Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen’s play entitled A Doll’s House raises important social issues of the present time. In 19th-century Europe, strict social norms and cultural beliefs regulated all areas of life. Women were the most vulnerable group affected by society’s prejudice. They had to play roles of good daughters, perfect wives, and caring mothers, who lacked individualities. Ibsen’s main character, Nora, embodies those women, who tried to obey the system and failed to meet the social and cultural expectations of the Victorian era. Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Anne-Marie, as well as culture and society in general, have a huge impact on Nora’s identity, shaping her beliefs and inspiring her to start searching her place in the world.
Review of Characters
In the 19th century, social and cultural expectations were very strict in regard to women, who were viewed as persons completely dependent on men. At that time, the society considered men to be social beings and breadwinners, while women were supposed to stay at home and play the roles of obedient daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. In her book A Treatise on Domestic Economy, Catharine Beecher mentions such obligations of a woman as being a mistress of a family, rearing and educating her children, demonstrating hospitality, attending all religious meetings, and many other moral responsibilities (44).
In addition, women were not allowed to be interested in a career as being a perfect mistress, mother and wife had to be the greatest aim of their lives. Obviously, Nora was not able to escape the influence of the strict society she lived in and had to accept its rules.
Under the society’s influence, Nora voluntarily plays the role of an obedient daughter, caring mother, and faithful wife without noticing the flaws in her family. Nora demonstrates her naivety and incapability to make her own decisions as she obeys the laws of the male-dominant society without questions. After stopping being dependent on her father after her marriage, the heroine becomes a doll in her husband’s hands. Trying to be a perfect wife, Nora wants to impress and please her husband even though he neglects her attempts.
For instance, in Act I, the woman brings home some goods for the holiday, but Helmer criticizes her for the overspend. Nora does not pay much attention to money considering them being male things. When her husband calls her silly little squirrel, Nora believes that she indeed lacks intelligence as she got used to believing in all her husband’s words as the truth. The woman even receives a loan illegally to save her family in spite of the fact that her husband abuses and disrespects her. Thus, Nora can be viewed as a victim of the society that limits a woman’s development as an individual.
Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband, has a great influence on his wife, controlling her actions and even thoughts. Helmer is rude, disrespectful, and chauvinistic in regard to Nora. In such way, he embodies the stereotype of masculinity. According to Holly Devor, masculinity is “usually characterized by dominance and aggression, and femininity by passivity and submission” (484). Torvald mistreats his wife and tries to control Nora’s every step. However, he does it not because he cares about her well-being, but because Helmer cannot let her act irresponsibly as Nora can harm his reputation in society’s eyes.
Thus, Torvald is completely egoistic in his relationship with his wife. Most importantly, by controlling all Nora’s actions, Helmer makes her vulnerable, irresolute, and unable to manage any situation without his participation. For instance, in Act II, she says to Torvald that she cannot get anywhere without his help. Thus, they both demonstrate a broader stereotype of masculinity and femininity with men being “concerned with egoistic dominance” and women “striving for cooperation” (Devor 484).
In fact, despite being abused and ridiculed by her husband, Nora remains faithful to him for a long time due to the fear of being alone in the system that disfavors divorced women. The heroine remains in her unhappy marriage as she has no other options. Society wants her to be married and to have children as she is a sexually mature woman. Moreover, the life of a single mother with three children in the Victorian era could turn into a terror to her. Thus, even though Helmer negatively influences Nora, she cannot leave him due to social expectations and her fears.
In contrast to Torvald, Dr. Rank makes a positive effect on Nora, inspiring her to discover her identity. Rank acts against the stereotype of men being rude and inattentive to women. The character demonstrates that women and men can communicate and understand one another despite systematic differences in socialization of different genders (Tannen 40). Rank helps Nora understand other people, as well as herself.
At one moment, the heroine finds out that she could reveal her true self only to Rank and that she prefers his company to that of her husband. The establishment of Nora’s friendly relationship with Rank serves as the turning point in her understanding of the increasing distance that lies between the Helmers. Thus, Rank’s influence makes Nora reconsider her attitudes, thoughts, and self-image, as well as to notice the problems in her marriage.
Another character, Anne-Marie, also influences the main heroine, shaping her beliefs in early childhood and inspiring to change her life. Anne-Marie was Nora’s childhood nurse and now takes care of the Helmers’ children. Obviously, the nurse taught Nora to accept her role in society. However, later in the play, Nora starts viewing Anne-Marie’s life of the old nanny as a tragedy. Probably, such realization contributed to the heroine’s desire to leave her house and release herself from society’s pressure. Thus, it can be argued that Anne-Marie’s life experience awakened a spirit of rebellion in the main heroine.
Nora’s Identity Transformation
Consequently, under various pressures from family, friends, and society in general, Nora chooses her own way. She becomes more active and daring and decides to change her position within the society ruled by men. For instance, Nora dares to forge her father’s signature to borrow some money for her family to go to Italy. After that, she does not hesitate to start working as a copier to repay the sum she illegally borrowed. Moreover, the heroine is proud of her occupation, which is impressing considering the fact that working women had a lower status in society’s eyes if compared to housewives at that time.
Most importantly, Nora’s job makes her feel empowered. The character even compares her new experiences to “being a man” (Ibsen 162). Nora becomes independent and a breadwinner in her family, embodying stereotypical masculine features. Such a new sense of freedom finally opens her eyes to her life and makes her leave her family to become an independent individual, even though she understands that the society she lives in cannot accept it.
Thus, social and cultural expectations, as well as Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Anne-Marie influence Nora’s identity transforming her beliefs and inspiring her to find her place in the world. The Victorian era’s society and culture viewed women as domestic persons, who depended on men and had to bear children. At the beginning of the play, Nora follows all society’s expectations, trying to be a perfect wife, daughter, and mother.
Torvald negatively influences his wife, making her passive and irresolute. On the contrary, Rank inspires Nora to discover her identity. At the same time, Anne-Marie teaches Nora to accept her role in society but also embodies the life the main heroine does not want to live. Nevertheless, Nora dares to avoid negative influences and start living an independent individual. Therefore, Ibsen’s play points out the necessity of finding one’s place in the world despite society’s influences.
The Concept of Male Dominance and Female Subordination
The concept of male dominance and female subordination has pervaded literary works for a long time. The authors of literary works of different genres incessantly depicted these gender roles. In several literary works, women have been depicted as inferior to men in their thinking and acting. Male characters have taken up the major roles, while female characters have mainly taken a supporting role. Indeed, feminism has suffused literary works, and the drama “Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen could illustrate this no better.
The characters in Henrik Ibsen’s work, “Doll’s House”, have aligned themselves to take up the gender roles traditionally associated with men and women respectively. They have proven the existing notions about male dominance and female subordination in literary works. Indeed, much like in Ibsen’s other writings, the concept of feminism comes out patently in “Doll’s House”. The female characters have been portrayed to take up traditionally feminine roles while the male characters have assumed their traditional dominating characters.
Moreover, the female characters portray a distinctive feminine mode of subjective thinking, perceiving, and valuing. Indeed, the supporting characters in this play have been tasked with revealing the social institutions and norms that restrict the main characters. Indeed, even though some characters, such as Mrs. Linde, have come out in defiance of the traditional roles assigned to their gender, they still reflect vastly stereotyped views of women.
Traditional Gender Roles
The opening scene tells much about the gender roles that have been assigned to each gender in this play. Nora and Torvald explicitly depict traditional gender roles. Nora has just come from a Christmas shopping spree, while her husband, Torvald, is in his study. This simple fact depicts the age-old notion that women should be assigned such duties as house-keeping, while men should commit themselves to “higher” duties such as gaining knowledge to enable the world to move forward. Right from the outset, Ibsen delivers to the reader the concept of feminism in a distinctive fashion.
The conversation that ensues in the opening scene also tells the reader much about the roles that men and women play by virtue of their genders. While Torvald speaks in an authoritative and commanding manner, the views of Nora are not taken with the seriousness they deserve. Nora seems to play the listening role more than the commanding role. This is manifested in the way Nora makes suggestions that Torvald accepts or dismisses at will. Even when the issue concerns Nora’s own health, it seems that Torvald has a greater say than Nora herself. The fact that Nora has to wipe her mouth hastily and hid the macaroons in her pocket before she goes to meet her husband is a testimony to this.
Moreover, the fact that Torvald calls the act of going to buy confectionaries “breaking rules” clearly depicts the respective roles that Torvald and Nora play in their marriage. Torvald obviously plays the “chaperoning” role in the relationship, while Nora is a bystander, expected to bow to each and every whim of her husband. She is clearly not an equal in the relationship.
Another hint in the opening conversation that convinces the reader that the society in the Ibsen’s play is highly patriarchal is the fact that Torvald associates certain characteristics with women. When Nora suggests that they should borrow some money from their friends to spend it on the months after Christmas, Torvald expressly exclaims, “That is like a woman!” This statement has a heavy bearing on the feminism within the play. Torvald’s response to Nora’s suggestion shows that Torvald holds the view that women are poor decision-makers and that their suggestions are, more often than not, totally misplaced.
Other aspects of the story that show the gender roles that Nora has taken are the mollycoddling names that her husband keeps calling her. Torvald calls her such names as “little squirrel”, “little featherhead”, and “little skylark”. These names are suggestive of a pampering attitude that parents often treat their children with. In essence, this suggests that Torvald treats Nora as a little child, or more appropriately, as a “doll”. Further, Torvald’s refusal to give Nora money instead of a Christmas gift suggests that he does not trust Nora to spend money wisely. All these are manifestations of a furiously paternal society that Ibsen portrays in his drama, “Doll’s House”.
In a production of the play posted on “youtube”, Ibsen acts out his part by giving his wife a stern look and speaking to her with a strict tone. From their discourse, it comes out clearly that Torvald imposes his views upon his wife, lending credence to the assertion that the society in question is distinctively paternal (Ørjasæter).
The supporting characters have also played an important role in asserting the gender roles that the main characters play. Krogstad, for instance, requests Nora to use her influence to prevent Torvald’s firing from work. This request puts the reader in a better position to understand the relationship between Torvald and Nora. When Nora pleads with Torvald so that he may not fire Krogstad from work, Torvald pays no attention to Nora’s pleas. This, in fact, shows that Torvald holds his wife in very low regard. By trivializing his wife’s request, he demonstrates his low regard for his wife.
Moreover, even though Nora persistently pleads with him to consider retaining Krogstad, he does not budge. This proves that he does not consider the views of his wife to be any more important than those of a child. This is reinforced by the words that he tells Nora after receiving Krogstad’s letter canceling the contract. He says, “I should not be a man if this womanly helplessness did not just give you a double attractiveness in my eyes” (Ibsen). This statement is the most apparent evidence of paternalism in this drama.
The reader can also notice heavy feminism in the way Krogstad treats Nora. Krogstad fails to address his complaints directly to Torvald. Instead, he uses Nora as a proxy through which he can air his grievances to Torvald. Granted, there is a debt that binds Nora to Krogstad. However, the reader nevertheless expects Krogstad to face Trovald if he feels there is a need to do so. The fact that Krogstad chooses to blackmail Nora in order to press his case demonstrates the fact that he sees a weakness in Nora that he does not see in Torvald. Krogstad decides to exploit this weakness for his own gain.
Nora gives a telling revelation to Mrs. Linde. She reveals that she had borrowed some money against her husband’s wish in order to take him to Italy so that he may recover from the serious illness that he was suffering from. The reader gets some insight into the decision-making skills of Nora. In fact, the reader judges Nora favorably when he learns that she took it upon herself to borrow money and work to pay it for the sake of her husband. Ibsen’s intention is probably to portray the fact that despite the weakness that has inherently been depicted in women, they can make thoughtful decisions.
In the third act of the play, it is clear that Torvald’s disregard for his wife’s opinions is so deep-seated that it cannot be changed easily. When he finds out that Nora had borrowed the money for their trip to Italy, he is outraged. He does not care that Nora had borrowed the money for his own good. He chastises Nora and calls her demeaning names such as ‘hypocrite’ and ‘criminal’. Further, he laments that he cannot imagine the life that he will have to go through because of the debt in which Nora has placed him. The most telling statement that Torvald says is calling Nora a “thoughtless woman”. This conversation brings to light the gist of the feminist theme that is such a prominent part of this story.
Torvald goes ahead to say that what he hates most about the entire scheme is that people will most likely think that he is the one behind the scheme. This statement means that the society in which Torvald and Nora live expects the man to initiate all serious contracts while the women sit back and watch. Moreover, Torvald still offers to let Nora stay in his house without giving her the ‘privilege’ of raising their children. He says that appearances must be preserved. He implies that women serve only as “trophies” that should be displayed to the outside world. He treats Nora as a symbol of his status rather than as a human being and, more importantly, as an equal partner in their marriage.
Mrs. Linde is somewhat a departure from the general norm. She rebels against the notion that a married woman should live as a doll. Indeed, a modern society cannot allow a woman to live in the image of a doll (Markussen 126). She strikes the reader as an independent, capable woman. Not only does she perform heavy duties such as taking care of her sick mother, but she also caters to her two younger brothers. She is the ultimate symbol of feminine independence. The fact that she has a lot of independence is an indication that some women in the society are becoming emancipated and they are beginning to take up roles that have traditionally been considered male roles.
In addition to catering for her sick mother and her brothers, Mrs. Linde asserts that she needs to remain occupied. This is completely out of sync with the societal expectations of her time. While society expects women to be passive onlookers in the happenings of their society, Mrs. Linde is a proactive participant in the goings-on of her society. This is exemplified by the way she takes a deliberate step to seek employment. Despite her prominent participation in societal issues that affect her, Mrs. Linde’s character still represents some stereotyped views of women in her society.
First of all, the reader learns that she only takes a proactive role in matters after the death of her husband. This implies that before then, she had also taken a back seat, like all other women in her society of the time. The death of her husband seems to have jolted her to activity more than the other women in her society. Secondly, her conversation with Krogstad reveals that she left Krogstad to get married to a wealthier man who could cater for her family’s needs. This is the epitome of feminism in Ibsen’s play. It shows that Mrs. Linde believes that she cannot cater to her family from her own sources and effort.
The Perfect Representation of a Patriarchal Society
Indeed, Henrik Ibsen’s drama “Doll’s House” is a perfect representation of a patriarchal society. The female characters live up to their roles of subordination. The men, on the other hand, are excessively dominant in their talks and actions. The supporting characters of this drama enable the reader to better understand the gender roles that the main characters play. Indeed, the character traits of each of the characters enable the reader of Ibsen’s “Doll’s House” to better understand the feminist theory.
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