Ibsen wrote ‘A Dolls House’ in 1879 – a time for of major social change, when women’s suffrage was at a recognised focal point and more and more women were striving for equality and independence. A social drama on marriage, it raises questions about the female self-sacrifice in a male dominant world. The play focuses on the typical Victorian housewife Nora who has nothing truly personal to her character as she has been morally moulded and taken care of her whole life first by her father and secondly her husband Torvald “I’ve been your doll-wife here, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child.” The story of her concentrates on the struggle for independent identity.
Ibsen portrays strong usual gender traits in all of his characters, all the men seem to be of typical Victorian nature, and this is shown predominantly through Torvald. He is the businessman; the provider in his family and a reputable man in society. He has a superior attitude toward women and talks down to all female characters in the play. His consistent use of demeaning language toward Nora, his wife, and also the way he speaks to Mrs. Linde.
All three men have values that are proud, honourable and masculine, although they are all fairly ruling and quite demoralizing toward Nora. Torvald is demeaning to his wife through his consistent use of superior language “Is that my little skylark twittering out there?” with the words ‘my’ and ‘little’ he is talking to her like a possession and of lower significance. Krogstad intimidates and blackmails Nora, “if I’m to be flung out for the second time, you’ll keep me company!” using language to frighten and exult power onto Nora. Dr. Rank although not an intimidating or demeaning person to Nora, becomes an overbearing presence in Nora’s life when he confesses his love for her before his imminent death.
The women of the play are all of low education if any at all, thus presenting the female gender already to be of a lower stature to the male. But the women do support each other with each having great emotional strength, in each scene we are given an account of each woman’s sacrifice that was made for love or money. The female role is presented predominantly through Nora, giving the play its depth as it is only through her that we see classic female traits: excitement, naivety, and the all round ‘girl ness’ that women exude – “Clapping her hands” and “laughing quietly and happily to herself” symbolise the femaleness of her character.
But through the play, she reveals her ability of manipulation and role change suggesting that she is not the scatterbrained skylark that her husband makes her out to be; although she allows Torvald to belittle her with animal names, she takes advantage of this by demanding more money. “Not looking at him – playing with his waistcoat buttons: If you really want to give me something… You could give me money Torvald.”
Her capability of character change, her constant back-and-forth between roles enables Nora to control others, to assert herself without attending to, listening to, learning from, or acting on what other people say. She acts the child-wife with Torvald as she knows that is what he wants and expects from her, while in others she displays herself as the adult female tease (with Dr. Rank), the capable businesswoman (in her dealings with the debt), the frantically desperate woman thinking of suicide, and, above all, the coldly independent woman who wants to taste the air of freedom.
Mrs. Linde and Anne-Marie support Nora in expressing the emotional strength that women have. Each woman tells her story of self-sacrifice: Anne-Marie giving up her children, Mrs. Linde forsaking her love for Krogstad in exchange for economic security and Nora who, finally realises that she has sacrificed her own identity to be in a secure and stable environment. Even though Mrs. Linde is a key figure in the story of Nora’s secret, we see a lot more personal interaction between the two female roles with conversation compared to the male.
As soon as the two women meet in the play they welcome each other warmly and get talking right away, touching on personal subjects such as the death of the husband of Mrs. Linde where she strokes Nora’s hair. We do not see a one on one scene with Torvald and Dr. Rank but in any of their conversation we do not see any real friendly emotion. When Dr. Rank delivers his death card Torvald has no idea what his best friend is thinking of doing ” What a gruesome idea – it’s just as if he is announcing his own death.” It does not take Torvald long to get over the matter either in suggesting that it was for the best for all of them (pg219). Ibsen here puts well the contrast in the female/male behaviour.
This play focuses on the way that women are seen, especially in the context of marriage and motherhood. Torvald, in particular, has a very clear and narrow definition of a woman’s role. He believes that it is the sacred duty of a woman to be a good wife and mother. Moreover, he tells Nora that women are responsible for the morality of their children. In essence, he sees women as both child-like, helpless creatures detached from reality. He consistently supports this with his language towards Nora: “So my little obstinate one’s out of her depth, and wants someone to rescue her?”
Torvald has no sympathetic understanding of or interest in other people other than in their social context. His relationship with Dr. Rank does not include any complex and understanding sympathy for what the man is going through (although we learn they were best friends as children), Dr. Rank’s friendship is an important social asset. This shows Torvald to be emotionally weak. The male gender is shown to be very chauvinistic and ruling towards the women. The females are there to care for the men and love them – this is shown with Mrs. Linde and Krogstad in the final act where she begs for someone to care for in Krogstad “let me have something – and someone – to work for.” Thus suggesting that a woman has no other place in the world other than to work for a man/husband.
The structure of the play is that so at the beginning it is Nora who is the weak and Torvald to be the strong and sensible person but at the end the roles are reversed. Even with Mrs. Linde and Krogstad who embark on a relationship of equal footing, this is a complete reverse to what we are introduced to. At the end of the play it is Torvald who is the confused the emotionally weak and Nora who becomes the masculine one of the two, by standing up to her husband and venturing into the unknown on her own.
Ibsen presents gender in the way that society saw themselves in 1879, men were the ruling fatherly figures toward women whilst women were deemed worthless and irresponsible, but through Nora Ibsen portrays the dramatic change that was occurring with more and more women getting tired of being fed hand to mouth by the men and so ventured out on their own to seek independence and purpose. The relevance to present day is that a lot of the issues and questions raised by Ibsen in the play are still significant 125 years later.
Women are still struggling for equality in what still stands a male dominated world, all over the world. Caste systems were abolished (apart from India) but still the theme of it still relates to how women have to strive for equality. The attitude that men had 100 years ago toward women is till very much the same today: a majority of men still think that the woman’s place is in the home, looking after her family. Women today still have to prove that we are of equal intelligence and capability.
The plot of the story is still presented in dramas today – whether on stage or on Friday night television the storylines are kept very much the same: secrets and lies and the individuals strive for freedom and independence. I think both men and women of today’s society can still envisage being in Nora or Torvald’s position within a relationship.