Sometime after the publication of “A Doll’s House”, Henrik Ibsen spoke
at a meeting of the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights. He explained to
the group, “I must decline the honor of being said to have worked for the
Women’s Rights movement. I am not even very sure what Women’s Rights are. To
me it has been a question of human rights” ( ). “A Doll’s House” is often
interpreted by readers, teachers, and critics alike as an attack on chauvinistic
behavior and a cry for the recognition of women’s rights ( ). Instead its theme
is identical to several of his plays written around the same time period: the
characters willingly exist in a situation of untruth or inadequate truth which
conceals conflict and contradiction ( ). In “A Doll’s House”, Nora’s
independent nature is in contradiction the tyrannical authority of Torvald.
This conflict is concealed by the way they both hide their true selves from
society, each other, and ultimately themselves. Just like Nora and Torvald,
every character in this play is trapped in a situation of unturth. In “Ghosts”,
the play Ibsen wrote directly after “A Doll’s House”, the same conflict is the
basis of the play. Because Mrs. Alving concedes to her minister’s ethical
bombardment about her responsibilities in marriage, she is forced to conceal the
truth about her late husband’s behavior ( ). Like “A Doll’s House”, “Ghosts”
can be misinterpreted as simply an attack on the religious values of Ibsen’s
society. While this is certainly an important aspect of the play, it is not,
however, Ibsen’s main point. “A Doll’s House” set a precedent for “Ghosts” and
the plays Ibsen would write in following years. It established a method he
would use to convey his views about individuality and the pursuit of social
freedom. The characters of “A Doll’s House” display Henrik Ibsen’s belief that
although people have a natural longing for freedom, they often do not act upon
this desire until a person or event forces them to do so.
Readers can be quick to point out that Nora’s change was gradual and
marked by several incidents. A more critical look reveals these gradual changes
are actually not changes at all, but small revelations for the reader to see
Nora’s true independent nature. These incidents also allow the reader to see
this nature has been tucked far under a facade of a happy and simple wife. In
the first act, she admits to Christine that she will “dance and dress up and
play the fool” to keep Torvald happy ( ). This was Ibsen’s way of telling the
reader Nora had a hidden personality that was more serious and controlling. He
wants the reader to realize that Nora was not the fool she allows herself to be
seen as. Later in the same act, she exclaims to Dr. Rank and Christine she has
had “the most extraordinary longing to say: ‘Bloody Hell!'” ( ). This longing
is undoubtedly symbolic of her longing to be out of the control of Torvald and
society. Despite her desire for freedom, Nora has, until the close of the story,
accepted the comfort and ease, as well as the restrictions, of Torvald’s home
instead of facing the rigors that accompany independence. Ibsen wanted the
reader to grasp one thing in the first act: Nora was willing to exchange her
freedom for the easy life of the doll house.
Ibsen shows that it takes a dramatic event to cause a person to
reevaluate to what extent he can sacrifice his true human nature. For Nora,
this event comes in the form of her realization that Torvald values his own
social status above love ( ). It is important to understand Nora does not leave
Torvald because of the condescending attitude he has towards her. That was, in
her eyes, a small price to pay for the comfort and stability of his home. In
Bernard Shaw’s essay on “A Doll’s House”, he expresses that the climax of the
play occurs when “the woman’s eyes are opened; and instantly her doll’s dress is
thrown off and her husband is left staring at her”( ). To the reader “it is
clear that Helmer is brought to his senses” when his household begins to fall
apart ( ). It is important that Shaw’s grammar is not overlooked. The
statements “the woman’s eyes are opened…” and “Helmer is brought…” both
indicate that the subject of the statement is not responsible for the action.
Rather, some other force pushes them both into their new realization. Shaw’s
clever analysis directly adheres to Ibsen’s view of a person’s reluctant
approach to freedom.
Although Nora is the central character of the play, she is not the only
person to cross the turbulent thresh hold of freedom and bondage. Christine
Linde leaves the symbolic harshness of winter and enters the warmth of Nora’s
place of captivity early in the first act ( ). Christine gives the reader an
initial impression of Nora’s opposite. She is a pale, worn woman who is
completely independent. Her conversation with Nora reveals that Christine was
left poor and alone after her husband, for whom she did not care, passed away.
Christine had accepted marriage with her husband because she reasoned her
present situation left her no other option. She felt she had to take care of
her two brothers and bedridden mother. If she had not married this wealthy man,
she would have had her freedom, but it would have been a difficult struggle.
Instead, she surrendered her freedom for an easier life. Eight years later, the
death of her husband gave her enough of a jolt to set her back in control of her
Torvald is certainly not the hero of “A Doll’s House”, but he is not the
villain either ( ). He is just as trapped in the same facade of a happy house
as Nora. He feigns security and unrelenting support for his wife, but this mask
is quickly dropped when he finds himself in danger. The discovery of Krogsdad’s
letter leads Torvald to believe his life and social position are on the brink of
destruction. Torvald spouts out ridiculous and stupid remarks as Nora’s face
draws tighter and colder with each statement. Nora is freed. When Torvald
finishes babbling apologies and forgiveness after the second letter from Krogdad
arrives, Nora takes control of the conversation and control of her life.
Moments before Nora slams the door on her former life, Torvald’s eyes are opened
( ). He pleads with Nora, “I have the strength to change”, but it is already
too late ( ). It takes the departure of his wife before Torvald can awaken to
his shallow existence. The shake-up in Torvald’s life ushers him across the
discordant threshold of freedom and bondage.
“A Doll’s House” is the most socially influential of Ibsen’s plays ( ).
It shocked the public into taking a much more serious look into Women’s Rights.
“Ghosts” and “An Enemy of the People” caused equally large shock waves but
repercussions were not nearly as phenomenal. The three of these plays,
regardless of the extent their social impact, have each earned the title of
Classic. Each play is the result of the one written before it. In a letter to
Sophie Aldersparre, Ibsen explained, “After Nora Mrs. Alving had to come” ( ).
The same idea two years letter spawned “An Enemy of the People”. The three
plays share the common idea of characters existing in situations of falsehood
until something causes them to reevaluate their existence. Instead of exploring
their personal freedom every moment of their lives, Ibsen’s characters had their
eyes cast down on the path of least resistance. This is simply a more strict
version of Ibsen’s primary theme in all his works: the importance of the
individual and the search for self-realization.
Brunsdale, Mitzi. “Herik Ibsen.” Critical Survey of Drama. Ed. Frank N.
Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press 1986. pg982.
Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. Macmillan, 1977, pg223. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century
Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 1982. pg154.
Shaw, Bernard. “A Doll’s House Again.” The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 83,
No. 2168, May 15, 1897: 539-541. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism.
Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 1982. pg. 143.