Henrik Johan Ibsen, born in 1828 in Skien, Norway, was the eldest of five children . He passed away in 1906. In his younger years, his life was difficult, especially financially. He was also rumored to be an illegitimate son, which is one of the reasons why it is assumed that this issue comes up in many of his works . It was after his “scandalous” play “A Doll’s House” (1879, Munich) that he appeared in the public eye and limelight. It was written two years after his work “Pillars of society” and was his first work to create a sensation . Soon, his works gained critical acclaim, and were translated into different languages, and were performed in many European cities . “The most acclaimed American stage production of the play was in 1902 starring Minnie Maddern Fiske. A Doll’s House has been made into numerous movies, including two versions released in 1973 – one directed by Joseph Losey starring Jane Fonda, David Warner and Trevor Howard, which went directly to U.S. television, and one directed by Patrick Garland which was released to theatres and starred Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, and Ralph Richardson .” Since it was written 120 years ago, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (or A Doll’s House–pick your translation) has had life on the page, the stage, movie screens, and television . It is often called the first true feminist play, although Ibsen denied this .
‘A Doll’s House’ is a poignant play with a heavy message. Set in Norway, in the late 1800’s, Ibsen takes us deep into the lives of Nora and Torvald Helmer. The plot revolves around marriage, wealth, betrayal, appearances, and most of all feminism. Their household is very typical of that time – conventional and defined. Nora is the dutiful, pampered housewife, who is meant to be happy in seemingly useless material things, and is to look after her family, and bring up her children with proper moral values. Torvald is the man of the house, the breadwinner. From the very beginning, the reader can see that Nora is pampered beyond limit. She has had no proper academic education. Her husband continuously refers to her as “girl,” “little,” “skylark,” “squirrel,” “little spendthrift” and “silly” and is more of a father figure to her than a husband . At times, his treatment of her seems most childish and hilarious. “My little songbird mustn’t droop her wings . What’s this? Is little squirrel sulking ?” She is not even given the key to their letterbox. He also has his moralistic and prophetic sayings like “A home that depends on loans and debt is not beautiful because it is not free .” In such a conventional lifestyle, Nora often feels the desire to scream and swear – an act of simple rebellion “I’ve the most extraordinary longing to say: ‘Bloody hell! ” This later matures into a stronger, deeper rebellion, which is not quenched by mere screaming and swearing. She is finally set free when she abandons her family. We also learn that the Helmers have had serious financial problems, but now are much better off since Torvald has found a good job, which can afford them a comfortable lifestyle . The play begins in the Helmers living room. This is the entire setting of the play . We discover that when the Helmers were poor, Torvald had fallen sick, and had to be taken to Italy . They had no money. Nora had borrowed money from a man Krogstad, telling her husband that she had borrowed it from her father, forging her father’s signature on the contract . This issue is pivotal, and provides the major action of the play. Torvald hates Krogstad and thinks Krogstad has no moral or ethical values. Krogstad and Torvald work at the same place, but Krogstad’s job is minor and insignificant. Torvald wants him fired, and claims that “his presence makes me physically ill .” This shade of Torvald’s character is quite disturbing, and makes the reader fear for Nora. Torvald was very conscious of what other people thought of him . He claims that he wants to fire Krogstad because of his indecent and immoral behavior, but soon, it becomes clear that his hatred for Krogstad stems from something deeper – Krogstad’s friendly and amicable attitude . One of Torvald’s biggest fears was that Krogstad would not show him proper respect . When Torvald eventually discovers that the man behind their loan is Krogstad, he is outraged. He yells at Nora, insulting her in a most demeaning way, calling her a “hypocrite” and a “liar.” He also declares that she will not be allowed to bring up the children, but would stay in the house, to keep up the “appearance” so that they would not have to be publicly disgraced in the community . Torvald also goes on to say that “Nearly all young criminals had lying –mothers .”
Other characters that drive the plot include Mrs. Linde, Laura’s old friend, who was once deeply in love with Krogstad, and Dr. Rank, who is now in love with Nora, but is dying. Dr. Rank too describes Krogstad as an indecent man “Oh, a lawyer fellow called Krogstad – you wouldn’t know him. He’s crippled all right; morally twisted .” Mrs. Linde was in love with Krogstad, but leaves him for a richer man, because she had to support her mother and two brothers . Her husband has now died, and she is left alone, with no source of money, and has come to the Helmer house for help. She wants Nora to talk to her husband and find her employment. Dr. Rank is a friend of the Helmers.
The plot is driven by many different diverse actions. In the very beginning, we come across a seemingly insignificant, but a very important symbolic device employed by Ibsen. Nora is eating macaroons, but lies to her husband about it. This petty lie reveals a lot about their relationship. We understand one critical thing about the two – there is no basic understanding . This is possibly what Ibsen was trying to highlight. In the late 19th century, life was more of a show. The Helmer household appears like any other, but a little deeper; we discover that there are many discrepancies in their lives. The story’s major underlying theme is the self-discovery of our heroine, which is one of the reasons why it created such a stir, and was so heavily criticized in its time. Ibsen denounced all materialistic “Victorian standards” and brought forward the ground reality. He showed the life of normal women in that time, and concluded that they were not just mere objects to be played with. They were persons of their own, with their own mind. What received even more criticism was the ending of the play. It came across as shocking to most people. Nora decides to leave her husband after he screams at her, accusing her of deceit, and blaming her of bringing disgrace to the family. Many regarded this ending as outrageous, claiming that no “real woman” would leave her children, her family and her home just for her mere freedom. In fact, this is the very fact that Ibsen has highlighted in this play. Women’s freedom is just as important, if not more important that their children. Ibsen says “A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.” Krogstad too is continously humiliated by Trovald and Dr. Rank alike, symbolizing what generally society thought of him.
In Germany, the lead actress of he play refused to perform if the ending was not changed . Ibsen did eventually change it, much to his chagrin. It was intially banned in England . Now however, all theatre and film productions use the orignial ending.
Critics today however are all in favour of Nora. Torvald is unable to see that she borrowed the money for his well being, so that he could recover. Instead, he insists on holding on to the mere fact that she forged her father’s signature. The way he reprimads her is most disturbing. Torvlad represents the typical male of the era. Nora too, to an extent represents the typical female, until, she decides to leave. From the beginning, she is overly pampered, and made to feel like a child.
Critics today have more sympathy for the antagonsit of the play- Krogstad. He was a man caught up in a low paying job, he had children he had to bring up, and so, he had little choice than to blackmail Nora into getting her husband to spare him his job, or else he would tell him about the loan. Krogstad vists Nora regulary, to see how she is . At one point, he also says “Even money-lenders, hacks, well, a man like me, can have a little of what you call feeling, you know .” Krogstad also carries with him a label of being a “criminal,” since he too, like Nora had once forged signatures . We also feel more sympathetic for him because he could not be with his love just because he was poor. Both Nora and Krogstad represent characters wronged by society, a society so strict and rigid in its views, that anyone who deviated was immediately labeled an outcast. Years of conforming to the rules, one mistake, and the society has no place for them.
Nora continuously presses Torvald not to fire Krogstad, but he is determined. Ibsen has portrayed a deep rooted insecurity in Torvald. Other events in the play also bring this to light. When Dr. Rank is dying, he says “Torvald is so fastidious; he cannot face up to anything ugly .” He had to be protected from the realities of life like a child. This is again, a criticism of the male mindset of the time. Most lived a life of show, were they were the heroes, but in actuality, they were just mere men, who were timid and scared; scared to show that they too had their faults and weaknesses.
There are two major literary actions that drive the play. Nora’s so called “fraud” and the emptiness of Torvald and Nora’s relationship. Nora Helmer might seem like a mindless “doll” at the beginning of the play, but much to our surprise, she emerges as a strong woman, doing something that was utterly unacceptable in the general life and culture around her. She is not just a “silly girl” as Trovald calls her, but understands the problems of her debt, and is working hard, and is determined to pay it off . “Additionally, the fact that she was willing to break the law in order to ensure Torvald’s health shows her courage .” Following Krogstad’s blackmailing, it her strength we see, when she faces her husband, and lets him know of her “crime.” “I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald .” “Torvald’s severe and selfish reaction after learning of Nora’s deception and forgery is the final catalyst for Nora’s awakening .” Finally, she realizes the hollowness of her life, and decides to take a stand, and walk out on her family to find her freedom. Characters like Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linde too play an important role, and help in bringing the readers closer to the characters of Nora, Torvald and Krogstad, and understand them better. Mrs. Linde and Krogstad’s story too highlights a social issue of the time, again based on materialistic appearances. Mrs. Linde marries a rich man. Eventually fate turns the other way, and her husband dies, and she is left penniless. She abandons Krogstad which makes us all the more sympathetic towards him. Krogstad is a man struggling to make ends meet. He has to face constant humiliation from people around him. His only job is in jeopardy because of thoughtless Torvald. Again, this provides the reader with a greater insight into Torvald’s mind. His character is most exhausting and arduous. In trying to maintain his image and respect, he does not give a single thought to Krogstad and his difficult circumstances. This eventually pushes Krogstad into blackmailing Trovald’s wife. He sends a letter to the Helmers, telling of Nora’s “crime.” Later, Krogstad and Mrs.Linde decide they will get back together. Krogstad is overjoyed, and decides he will demand his letter back before Torvald can read it . Mrs.Linde though stops him, saying that they would be better off if he knew the truth. Nora tries to delay Trovald’s reading of the letter, distracting him with a costume party at the neighbors the following evening. After the party however, Torvald reads the contents of the letter. He is infuriated beyond limit. Just after he bawls at Nora, Helene, the maid brings in another letter form Krogstad. He has now agreed to return Nora’s contract, with the forged signature. Torvald dismisses his rude behavior, thinking things will come back to where they were, “but his harsh words have triggered something in Nora .” After eight years of marriage, they were still not able to understand each other . She has always been treated like a doll to be played with, but now, she must “make sense of [her]self and everything around her .” She walks out, slamming the door behind her .
Ibsen’s style is quite unconventional and captivating. His tone is mostly serious and somber. He uses a range of symbols that make the play more exciting and charming. The major philosophy of the play is the fact that one cannot be happy playing roles that others expect one to play. “To be happy, one must be oneself and know oneself .” In her, Ibsen depicts the full glory of a woman who finally finds herself in opposition to all social norms .
A Doll’s House was a major challenge to the then contemporary literature. Most literary works were of a standard type, which ended with the family, or the couple living happily ever after. This was a divergence from the norm. Nora tells Torvald that they must “discuss all this that has been happening between us .” The play also moved off the standard tract with regard to Dr. Rank. Most elderly figures then were depicted as moralistic, ideal role models. Dr. Rank though is “sickly–rotting from a disease picked up from his father’s earlier sexual exploits–and is lewd and is openly coveting Nora .”
The most important message of play is that of feminism. “Nora’s rejection of marriage and motherhood scandalized contemporary audiences .” When the ending of the play was changed, Ibsen called it a “barbaric outrage” to be used only in emergencies . Men claim to comprise but “hundreds of thousands of women have.” The sacrificial role of women has been highlighted through almost all the female characters, primarily through Nora. Mrs. Linde had to leave her love to support her family, and so marries a rich man. A minor character like the Helmers nanny, Anne-Marie too had to abandon her own child, to take care of Nora’s for money . She reveals that she was “a poor girl who’d been led astray .”
Times in Europe were changing rapidly. With more technological advancement, conventional society seemed more and more restricted. Ibsen attacked middle-class values in an attempt to provoke more thought and discussion on issues of women – issues that were being dismissed as petty, but were affecting thousands of women silently throughout Europe. In fact, they were affecting women throughout the world. His play “A Doll’s House” remains after nearly one hundred years a most eloquent statement of the urge to stand free. Nora, the play’s heroine, has inspired countless women in their fight for liberation .
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Ibsen, at a meeting of the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights.