Henrik Ibsen’s seminal play A Doll’s House is considered by many critics to be one of the most important plays of social criticism ever written. In the play, Ibsen takes aim at the conventions of marriage – the husband’s supremacy, the wife’s subordination, the countless constrictions of those roles, and their deadening requirements.
According to the Ibsen Center in Oslo, A Doll’s House is the second most-performed play in the world after Hamlet. In 2001, the play was accepted for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, a listing of documentary heritage from around the world selected for its significance and outstanding universal value. In submitting A Doll’s House for the Register, the country of Norway said the following:
“More than anyone, Henrik Ibsen gave theatrical art a new vitality by bringing into European bourgeois drama an ethical gravity, a psychological depth, and a social significance which the theatre had lacked since the days of William Shakespeare. Ever since A Doll’s House was first published, it has raised debate and controversy, both because of its splendid dramatic structure and because of its broad ideological impact. The play revolutionized contemporary Western drama, both formally and thematically.
“In the twentieth century, the effect of the play spread to include Asia and the Third World, where its form became symbolic of modern Western drama and its content symbolic of values such as human rights and existential freedom. A Doll’s House is an exceptional achievement. In spite of Nora’s uncertain future prospects – facing the problems a divorced woman without means would face in nineteenth-century society – she has served and serves as a symbol, throughout the world, for women fighting for liberation and equality.”
– Wendy Swallow
Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald and mother of three young children
Torvald Helmer – Nora’s husband, a newly promoted bank manager
Dr. Rank – Torvald’s doctor and a family friend
Kristine Linde – Nora’s old school friend, recently widowed
Nils Krogstad – an employee at Torvald’s bank
The Children – Nora and Torvald’s children (in birth order): Ivar, Bobby and Emma
Anne Marie – Nora’s former nurse, who now cares for the Helmer children
Helene – the Helmers’ maid
Nora Helmer enters a comfortable parlor carrying a stack of Christmas presents, and followed by a delivery boy with a Christmas tree. Her husband, Torvald, chides her for spending so much on gifts, calling her his “little spendthrift.” He is affectionate but domineering. Nora responds that, as Torvald is getting a promotion at the bank where he works, she thinks money needn’t be so tight and suggests borrowing a little to tide them over. He refuses, saying “freedom and beauty” are lost in a home built on borrowing. To console her, Torvald asks what she wants for Christmas; she says money. Mrs. Kristine Linde, an old friend of Nora’s, and Dr. Rank, a family friend, come to visit. Dr. Rank follows Torvald into his study, while Kristine sits with Nora and asks for help getting a job. Kristine tells Nora her husband died, leaving her with neither money to get by nor children to love, and that her life is “unspeakably empty.” Nora says they have had troubles, as well: that Torvald fell sick and they went to Italy so he could recover. As these confidences unfold, Kristine chides Nora for being childish. Offended, Nora boasts that she borrowed the money for their trip to Italy without Torvald’s knowing (perhaps with the help of a secret admirer, she hints), and that she has worked secretly to pay it off. Nora offers to ask Torvald to give Kristine a job at the bank.
Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, arrives and goes to speak with Torvald in his study. Nora appears distressed to see Krogstad at their home. After the meeting with Krogstad, who leaves, Torvald comes out and Nora asks him about giving Kristine a job. Torvald says it may be possible. Kristine, Torvald and Dr. Rank leave. The nurse, Anne-Marie, brings Nora the children, and she plays with them. Krogstad slips back into Nora’s parlor, surprising her. He tells Nora that Torvald has threatened to fire him, and asks for her help. When she refuses, Krogstad reveals that he knows she got the loan for the Helmers’ trip to Italy by forging her father’s signature after his death. It turns out Krogstad is her back-street lender, and he threatens to blackmail her if she doesn’t help him. After Krogstad leaves, Torvald comes in and Nora begs him not to fire Krogstad. He dismisses her request, saying Krogstad committed a terrible crime by forging someone’s signature a long time ago, and that Torvald has been looking for a chance to fire him from the bank. He says Krogstad is morally compromised, and tells Nora to stop pleading for someone who has poisoned his own family with lies and criminal behavior.
Torvald and Nora are going to a costume party, so Kristine comes by to help Nora fix her peasant costume. Nora again begs Torvald to rehire Krogstad, but Torvald says he doesn’t like Krogstad because he is too familiar with Torvald at the bank. Torvald goes into his study. Dr. Rank stops by, and Nora decides to ask him for the money to pay off Krogstad for good. She tries to soften Dr. Rank for her appeal by flirting with him. He tells her that he is in a late stage of tuberculosis, and responds to her flirtations by saying he is secretly in love with her. Nora is troubled by his declaration, realizing she cannot ask him for the money now, after such a statement, so she turns away from him. Nora sends him in to sit with Torvald.
Krogstad comes to the house and tells Nora he intends to blackmail Torvald with the threat to disclose Nora’s illegal loan so that Torvald will reinstate him and even promote him at the bank. Krogstad tells Nora he has written a letter to Torvald about her forgery of her father’s signature, and that he has put it in the Helmers’ mailbox, which Torvald keeps locked. Krogstad leaves. Nora, desperate, tells everything to Kristine and begs her to convince Krogstad (who turns out to be Kristine’s former sweetheart) to ask for the letter back before Torvald reads it.
Torvald comes into the parlor to unlock the mailbox and get his mail, but Nora draws him away by asking for help rehearsing the tarantella she will dance at the costume party, pretending to be nervous about the performance. To keep him distracted from the mailbox, she dances around like a mad dervish, and Torvald, concerned, agrees to practice with her until nightfall. While everyone goes into dinner, Nora lingers in the parlor and mutters about having only a few more hours to live because she plans to kill herself to save Torvald from the shame of her crime.
While Nora, Torvald and Dr. Rank are at the party next-door, Krogstad comes by the Helmers’ apartment and finds Kristine waiting for their return. Krogstad and Kristine talk and rekindle their affection. Krogstad agrees to take back his letter to Torvald, but Kristine decides it is better for the Helmers’ marriage if the truth about the loan comes out. After the party, Nora and Torvald return and say goodnight to Kristine, who leaves. Dr. Rank comes by, suggesting that this is his final goodbye. Nora understands that Dr. Rank believes death is near and will now retreat from society. She hints to him that she, too, will soon be dead. Dr. Rank leaves, and Torvald collects his letters from the mailbox. Nora braces for his reaction. Torvald, reading Krogstad’s letter, at first can’t believe Nora’s crime, then grows enraged. He says he will have little choice but to submit to Krogstad’s power over him. Then Torvald turns on Nora, accusing her of being dishonest and immoral. He calls her a liar and a criminal, and says she is no longer fit to raise their children. He says “from now on happiness doesn’t matter; all that matters is saving… the appearance.”
Their maid enters with a letter from Krogstad, saying Krogstad has forgiven Nora the rest of the loan and returned the forged loan documents. Torvald cries out that he has been saved and burns all the letters and documents. Nora asks if she too has been saved, and he tries to say he has forgiven her, but she doesn’t believe him. She had hoped Torvald would take on the burden of the loan for her, but now she realizes that he cares only about saving himself and is not the strong, loving husband she thought he was. He says that by forgiving her, he is taking her under his wing, as now she will be entirely dependent on him, as if she were a child. She argues that she got the loan to save his life and has worked secretly for years taking in copying and sewing to pay it off. She tells him she did it for love. But Torvald dismisses that, saying they will forget the incident as little more than a naïve mistake, and that he will now work to educate her better. She goes to change out of her costume and returns in her traveling clothes, telling Torvald to sit down so they can have an honest talk.
She says it is odd they have never spoken honestly to each other about anything serious before. She says he has never loved her, that he just played with her as a child plays with dolls. She says she’s been stunted in her growth and education because everyone treated her like a doll, first her father and then Torvald. She says she must leave to discover who she is because she doesn’t know what she should believe in. She says religion has no answers for her, and when Torvald insists she stay to fulfill her sacred duty as a wife and mother, she says she has a sacred responsibility to herself. “Before all else, I’m a human being…” she says, and “… now I’ll begin to learn for myself. I’ll try to discover who’s right, the world or I.” She says she cannot be a good mother without learning for herself how to manage in the world. She had expected Torvald would offer to sacrifice his reputation for her, and that she would kill herself to prevent him from doing so. But in the moment of crisis, Torvald could only think of himself. He says that no one gives up honor for love, and Nora says women do that all the time. She says she no longer loves him, and says she’s been living with a stranger throughout her marriage and she cannot believe she conceived three children with him.
Torvald struggles to understand, and finally says he will make himself over; but she says that will only work if his doll is taken from him. She prepares to go, saying she won’t look in on the children because they are in better hands than hers. She says she could only return if the greatest miracle happened, the miracle of them both transforming into different people, but that she has stopped believing in miracles. Nora tells Torvald she is freeing him from all responsibility toward her, and that he must not write to her or offer help. She leaves her keys and demands they give each other back their wedding rings. Torvald sinks into his chair, unable to comprehend what has happened. Nora leaves, slamming the door as she goes.
(Summary Adapted from Wikipedia)
Byatt, A. S.: “Blaming Nora,” The Guardian, May 2, 2009.
Haugland, Charles: “A Modern Marriage: Ibsen & A Doll’s House in Context.”
Thompson, Jessica: “Henrik Ibsen and his play A Doll’s House,” Towards Emancipation? Women in Modern European History.
Shapiro, Ann: “The Slammed Door that Still Reverberates,” Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, pp. 99-101, Fisher, Jerilyn; Silber, Ellen S (eds.), Greenwood Press. (2003). (The first two pages of this essay are available online at this link.)
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