Henrik Ibsen, a prominent Norwegian playwright, is proclaimed to be the “Father of Modern Drama” for writing plays that exposed and challenged the social ideologies within the nineteenth-century Norwegian society through the illustration of everyday life. His naturalistic play, A Doll’s House, written in 1879, is no exception. Through his central characters and their function, Ibsen criticises the traditional gender roles both men and women are confronted with, in a society more concerned with propriety and reputation than human connections. Set in a comfortably furnished, middle-class household, the play revolves around the protagonist Nora, who represents the conventional middle-class wife, her breadwinner husband Torvald, and Nora’s childhood best-friend Christine Linde, who symbolises the subservient role held by women in their families. Through these characters and their function, as well as through Nora’s development from a naïve “doll” to an independent, liberated woman, Ibsen teaches the importance of self-liberation; of thinking “things out for [oneself]” and trying “to find [one’s] own answer” to participate in society in a meaningful manner, rather than accepting the roles set in place for oneself by tradition.
Ibsen deplores the entrapment of women in nineteenth-century Norway through the protagonist, Nora, who represents the traditional, bourgeoise wife. Initially, Ibsen depicts Nora as frivolous, irrational, and naïve. When she asks Torvald for money, her pleading tone “Can’t we? Just a little bit?” implies cajoling, echoing how a young child begs for a larger allowance. After having her request denied, Nora begins “sulking”, indicating her immaturity to deal with the issue appropriately as a responsible adult would. Torvald “taking out his purse” suggests his approval of Nora’s childishness and his infantilisation of her by treating her like an errant child. Ibsen implies Torvald’s ownership of Nora through his nicknames: “my squirrel … my little skylark … my little songbird”. The possessive “my” implies that Nora is Torvald’s property, and, in conjunction, with a noun that denotes an innocent, caged animal, Ibsen suggests that Nora is the pretty, entrapped creature that Torvald compares her to; reliant on her husband to survive. However, when Nora confesses “Nora isn’t as silly as you think”, Ibsen suggests she is merely playing her role as the traditionally frivolous, submissive wife. In a desperate attempt to keep Krogstad at the bank, Nora’s wheedling “suppose your little squirrel were to ask you ever so nicely” implies that she must reduce herself and emphasise her helplessness for him to even consider helping her. As Nora is unable to get what she wants without playing the role of the incapable wife, Ibsen criticises the entrapment of Nora and the bourgeoise wives she represents.
Ibsen exposes the societal pressure on men to fulfil their traditional role as the breadwinner of the family through the character of Torvald. Nora’s confession “[Torvald’s] so proud of being a man … it’d completely wreck our relationship” implies that not only does Torvald feel he must solely provide for his family, but any help from Nora will cause him to feel threatened as it endangers his pride and masculinity. The verb “wreck” further suggests the fragility of their marriage which is fundamentally based on traditional gender roles in which the man must wholly support his wife. Moreover, through Torvald’s confession “if the rumour got about that [I] had allowed [my] wife to persuade [me]… I’d soon feel the consequences” Ibsen suggests the social mores embedded in the nineteenth-century Norwegian society; for a man’s authority and masculinity to remain unassailable, men must make all important decisions completely independently. When Nora’s borrowing is revealed, Torvald’s first thoughts are for his reputation: “I am condemned to humiliation and ruin simply for the weakness of a woman” which implies that Torvald is only concerned with how society will react to his family’s shame and, therefore, cannot appreciate the sacrifice Nora has made for him. Ibsen utilises Torvald’s dialogue “no man can be expected to sacrifice his honour” and Nora’s response “millions of women have done it” to suggest the deep-rooted traditional gender roles embedded in his society: that men must remain honourable and strong whilst women must act in deference to the male figures in their lives. Ibsen creates a moment of pathos for Torvald when he asks, “Did you expect me to drag you into all my worries?”. This implies that perhaps Torvald has been misguided in his view that, as a male, he must solely take on the responsibility of the household, which suggests, like Nora, Torvald is a victim of his social role. Thus, through the character of Torvald, Ibsen reveals the pressures on men to conform to their traditional gender roles.
Ibsen utilises the character of Christine Linde to censure the restrictions of working-class women within their subservient role. Upon reuniting with Nora, Christine is told that she looks “paler … [and] thinner” to which Christine responds with “And … Much, much older”, despite only being “a bit older” than Nora; implying that over the years Christine has tired and withered from the adversities of “trying to make ends meet, somehow”. While Nora has had a comfortable life with her husband, Christine gave up her poor love, Krogstad, and resorted to a loveless marriage to support her “helpless and bedridden” mother and her “two little brothers”, suggesting the only viable option for young women to provide for their families is to marry wealthy. As a widow, Mrs. Linde confides “one has to be continually sponging for jobs. One has to live” which implies the hardships of gaining financial security to survive, especially as a woman without a husband. In a conversation between Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, Ibsen employs Mrs. Linde’s dialogue “I had no choice” as an emblem for the limited options available to women in the era, implying that women either had to marry or work incredibly hard for financial security and even sacrifice their dreams. Hence, Ibsen utilises the character of Mrs. Linde and her plight to condemn the sacrifices and constraints of working-class women, in nineteenth-century Norway.
Through the use of symbolism and Nora’s character development, Ibsen aids his central message of the importance of self-liberation from traditional gender roles. Whilst Nora is initially portrayed as a submissive, obedient wife, the macaroons symbolise Nora’s insubordination and her inner passions. When Torvald accuses Nora of indulging in macaroons, she responds with “No, Torvald – I promise … I could never act against your wishes” even though she has just concealed the “bag containing macaroons”. Ibsen creates dramatic irony through this act of defiance to imply that Nora is not as innocent or foolish as her gender role presumes. After eating the forbidden macaroons once more, Nora comments that she feels “really, really happy”, suggesting that Nora takes great pleasure in succumbing to her desires, deserting the compliance that is expected of her as a wife, and acting independently of her husband’s wishes. Similarly, through the symbol of the loan, Ibsen presents an element of independence and responsibility that lies within Nora. To pay off the loan, Nora has had to “stint” herself and find “one or two other sources of income” because “it was [her] problem” to resolve. This indicates Nora’s maturity to take responsibility for her own actions as well as her ability to earn money independently of a man. Not only does Nora manage to pay off the loan, despite the adversities of earning money as a woman, but her confession “it was great fun … sitting there working and earning money” implies that she enjoys financial independence which is a stark contrast from the infantilised child at the outset of the play. Even though the symbols of the loan and macaroons indicate Nora’s desire for liberation before the climax of the play, it is not until the end of Act Three when Nora’s romantic illusion of her marriage is shattered that she realises she must leave her family to “think things out for [herself] and find [her] own answer”. It is this realisation that completes her metamorphosis from the cosseted child to a fully matured being. Hence, Ibsen utilises symbolism as well as Nora’s character development to reinforce the necessity of self-exploration.
Through the use and function of his main characters, Ibsen challenges the traditional gender roles embedded within his nineteenth-century Norwegian society in A Doll’s House. Whilst A Doll’s House is ostensibly considered to be a feminist play, Ibsen’s objective was not to fuel the feminist movement, but to provide a realistic “description of humanity” where both sexes are confronted with oppressive, traditional gender roles. Ibsen does not criticise the duties of motherhood or marriage, but rather, through his characters, he shows that for one to be truly successful and participate meaningfully in society, they must first reject their social roles to learn to be an independent individual.
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