The Life In The Eyes Of The Wife In A Doll’s House

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“‘I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself’ -Simone de Beauvoir” (Good Reads). In the play, “A Doll’s House” by Hendrik Ibsen, main character Nora seems to have felt exactly this way when she decided to leave behind her husband, children, and while family to go start her own life. “A Doll’s House” starts out with what seems to be a perfect marriage and a perfect family, where the husband works all day to provide for the family while the wife is at home making sure the family is well taken care of. In chapter 9 of Kelly Mays’s book The Norton Introduction to Literature, she talks about how middle-class women were trying to make a difference, stating that, “Many of these effort, perhaps most notably the women’s suffrage and temperance movements, were spearheaded by middle-class women, trying to improve their own circumstances and those of women of all socioeconomic classes and races” (Mays 565). The 19th century was a unique time period because while society seemed to be stuck in their old ways, it was also the start of women trying to break-free, become independent, and break through the stereotypes. In the beginning of the play, Nora makes sure to be the perfect woman that would do anything to please her husband. As the play goes on; however, Nora starts to show her true colors, which are full of independence, rebellion, and determination. In his play, Hendrik Ibsen uses Nora’s relationship with her husband Torvald to prove that although there was a lot of gender roles and conformity in the 19th century, there was also rebellion and reinvention of tradition that led to the inspiration of not only women’s rights, but human rights in general.

In the 1800s, men and women presented very different roles in society. Men and women were not seen as equal, in fact, women were seen as much lesser that their husbands. For example, in an article called, “An Overview of a Doll’s House,” author Sheri Metzger mentions, “That the prevailing view is that women have little worth when their usefulness as mothers has ended is clear in Torvald’s repudiation of Nora” (Metzger). This quote suggests that in the eyes of society and in the eyes of their husbands, the women/wives were deemed useless unless they could have children and take care of a family. Another example in Hendrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House,” he writes, “Nora: [Going toward the stove.] Yes, whatever you say Torvald” (Ibsen 1705). Nora saying this to her husband reveals that she knows that Torvald is in charge and has the power. She wants him to know that she respects hi, in their relationship. Since women were seen as inferior to their husbands, that means that the men were seen as having all of the power in their relationships. One article called “A Doll’s House: Overview” by Goontilleke states, “To him the man is the superior being, holding the economic reins and thereby concentrating in his hands all power and responsibility in the household, making the woman his slave” (Goontilleke). This quote proves that women’s roles were so different because they were seen as inferior to the men. The men held all of the power in the relationship, and the women were only there to please and take care of their husbands and make their lives easier. Another excerpt from Ibsen’s play states, “Helmer: … [Taking out his wallet.] Nora, guess what I have here” (Ibsen 1705). In this excerpt, Torvald is about to give Nora money, but he wants to be sure to subtly express that it was the money that HE got. It was the money that only he had the power to give her. This last quote from Ibsen’s play writes, “Helmer: Is that my little lark twittering out there?... is that my squirrel rummaging around?” (Ibsen 1704). In this piece of the conversation, Torvald is comparing his wife to birds and squirrels. He is referring to her as inferior animals to indirectly show his power and dominance over her.

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While Ibsen may speak more specifically about human rights rather than women’s rights, he is still a major contribution to the start of the women’s movement. Standing up for human rights was very important to author Hendrik Ibsen. In fact, in Goonetilleke’s article he writes, “‘I ... must disclaim the honour of having consciously worked for women's rights. I am not even quite sure what women's rights really are…” (Goonetilleke). While he may have gotten credit for kick starting the women’s movement, he actually had no intentions of helping women’s rights. Rather than just helping women specifically, he was trying to help the human population in general. Another quote by Goonetilleke states, “To me it has been a question of human rights'. This, in fact, suggests the main theme of the play. It is true that the rebel, trying to claim what she considers her legitimate rights, is a woman, but Ibsen also conveys a more general theme of freedom…” (Goonetilleke). Ibsen’s work may have seemed like more of a feminism approach; however, he was actually trying to stand up for all human rights, and more freedom for everyone, not just women. In one more article called, “The meaning behind the lines: how Ibsen's toughness and Chekhov's tenderness transformed American playwriting and acting,” author Wendy Smith claims, “Ibsen remade the art of playwriting, creating works that startled audiences with their frank discussions of social issues and their unconventional dramaturgy. His later plays would be concerned less with social criticism and more with the progress of the human soul, but he would always be drawn to conflicts couched in the fiercest terms” (Smith). Ibsen seems to focus more on the bigger picture. Instead of only helping one group of people, he wants to make a difference for everyone. In trying to push human rights; however, it seems as though Ibsen played a huge role in the inspiration of women’s rights. In an article by Joyce Moss and George Wilson called, “A Doll’s House,” they mentioned that, “Even so, the women’s movement embraced him as one of the leading champions of its causes after the publication of the play” (Moss and Wilson). While Ibsen intended on just pushing for human rights in general, he had a much larger impact than that. He was one of the main reasons for the start of the whole women’s movement.

During the 19th century when there was such specific gender roles, most women conformed, but some women rebelled. In Moss and Wilsons article they also state, “To outsiders, a portrait emerges of a kind but firmly dominant husband who closely monitors his comfortable home, charming wife, robust children, and secure income. Yet it turns out to be disastrous that Nora has been sheltered so completely by her husband, as she had been by her father” (Moss and Wilson). Nora’s life was never the perfect fairytale marriage, she just wanted people to think her life was normal because she wanted to keep up her reputation and she was just conforming to the gender roles of her time. Another example of Nora complying to the rules if society, is in Hendrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll’s House.” The play states, ““Nora: Oh yes, I promise I will. But come here so I can show you everything I bought. And so cheap!” (Ibsen 1705). She knows that he is stressed about money so she is trying to do the wifely thing and show him the cheap things she bought- how much money she has saved him. While Nora seemed to conform to the gender roles in the beginning of the play, as it goes on, it proves that Nora was actually one to try to deviate from society’s gender roles. An additional quote from Goonetilleke’s article says, “It has been said that the banging of the door as Nora leaves the house was the first action of women's liberation” (Goonetilleke). Though Nora’s act may have seemed small at first, it actually represents the start of the women’s movement; it was the first step, with many more to come. Metzger also mentioned in his article that, “If Nora wants to define her worth, she can only do so by turning away from her children and husband” (Metzger). This quote proves that Nora is rebelling from the social standards and she knows that the only way to do that is to break away from her family and not seem like the perfect wife and mom. Once again from Ibsen’s play, he writes, “Nora: I have a huge desire to say- to hell and be damned” (Ibsen 1715). While it may not seem like a big deal that Nora says this, is symbolizes that she is coming to the realization that she wants to leave her husband and family. She wants to tell her husband off, which is far from what a traditional wife would do. And lastly, another quote from Ibsen’s play states, “Nora: But it still was wonderful fun, sitting and working like that, earning money. It was almost like being a man” (Ibsen 1712). In this quote, it seems as though Nora likes the idea of having a male’s role. She wants to be able to work like a man and earn money like a man, which again, is not what a typical woman would be thinking about. In one last quote from the article “The Marrying Kind,” author Hilton Als states that, “She wears her independence like some gray shawl and resembles those single women Elizabeth Hardwick once described as wandering about 'in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for.' (Hilton). In mentioning this, it proves that Nora is representing all of the single or independent women who do not rely on other people to provide for them, they provide for themselves.

Throughout his play, “A Doll’s House,” Hendrik Ibsen relates Nora’s relationship with her husband Torvald to one of the biggest social issues of the 19th century, which was gender roles and conformity. During and after Nora’s decision to leave her family, Ibsen also relates the play to rebellion and reinvention of tradition that led to the inspiration of not only women’s rights, but human rights in general. While Ibsen may have just been trying to help society in general by speaking up for human rights, the way he depicted Nora’s character and her life, was an important factor, if not the leading cause, of the start of the women’s movement.

Works Cited

  1. Als, Hilton. 'The Marrying Kind.' The New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2014, p. 70. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.
  2. “Feminism Quotes (4182 Quotes).” Goodreads, Goodreads,
  3. Goonetilleke, D.C.R.A. 'A Doll's House: Overview.' Reference Guide to World Literature, edited by Lesley Henderson, 2nd ed., St. James Press, 1995. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.
  4. Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll's House”. Dover Thrift Edition. New York: Dover Publicatins, 1992.
  5. Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Kelly J. Mays, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.
  6. Metzger, Sheri. 'An overview of A Doll's House.' Drama for Students, Gale. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.
  7. Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. 'A Doll’s House.' Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them, vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s), Gale, 1997, pp. 111-117. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.
  8. Smith, Wendy. 'The meaning behind the lines: how Ibsen's toughness and Chekhov's tenderness transformed American playwriting and acting.' The American Scholar, Summer 2009, p. 96+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.
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