1. Why did A Doll’s House cause such controversy when it was first performed? Give your own view of the argument.
When the play was first performed in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1879, it provoked a storm. The theme of the play, a woman’s right to individual self-fulfillment, was considered highly subversive in an age when women were not allowed to conduct business without the authority of a father or husband, and were considered to be their property. Women were not allowed to vote, and divorce, though allowed, carried a heavy social stigma and was available only when both partners agreed. The row about the play centered on whether Nora was right to leave her husband and children. Critics claimed that her decision to leave was unrealistic, since no “real” woman would do such a thing. Ibsen was forced to write a second ending, in which Nora decides that her children need her more than she needs her freedom, and stays with Torvald. Ibsen called it “a barbaric outrage,” and insisted that it must only be used when necessary.
Ibsen’s views differed from those held by many modern feminists, since he believed that women were inherently suited to being mothers and wives. However, he also felt that a husband and wife should live as equal partners, free to become their own human beings. This is a major theme of A Doll’s House.
As in all his ‘social’ plays, Ibsen carefully avoids judging Nora’s actions. He is concerned simply to place social problems before the audience. He thought that it was not a dramatist’s job to identify ways of removing disease in the social system. He merely diagnoses, and leaves the cure to others. Modern critics and audiences will inevitably follow the critics of Ibsen’s day in discussing whether or not it was necessary for Nora to leave in order to find her identity. But Ibsen’s point is surely to show us why Nora felt that this was what she had to do, and why, conversely, Mrs Linde takes the opposite journey and gives up her independence to be with Krogstad. It is clear from Mrs Linde’s case that Ibsen is not criticizing marriage as an institution, but pointing out that many marriages suffered similar problems to those of the Nora-Torvald union.
Since Ibsen’s day, women have made great strides in gaining the choice to determine their role in relation to the family and society. However, the most cursory inquiries made of an audience that has just watched a performance of A Doll’s House will confirm that the issues that caused such a stir in the nineteenth century continue to touch raw nerves today.
2. Why is A Doll’s House is considered a landmark in the genre called realism?
Ibsen was one of a few pioneers of the new theatrical movement of realism, and accordingly he is often called the father of modern drama. We have become so used to seeing drama (whether on the stage or in film or television) founded on the principles of realism that it is easy to forget how revolutionary the concept was in Ibsen’s day.
Before realistic plays such as A Doll’s House (first performed in 1879) burst upon the scene, most European theatre fell into one of two genres: romanticism, or the French ‘well-made play.’ Romanticism placed royal or noble characters in heroic tragedies written in formal rhymed verse. The acting style was declamatory and unrealistic. The ‘well-made play’ aimed for more everyday characters and subject matter, and used prose dialogue, but contained little psychological insight into the characters and depended on elaborate and scarcely credible plots. There was no serious purpose conveyed by such plays, which were meant to entertain.
Realism gained ascendancy in Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century. It demanded stories and characters that might be found in real life, and shunned idealized situations, unnaturally heroic characters, and unlikely happy endings. The characters spoke in a naturalistic style and dialogue was written in prose. The growing interest in psychology during this period led to a strong focus on psychological insight into the characters’ natures and motives, along with an emphasis on conflict and development of character. Serious social and ethical issues were commonly addressed in these plays.
The realistic nature of the play was supported by Ibsen’s adoption of concepts outlined by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his Poetics. Aristotle’s classical ‘unities’ demanded that a drama should have only one plot, which should take place in a single day and be confined to a single locale. The events of A Doll’s House cover about 60 hours (not the 24 stipulated by Aristotle) and are confined to a single locale, the Helmers’ apartment. These factors create a sense of reality and place an almost claustrophobic focus on the characters’ psychology within a confined space, intensifying the sense of restraint and repression defined by the plot.
A Doll’s House, with its believable, everyday characters, and its sense of opening a door onto a real marriage facing common problems, shocked European theatre-goers and critics. Not only was this not what they were used to seeing in the theatre, but also addressed social problems that were under everyone’s nose but that certain sectors of society liked to pretend did not exist. These included the hidden aspects of the outwardly respectable nineteenth-century marriage and the ‘women question.’
3. How could the submissive, selfish and silly Nora of the first two acts transform herself into an independent woman by the end of the last act? Is the transformation realistic?
While Nora puts on a convincing performance of being a submissive, selfish and foolish woman during the first act, there are early signs that this is not the real her. When she asks Torvald for more money despite having just been on a spending spree, she appears selfish and grasping. But we soon discover, in her conversation with Mrs Linde, that she is not squandering the money to satisfy her own desires, but using it to pay off the loan she took out in order to save her husband’s life. In doing so, she has denied herself new things so that her husband and children can have all they need. Her arranging the loan and the trip to Italy – and her subsequent careful management of money and of her secret – show an astonishing strength of character. In addition, she secretly takes jobs to pay off the loan, a step towards the independence she finally embraces. But in the first two acts, Nora does not dare to acknowledge her own strength, let alone use it. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them are that her beloved Torvald, and society in general, would not comfortably countenance such strength in a woman. So it is easier for Nora to keep her head below the parapet rather than risk the consequences of showing herself as she is.
Nora’s submissiveness to Torvald is not all it seems. By playing the doll-child according to his wishes, she manipulates him into the role of indulgent father-figure. But in spite of her skill at ‘managing’ him, there is one instance in which she desperately wants him to adopt the manly and dominant role: she wants him to rescue her from the ruin caused by Krogstad’s revelations. When he fails to provide the strength she needs, she realizes that she no longer loves him, as he is not the man she thought him. It is almost inevitable that she is forced to find that strength within herself. Her realization that she wants to pursue her independence is not so much a transformation as an awakening to a strength she has possessed all along.
A Doll’s House shines a searchlight on Victorian society, drawing attention to its hypocrisy and use of public opinion to suppress individuality. The critic Bjorn Hemmer, in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, wrote: “The people who live in such a society know the weight of ‘public opinion’ and of all those agencies which keep watch over society’s ‘law and order’: the norms, the conventions and the traditions which in essence belong to the past but which continue into the present and there thwart individual liberty in a variety of ways.”
Torvald lives by society’s norms, and when faced with a choice of whether to support his wife or society, he sides with society. When he realizes that she has broken the law in forging her father’s signature on the loan document, he never questions the morality of such a law: it is left to Nora to do that. His aim is to preserve the appearance of respectability and ensure his continued acceptance in society. He has become so shaped by society’s conventions that he cannot see his wife’s suffering. In The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Gail Finney writes that in Ibsen’s own notes for this play, he notes that a mother in modern society is “like certain insects who go away and die when she has done her duty in the propagation of the race.” This view is confirmed by Torvald’s rejection of Nora when he discovers her secret; he says she is not fit to bring up their children if her reputation is tarnished. For Torvald, public life has obscured and overtaken private self. In order to find out who she is and what she wants, Nora has to reject the life that society prescribes for her as a wife and mother, and strike out on her own. “I am going to see,” she tells Torvald in Act 3, “who is right, the world or I.”
But this is not simple. The nineteenth century saw a huge shift from the old social order of self-improvement within a stable rural society to a new social order founded on money. But women at the time could not control money without the authority of the man who ‘owned’ them, be it husband, brother or father. Single and lone women like Mrs Linde had more control over their lives and money than married women, who were discouraged from taking jobs and had to surrender money matters to their husbands. But as Mrs Linde’s story shows, having no male ‘provider’ brought its own problems.
In sum, women had little power. Power lay with people like Torvald, who is a banker and lawyer. Torvald is able to dictate the fate not only of his family but of Mrs Linde (by giving her a job) and Krogstad (by giving away his job). He is gratified by the prospect of sacking Krogstad because he disapproves of his morality. In effect, the Torvalds of this world defined morality. As we have seen with regard to Nora’s crime, they also defined the law, and therefore, who was a criminal. It is worth noting that Ibsen based the episode of Nora’s forgery on a similar ‘crime’ committed by a female friend of his, which ended tragically for her, so he was drawing attention to what he saw as a genuine social problem. He supported economic reform that would protect women’s property and befriended European feminists.
Other social issues addressed in the play include how women should be educated, both for the responsibilities of family and for self-fulfillment; the right of women to define their role in the family and society; the degrading effects of poverty on self-fulfillment (as with Mrs Linde and the Nurse); and the scourge of venereal disease (as suffered by Dr Rank).
5. How do different characters use the words “free” and “freedom”? How does the use of these words change throughout the play?
It is Torvald who introduces the concept of freedom in the play, claiming that “There can be no freedom or beauty about a home life that depends on borrowing and debt.” He defines freedom in economic terms, as befits an age where power depended upon money. He is also adopting society’s values, as debt was disapproved of and considered a sign of moral degeneracy. The dramatic irony behind his words lies in the fact that Torvald would not have any life at all if his wife had not gone into debt, though he does not realize this.
Like Torvald, Krogstad sees freedom as moral respectability in the eyes of society. His job at the bank is the means by which he will “cut [himself] free” from the stigma of his “indiscretion” of forgery. The problem with this approach is that his “freedom” depends upon the whim of his employer, who also sits in moral judgment on him and can withdraw his job if he finds that he falls short in that respect.
Mrs Linde feels proud that by working hard, she was able to support her brothers and mother, and “I was privileged to make the end of my mother’s life almost free from care.” Like Torvald, she is defining freedom in economic terms. But she is operating at a lower economic level than he is. She is talking of being able to provide the necessities of life, whereas he is talking of the relative luxury of being free from debt.
In Act 1, Nora is delighted that soon she will have paid off her debt to Krogstad and will be “free from care, quite free from care; to be able to play and romp with the children; to be able to keep the house beautifully and have everything just as Torvald likes it!” At this point, she defines her freedom in terms of the very things that (as she later realizes) restrict her: her role as a submissive wife and mother.
By the end of Act 2, Krogstad’s letter revealing Nora’s debt and forgery of her father’s signature is sitting in Torvald’s letterbox. Nora, who fears yet hopes that Torvald will shield her by taking the entire blame upon himself, means to disappear or commit suicide, thereby saving him from disgrace. She tells him: “Then you will be free.” Thus Torvald will maintain his respectability by means of Nora’s obliterating herself from his world.
At the end of the play, Nora has been awakened to Torvald’s narrow-mindedness and no longer sees freedom in terms of bondage to him or obliteration of herself. On the contrary, she defines freedom for herself and Torvald as complete independence from each other, as she leaves the marriage to forge a new life for herself: “I set you free from all your obligations. You are not to feel yourself bound in the slightest way, any more than I shall. There must be perfect freedom on both sides.”