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A Doll's House
The author, Henrik Ibsen, who wrote other social commentary plays (like Ghosts, Enemy Of The People, and Pillars Of Society), made a departure in this plays ending by having the protagonist run away rather than staying to set an example and continuing to struggle for the better along side others. This scenario creates a sad, troubling and for Nora unjustified ending as she, the protagonist in A Doll's House, leaves Torvold, her husband. She destroys any hope that married couples can reconcile differences and learn to change and grow with one another. Nora's exit is a self- destructive assertion of her childlike and romantic view of life, that somehow, someway, things will work out even though there is no plan on her part as to how. By leaving, Nora, with no expectation of a support system, provides no significant transforming effect upon her family's lives and views. Nora has an egotistical and self-centered idea about life and this is further exposed when she decides to abandon her family. Everyone must compromise at some time in their lives. This leads to cooperation in family and in society and is the essence of survival and growth. Nora's need to be in control and her role playing manipulations, makes her an equally guilty party in the promotion and continuation of a stilted and stifling middle class lifestyle that was Norway in the mid 1800's.
The title sets up the metaphor - this is truly a doll's house. But in this case the main
characters are not only the dolls themselves but the doll master and mistress each vying for
power and control. This is a central conflict of the play. Torvold may be the master in the eyes
of society and adopt a conventionally controlling tone but Nora has the real control by her
power of manipulation. Nora is the one who is getting her own way, eating macaroons and
spending money (and getting more) as her wishes prompt. Appearing confident and happy
she shows no sign of dissatisfaction with the role. She gives the porter who brought
the Christmas tree an over-generous tip despite a lack of money
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Nora. There is a shilling. No, keep the change...She is laughing to herself...She takes a packet of macaroons from her pocket and eats one or two; then goes cautiously to her husband's door and listens.) Yes, he is in. Still humming...(4).
and exposes her ability at manipulation in her conversation with Kristine.
Nora. How do you mean?--Oh, I understand. You mean that perhaps Torvald could get you something to do.
Mrs. Linde. Yes, that was what I was thinking of.
Nora. He must, Christine. Just leave it to me; I will broach the subject very cleverly--I will think of something that will please him very much (331).
The living room in which the action takes place is Nora's realm. Throughout the play Torvald
seems much keener to move off into his study than to linger in that room. And, even if
Torvald is determined to stay in his study, when Nora wants him to appear, she knows
exactly how to bring him out.
Nora. Just now. (Puts the bag of macaroons into her pocket and wipes her mouth.) Come in here, Torvald, and see what I have bought.
Helmer. Don't disturb me. (A little later, he opens the door and looks into the room, pen in hand.) Bought, did you say? All these things? Has my little spendthrift been wasting money again(17)?
This manipulation is part of the reason she didn't tell Torvald about the debt long ago. She's
young enough and pretty enough to exert her control over him in other ways (and telling
about the debt would shatter her image as the clueless but sexy child-wife). She is looking
forward to using that event in the future, when she can no longer rely upon her looks. She will
make him respond to her (as she does now); her actions will determine and preserve their
marriage and she will determine the how when and where.
Nora. But it was absolutely necessary that he should not know! My goodness, can't you understand that? It was necessary he should have no idea what a dangerous condition he was in. It was to me that the doctors came and said that his life was in danger...(410).
Nora (meditatively, and with a half smile). Yes--someday, perhaps, after many years, when I am no longer as nice-looking as I am now. Don't laugh at me! I mean, of course, when Torvald is no longer as devoted to me as he is now; when my dancing and dressing-up and reciting have palled on him; then it may be a good thing to have something in reserve...(439).
Torvold is a perfect complement to Nora's character. This makes them happy together. He is
full of moralizing about social issues, but those are irrelevant to Nora. She lets him act the
authority on such questions and provide the space where they can live their lives. Her interest
is in controlling that space. She only begins to criticize him when he will not give her what she
wants concerning Krogstad. She is more bothered at Torvald for refusing her than for his
treatment of Krogstad.
Nora. Because it is such a narrow-minded way of looking at things.
Helmer. What are you saying? Narrow-minded? Do you think I am
Nora. No, just the opposite, dear--and it is exactly for that reason.
Helmer. It's the same thing. You say my point of view is narrow-minded, so I must be so too(1346).
Her self-centered view of herself and need to be in control resulted in entrusting to
Kristine her deepest secret after such a short conversation and hardly knowing who the
woman has become. Nora begins their talk by, in effect, showing off to Kristine, inviting her
guest's admiration for her and the life she has. Kristine refuses to applaud, treating the notion
that Nora might be able to help her as ridiculous: What, after all, has Nora ever
accomplished? That remark, a direct challenge to Nora's ego, is enough to set Nora talking.
Mrs. Linde (smiling). Nora, Nora, haven't you learned sense yet? In our schooldays you were a great spendthrift...(245).
Mrs. Linde. How kind you are, Nora, to be so anxious to help me!It is doubly kind in you, for you know so little of the burdens and troubles of life.... You are a child, Nora.
Nora (tosses her head and crosses the stage). You ought not to be so superior...(339).
Nora. I too have something to be proud and glad of(366).
That information also enables Nora to seize control of the conversation, to make herself the
heroine of this small encounter, rather than listening sympathetically to what Kristine has to
say. That being done she makes up an excuse not to give Kristine a bed for the night - a
polite but brutal indication of Nora's indifference to Kristine's situation.
Nora. Are you going too, Christine?
Mrs. Linde (putting on her cloak). Yes, I must go and look for a room...
Nora (helping her). What a pity it is we are so short of space
here; I am afraid it is impossible for us(650).
Telling Kristine her story was hardly prudent given the fact it could destroy her marriage
which in fact the information in Kristine's hands actually does. This was both naive and
egotistical and is the great irony in the play.
The same issue arises in her relationship with Dr. Rank - a long-term friendship based
upon roles. His confession of love upsets Nora. It calls attention to his feelings, to his desire to act on her behalf, to take charge. In effect, he is changing the rules of the game. Nora has no interest in or understanding of such a transformed relationship. She accuses Rank of having ruined everything.
As regards the children, they, of course, cannot be dealt with in the same way as adults; they are impervious to what Nora can do best, perform. Children require that their needs be attended to, that people listen and invite them to perform. They impose their own demands. Hence, Nora seems to show little interest in them. They cannot give her what she wants (they are, in some respects, too like her for her to deal with).
Nora's growing panic regarding Krogstad has less to do with the secret coming out than with her growing sense that she is losing control of the situation. Her mind resorts to what has worked for her in the past, taking on herself sole responsibility for somehow dealing with an unraveling situation. The various methods she uses (seeking to cajole Torvald, thoughts of suicide, the tarantella, attempting to rob the letter box) indicate her increasing desperation at having to deal with events which she cannot control. When nothing seems to work she takes refuge in a self-generated fiction, that somehow Torvald will transform himself into the romantic hero of her dreams and the issue will be resolved. It's a manifestation of Nora's inability to think intelligently about what is happening.
Nora's conduct is the paradox in the ending scene. This is not an awakening of an
enlightened studied woman. Nora is being entirely intransigent here. She's just choosing
another role. She rejects Torvald so utterly. Now the shallowness of his character may be
deplorable, but not the intensity of Torvold's feelings or the accuracy of his perception of how
society will react. Nora indicts their former life together. This indictment of her previous life is
more a justification for what she has decided to do now than a just assessment of what she
and Torvald experienced together. Nora has decided now that she wasn't happy, and so she
Nora (shaking her head). You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me(2506).
But she thought the same.
Helmer. How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?
Nora. No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.
Helmer. Not--not happy!
Nora. No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom(2527).
She never complained - only played along.
Nora. It gives me great pain, Torvald, for you have always been
so kind to me, but I cannot help it. I do not love you any more(2630).
Real love is not so transient.
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation(2493)?
She never initiated one. So maybe she was the one incapable of having one.
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything(2498).
If it wasn't business then what was it? She was in charge of the house. She shows no
particular interest in Torvald's work or in social issues outside her own sphere. On the
contrary, to learn about such things she would have to stop performing and start listening to
others, absorbing what they say, adjusting her understanding of herself in the light of new
insights into larger questions, that is, surrender control. This Nora is unable to do. These
things are irrelevant to Nora, not because she is denied an opportunity to think about them
(her secret repayment of the debt puts her in continuing touch with a world outside her
home), but because they don't interest her, they provide no opportunity for her to perform,
Nora. Indeed, you were perfectly right. I am not fit for the task. There is another task I must undertake first. I must try and educate myself--you are not the man to help me in that. I must do that for myself. And that is why I am going to leave you now(2551).
No one does it alone. She has no support group. She is to old to go to school. She has no
Nora. I am going away from here now, at once. I am sure Christine will take me in for the night(2561).
She shouldn't be so sure without checking first.
Meanwhile, Torvold makes some very important offers, concessions at odds with his
very conventional views of male and female roles and social rules. He travels a long way
from the insufferably scared and angry prig at the beginning of the scene. He says he may
have the capacity to change, he wants to maintain contact--he gives every indication that he
loves Nora and will do anything to maintain their relationship in some form or another (and
she can set the terms). This reveals in the process an unexpected flexibility which suggests
that, if Nora took him up on his offer, he might very well learn and change.
Helmer. I have it in me to become a different man(2679)
Helmer. But I will believe in it. Tell me! So changed that--?
Nora. That our life together would be a real wedlock. Goodbye.(She goes out through the hall.)
Helmer (sinks down on a chair at the door and buries his face in
his hands). Nora! Nora! (Looks round, and rises.) Empty. She is gone. (A hope flashes across his mind.) The most wonderful thing of all--(2725)?
Adamson, Martin. "The Doll's House", by Henrik Ibsen. The Project Gutenberg Etext. dlshs10.txt - http://promo.net/pg. Lines 1-2725
the Internet Public Library - http://www.ipl.org/
Home page of Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada
The official web pages of the National Ibsen Committee of Norway http://www.isben.net