A Push to Freedom in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
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spoke at a meeting of the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights. He
explained to the group, "I must decline the honor of being said to have
worked for the Women's Rights movement. I am not even very sure what
Women's Rights are. To me it has been a question of human rights" ( ).
"A Doll's House" is often interpreted by readers, teachers, and critics alike
as an attack on chauvinistic behavior and a cry for the recognition of
women's rights ( ). Instead its theme is identical to several of his plays
written around the same time period: the characters willingly exist in a
situation of untruth or inadequate truth which conceals conflict and
contradiction ( ). In "A Doll's House", Nora's independent nature is in
contradiction the tyrannical authority of Torvald. This conflict is concealed
by the way they both hide their true selves from society, each other, and
ultimately themselves. Just like Nora and Torvald, every character in this
play is trapped in a situation of unturth. In "Ghosts", the play Ibsen wrote
directly after "A Doll's House", the same conflict is the basis of the play.
Because Mrs. Alving concedes to her minister's ethical bombardment about
her responsibilities in marriage, she is forced to conceal the truth about her
late husband's behavior ( ). Like "A Doll's House", "Ghosts" can be
misinterpreted as simply an attack on the religious values of Ibsen's
society. While this is certainly an important aspect of the play, it is not,
however, Ibsen's main point. "A Doll's House" set a precedent for
"Ghosts" and the plays Ibsen would write in following years. It established
a method he would use to convey his views about individuality and the
pursuit of social freedom. The characters of "A Doll's House" display
Henrik Ibsen's belief that although people have a natural longing for
freedom, they often do not act upon this desire until a person or event
forces them to do so.
Readers can be quick to point out that Nora's change was gradual
and marked by several incidents. A more critical look reveals these
gradual changes are actually not changes at all, but small revelations for the
reader to see Nora's true independent nature. These incidents also allow
the reader to see this nature has been tucked far under a facade of a happy
and simple wife. In the first act, she admits to Christine that she will
"dance and dress up and play the fool" to keep Torvald happy ( ). This
was Ibsen's way of telling the reader Nora had a hidden personality that
was more serious and controlling. He wants the reader to realize that Nora
was not the fool she allows herself to be seen as. Later in the same act,
she exclaims to Dr. Rank and Christine she has had "the most
extraordinary longing to say: 'Bloody Hell!'" ( ). This longing is
undoubtedly symbolic of her longing to be out of the control of Torvald
and society. Despite her desire for freedom, Nora has, until the close of
the story, accepted the comfort and ease, as well as the restrictions, of
Torvald's home instead of facing the rigors that accompany independence.
Ibsen wanted the reader to grasp one thing in the first act: Nora was
willing to exchange her freedom for the easy life of the doll house.
Ibsen shows that it takes a dramatic event to cause a person to
reevaluate to what extent he can sacrifice his true human nature. For Nora,
this event comes in the form of her realization that Torvald values his own
social status above love ( ). It is important to understand Nora does not
leave Torvald because of the condescending attitude he has towards her.
That was, in her eyes, a small price to pay for the comfort and stability of
his home. In Bernard Shaw's essay on "A Doll's House", he expresses that
the climax of the play occurs when "the woman's eyes are opened; and
instantly her doll's dress is thrown off and her husband is left staring at
her"( ). To the reader "it is clear that Helmer is brought to his senses"
when his household begins to fall apart ( ). It is important that Shaw's
grammar is not overlooked. The statements "the woman's eyes are
opened..." and "Helmer is brought..." both indicate that the subject of the
statement is not responsible for the action. Rather, some other force
pushes them both into their new realization. Shaw's clever analysis directly
adheres to Ibsen's view of a person's reluctant approach to freedom.
Although Nora is the central character of the play, she is not the only
person to cross the turbulent thresh hold of freedom and bondage.
Christine Linde leaves the symbolic harshness of winter and enters the
warmth of Nora's place of captivity early in the first act ( ). Christine gives
the reader an initial impression of Nora's opposite. She is a pale, worn
woman who is completely independent. Her conversation with Nora
reveals that Christine was left poor and alone after her husband, for whom
she did not care, passed away. Christine had accepted marriage with her
husband because she reasoned her present situation left her no other
option. She felt she had to take care of her two brothers and bedridden
mother. If she had not married this wealthy man, she would have had her
freedom, but it would have been a difficult struggle. Instead, she
surrendered her freedom for an easier life. Eight years later, the death of
her husband gave her enough of a jolt to set her back in control of her own
Torvald is certainly not the hero of "A Doll's House", but he is not
the villain either ( ). He is just as trapped in the same facade of a happy
house as Nora. He feigns security and unrelenting support for his wife, but
this mask is quickly dropped when he finds himself in danger. The
discovery of Krogsdad's letter leads Torvald to believe his life and social
position are on the brink of destruction. Torvald spouts out ridiculous and
stupid remarks as Nora's face draws tighter and colder with each statement.
Nora is freed. When Torvald finishes babbling apologies and forgiveness
after the second letter from Krogdad arrives, Nora takes control of the
conversation and control of her life. Moments before Nora slams the door
on her former life, Torvald's eyes are opened ( ). He pleads with Nora, "I
have the strength to change", but it is already too late ( ). It takes the
departure of his wife before Torvald can awaken to his shallow existence.
The shake-up in Torvald's life ushers him across the discordant threshold
of freedom and bondage.
"A Doll's House" is the most socially influential of Ibsen's plays ( ).
It shocked the public into taking a much more serious look into Women's
Rights. "Ghosts" and "An Enemy of the People" caused equally large
shock waves but repercussions were not nearly as phenomenal. The three
of these plays, regardless of the extent their social impact, have each
earned the title of Classic. Each play is the result of the one written before
it. In a letter to Sophie Aldersparre, Ibsen explained, "After Nora Mrs.
Alving had to come" ( ). The same idea two years letter spawned "An
Enemy of the People". The three plays share the common idea of
characters existing in situations of falsehood until something causes them
to reevaluate their existence. Instead of exploring their personal freedom
every moment of their lives, Ibsen's characters had their eyes cast down on
the path of least resistance. This is simply a more strict version of Ibsen's
primary theme in all his works: the importance of the individual and the
search for self-realization.
Brunsdale, Mitzi. "Herik Ibsen." Critical Survey of Drama. Ed. Frank N.
Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press 1986. pg982.
Clurman, Harold. Ibsen. Macmillan, 1977, pg223. Rpt. in Twentieth-
Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale,
Shaw, Bernard. "A Doll's House Again." The Saturday Review, London,
Vol. 83, No. 2168, May 15, 1897: 539-541. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century
Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 1982. pg.