A Doll House play written by Henrik Ibsen focuses on the complications of life and marriage of women at the end of the 19th century. The play explores the conflict between the old world, where women valued for beauty and obedience were treated as objects by their husbands, and the rise of the new world, with more freedom for women. The play provides significant insight into the early differences between old and new attitudes towards women’s position in society by exploring the main character’s relationship with her husband.
The play explores the life story of Nora Helmer and her progress in gaining awareness about her minor role as a human-controlled doll in marriage relationships. Although there is no specific information about Nora’s background, some details in the play suggest that Nora is a young woman who grew up in a rich patriarchal family with no significant worries. The play suggests that Nora’s carefree upbringing contributed to the development of her childish attitude and innocent and clumsy behavior. It seems that Nora deliberately avoids thinking to protect her state of living in ignorance, as business talks are “so tiresome” to Nora (Ibsen 19). At the beginning of the play, it seems that Nora only cares about her children, Christmas presents, and delicious treats. However, it soon becomes more evident that Nora deliberately chooses to live in the delusional world to avoid any difficulties in gaining enough independence to be disappointed with her own life.
Nora’s husband, Torvald Helmer, also favors her partial development as an independent person as his perception of women admits their superficiality and frivolous behavior. Furthermore, Torvald perceives women’s inability to think seriously as an opportunity for control and manipulation of his wife for his own interests. Moreover, when Krogstad approaches Nora asking her to influence the decision about his position in the Bank, Nora emphasizes that she has “no influence” over her husband (Ibsen 27). The play strongly implies that Torvald views his wife as a status attribute or a pet, emphasizing his detachment from her animal-like behavior.
On the other hand, despite her husband’s low opinion of his wife and women in general, Nora shows significant interest in other people and makes every possible effort for the benefit of her close ones. When Nora’s friend Christine Linde complains about the lack of activities in her life after her husband’s death and her brothers’ departure, Nora decides to ask her husband to find a job for Christine. Furthermore, when Krogstad confronts Nora about her lies about the money she borrowed from the bank, she admits that she could not cancel the trip because she needed to save her husband’s health (Ibsen 31). In addition, when Doctor Rank confesses his feelings to Nora, the woman feels discomfort as his confession endangers her fidelity to her husband. Moreover, living in a dream world where Torvald will give his life to Nora at any time, she finds Rank’s confession clumsy in comparison with her unrealistic perception of Torvalds’s love. Therefore, even though Nora experiences troubles in independent decision-making, her life values and intentions prove that there is more to her character than what her husband sees.
Furthermore, Nora’s character is opposed to another significant woman figure in the play, her friend Christine Linde. The play describes Christine as Nora’s old friend from school who visits Nora at the beginning of the play. Christine’s character is the opposite of Nora’s, but their differences do not stop them from being friends. Upon her arrival, Christine tells Nora that she lived a sad life as a widow without children for the last two years after eight years of happy marriage. Christine’s husband left her no money, so she moved to the town to look for an office job. The character’s appearance in the play is described as a paler and thinner version of herself ten years ago. Therefore, considering that Christine and Nora are close in age, one could suggest that Christine looks like a more mature and aged version of Nora.
The contrast between the two characters emphasizes the different characteristics of old and new attitudes towards women’s position and power in society. Christine states that despite her current unstable state, she lived happily in marriage for eight years, compared to Nora, who takes her husband on a life-saving recreational trip despite their struggling marriage. The characters also have different approaches to money, as Christine clearly states that having “what one needs” is enough for her (Ibsen 9). On the other hand, Nora, who is used to living in comfort and luxury, is excited by her husband’s earning opportunity and expects “heaps and heaps of money” (Ibsen 9). Both characters prefer avoiding loneliness but use different methods: Nora enjoys the company of her children, while Christine prefers being distracted by useful processes, and that is why she is looking for a job.
It is interesting to note that Nora’s children are not with her during her dialogue with Christine, emphasizing her detachment from her primary functions as a mother and demonstrating her lack of control. The fact that Christine does not have children also emphasizes her freedom in making important life decisions, such as moving to the town. Thus, the new and old attitudes can be characterized by different perceptions of money and wealth, different degrees of dependence on husbands, degree of involvement in relationships and family, and willingness to work.
Considering the strengths and weaknesses of both attitudes using the example of Nora, the author draws attention to the differences between being happy and merry. The main strengths of the old attitude for Nora were presented by confidence in her looks and a sustainable future. Closer to the end of the play, when Torvald forcefully brings her from the dancing party to make an impressive exit, Nora acknowledges that her husband uses her beauty to demonstrate his status. Therefore, his compliment for her appearance and looks are sourced in his self-centeredness. Furthermore, Nora faces the truth that the bright future after Tormund’s promotion will have no impact on her because she still feels like a “poor woman – just from hand to mouth” (Ibsen 90). Thus, the strengths of imposed confidence and certainty of the future turned into weaknesses which contributed to Nora’s merry life without concerns but did not make her happy.
The strengths of a new attitude allowed Nora to face the truth herself and confront her husband. The character even proceeds to distance herself from her children, as she understands that their relationships are founded on false intentions instead of true love and care. Nora decides that being truly happy for her requires taking control of her own life decisions and discovering more about herself. Therefore, even though the new attitude for Nora carries the weakness of broken relationships, its strengths give her the courage to face the truth and confront her husband with the same level of authority.
The play encourages the audience to adopt a new attitude to prevent the occurrence of cases similar to Nora’s. The play draws attention to other women who deliberately avoid thoughts of their unhappiness and deprive themselves of valuable achievements to remain safe under men’s patronage. Even though Ibsen often focused his plays on social issues, the ending in A Doll House play caused significant controversy, and the author was forced to change the part to a more conservative resolution. While the play does not target the promotion of feminism, it raises awareness about women’s potion in society and highlights the lack of resources and conditions contributing to the independent development of women.
Lastly, even though Nora leaves her husband at the play’s ending, the conflict between them is not resolved. Nora states that there is a chance for them to be together in the future if they both change. However, she says that the opportunity for “the most wonderful thing of all things” to happen is small, equivalent to a miracle (Ibsen 97). Furthermore, it is uncertain what happens after Nora finally leaves the house. Considering Tormund’s romantic affection for his wife, he may make an effort to change and respect her as an individual. However, the play ends with a semi-open ending to illustrate the small chance of further reunification of the spouses.
In conclusion, this essay explored A Doll House play through the prism of differences between new and old approaches to the proper behavior of women. The essay discussed the contradiction of old and new approaches in the opposition of women characters and the concepts of happy and merry living featured in the play. The analysis showed that women’s subordination to men negatively influences the self-development process of women. The essay explains how the play encourages the audience to adopt a new attitude to prevent the occurrence of cases where women deliberately prefer to ignore their unhappiness for the sake of men’s protection.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll House. Dodo Press, 2005.