Analysis of Henrik Isben's A Doll's House
- Length: 2523 words (7.2 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Act I, in the tradition of the well made play in which the first act serves as an exposition, the second an event, and the third an unraveling (though Ibsen diverges from the traditional third act by presenting not an unraveling, but a discussion), establishes the tensions that explode later in the play. Ibsen sets up the Act by first introducing us to the central issue: Nora and her relation to the exterior world (Nora entering with her packages). Nora serves as a symbol for women of the time; women who were thought to be content with the luxuries of modern society with no thought or care of the world in which they lived. Indeed, there is some truth in this (the extent of this is debatable). As the play reveals, Nora does delight in material wealth, having been labeled a spendthrift from an early age. She projects the attitude that money is the key to happiness. By presenting this theme of the relationship between women and their surroundings at the beginning, Ibsen indicates to the reader that this is the most basic and important idea at work in the play.
However, it is also clear that Nora's simplistic approach to the world is not entirely her fault. Torvald's treatment of Nora as a small helpless child only contributes to Nora's isolation from reality. Just as Nora relates to the exterior world primarily through material objects, Torvald relates to Nora as an object to be possessed. The question becomes who is more detached from reality? Though Torvald's attitude pervades every word he speaks to Nora, his objectification of her is most evident in his use of animal imagery. He refers to her as his little "lark" and "squirrel"‹small harmless animals. Similarly, Torvald repeatedly calls Nora his "little one" or "little girl", maintaining the approach of a father rather than husband. Nora is fully dependent on Torvald, from money to diet (the macaroons); and, because she is so sheltered, her perception of the world is romanticized.
Nora's skewed vision of the world is most evident in her interactions with Mrs. Linde. Whereas her old school friend is wizened and somber, Nora is impetuous. Her choice to tell Mrs. Linde about her secret seems to be more of a boast of a small child than a thoughtful adult; in fact, Nora only reveals her secret after being called a child by Mrs.
Linde. Similarly, in her talk with Krogstad, Nora seems unable to accept that what she sees as acts of love could be seen as illegal and wrong. She refuses to believe that she is just as guilty as Krogstad.
However, it is apparent that Nora is at least partly aware of the falseness of her life. When pressed as to whether she will ever tell Torvald about the loan, she replies that she would, but only in time. For now, she believes that it would upset the lies that have built her home: Torvald's "manly independence" and even the basis of their marriage. This suggests that Nora is at least vaguely aware that Torvald's position as the manly provider and lawgiver is just as fabricated as her role as the helpless child-wife and mother. Indeed, it is important to examine the language of the opening scene between Nora and Torvald and realize that Nora's words can be read as both sincere and insincere; the text suggests an ambiguity in Nora's awareness of her situation. However, though Nora is somewhat aware, she does not want to face the implications of this reality, believing that material wealth will render her "free from care", allowing her to play with her children, keep the house beautifully, and do everything the way that Torvald likes. The lie can be preserved. Moreover, it seems that it is her lie, her knowledge that she has done something for Torvald that keeps Nora happy. Mrs. Linde's complaint that she feels unspeakably empty without anyone to care for reinforces the importance of this role for women in general in the text.
Consequently, Nora is content to continue to act as a child, romping with her children as if she is one of them. Indeed, it is clear that, just as she is not as much a wife as a child in her marriage, she is not a mother in any real sense either. It is the nurse who actually takes care of the children; Nora mostly plays with them and occasionally takes on more serious responsibilities but only because she views them as "great fun".
When Nora realizes that all may not go to plan after her talk with Krogstad because she is unable to either influence Torvald or talk to him on a straight level about her predicament, she begins to feel helpless. In the last scene of the act, when Nora is trimming the tree and conversing with Torvald, the full falseness of her situation becomes clear. Acting helpless, Nora tells Torvald that she absolutely needs his help, even with such a trifling thing as picking a costume for the upcoming ball. Torvald is not surprised and is even delighted, promising to help her. When the subject turns to the more serious matter of Torvald's views on Krogstad, it becomes apparent that Torvald is perhaps hopelessly invested in a false and twisted image of the world in which women are charged with the moral purity of the world, claiming that if men turn out badly it is because of poor mothering. As a result, at the end of the scene, when Nora reassures herself that "it must be impossible", she is worried both about the impossibility of her position in the immediate sense (i.e., concerning the loan) as well as the impossibility of her larger situation‹as a participant in a marriage and family built on lies. In fact, it is possible to view her last words of the act‹a defiance of Torvald's views on women‹as the beginning of her rejection of the marriage altogether.
Act II Analysis:
Whereas Act I set up the initial invasion of reality into Nora's world and the rattling of the basic underpinnings of the falseness of Nora's life (i.e., marriage and motherhood), Act II eventually sees her set up a test that will determine whether or not her world is false. In other words, she is confronted with the fact that Torvald will find out about her lie but believes that, if he is the man she thinks he is, his discovery will only strengthen their marriage. Her reaction to Krogstad finally dropping his letter in the letter box is the climax of the play. In the traditional well made play, this would be followed by a unraveling and moral resolution of the dilemma set up in the first act and brought to head in the second. However, Ibsen deviates from this mold, turning the third act into a discussion.
At the beginning of the second Act, before the climax, Nora is still trying to confront the fact that her world can be touched and shattered. Though she is shaken, she still believes that her family and her material comforts will protect her. However, she is worried enough about the matter that she has already begun to consider the idea of both running away and committing suicide (though she admits that she does not have the courage for this last part). Luckily, the ball temporarily distracts her. This ball is extremely important for Nora because, through the costumes and dance, she is able to embrace the basic elements of the basis of her relationship with Torvald that she is still trying to preserve; she can sing and dance for him as a lovely creature. Mrs. Linde refers to Nora's dress as her "fine feathers" reinforcing the general perception of Nora as a non-human entity, a creature free of cares. In fact, the dress itself serves as a potent symbol of Nora's "character". Like Nora, it is torn and in need of repair. However, as in real life, Nora feels she is incapable of fixing the problem herself, giving the dress to Mrs. Linde to mend. The idea of the dress serving as a symbol for Nora's everyday mask is reinforced when Nora reports that Torvald dislikes seeing dressmaking in action. In other words, Torvald enjoys the character that Nora adopts but has no desire to see its origins, the real Nora.
Indeed, Nora tries to maintain her relationship with Torvald, unsuccessfully attempting to manipulate him on behalf of Krogstad through playing the part of his innocent and darling creature. One of the key turning points of the play comes when Torvald tells her that, come what may, he will take everything upon himself. Whereas before, Nora merely sought to find some way to avoid this disaster, now the idea that this episode may prove the strength of her marriage has been planted in her head. An important quotation to look at is Nora's remarks after she is left alone that "He was capable of doing it. He will do it. He will do it in spite of everything. No, not that! Never, never! Anything rather than that! Oh, for some help, some way out of it!" One way to read this is as a comment on Krogstad's actions‹that he will reveal her after all. Another way to read this statement is as a commentary on Torvald's decision to fire Krogstad and the problems it will cause. Still another way to read this is as concern that Torvald will take responsibility for her actions as he promised.
After this realization, Nora begins to act a bit more daring than before, using her awareness of the possibility of Dr. Rank's affection to manipulate him. When things go too far for her, however, and he admits that he is in love with her, she can not continue, her manipulation ruined by the blatant statement of reality. After all, Dr. Ranks' revelation that he, like Torvald, would give his life to save Nora's ruins her belief that Torvald's position is somehow unique.
Nora's hopes of averting disaster are dashed when she sees Krogstad drop the letter into Torvald's box. Perhaps already aware of the inherent problems of the relationship, she exclaims that all is lost for her and Torvald as Krogstad deposits the letter. Nora's fear, now that she knows that there is no turning back, is that the "wonderful thing" will happen: that Torvald will try to take this all upon himself and that, by knowing what she has done for him, they will become equal partners in the marriage. Nora both fears this and wishes for it. But, Nora is not ready to face this just yet. She wants to act out her last chance to be a creature for Torvald, dancing the tarantella. It is only after this dancing that she consents to letting him free. Interestingly, her last statement that she only has thirty-one hours to live can be read two different ways. On the one hand, it can be interpreted as saying that she plans on committing suicide in order to free Torvald from having to take the responsibility on himself; she would die knowing that she had once again saved his life. On the other hand, it may be a comment only that her life as she knows it will be over and that, in thirty-one hours, she will have to embark upon a new, radically different life because her relationship with Torvald will be over.
Act III Analysis:
Act III is extremely important in A Doll's House. Rather than presenting the traditional unraveling of the well made play, it confronts the reader or viewer with a discussion of the themes presented in the first two acts. The act is also the deciding point of Nora's life: will the "wonderful thing" happen or not? It begins with a foil for Nora and Torvald's marriage. In fact, Mrs. Linde and Krogstad's decision to be together can be seen as ironic in the context of Nora and Torvald's marriage because, though Mrs. Linde and Krogstad both suffer from significant personal and moral problems, they have a better chance of a happy and true marriage than Nora and Torvald. Mrs. Linde advocates revealing all to Torvald because, as her union with Krogstad suggests, she believes that it is possible to build a relationship of mutual dependence of unformed characters as long as both parties are fully aware of each other's motives. Mrs. Linde hopes that, through this union, both she and Krogstad can become the better people they know that they can be.
The extent of Torvald's investment in a fantasy world and the importance of Nora's false characterization is revealed when he describes how, at parties, he pretends not to know her so that he may seduce her all over again. And, perhaps more importantly, Nora is quite candid about her understanding of all this, telling him flatly that she knows.
It is important to notice that Nora's time at the party has been the first time that she has left the confines of the one room in the entire play. Moreover, she has to be dragged back in. This suggests that it is Torvald's own desires to have Nora entertain him that necessarily forces Nora to journey into the real world. Also, it is interesting to note that she also temporarily leaves the room to exchange her party dress for everyday clothing, her first lone foray from the room. This new trend is the beginning of her final departure from the room‹a departure that ends the play, shattering the values that had supported the walls of the house.
But, when she leaves for the final time, she is leaving for reasons other than what she had intended at the beginning of the Act. Before Torvald confronts her with the letter, she is on her way to commit suicide, determined that Torvald should not have to sacrifice his life for hers. She considers this the appropriate thing to do because she believes that he would willingly give his life for hers as well. In this way, they have an equal relationship. However, she is extremely disappointed to discover that he clearly has no intention of sacrificing himself for her. Instead of refusing to abide by Krogstad's demands and taking the blame on himself, Torvald accuses Nora of ruining his life, telling her that she will no longer be able to see her children or maintain their marriage except in public appearances. Nora even asks him whether he would give his life for her and her fears are confirmed when he answers that he would never sacrifice his honor for a loved one. Consequently, Nora resolves to leave Torvald, aware that true wedlock is impossible between them because neither of them loves the other, or is even capable of doing so. Nora realizes that, before she can be a wife, she must first discover herself through venturing out into the world. She leaves an unformed soul, determined to become a full person rather than the doll of the male figures in her life