Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House, by Danish playwright Henrik Ibsen, is a dramatic criticism of 19th century gender norms, which emphasized a woman’s obedience to her husband. At the conclusion of the play, the protagonist Nora Helmer rebels against these cultural norms. She abandons her husband and her children. “I am going to see if I can make out who is right, the world or I.” In this video, we will discuss Nora’s radical transformation from an obedient wife to an assertive woman seeking independence.

In the beginning of the play, Nora’s husband Torvald playfully calls her by pet names such as “my little skylark” and “my little squirrel.” At first glance, the names seem like terms of endearment, but as the play progresses, the terms of endearment quickly turn into terms of dehumanization, as the reader discovers the shocking similarities between Nora and a pet animal. Nora remarks upon the similarity in one of the last scenes of the play. “I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald.”

Until the very end of the play, Nora suppresses her own interests in favor of Torvald’s. In Act II, she expresses to Torvald that she has dedicated her life to pleasing him. “Don’t you think it’s nice of me to do as you wish?” The attitude that women ought to obey and live for their husbands was socially accepted in 19th Century Europe. Nora challenges these cultural norms in the 3rd and final act of the play.

In the final scene, Nora tells Torvald that she has decided to abandon him and the children in order to understand what is best for her. Torvald tries to dissuade her. He tells Nora that a woman’s most sacred duties are to her husband and children. Nora coolly responds, “I have other duties just as sacred – duties to myself.”

The title of the play is very significant. It refers to the doll-like existence of Nora. Her husband and her father treated her like a toy, rather than as a person who can discuss serious matters. Speaking to her husband at the end of the play, Nora states, “In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject. Our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child.”

It is important to note that Ibsen claimed he did not write A Doll’s House with the intention of promoting women’s rights, but rather to promote the rights of all humans. In light of this, one ought to interpret Nora’s rebellion as an act which encourages the reader to question all cultural norms and values. In the words of Nora, “I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.” Ibsen urges us to think for ourselves, rather than allow society to dictate our beliefs and values.

7 thoughts on “Henrik Ibsen: A Doll’s House

  1. This play is one that will always stick with me. I remember discussing it with someone who argued Nora was selfish because she was always asking for money, then leaves in the end. I thought this was a very shallow interpretation considering she was performing in the way society dictated.

    One thing I found brilliant is that we can see that she is performing, but as the play continues on we can also see that it is, indeed, a performance and that her true self is somewhere underneath. I think this is something that anyone can relate to, but definitely the roles of women and the ideal that their ultimate responsibility is to their husband and children is painfully familiar even with women today.

    Now I want to reread this play and reflect on it more. 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make a very interesting point about the role of modern women.

      I much prefer Jacobean Drama and Ancient Greek Tragedy over anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed reading Ibsen.

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