Ibsen was one of the pioneers in the writing of naturalistic or realistic plays in revolt against both the romantic drama and the ‘well-made plays’. In his hands the theatre began to move towards a naturalistic mode of performance and away from romanticism. Ibsen was more interested in the social realities of life than in romantic themes or in the artificial and melodramatic plots of the ‘well-made plays’. Drama in his hands became more intellectual because it dealt with social issues and problems. Hence the origin of A Doll’s House which is naturalistic in technique and subject matter.
In A Doll’s House Ibsen still retains some of the elements of the romantic drama. The characters in it differ very little from the usual types of romantic drama. There is the innocent, child-like woman involved in a desperate deception; there is the heavy, insensitive husband; there are the faithful friends; and there is the villain too. Similarly the main situations in it are typical of the ‘well-made plays’. We have the guilty secret, the sealed lips, and the complications created by krogstad’s incriminating letter. The appearance of Krogstad at Helmer’s house just when Nora is playing with her children is also a typical situation showing the villain against a background of domestic happiness. Hence A Doll’s House is an anti-romantic play in a limited sense. Naturalism itself is anti-romantic in a limited sense. In fact, naturalism is a legitimate child of the romantic drama; a child which makes a limited rejection of its parent, but which remains essentially formed by its general inheritance. The fact that Nora, Helmer, Krogstad and Doctor Rank can function as the stock figures of romantic drama and at the same time as the typical characters of the problem-play is only one indication of this general fact.
A Doll’s House is undoubtedly naturalistic in its technique and theme. So far as the technique is concerned, the author has used several devices which contribute to the realistic effect. For instance, all the three unities are observed. The entire action takes place at the apartment of the Helmers; the whole action extends over a period of just three day (though the true classical unity of time is just 24 hours); the play has a single main plot, while there is a minor sub-plot which does not mar the unity of action. Another feature of this play is that the author has used only five main characters here. All this concentration creates a realistic framework, placing the emphasis on psychology rather than on the action and incident. This concentration, further increased by the reduction of the customary five acts to three, intensifies the force of the drama. Another device used by Ibsen is that of the parallel situation. In the case of Mrs. Linde, for example, Ibsen establishes a sharp contrast between her and Nora. Mrs. Linde’s greater experience and greater maturity throw Nora’s girlish excitability into greater relief. Krogstad in his crime, Doctor Rank in his inherited disease, and the nurse in having forsaken her illegitimate child – all these serve to amplify Nora’s motivation and attitudes.
Ibsen has used the retrospective method of situation and character portrayal. A Doll’s House begins just before the catastrophe, and the dialogue is used to acquaint us retrospectively with the preceding events. It is only after the past life of Nora and Mrs. Linde, with an oblique hint at the past relationship between Mrs. Linde and Krogstad, has been revealed to us through this device that the author proceeds to present the subsequent events directly on the stage. In this way the influence of the past on the present and the future is carefully explored. The action is concentrated into a very small space of time, and the past is contrasted violently with the calm and the comfort of the present. This makes also for a more convincing and realistic delineation of character. In the manner of real life, Ibsen’s characters show different aspects of their thinking and attitudes in varying situations.
Ibsen has made use of the device of symbolism to add to the realistic effect. There is, for instance, the stove in the room. The warmth of the stove seems to represent the security which Nora so urgently desires. In this way Ibsen used an apparently naturalistic method to establish clearly the emotional life of Nora. Again, through the symbol of the Christmas tree, renewal of life and family happiness is shown forth when Nora enters at the beginning of the play itself. But in act II, Nora’s failure to find peace of mind is symbolized by the fate of the same Christmas tree which now stands bereft of its decorations. Nora’s eating macaroons secretly is intended to show Nora’s childish capacity to deceive, and to take pleasure in a secret rebelliousness against her husband’s authority over her. The macaroons can further be seen as symbolizing the good things which seem to be safe from Krogstad’s threats. The dance of the Tarantella heightens the pathos and irony of Nora’s predicament. The Tarantella was originally performed by a person who had been bitten by the tarantula, a poisonous spider. Even the references to the doors serve a symbolic purpose. There are nearly forty references in the stage directions and in the dialogue to doors opening and closing.
Another realistic feature of this play is that it shows romantic love to be an illusion. Nora at one point tells Doctor Rank that Helmer would not hesitate even to sacrifice his life for her sake. She has also been harboring the hope that, if the need arises Helmer would take the whole blame for her guilty action on his shoulders. But she is completely disillusioned because Helmer’s love for her, and even his moral principles, collapses when he is faced with a crisis. Helmer himself has spoken to Nora like a romantic lover when he wanted to make love to her; and he even goes to the length of saying that he would like her to be threatened by some terrible danger so that he can risk everything, his body and his soul, for her sake. But all these claims prove to be hollow and empty. Mrs. Linde offers a contrast to Nora in this respect. She is very practical and has no romantic illusion about love. In her youth she married a man of wealth because she had to support her mother and her younger brothers. Now she is ready to marry Krogstad in order to impart some purpose to her empty life. She tells Krogstad that she would like to act as a mother to his children. Nora’s romantic love for her husband is completely extinguished when she discovers that he is not the man she had thought him to be. But we can foresee that Mrs. Linde’s new relationship with Krogstad will prove to be enduring as it is based on practical considerations.
There is nothing impossible or fantastic about the plot of this play. A couple of improbabilities do exist in the plot. For instance, it is difficult to believe that Nora has been able to keep her transaction with Krogstad a secret from her husband all these years, especially when every month she has to pay an installment to her creditor. It is also difficult to believe that any woman would forsake her children even though it becomes necessary to forsake her husband. Moreover, the fact that Nora did not know the legal implications of forging a signature is unconvincing. But, apart from these improbabilities, the plot is perfectly convincing. There is nothing improbable about a wife’s borrowing money secretly in order to save her husband’s life; about Krogstad’s trying to blackmail a woman or her husband when his job is threatened; in Mrs.Linde’s desire to get married to the man with whom she had been in love and whom she had jilted due to the pressure of family responsibilities. However, some people may doubt whether a woman in Nora’s position would take such a drastic step as altogether leaving her husband and her home. But even this is not an impossibility.
The most striking aspect of Ibsen’s realism in this play is his portrayal of the characters. The portrayal of Helmer is a triumph. He is surely one of the most convincing characters in the drama. There are countless husbands in this work who have the same possessive attitude towards their wives as Helmer has. There is no doubt that he loves Nora. The manner in which he speaks to her, calling her by various pet names, shows his love, as does his generosity in giving her money even though he has always urged her to exercise the utmost economy in running the household. His desire to make love to Nora, after having watched her seductive movements, is another convincing trait of his character. His talking like a moralist is perfectly credible. Theoretically he is a most upright man with high moral principles and values. But when faced with a crisis, he fails both as a lover of his wife and a moralist. Thus he becomes the archetype of a common man.
The portrayal of Nora is too convincing that it has been hailed as one of the best characterizations in world literature itself. The only doubt which arises in the minds of certain people is whether a wife who is so passive and submissive at the beginning of the play can suddenly become so defiant and submissive as to forsake her husband and her home. There is nothing fantastic about this development in Nora’s character. Nora has been passive and submissive in order to be able to lead a smooth and comfortable life with her husband, but the seeds of rebellion had always been there in her nature. The time comes when she cannot tolerate the conditions of life any longer and so she erupts as an earthquake. Mrs.Linde, Krogstad, and Doctor Rank have nothing implausible about them either. They are sketchily drawn as was inevitable, the focus being on Nora and Helmer; but they are perfectly convincing.
Here the fact that the main characters are not kings, queens or generals greatly add to the realistic effect of the play. Ibsen’s characters belong to the middle class. Hence these characters made an immediate appeal to the audience. Of course, the range of his characterization is limited, but within the limits Ibsen gives evidence of his deep understanding of human nature. His characterization is always marked by a psychological depth and subtlety and this gives the great effect of realism throughout his plays. The play is naturalistic also in so far as Ibsen has rejected such plot devices as coincidence and sensationalism. The story here is perfectly simple, and free from those intricacies which used to be a feature of the “well-made” play initiated by the French dramatist, Eugene Scribe.
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Shaw, George Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Dover Publications, London, 1994.