A Doll’s House by Norway’s Henrik Ibsen Essay Sample


Performed in 1879, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was bombarded with direct criticism and success for its provocative themes of gender, marriage and individual versus society. Nora Helmer, the middle-class female protagonist, is arguably one of the most complex characters in 19th Century drama. She transforms from having a childish demeanour to an individual who matured and gained a stark sense of reality. Thus, Ibsen shows society that women should be able to develop their own identity and that it is possible to prioritise oneself over family (or collectivism). 

In Act One, Nora’s behaviour resembles that of a child’s, especially when interacting with Torvald. This is shown when Torvald asks “Has my little spendthrift been squandering money again?”. The possessive personal pronoun “my” shows that Torvald views her as his possession and his “child” due to the use of “little” suggesting a condescending tone. The theme of money becomes prominent, as Nora is chastised for spending too much, though Torvald has gotten a promotion. He has the power to decide how much she spends on Christmas presents, which shows the dominance he has over Nora. This control is then depicted with “[walks over to the stove] Very well, just as you say, Torvald.”. The stove symbolises Nora’s conformity to societal roles. Her tone is obedient and submissive like a child’s, showing her internalisation of Torvald as an authority figure. Similarly, her docility is supported with the quote, “I would never dream of doing anything you didn’t want me to.” The powerful superlative “never” emphasises Nora’s “loyalty”, though situational irony along with the theme of deception is indisputable as only the audience knows Nora is lying. The audience also now realise Nora is capable of lying which foreshadows more deceitful events in the future. Other characters also perceive Nora as a “child”, with the quote “What a child you are, Nora!” spoken by Mrs Linde. Ibsen uses this metaphor to compare Nora to a child, further accentuating her inexperience and childlike characteristics.

As the play progresses to Act Two, Nora becomes desperate as it is revealed that she has been leading a double life. This is seen in the stage directions “In the corner beside the piano stands the Christmas tree, stripped, bedraggled and with its candles burnt out.”. Firstly, Christmas trees symbolise unity and Nora’s desire to make her home (and appearance) attractive. Its “bedraggled” condition implies a correlation to the deterioration of Nora’s marriage and composure. The Christmas tree also represents her dissipating innocence and foreshadows her family’s eventual disintegration. Moreover, candles have connotations of positivity and hope - one could infer that the burnt-out candles symbolise the lack of hope in her convoluted situation. Nora’s disarray is then depicted through her question, “Do you think they would forget their Mummy if she went away for good?” which foreshadows Nora’s eventual departure, creating tension and prompting the audience to think of the possibility of her leaving. Likewise, Nora’s madness is highlighted with the quotations “Not so fast! Not so fast!”, “Not so wild, Nora!” with the use of anaphora emphasising how Nora is going mad and lacks control. She dances the Tarantella wildly, symbolising her breakaway from traditional marriage and societal roles. In this act, Ibsen leads the audience to consider Nora’s options by using an abundance of foreshadowing to create tension and keep the audience engaged. 

Consequently, Nora’s character becomes the polar opposite of her character in Act One. There is an unseen boldness in her that was almost non-existent before, demonstrated by the quotations “Don’t look at me like that, Torvald!” along with “You mustn’t talk to me like that tonight.”. Both quotations are spoken by Nora, juxtaposing evidently with her tone towards Torvald in Act One: “If a little squirrel were to ask ever so nicely?” shows that she was subconsciously “faking” the role of the dutiful, dainty wife that society preferred. The use of imperatives also highlights Nora’s audacity to speak up and command her husband, along with the importance of him not viewing her as his possession. Nora’s boldness is further developed by quotations from her epiphany “I believe that first and foremost I am an individual, just as much as you are […] But I’m not content any more with what most people say, or with what it says in books. I have to think things out for myself, and get things clear.” Ibsen uses the theme of “Individual versus Society”, with “most people” referring to the patriarchal society at the time. Nora challenges Torvald by saying she is an individual; an equal who also claims she must  “think things out” for herself and “get things clear” – implying that she prioritises her personal identity over society’s expectations of her. During Victorian times, this would have been controversial, as the idea of individualism was radical. 

Ultimately, Nora becomes independent, with an insuppressible desire to find herself amid a society so disapproving of such attitudes. When she says  “I lived by doing tricks for you, Torvald.”, she refers to the purpose of her existence being only to please men. The word “tricks” represents the superficial performance she puts on for her husband during their marriage, whilst the “great wrong” stunted her development as a human being. Nora’s maturity also reveals itself with the quote, “I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy’s doll child. And the children in turn have been my dolls”. Here, the significance of the title has become explicitly clear. The word “doll” has connotations of perfection and a “false reality” similar to the “perfect” life Nora was supposedly living. In Nora’s revelation, she acknowledged the superficiality of her marriage, how history has repeated itself since her childhood and may continue to do so if she did not realise in time. Ibsen subtly included this idea earlier on, when Nora showed the dolls she bought for her daughter: “They are not very grand but she’ll have them all broken before long anyway.” One could infer that this foreshadows Nora’s separation with her family and also indicates how she was going to raise her daughter in a doll-like lifestyle similar to her own. She is no longer the docile wife she was and is willing to stand up for herself by asserting dominance towards Torvald. As Nora’s awareness of the truth grows, Ibsen has insinuated that women have a choice to leave their family in pursuit of self-discovery and happiness and that these ideas should be normalised and advocated for. Divorce was heavily stigmatised during the 19th Century, so Nora had two options: to stay with him and be stranded in a vicious cycle or leave everything behind.

From a childlike housewife to a capricious but mature individual, Nora drops the façade of the obedient Victorian wife as she gains the courage to see through the false values of her marriage and society. Ibsen inspired and criticised society with his progressive ideas of feminism and individualism. In conclusion, A Doll’s House speaks to the universal issue of women’s identities in a patriarchal society: Nora’s enlightenment is every woman’s enlightenment.

 

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