Book Title: A Doll’s House
(2018 to 2022 compulsory set book play for F3s and F4s Kenyan Secondary School students).
Author: Henrik Ibsen
Reviewer: Dr. George Ngwacho Areba
A Doll’s House (Norwegian: Et dukkehjem; also translated as A Doll House) is a three-act play in prose by Henrik Ibsen.
It premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 21 December 1879, having been published earlier that month. The play is significant for its critical attitude toward 19th century marriage norms. It aroused great controversy at the time, as it concludes with the protagonist, Nora, leaving her husband and children because she wants to discover herself.
Ibsen was inspired by the belief that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society,” since it is “an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine viewpoint. Many literary critics argue that the play’s theme is not women’s rights, but rather “the need of every individual to find out the kind of person he or she really is and to strive to become that person. In 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House held the distinction of being the world’s most performed play for that year.
The title of the play is most commonly translated as A Doll’s House, though some scholars use A Doll House. Scholars argue that the only significance in the alternative translation is the difference in the way the toy is named in Britain and the United States.
Literary critics argue that the alternative “simply sounds more idiomatic to Americans.” Ibsen’s play should be referred to as “A Doll House” simply because the possessive version “A Doll’s House” incorrectly implies that Nora has ownership and authority in her own house, which she does not. “A Doll House” rightly symbolizes Nora’s feelings of being treated like a doll by Torvald in her own house.
Gender inequalities/Male Chauvinism
This play focuses on the ways that women are viewed in their various roles, especially in marriage and motherhood. Torvald, in particular, has a very clear but constricted definition of women’s roles. He believes that it is the sacred duty of a woman to be a good wife and mother. Moreover, he tells Nora that women are responsible for the morality of their children. In essence, he sees women as childlike, helpless creatures detached from reality on the one hand, but on the other hand as influential moral forces responsible for the purity of the world through their influence in the home.
Ideas of masculinity are present in more subtle ways.
Nora’s description of Torvald suggests that she is partially aware of the inconsistent pressures on male roles as much as the inconsistent pressures on female roles in their society. Torvald’s own conception of manliness is based on the value of total independence. He dislikes the idea of financial or moral dependence on anyone. His strong desire for independence may put him out of touch with the reality of human interdependence. Nora has more agency and decision-making skills than she is given credit for. Nora seems to wish to enjoy the privileges and power enjoyed by males in her society. She seems to understand the confinement she faces simply by virtue of her sex.
Torvald in particular focuses on money and material goods rather than people. His sense of manhood depends on his financial independence. He was an unsuccessful barrister because he refused to take “unsavory cases.” As a result, he switched jobs to the bank, where he primarily deals with money. For him, money and materialism may be a way to avoid the complications of personal contact.
The play takes place around Christmas. The first act occurs on Christmas Eve, the second on Christmas Day, and the third on Boxing Day. Although there is a great deal of talk about morality throughout the play, Christmas is never presented as a religious holiday. Moreover, religion is directly questioned later by Nora in the third act. In fact, religion is discussed primarily as a material experience. Once again, what normally are important values for people and their relationships—children, personal contact, and, here, religion—are subordinate to materialism and selfish motives.
Dr. Rank has inherited his tuberculosis from his father, who lived a morally questionable life, and in much the same way Nora worries that her morally reprehensible actions (fraudulently signing her father’s name) will infect her children. Corruption, the play suggests, is hereditary. As he does in other plays, such as The Wild Duck, Ibsen explores the tension between real life and moral ideals.
Are you really alive, if, like Nora, you are living in a delusional world? This question resounds throughout Ibsen’s canon, particularly in The Wild Duck, and the question is important in judging how to respond to the play. Is the end of the play, for instance, the glorious triumph of individualism, the moment at which Nora really becomes herself, or is it a foolish, idealistic decision which is the beginning of the end of Nora’s happiness?
Lead character briefs
The play’s protagonist and the wife of Torvald Helmer, Nora has never lived alone, going immediately from the care of her father to that of her husband. Inexperienced in the ways of the world as a result of this sheltering, Nora is impulsive and materialistic. But the play questions the extent to which these attributes are mere masks that Nora uses to negotiate the patriarchal oppression she faces every day. The audience learns in the first act that Nora is independent enough to negotiate the loan to make Krogstad’s holiday possible, and over the course of the play, Nora emerges as a fully independent woman who rejects both the false union of her marriage and the burden of motherhood.
Nora’s husband of eight years and Nora’s antagonistic character, Torvald Helmer, at the beginning of the play, has been promoted to manager of a bank. Torvald has built his middle-class living through his own work and not from family money. Focused on business, Torvald spends a great deal of his time at home in his study, avoiding general visitors and interacting very little with his children. In fact, he sees himself primarily as responsible for the financial welfare of his family and as a guardian for his wife. Torvald is particularly concerned with morality.
Friend of the family and Torvald’s physician, Dr. Rank embodies and subverts the theatrical role of the male moral force that had been traditional in the plays of the time. Rather than providing moral guidance and example for the rest of the characters, Dr. Rank is a corrupting force, both physically and morally. Sick from consumption of the spine as a result of his father’s sexual exploits, the Doctor confesses his desire for Nora in the second act and goes off to die in the third act, leaving a visiting card with a black cross to signify that–for him–the end has come.
An old schoolmate of Nora’s, Mrs. Christine Linde comes back into Nora’s life after losing her husband and mother. She worked hard to support her helpless mother and two younger brothers since the death of her husband. Now, with her mother dead and her brothers being adults, she is a free agent. Pressed for money, Mrs. Linde successfully asks Nora to help her secure a job at Torvald’s bank. Ultimately, Mrs. Linde decides that she will only be happy if she goes off with Krogstad. Her older, weary viewpoint provides a foil to Nora’s youthful impetuousness. She perhaps also symbolizes hollowness in the matriarchal role. Her relationship with Krogstad also provides a point of comparison with that of Nora and Torvald.
Nils Krogstad is a man from whom Nora borrows money to pay for trip to Italy, an acquaintance of Torvald’s and an employee at the bank which Torvald has just taken over. Krogstad was involved in a work scandal many years previously; as a result, his name has been desecrated and his career stunted. When his job at the bank is jeopardized by Torvald’s refusal to work with a man he sees as hopelessly corrupt, Krogstad blackmails Nora to ensure that he does not lose his job.
Ivar, Bob, and Emmy
Ther are Nora’s young children. Raised primarily by Anne, the Nurse (and Nora’s old nurse), the children spend little time with their mother or father. The time they do spend with Nora consists of Nora playing with them as if she were just another playmate.
Other minor characters include Anne: The family nurse, Helen: A housemaid to Helmers and A Porter: who brings in the Christmas Tree.