A Doll’s House

Introduction to A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House was first titled ‘Et dukkehjem’ and written in Danish by Henrik Ibsen. This masterpiece is a three-act play. It was first staged in Copenhagen in Denmark on 21 December 1879 in the same year when it was published. The setting of the play is a Norwegian town around that time. The play portrays the life of a married woman, who lacks reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a rigidly patriarchal society. The play has seen its translations into various languages, offering deep insights into the male dominant society and its strict rules prevalent during the 18th century. In 2006, on the occasion of Henrik Ibsen’s centennial death, A Doll’s House held the honor of being the world’s most performed play.

Summary of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

The story opens on Christmas eve when Nora Helmer is entering a well-furnished room, carrying various packages, followed by her husband Torvald Helmer, who greets her affectionately. Then, he chides her for her carelessness and lavish spending on Christmas gifts. Their conversation gives a clue to their past life that they were very cautious about money when they faced difficult days, but now Torvald has obtained a new and better position to bring more comfort in their lives.

Their conversation is interrupted when their maid, Helene announces the arrival of Helmer’s friend, Dr. Rank, who comes to meet Torvald. At the same time, Nora’s old friend, Kristine Linde, also enters the scene. Having met with each other after years, the two ladies exchange their thoughts. They discuss how their lives have altered over the years. Mrs. Linde tells Nora about the difficulties she has endured after her husband died as she was left with no children and no money. Nora in turn tells her about Torvald’s illness and how they spent a year in Italy.

Mrs. Linde then mentions the reason for her arrival. She is seen explaining to Nora how she had to attend to her sick mother and her younger brothers for years. She shares her feeling of emptiness as she doesn’t have a job and hopes Torvald can help her in obtaining employment. Nora then reveals a secret to Mrs. Linde about how she has managed the finances of that trip and has lied to Torvald, saying that she has inherited her father’s money. In fact, she had borrowed the amount without her husband’s consent and now she is struggling to pay it back but believes it will all be over soon.

Meanwhile, Krogstad, a low-level employee at Torvald’s bank, arrives and proceeds to Torvald’s study. His arrival brings discomfort to Nora, but somehow she manages to hide her concern. Dr. Rank also encounters Krogstad and speaks about his bad reputation. Once Torvald ends talking to Krogstad, he comes to the living room and announces that he has decided to give Krogstad’s position to Mrs. Linde. Nora’s children return with their nanny as Dr. Rank, Mrs. Linde and Torvald leave. When Krogstad realizes that he will be replaced, he catches Nora and asks her to influence her husband to let him hold his position. When Nora refuses to help him, he reminds her of how she has committed an offense by forging her father’s signature as a surety for the loan. Frightened, Nora tries to persuade Torvald, but he refuses to listen to her as he tells her how he feels sick in the presence of such people.

It is Christmas and Nora can be seen pacing in the living room alone filled with anxiety. Mrs. Linde enters and helps her sew Nora’s costume for the ball in her neighbor’s house the following evening. Mrs. Linde talks to her about Dr. Rank’s mortal illness. Nora again presses Torvald to retain Krogstad but he is adamant to do so and sends the maid with Krogstad’s letter of dismissal. Next, Dr. Rank arrives after Torvald leaves and Nora thinks about asking him to help her in her struggle with Torvald. But, Dr. Rank reveals that he is in love with her. She dismisses the idea and  Krogstad returns after some time with a different approach; he tells Nora that he wants to be appointed in a higher position than before or he will expose her fraud to her husband. He drops a letter detailing her forgery in a letterbox outside her husband’s office.

In a panic, Nora tells her friend Kristine about Krogstad’s exploitation who, in turn, tries to convince Krogstad to take back the letter but fails. Nora, on the other hand, tries to keep Torvald away from his business for some time. The next day, at the neighbor’s ball, Nora performs Tarantella widely, displeasing Torvald. Mrs. Linde returns and expresses her desire to begin a new relationship with Krogstad. She and Krogdtad meet the next day and declare love for each other and he accepts her proposal and offers to recall his letter to Torvald. Christine stops him, believing honesty will remove the distance between Nora and Torvald.

When Torvald comes to know this secret, instead of trusting, he expresses repudiation, insults her, and blames her father for her ill manners. During his tirade, he gets another note from Krogstad, who has changed his mind and let them off the hook. Torvald is elated; he tears up the letter, forgives his wife, and promises to protect her in the future. Nora, on the other hand, devastated by this dramatic shift decides to leave Torvald. Astounded by her decision, Torvald is appalled to hear that she is going to leave him and her children, while she seems determined to abandon the suffocating life she has lived until now. She says goodbye to live a fully independent life to explore her character and the world around her.

Major Themes in A Doll’s House

  1. Individual versus Society: This is one of the most important themes of the play, A Doll’s House. Most actions of the characters occur in response to the social customs they follow. Although Nóra is portrayed as a loyal wife and dutiful mother, yet some of her actions are not justified in her social system. Despite staying loyal to her family, she deceives her husband by hiding about her forgery and debt. She does not realize how her actions are going to affect her personality and her family. Similarly, Krogstad also strives hard to find peace and happiness in life but fails. However, his meaningful transformation at the end helps him achieve the peace he always longed for. Both Nora and Krogstad learn that society’s view of them is hollow and meaningless if they do not respect themselves as individuals.
  2. Love and Marriage: Love and marriage also hold thematic significance in the play because the play revolves around the marriage of Torvald and Nora. Ibsen tries to explore the concept of love in marriage using different lenses. First, he presents a happy couple with some candid descriptions of their married life. Their exemplary relationship stands in contrast with other characters: Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, leading an unhappy life. Apparently, Nora and Torvald are the epitomai of love, but even their relationship is governed by the strict rules of society that decide the role of husband and wife. However, Nora’s concept of marriage and love shatters when Torvald fails to forgive her for her past mistakes. She realizes that Torvald is not passionate about her. Instead, the institution of marriage has set certain rules to be followed and Torvald is just following them.
  3. Men and Masculinity: This is another prominent theme underlined in the text. Nora’s life is subjected to the patriarchal system of society. First, she idealizes her father, considering him the embodiment of masculinity. However, when the time elapses, she discovers that her father is domineering to the point of cruelty. She, then, replaces the ruthless image of her father with her husband, who treats her candidly. Later, she discovers that Torvald has feet of clay. She again replaces him with Dr. Rank, keeping the same ideal figure in her mind. Once again, she is disappointed, and in the final act, she liberates herself from the unjust and cruel social customs. Her action suggests that no one has the right to assert domination over another person.
  4. Deception: Deception stands as the central conflict of the play. Nora’s action of forgery and borrowing suggests that she has deceived her husband. Although Krogstad blackmails her, she does not reveal the secret to her husband, which is another deception by her. Instead of informing her husband, she opens her heart to her friend who, in turn, blames her and suggests her to be true to her husband. Krogstad also faces the music after helping Nora in her crime. The harmful consequences of their actions suggest that fraud, deception, and corruption do not bring joy to people. They corrode the very foundations of the social structure.
  5. Lies and Illusions: Lies and illusions also play a significant role in the play. Throughout the play, Nora lies to her husband, believing she will secure her marriage. She leaves no stone unturned to keep Torvald ignorant of her secret. However, toward the end, she learns that lies do not fix everything. On the contrary, they damage the foundation of beautiful relationships.
  6. Corruption: The author subtly presents the moral and physical corruption of the society in the play. Dr. Rank inherits corruption and immorality from his father. Similarly, after knowing Nora’s secret, Torvald blames Nora for inheriting moral degradation from her father. The major incidents and their dire consequences suggest that corruption in any form is a curse for society.
  7. Parental Obligations: Parental obligation also stands as the significant theme of A Doll’s House. Torvald, Dr. Rank, and Nora share a common belief that parents should be role models because their traits are transferred to their children. Dr. Rank believes that his father’s immorality has shaped his life. After learning about Nora’s deceit, Torvald also stops her from interacting with their children for fear that they will imitate her immoral traits. Thus, the inherited flaws of certain characters reflect the reciprocal and complex nature of familial obligations.
  8. Appearance versus Reality: Almost all the characters of the play are obsessed with their appearances. They strive hard to hide their grim and ugly inner reality. Nora confidently performs a heinous crime in the name of love. Torvald pretends to be a loving and caring husband despite being a man bound to follow the rigid customs of society. Dr. Rank pretends to be fit and healthy, while Krogstad also tries to hide his crime. However, as the play progresses the veil of appearance falls, making reality emerge from beneath the surface.
  9. Self-Awareness: The author tries to explore the fact that the prime duty of a person is to understand himself/herself. Nora is presented, at first, as a happy lady with ideal family life. She possesses no regard and knowledge of herself. However, the moment she explores her identity and comes across the value of self-awareness, she, at once, breaks the vicious circle of lies and deceit and moves on.

Major Characters in A Doll’s House

  1. Nora Helmer:  Nora is the protagonist of the play, A Doll’s House. She is also the soul of the house as being the wife of Torvald Helmer and the mother of three children. She has never tasted the fruit of freedom. First, she has lived under the influence of her patriarchal father and later shared the company of her husband, who follows customs in letter and spirit. The two men have never allowed her to experience the ways of the world, leading her to hold a materialistic approach toward life. However, the play explains the extent to which she tolerates this patriarchal oppression after which she emerges as a fully independent woman, rejecting the unconditional duties of her married life.
  2. Torvald Helmer: Torvald Helmer is the condescending husband of Nora. He is presented as a man who does not treat his wife on equal footing. Sadly, he sees her as an object to play with. Throughout the play, he loves to take a dominant position in their relationship, thinking that women are nothing without their husbands. Therefore, it is his job to guide and protect his wife. He strives hard to maintain his position in society, including his home. When he falls ill, he does not borrow to go on vacation. Later, when he learns about Nora’s secret, he fails to understand Nora’s feelings toward him. Instead, he thinks people will look down upon him after learning about this issue.
  3. Nils Krogstad: Nils comes into contact with Nora when working in her husband’s bank as she borrows the money from him and changes her fortune for good. He is the one who knows Nora has forged the signature of her father. Therefore, when his job at the bank faces the risk of being sacked, he exploits Nora’s secret as a weapon to save his position.
  4. Ivar, Bob, and Emmy: They are young children of Nora and Torvald Helmer. They spend little time with their parents as Anne has taken their responsibility. Although Ibsen gives them less space in the play, yet their meaningful presence creates questions related to parental role in the upbringing of the children of the society of that time.
  5. Mrs. Linde: Mrs. Linde is Nora’s school friend who approaches her after many years after losing her husband and mother. After these grave losses, she comes pleading to Nora to help her restore her lost glories. When Nora shares her life’s secret with her, she wishes her to have a future based on honesty. Mrs. Linde also acts as a motivation for her friend’s revelation that Nora must win independence from the grim realities of her domestic life.
  6. Dr. Rank: Dr. Rank, a close friend of Nora and Torvald and Torvald’s physician, embodies the traditional or theatrical role of the male moral force in the text. Instead of providing moral codes to the people associated with him, he exhibits moral and physical corruption. However, he is a real person who sees his life in danger and admits his love for Nora.
  7. Anne: As the family nurse of Torvald and Nora, Anne’s responsibility lies in taking care of the children to find shelter after her mother’s demise. Her loyalty makes Nora believe that she will raise her children with love even during her absence.
  8. Porter: The minor character of the play, porter appears with a Christmas tree at the beginning of the text. 

Writing Style A Doll’s House

The writing style of the play, A Doll’s House, shows the straightforward and persuasive approach of the writer, Henrik Ibsen, who has completely rewritten the rules of drama. He doesn’t follow the existing pattern of melodrama. Instead, he has presented real characters and real situations that we, as the audience, can relate to. He has also tried to fictionalize the expected women’s role in society how they confront various social problems, undergo various challenges, and tolerate disgrace of self and family. It was also too forward-thinking for that time where women had very little say the society. The dialogues are very simple, straightforward, lively, and true-to-life situations. Henry has also successfully used various literary devices to speak about social norms and their controlling institutions.

Literary Devices Used in A Doll’s House

  1. Action: The main action of the play comprises the happy married life of Nora and Torvald, Nora’s secret of borrowing and doing forgery, and their final separation over these issues. The rising action occurs when Krogstad, her moneylender, visits and blackmails Nora. The falling action occurs when Nora realizes that Torvald does not love her and that he only wants to govern her life by hook or by crook.
  2. Allegory: The play shows the use of allegory by presenting the main idea of how women at that time were living oppressed and subjugated lives in the name of marriages.
  3. Conflict: Two types of conflicts run in the play, A Doll’s House. The first one is the external conflict that is going on between Nora and the patriarchal world. Another is the internal conflict in the heart of Nora about her existence and the problems of her life how they are going to be resolved.
  4. Climax: The climax of the play, A Doll’s House, occurs when Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter and expresses his anger and fury over the secret that Nora has hidden from him for a long time.
  5. Characters: The play, A Doll’s House, presents both static as well as dynamic characters. The young Nora, Krogstad, and Christine are dynamic characters as they transform during the course of the play. However, the rest of the characters do not see any change in their behavior, as they are static characters like Dr. Rose and his mistress.
  6. Foreshadowing: The play shows examples of foreshadows as given in the below scene,
    i. Nora. Good Heavens, no! How could you think so? A man who has such strong opinions about these things! And besides, how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly independence, to know that he owed me anything! It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now.
    Mrs. Linde. Do you mean never to tell him about it?
    Nora [meditatively, and with a half-smile]. Yes–someday, perhaps, after many years, when I am no longer as nice-looking as I am now. (Act-I)
    ii. Krogstad. Excuse me, Mrs Helmer.
    Nora [with a stifled cry, turns round and gets up on to her knees]. Ah! what do you want?
    Krogstad. Excuse me, the outer door was ajar; I suppose someone forgot to shut it.
    Nora [rising]. My husband is out, Mr. Krogstad.
    Krogstad. I know that.
    Nora. What do you want here, then?
    Krogstad. A word with you.
    Nora. With me?–[To the children, gently.] Go in to nurse. What? No, the strange man won’t do mother any harm. When he has gone we will have another game. [She takes the children into the room on the left, and shuts the door after them.] You want to speak to me? (Act-I)
    These examples predict what is going to happen in the story; the first shows Nora is hiding something serious from her husband, and the second predicts some secret between Nora and Mr. Krogstad.
  7. Imagery: The play shows the use of imagery as given in the examples below,
    i. A room furnished comfortably and tastefully, but not extravagantly. At the back, a door to the right leads to the entrance-hall, another to the left leads to Helmer’s study. Between the doors stands a piano. In the middle of the left-hand wall is a door, and beyond it a window. (Act-I)
    ii. Helmer [standing at the open door]. Yes, do. Try and calm yourself, and make your mind easy again, my frightened little singing-bird. Be at rest, and feel secure; I have broad wings to shelter you under. [Walks up and down by the door.] How warm and cosy our home is, Nora. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your poor beating heart. (Act-III)
    Both of these examples show the use of different images such as the image of a well-decorated house and its structure. The second example also shows the images of sound, touch, and sight.
  8. Irony: The play shows dramatic irony as given in the following example,
    i. You too, of course; we are both saved, both you and I. Look, he sends you your bond back. He says he regrets and repents–that a happy change in his life–never mind what he says! We are saved, Nora! No one can do anything to you. Oh, Nora, Nora!–no, first I must destroy these hateful things. Let me see–. [Takes a look at the bond.] No, no, I won’t look at it. The whole thing shall be nothing but a bad dream to me. (Act-III)
    The excerpt shows a dramatic change in Torvald’s behavior upon getting the second letter from Mr. Krogstad.
  9. Metaphor: A Doll’s House shows good use of various metaphors besides the extended metaphors of good versus evil. For example,
    i. Helmer: When did my squirrel come home? (Act-I)
    ii. Come, come, my little skylark must not droop her wings. What is this! Is my little squirrel out of temper? [Taking out his purse.] Nora, what do you think I have got here? (Act-I)
    iii. Nora: No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. (Act-III)
    These examples show that Nora has been compared to different things; in the first with squirrel, in the second with a skylark, and in the end with a doll.
  10. Mood: The play, A Doll’s House, shows a sympathetic mood, though, it becomes tragic, ironic, and highly satiric at times. Sometimes, it also becomes gloomy when Nora faces her husband’s wrath.
  11. Motif: Most important motifs of A Doll’s House are Nora’s definition of freedom, women’s subjugation, and letters that reveal the truth in the text.
  12. Protagonist: Nora Helmer is the protagonist of the play. The play starts with her role as a homemaker and ends with her meaningful transformation to a free woman.
  13. Setting: The play, A Doll’s House, is set in a Norwegian town in 1879.
  14. Simile: The play shows good use of various similes as shown in the following examples,
    i. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you. (Act-III)
    ii. Here is shelter for you; here I will protect you like a hunted dove that I have saved from a hawk’s claws; I will bring peace to your poor beating heart. (Act-III)
    The first simile compares Nora to a doll, while the second compares Torvald to a savior and her to a hunted dove.
  15. Symbolism: A Doll’s House shows that the symbols of The Christmas tree, New Year’s Day, and macrons. All of these symbolize awakening or change.
  16. Theme: A theme is a central idea that the novelist or the writer wants to stress upon. The play, A Doll’s House, shows the sacrificial role of women in society and the importance of freedom.
  17. Tone: The play shows a very serious and sometimes somber tone by the end though, in the beginning, it is very light-hearted.