The immediate stage success of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, indicates that contemporary audiences recognized an accurate depiction of a conventional nineteenth century marriage. Public demand in Germany, however, soon afterwards forced Ibsen to supply an alternative ending to his play, because the contemporary wife did not, or should not, slam the door on her husband and children. To be shown to do so was to undermine the sacred institution of marriage, and of this intention, Ibsen was widely accused.
His strong defense of his original ending is therefore indicative of his attitude to marriage and his opinions on the necessary components of a successful union. If the vital ingredients are not carefully measured and willingly contributed, then the marriage will fail, and unless some radical reappraisal takes place, the matrimonial home will be little more than a legal torture chamber.
In his depiction of the Helmer marriage, Ibsen shows his recognition that a woman’s contribution to marriage is essentially different from - but nevertheless equal to - that of a man. As individuals, both have separate but equal claims to happiness and fulfilment.
There are faults on both sides in the Helmer marriage, so severe that in eight years, husband and wife had not had one serious conversation. Through her conditioning, Nora has become a doll-like creature; a puppet performing for the gratification first of her father and then of her husband. She is a product and a victim of the patriarchal society which views women as the property of father or husband and judges them by men’s laws. Never having been encouraged to cultivate her own opinions, Nora has been obliged to suppress her natural instincts and thus lose sight of her individual self. Her confusion in explaining this to Torvald is clear:
You arranged everything the way you wanted it, so that I simply took over your taste in everything – or pretended I did – I don’t really know – I think it was a little of both – first one and then the other (Act 3).
But Nora was not unwilling to play the game by Torvald’s rules; it was, after all, ‘fun’, and her small acts of childish rebellion afforded her some secret delight; which also provided a way of maintaining the peace.
Nora’s marriage is a microcosm of the patriarchal society as a whole and having known nothing else, Nora has placed unquestioning trust in the rightness of its laws. Torvald’s paternalistic attitude and his idea of her being his ‘treasured possession’ has encouraged her frivolity and provided her with a sense of security that is, however, dangerously false. It is a marriage based on deception and therefore not an equal partnership. Since it is undoubtedly conventional, the implication is that such deception in marriage is commonplace. But marriage is an artificially manufactured trap. Ibsen's imagery of Nora as a 'songbird', 'dove', 'skylark' etc is suggestive of pretty, wild creatures that are cruelly and unnaturally caged by the laws of the contemporary patriarchal society. Nora's one rather fragile weapon is her sexuality, which she has grown to depend on to manipulate her husband.
Both Nora and Torvald compensate for the void in their marriage by indulging in fantasies or daydreams. Torvald inflames both his ego and his sexual urges in the pretense that Nora is his ‘secret mistress’, his ‘clandestine little sweetheart’, or his chaste new bride on her wedding night, while Nora dreams of a ‘rich old gentleman’ falling in love with her and rescuing her from her plight. In this way, they cocoon themselves in their separate webs of deceit and fail to recognize the real deficiencies in their marriage, and the needs of each partner. Nora deludes herself that her marriage is perfect and Torvald feeds his false self-image, leaving mutual trust out of reach.
It takes the perceptive Mrs Linde a very few visits to recognize the problems and advocate a solution, while the devoted family friend and daily visitor, Dr Rank, remains blissfully unsuspicious of the undercurrents threatening this ‘happy, peaceful home’. This suggests that, left to themselves, Nora and Torvald might continue their deceptions indefinitely and that indeed such might be an acceptable approximation of happiness. But Nora’s secret is an awesome burden and one she does not discount disclosing to Torvald at some vague future date ‘Years from now, when I’m no longer pretty’ (Act 1). This, however, only proves Nora’s basic misconceptions about the world, and provides a sense of her hovering on the brink of realizing the truth. In whatever way Nora’s confrontation with reality occurred, her awakening would be a shock, and once faced, her basic nature would demand its assertion. It seems, therefore, that Ibsen is cynical not so much about marriage as about the social conventions which inhibit individual development and encourage delusion and duplicity.
It would appear that Nora is a creation ahead of her time. Despite her ignorance of the world, she is aware that society is not yet ready to accept her desertion of her husband and children, ‘I know most people think as you do,’ she tells Torvald in Act 3, but her need for personal development overrules all his conventional objections, even if her quest is doomed before it is begun.
In the space of only three days of the Christmas period, Nora undergoes almost a rite of passage that takes most women several years. Few women can contemplate leaving their children, but Nora does so not merely because the law dictates they are the property of their father, but also in the belief that as an incomplete person, she cannot supply their essential needs but, conversely, might corrupt them.
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen builds up a strong case against the existing laws of marriage that allow a legal breeding ground for hypocrisy and bigotry. His release of Nora might well be viewed as an act of charity. The playwright was kind enough to allow his character at least the belief in her own courage to face the challenge of the world outside her front door.
Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
The play text used was the Methuen Student Edition, translated by Michael Meyer
Some suggested further reading:
The full text of A Doll’s House is available free online at:
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