Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House is a domestic drama in which tension is built through the threat of Nora Helmer’s secret of having committed financial fraud being revealed to her husband, Torvald. It is set in nineteenth century bourgeois society, where the role of and expectations for women were clearly defined. A woman’s place was at home in the domestic sphere, where she was to be a wife and mother, self-sacrificing and passive. Her most sacred duty was to her husband and children. Respectable women were effectively barred from much of the public sphere, the world of work – instead, that was a masculine environment. A Doll’s House challenges the belief that women should fulfil a domestic role, using a variety of dramatic conventions to examine how the attitudes of patriarchal society impede women’s ability to act and think as their own person and showing how entering the public sphere can be a path to self-fulfilment. Nora’s dialogue, the counterplot of Mrs Linde’s relationship with Krogstad, and the symbolism of the play’s set and staging all serve to emphasise the damaging nature of restrictive female roles, challenging society by suggesting that women should instead be free to develop themselves as individuals and take up roles outside the behaviours expected of them by bourgeois society.
Dialogue is used to challenge the belief that women should only be wives and mothers and to examine how their individual development can be stifled when under male guardianship. The rejection of feminine roles is initially framed as a punishment. Upon learning that Nora has committed fraud, Torvald tells her that from now on, “you will not be allowed to bring up the children, I can’t trust you with them.” (p76) Nineteenth century bourgeois society valued women taking caring roles and being a good mother was seen as a path to happiness and fulfilment for women, so in the societal context, Torvald was insulting Nora in the greatest way he felt possible: not only would he not allow her to be fulfilled and happy, he could not even trust her to carry out a role she would have been thought to be biologically suited for. Nora challenges the value society places on this role when she describes her “duty to myself” (p82) as “a duty equally sacred” (p82) to the one she has to her husband and children. She uses this to justify leaving her family arguing her need to develop as an individual is strong enough that she is willing to give up her traditional female role when she says that leaving is “necessary for me”(p82) no matter the views of others about her actions. Torvald has earlier mentioned the idea of female individual development and education, representing the views of society when by saying “I shall give you all the advice and guidance that you need.” (p78) Education was not considered highly necessary for women in Norwegian society in 1879, and they weren’t even admitted to the upper levels of secondary schooling until 1882, three years after A Doll’s House was published. Married women were under the guardianship of their husbands until 1888. Their husband’s guidance was felt to be adequate education. Nora challenges this by telling her husband “if I’m ever to reach any understanding of myself and the things around me, I must learn to stand alone. That’s why I can’t stay here with you any longer.” (p81) By emphasising that she must be away from Torvald to understand herself and the world, she undermines his authority as a guardian and a source of wisdom. When Nora says that she must leave to “reach [an] understanding of [herself]”, she implies that doing that is not possible when she is under Torvald’s guardianship. This idea is also developed through Nora’s dialogue when she states that rather than developing her own thoughts and tastes, she has spent her life with those of her male guardians, first her father, than Torvald. She describes how she adopted her father’s beliefs and “if [she] thought differently, [she] kept quiet about it, because he wouldn’t have liked it.” Nora implies that if she had disagreed with her father, she would have faced his disapproval, heavily influenced by the prevailing attitude in society at the time that women were emotional rather than logical, potentially thought unable to be trusted to make serious decisions, or as Nora describes, form opinions on non-domestic manners. Nora says that she has “never made anything of [her] life” (p80) because of the way that she was expected to acquire the tastes of her father and husband. This shows that she does not feel fulfilled in her domestic role, despite having been involved in raising a child and being a wife – the two things that 19th century bourgeois society dictates are her life’s purpose and most sacred duty. Through Nora’s dialogue, Ibsen challenges the belief that women should fulfil their expected roles, showing that doing so doesn’t necessarily lead to self-fulfilment, but rather a loss of individual development.
The characterisation of Mrs Linde and counterplot of her relationship with Krogstad make an argument for self-determination being the path to satisfaction for women. Mrs Linde is consistently shown through dialogue to be unhappy and lonely without anyone to work for, describing her life as “unutterably empty. Nobody to live for any more… I couldn’t stand it” (p11). In her past, she has fulfilled the traditional female role of carer, and agrees with Nora, who suggests that she must be “proud when [she] thinks about what [she has] done for [her] brothers” (p13) and mother. Searching for “somebody and something to work for” (p64) she rekindles a relationship with Krogstad, suggesting that “us two castaways [join] forces.” (p64) Mrs Linde effectively proposes to Krogstad, and, through the words “[join] forces”, frames the relationship as a collaboration which would benefit them both, saying “two of us on one wreck surely stand a better chance than each on his own” (p64). This framing of a romantic relationship as an equal partnership is contrary to the idea in the societal context of the play’s production that marriage and similar institutions are hierarchical and patriarchal, with distinct roles for each sex. Mrs Linde acts on her own desires as an individual, and it is made clear that she would be loath to get involved in a relationship for any other reason – she says “there’s no pleasure in working only for yourself,” asking Krogstad to “give me somebody and something to work for.” (p64) Here, Mrs Linde is not motivated by a sense of duty or a feeling that she should adhere to society’s expectations of her. The use of the word “pleasure” shows that she is instead seeking a happiness that she feels is lacking in her life. This is consistent with her characterisation earlier in the play as unhappy because she is lonely and satisfied by working for others, but having no objection to working. She calls working “my one great joy”, challenging 19th century attitudes about the place of women as she has eagerly entered into the public sphere of employ rather than remaining in a domestic role. When Krogstad accuses her suggestion of a relationship of being “only a woman’s hysteria, wanting to be all magnanimous and self-sacrificing,”(p64) he implies that she is trying to act similar to the Angel in the House, wanting to forgo her own happiness for the sake of others she quickly contradicts him and later avows that “when you’ve sold yourself once for other people’s sake, you don’t do it again.” (p65) This unwillingness to “[sell herself]” shows that she is not self-sacrificing. Overall, the characterisation of Mrs Linde as active rather than passive and willing to be employed but also to care for others challenges conventional attitudes at the time the pay was produced about the role of women by suggesting that personal fulfilment for women can be found in the public sphere and that an then-unusually active role in marriage can be beneficial for them.
The symbolism inherent in the set and stage directions of A Doll’s House emphasises the restrictive nature of female roles in 19th century society and creates an association between the non-domestic world and individualism. The set of A Doll’s House is deliberately restricted. As the reader is told in the at-rise stage directions of Act One, the whole story takes place in “a pleasant room, tastefully but not expensively furnished” (p1) with several doors around its borders, including “a door on the left [which] leads to Helmer’s study.” (p1) Although characters come and go via these doors and at times hover in the doorways, the outside world is not fully revealed to the audience, nor is Helmer’s study. All the character interactions of the play take place in the central room in which Nora receives visitors. Visitors also arrive to talk to Torvald, but they are eventually directed into his study, to the left. Nora never enters Torvald’s study, associated with masculinity through its entryway being referred to as “[Nora’s] husband’s door”(p1) – it is possessed by a man and Nora’s exclusion from it is symbolic of female exclusion from the public sphere in the time in which the play was produced. This solidifies an association between Nora and the central room, and suggests it represents the feminine, domestic sphere. The restricted nature of the set suggests that the domestic sphere itself is claustrophobic, with a heavily restricted set of expected behaviours valued by society. The other characters, who are largely male, travel freely between the living room and outside in a way Nora does not in the play. All of the other characters are associated with work, with each male character having a job and being expected by society to engage in the public sphere, and Mrs Linde also about to enter the same sphere through her impending job at Torvald’s bank. This associates the world beyond the hall door with the public sphere and work. In the first act Nora is “happily humming” (p1) as she comes in through the hall door and immerses herself in the domestic world, where “she shuts the door” (p1), a gesture signifying her shutting out the outside and public sphere, the masculine domain. As the set symbolises the domestic sphere, this joyous behaviour upon her return home shows her contentedness with her role within the domestic sphere and rejection of the outside world. A Doll’s House culminates in Nora leaving her home and husband through the same hall door, deserting the domestic sphere. Again, she closes the door behind her – “the heavy sound of a door being slammed is heard from below” – but this time it serves as a symbolic rejection of the domestic sphere and her role as a wife and mother, which she has just denounced and renounced. The use of the word “slammed” has connotations of forcefulness and assertiveness, as if it, like the set and stage directions, are demonstrative of Nora’s progression from passive and domestic to active and seeking individual fulfilment as opposed to a role prescribed by the society in which A Doll’s House was produced.
A Doll’s House examines and challenges the role of women in the society in which it was produced, criticising the fulfilment of duty to husband and children at the expense of individual fulfilment and development. Through Nora’s dialogue, Ibsen demonstrates that male guardianship and being thought unsuitable to form opinions or take on responsibility can be harmful to women, potentially leading them to feel like they have made nothing of their life, even if they have fulfilled expected female roles. This is complimented by the implication that women can feel fulfilled when taking active roles in relationships and engaging with the public sphere. a rejection of the restrictive, feminine, domestic sphere is made clear through the staffing of the paly and it is suggested by Nora’s entry into the outside world and public sphere at the end of the play that individual development and fulfilment can be found for women outside a domestic environment – even if the 19th century society in which A Doll’s House was produced disagrees.