When Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, the institution of marriage was sacrosanct; women did not leave their husbands, and marital roles were sharply defined. The play, which questions these traditional attitudes, was highly controversial and elicited sharp criticism. The character of Nora Helmer, a favorite with actresses seeking a role of strength and complexity, has dominated the play from its inception. She is the one who gains audience empathy, who grows through the course of the play. Some early critics viewed Nora as a prime example of the “new woman,” a breed seeking independence and self-definition, and the play as a polemic advocating women’s rights. Some insisted that although a woman might leave her husband, she would never leave her children. Later critics faulted Nora’s sudden conversion from a sheltered child stroking her husband’s ego to a mature woman seeking independence. Yet, others maintained that Ibsen skillfully foreshadows Nora’s departure in her behavior throughout the play in her gaiety, generosity, and unselfishness. Further, Ibsen himself declared that he was not writing solely about women but instead about issues of his society and about the need for individuals, both men and women, to be true to themselves.
Thus A Doll’s House can be viewed thematically not only as a picture of an innocent nineteenth century woman struggling to achieve self-definition but also as a devastating indictment of a routine marriage between two ordinary people who lack awareness of themselves and who have differing views of right and wrong. Torvald unquestioningly accepts society’s dicta of the husband as the breadwinner and moral authority, but Nora’s attempt to conform as the submissive wife forces her into lies and deception. Both care about what people think; neither consciously considers opposing society’s mores.
The need for communication contributes to the thematic pattern of the play. Nora and Torvald communicate only on the most superficial level; he speaks from the conventions of society but neither sees nor hears her, while she can only play out the role that he has constructed for her. This inability or unwillingness to express themselves verbally leads to unhappiness and pain.
The theme is echoed in the subplot of Kristine and Krogstad, both of whom have struggled with the cruelties of society. Kristine endured a loveless marriage in order to support her elderly mother and young brothers; Krogstad was forced into crime in order to care for his ill wife and children. Although within the plot their union seems somewhat contrived, Ibsen characterizes them as aware of themselves and honest with each other.
One of Ibsen’s masterful touches is the use of concealment as a motif; it permeates the play in several manifestations and reinforces the major theme of the need for openness in marriage. Nora’s first word, “hide,” initiates the motif. Thereafter, she hides the Christmas presents, lies about eating macaroons, continues to deceive Torvald into believing that she is a spendthrift and flighty female, and invents distractions to prevent him from opening the mailbox. Torvald too participates in concealment. Fearing exposure in the third act, he starts and orders “Hide, Nora! Say you’re sick” when the doorbell rings.
The primary agent of empowerment in A Doll’s House is money. Private and public rewards result from its presence. It enabled Nora and Torvald to travel to Italy for his health. Money from Torvald’s new salary at the bank will provide prestige for the Helmers and allow Nora, in particular, to breathe more easily. Yet, all the major figures—Torvald, Nora, Kristine, and Krogstad—have been affected adversely by its absence: from the deception in the marriage of Torvald and Nora to the prior unhappy marriage of Kristine and the criminal acts of Krogstad.
In the complex pattern that Ibsen has created, lack of self-knowledge, inability to communicate, and unthinking conformity to convention affect the institution of marriage most adversely.
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.
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.