In the nineteenth century, the society was patriarchal and controlled by men, women were deprived of all rights. The society was constructed and conducted in a way that women made completely dependent on men in all cultural domains, religious, political, and economic. This is the background in which Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” is written. Ibsen created a female protagonist, Nora, who realizes that her marriage “has been nothing but a playroom.” (114). Nora’s words in the final scene reflects the feminist rebellion against the patriarchal ideology when she says, “But henceforth I can’t be satisfied with what most people say, and what is in books. I must think things out for myself and try to get clear about them.” (117). Nora decides to leave her husband and children in order to find her own identity. She recognizes that she has “Duties to [herself].” (117). For duties to self are higher than that of a wife and mother, she has not only a right but also a duty to develop it. This term paper will show the situation of women in nineteenth century. To begin, I will show the traditional gender roles in the play. Following that, I will discuss the patriarchal vision of “bad girl,” and “good girl.” Finally, the essay will deal with the subjection of women by men in “A Doll’s House”.
At first sight, “A Doll’s House” features the stereotypical representation of women as irrational and naïve. In the opening scene, Torvald forbids his wife eating sweets in order not to ruin her teeth. He seems to see his wife, or women in general, as intellectually inferior. In addition, He chides Nora for borrowing and spending too much money and tells her: “That’s like a woman!” (3). He sees his wife as careless and too foolish to carry any responsibility. But Nora completely proves the contrary, when She reveals to Mrs. Linde her secret work in the past in order to save her husband’s life. Even when Nora decides to become a new individual in society, Torvald tells her literally, “you are ill, you are feverish. I almost think you are out of your senses.” (118). Her husband accuses her of madness. This reminds me of Tyson’s interpretation of the word hysteria that refers to “psychological disorders deemed peculiar to women and characterized by overemotional, extremely irrational behavior.” (Tyson 86). Ibsen criticizes the patriarchal ideology through Torvald, who is portrayed as rational, imperious, and to some degree even emotionally cold. Torvald makes clear that his reputation is more important than his love for Nora, when he says that “no man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.” (94). Nora explains that she had expected Torvald to take the blame for her unintended crime when she signed an official paper instead of her father in order to save his life.
But her husband can not see the sacrifice that Nora made in order to save his own life, his reaction to her mistake is simply, “No religion, no morality, no sense of duty–.” (107). Without taking into consideration the reasons that pushed Nora to counterfeit her father’s signature. At the beginning, Nora lies at her husband about borrowing money, and she tells him that she took the money from her father. All that is only not to harm Torvald’s position as the man of the family. Nora tells Mrs. Linde, “how painful and humiliating it would be for Torvald, with his manly self-reliance, to know that he owed anything to me! It would utterly upset the relation between us;” (21). At this point Nora and Torvald are both victims of the patriarchal society as Tyson explains, “Failure to provide adequate economic support for one’s family is considered the most humiliating failure a man can experience because it means that he has failed at what is considered his biological role as provider.” (87). What is hard to accept for the patriarchs is that the “Other” are also capable of working and securing a higher position for themselves in society.
What’s more, the gap between public sphere and domestic sphere is very clear in the play. Torvald spends most of the time in his public sphere. Even when he is at home he is usually working in his study. He seems rarely spend time with his wife and children. When Nora asks her husband to come and look at what she has bought, his reply is simply: “Don’t disturb me.” (3). This shows that his main job as the man is to make money, whereas Nora is mostly confined to the domestic sphere. Her contact with the outside world seems rare and is limited to shopping and visiting neighbors (she comes back from a shopping trip in the opening scene of Act I, and in Act III she visits their neighbor’s party with Torvald). Nora’s absence from the public sphere makes her economically completely dependent on her husband, and even the domestic sphere does not belong to her alone. As a man, Torvald not only controls public affairs but also the domestic ones. In Act I, he chides her for having spent too much money on the Christmas gifts. He gives her two pounds; he emphasizes that it has to suffice for the housekeeping at Christmas. The man here governs the home. When Nora tells Mrs. Linde about her past job in needlework, she seems enjoy being able to earn her own money. She tells Mrs. Linde: “it was a tremendous pleasure to sit there working and earning money. It was like being a man” (17). This implies the longing of a woman for freedom from her domesticity.
After having briefly discussed the traditional gender roles in the play, I would like to discuss the picture of “good girl” and “bad girl” that is portrayed in the play. Nora is not put into the typical stock role that associate women with perfect creatures. She is portrayed as a human being with virtues as well as faults. It is the realization that she is not a doll with the duties of a wife and mother as she explains to Torvald, in the final scene, but she is “before all else [……] a reasonable human being.” (92). When Nora is submissive and obedient, she is Torvald’s “little squirrel” and “singing skylark,” as he calls her multiple times in the play. Nora is the perfect wife for him as she acts as he wishes, but when he finds himself about to lose his reputation as well his work because of Nora’s mistake, Nora becomes a “Wretched woman!” (106). Torvald threatens “to not allow [her] to bring up the children,” for he does not dare to “trust them to [her]” (108). From patriarchal perspective, “Bad girls are [….] discarded because they don’t deserve better,” and “they’re not good enough to bear a man’s name or his legitimate children,” whereas “The ‘good girl’ is rewarded for her behavior by being placed on a pedestal by patriarchal culture.” (Tyson 90). Women who fail keeping themselves and their family untainted are to blame when their children turn out bad. Torvald even remarks that “almost everyone who has gone to the bad early in life has had a deceitful mother” (36). The effect of the play is to raise in us a great deal of sympathy for the cause of women.
Last but not least, the subjection of women by men is a significant theme in the play. The title of the play is symbolically significant and highly suggestive of the message that Ibsen intends to convey through the play. Nora “[has] been [Torvald’s] doll wife, just as at home [she] used to be papa’s doll child.” (114). Before marriage, Nora is treated as an object in her father’s house, “he used to tell [her] all his opinions, and [she] held the same opinions. If [she] had others [she] concealed them, because he would not have like it.” (114). And when she got married, she “passed from father’s hands into [husband’s hands]” (114). This reminds me of Tyson words, “patriarchy treats women, whatever their role, like objects: like objects, women exist, according to patriarchy, to be used without consideration of their own perspectives, feelings, or opinions.” (91). The very title suggests the objectification of women within the realm of the domestic sphere. Torvald even prevents Nora mentioning her friends because she belongs only to her husband. Nora tells Mrs Linde: “Torvald loves me so indescribably, he wants to have me all to himself, as he says.” (54). Torvald shows the patriarchal attitude towards women as a mixture of a sense of possession and sexual passion. Nora finally breaks away from the institution of marriage and also leaves her children for her desire to build her own identity, she “must stand quite alone to know [herself] and [her] surroundings;” (115)
Overall, the play seeks to expose the injustice done upon women, which was inherent in the culture, and the attitude of the male-dominated society of the late nineteenth century. In the earlier half of the play, we see Nora as a submissive wife and a dutiful mother. We notice that through her conversation with Mrs Linde telling her about how it’s delightful “to have things tasteful and pretty in the house, exactly as Torvald likes it!” (23). As she knows her husband better, she becomes aware of her own position, and more self-conscious. She finally realizes that “It is [Torvald’s] fault that [she has] made nothing of [her] life.” (114). Slamming the door at the end of the play carries a huge significance because it symbolically stands for a woman’s revolt against her husband and by extension a slap in the face of patriarchy. Slamming the door is the explosion of female energy against male domination. It is an individual’s search for freedom.
- Ibsen, H. A Doll’s House.1879. Gloucester: Dodo Press.2005
- Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. London: Routledge, 2006.