and Nora seems to have a “strange mixture of ignorance and flashes of realization”.

Sadly, while modern responders can see the more appropriate couple as Rank and Nora, we are equally aware that it would be condemned by the values and customs of the 19th century, which would deem it as inappropriate to have such a close, intimate relationship outside of marriage. Capturing an even more relevant issue here, in 1912, Ellis Robert’s psychoanalytical interpretation of this failed union, cleverly observed that “Nora was not unfit for marriage; she, the spoilt daughter of a self-indulgent old wastrel, was incapable of it” because of the social attitudes imbued within her.

In stark contrast to the mutually respectful relationship of Nora and Dr. Rank, the husband and wife bond between Nora and Helmer has a parent-child dynamic. We see this established earlier in the play, when we learn that Helmer has “forbidden” her to eat her favorite food, “macaroons”. Here we see Helmer as having the right to control Nora and the ability to tell her what she should and should not do. We can follow Nora’s journey towards independence when later on in the play we see that Nora can be the more assertive wife with her choosing to decorate the Christmas tree.

As early as 1913 Henry Rose believed that “the transcendent genius of Ibsen…chose a character like Nora…to illustrate…the pre-eminent right of women to the fullest development of her individuality”. Even though Nora is still a product of the strong patriarchal society of the time when we see her choice of gifts of “new suit for Ivar, and a sword; and a horse and a trumpet for Bob; and a doll and dolly’s bedstead for Emmy”, responders can identify Nora’s first steps to claiming her own power in this nineteenth entury patriarchal society, though she admits that she only wants to “please [them]…all”. However, Krogstad’s threats about Nora’s secret sees a change in Nora as she comes to realize that everything in her life was about to change. When we see “the Christmas tree stands stripped of its decorations and with its candles burned to stumps”, we can clearly recognize that the tree is now symbolic of a shattered Nora, “stripped” of her “decorations” and with her “burned” out “candles”, clearly supporting Michael Meyer’s 1971 comment on Ibsen’s viewpoint that “liberation can only come from within”.

While we can recognize Helmer’s controlling and selfish nature throughout the text for what it is, Nora fantasises it, stubbornly choosing to believe in the “miracle” of his deeper, self-sacrificing love for her. We see Nora’s ultimate acceptance of her failed marriage when “the wife discovers the Stranger in her own husband”, with Johnston confirming Nora’s worst fears that “The miracle didn’t happen.

I saw you weren’t the man I imagined”. Here she admits, “I’ve stopped believing in miracles”. Now we see that all of Nora’s “Happiness is gone”, with only the “Rags, crumbs, pretence…” remaining. The diction of these leftovers effectively portrays how she feels lonely, cold and cast off in this relationship. By the end of the play, we see that Nora has finally become an independent woman when she is “Changing. No more fancy dress”.

Modern responders not tied to the nineteenth century patriarchal attitudes of Ibsen’s time, can believe it when Ronald Gray tells us “Helmer has no feelings, apart from pain at being abandoned, and naive pleasure in Nora’s beauty”. We can see how hurt and upset Helmer is when Nora proclaims that he can no longer play with his “doll”, but even at this point we can see that Helmer is far too entrenched with the patriarchal ideology of his time, to see past it.

Trapped in his own confusion over Nora’s actions sadly, he is only concerned about himself and his own life. Helmer is oblivious to Nora’s change in character. He still feels that she has a “weakness” and that she “didn’t understand” what she was doing. Ironically, we see that through Nora, Ibsen voices his critical views of society, clearly portraying Nora as the victim of male dominance and control as she finally admits to Helmer that “You don’t understand me.

And I’ve never understood you”, but here Ibsen’s emphasis is on the sad inability of the genders to relate to each other. In fact, Henry Rose informed us in 1913 that by the close of the play, Nora has reached an awareness of the patriarchal toll that has been taken on her “Reared as a doll-child by her father…Treated as a doll-child by her husband” but now Nora realizes “You’ve done me great wrong, Torvald – you, and Daddy before you”.

It becomes evident that her sense of identity has been moulded by the male figures in her life when she tells Torvald “When I lived with Daddy, he told me his views on everything, so I shared his views”. A dramatic change is seen in Nora as she declares, “I’m leaving you”, where instead of the “babe in arms” Ibsen portrays a strong, confident and assertive woman who needs to find herself, with Brian Johnston in 1932 further believing that “The rejection by the wife…is a rejection…of the worldview itself”.

From the earlier Nora who sneaked “macaroons” behind Torvald’s back because “You told me not to”, we witness her declaration that there will be “No more forbidding”. When pleading for her to stay, Torvald can only voice societal values such as “your most sacred obligations…To your husband, your children”. Of course his patriarchal attitude is obvious when he puts himself before the needs of the children, firmly believing that it’s all about himself and his social image, and reminding her about “What will people say? ”.

By leaving Helmer, Nora wishes to reinvent herself through her own rules and value system, although sadly admitting, “I don’t know what that is”, Sandra Saari clarifies Ibsen’s ideas for us when stating that the play was focused more precisely on “the radical transformation of Nora from female to human being”. To the still confused Nora, there is the decision that she will “think about it, when I’ve time, when I’ve gone away”, but here she is clearly portraying how she is more critically aware of her right to determine her own path in life.

Here at the end of the play, there is no sign of the Nora, described by Ronald Gray in 1977 as “the silently suffering heroine”, who toyed with the idea that she was “going to kill herself” to protect Torvald so that he didn’t take the blame for her own sake. While a nineteenth century society might agree with Torvald that his honour is more important than her, and that at the end she is “talking – thinking – like a child”, later interpretations, reflecting a variety of contexts, would strongly question this viewpoint.

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Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ ends with Nora’s absence and Helmer’s lost hope. In a controversial ending to the nineteenth century marriage, the wife leaves. We know nothing of her fate, only of her need and desire to find out who she is and how she is going to strive to become that person. It is an ending that has remained controversial, but later responders have gained a greater sympathy for its female protagonist.

Author: Brandon Johnson

in A Doll's House

A Doll’s House Critical Essay

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