Modern Drama- as it is known as despite the fact it is more than a century old came to be called so because it rejected traditionally accepted conventions. After the death of Shakespeare, neither Congreve, nor Sheridan or Goldsmith could restore drama to the pedestal that had been achieved by their predecessor. The Restoration and the Sentimental drama of the seventeenth and eighteenth century respectively, was clearly lacking in literary quality. But the late nineteenth century not only restored drama to its true place but also shifted focus from Romantic and historical themes to more domestic themes. Although the role of other writers in reviving drama in modern times cannot be denied, the name of Henrik Ibsen shines out. Ibsen provided an impetus to the realist movement. His plays dispensed with the characteristics of the well made plays and gave emphasis on the in depth study of the characters and ingeniously conceived plots.
Modern literature opposed the attitude adopted by the nineteenth century Victorians. Henrik Ibsen, by not conforming to the ideals of the nineteenth century, undertook a leap across what Joseph Wood Crutch calls “the chasm between Past and Future” (Krutch) and through his works like “A Doll’s House”, “Ghosts”, “Enemy of the People” and the like made a radical break from the past. His plays did away with the conventional mores of society that inhibited individual growth and ventured into territories considered best left unspoken.
The present paper strives to focus on “A Doll’s House” as a play that subtly scrutinizes the institutions of marriage, home and family, previously seen as sacred, inviolable and sacramental; a play, that seeks to redefine the role of woman; a play, that upholds that however bitter, truth must surface; and finally, a play, whose themes like all of Ibsen’s other plays is in Michael Meyer words “…the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is, and to strive to become that person.” (Meyer, Introduction. 19)
The play’s protagonist Nora Helmer lives in an illusionary world where she believes herself to be happy and proud, married to a man, on whom she is certain she can fall back on and who, if the need arises will risk his own life to save her. Sadly what follows in the course of the story stuns her and leads her into reassessing her relationship with her husband and determine her identity.
Women in the nineteenth century possessed no rights, could take no decisions and were completely subordinate to men. Mrs. Linde’s remark “A wife can’t borrow without her husband’s consent.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 80) and “I think it was rash to do anything without telling him…” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 80) reaffirm this time and again. In the opening act, Nora appear as the conventional nineteenth century woman, unquestioning, accepting of the playful husband. She shows no sign of disapproval when Torvald playfully calls her a spendthrift and chides her. His comment “Just like a woman” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 5) draws no objections from her. He even talks disrespectfully of her father when he says, “Just like your father. Always on the look-out of money, wherever you can lay your hands on it;” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 7) She plays the role of a woman completely subservient to her husband, one who would “never dream of doing anything you didn’t want me to.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 7)
Nora is childlike, immature, ready to do all for love without caring for consequences. Torvald on the other hand is stern, controlling, of the strong belief that “there’s always something inhibited, something unpleasant about a home built on credit and borrowed money.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 5)
She forges her father’s signature in order to borrow money from Krogstad for the trip to Italy which eventually saves her husband’s life. Torvald is completely unaware of this dark secret of Nora which she successfully keeps away from him until the dreaded IOU lands in his hands. Their seemingly ideal world is thus thrown apart and they are forced to sit and face facts. What happens to be a legal offence to the eyes of the world is a source of pride and joy to her. Hers is a crime done in innocence, for love for a husband who fails to acknowledge and respect her intentions. She played her role well, both as a daughter and as a wife. But ironically, no one is there to rescue her when she needs help most. Her father is dead already and the husband she trusts more than her life is busy worrying about himself.
Ibsen points out in his notes that it is a male-dominated world where women are judged not from female standpoint but on the basis of laws designed by men. Krogstad clearly points out to Nora, “The law takes no account of motives.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 31) It does not take into consideration Nora’s cry of defense “I did it for love…” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 31) or her childish accusation that the laws that do not take into account motives “must be very bad laws.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 31) Torvald gives lie to his own words when he acts opposite to what he said in the beginning of the play “It’s the thought behind it that counts after all.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 8)
Nora had waited for eight years for the miracle to happen in her life. That Torvald would take the blame on himself was her belief and dread. To save him from which she was ready to end her false claim that “I’ve enough strength and enough courage, believe me, for whatever happens. You’ll find I’m man enough to take everything on myself” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 46) and “You can rely on me.” (Ibsen, A Doll’s House. 61) aggravates the irony of the situation.