Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a highly acclaimed modern play that showcases his groundbreaking work in realistic prose drama. The play’s protagonist, Nora, represents the universal struggle against the oppressive confines of societal expectations.
During the late 1800s, audiences were profoundly taken aback by Nora’s bold decision to reject a suffocating marriage and the stifling existence symbolized by the “doll’s house.” This pivotal moment expanded the possibilities for both playwrights and their viewers.
If you’re still unsure about whether to read this book, this review will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision and determine if it’s worth your time.
Without any further delay, let’s delve into it.
Table of Contents
A young wife discovers the emptiness of her marriage and decides to set off in search of her own identity.
Nora Helmer, young Norwegian woman laden with parcels, bustles into the living room of her provincial Norwegian apartment on Christmas Eve. A porter bearing a Christmas tree accompanies her and she tips him generously, then nibbles on some macaroons stashed in her pocket.
Nora then tiptoes to the study door to see if her husband, Torvald Helmer, is in. Helmer leaves his work long enough to inspect the gifts his “little skylark” has bought for their children.
Helmer, a lawyer, then scolds Nora for her extravagance, reminding her that though he has been promoted to manager of the bank, his salary will not increase for several months. Still, Helmer gives Nora extra spending money when he sees that she is sad, while noting that she has inherited her late father’s spendthrift ways.
Suspicious about where Nora has been, Helmer asks if she has broken her promise to stop buying sweets, but Nora denies having been near a bakery.
When visitors are announced, Helmer goes to his study to greet his old friend, Dr. Peter Rank, while Nora’s childhood friend, Mrs. Christine Linde, is shown into the living room. Comfortably seated near the stove, the two women catch up on events since Nora’s marriage eight years ago.
Mrs. Linde has been a widow for three years, having married a man she did not love in order to support her ailing mother and small brothers. However, she was left with nothing when her husband’s business collapsed and he died.
Nora considers herself lucky in comparison, as she has three wonderful children and a loving husband. When Mrs. Linde chides her for being a spendthrift and a pampered child, Nora reveals that she has been careful and shrewd with money, and has taken on odd jobs to supplement their income.
A few years ago, Helmer’s doctor told her that Helmer would die if he didn’t go south immediately to recuperate from an illness. To finance the trip, Nora borrowed 4,800 crowns without telling her husband.
Mrs. Linde reminds Nora that a woman cannot borrow without her husband’s consent, and worries that Nora has done something indiscreet to raise the money. Nora counters that there is nothing indiscreet about saving one’s husband’s life and insists that her deed be kept secret from Helmer, both to save his masculine pride and to give Nora a trump card to play when she is less able to charm him with her tricks and good looks. Though she has had to scrimp and save to pay off the debt, Nora is filled with happiness.
Both women seem nervous when Mr. Nils Krogstad, an employee at Helmer’s bank, appears. After Nora leads him to Helmer’s study, Mrs. Linde explains she once knew Krogstad and that he is now a widower with several children.
Dr. Rank emerges from the study where he has left Krogstad and Helmer; when Mrs. Linde explains she has come to town to find work, the doctor marvels at the things people will do to stay alive.
Nora is pleased to learn that Krogstad reports directly to her husband, and offers Dr. Rank and Mrs. Linde some of her sweets. When Helmer enters, Nora hides the forbidden macaroons and persuades him to offer Mrs. Linde a post at his bank. The visitors then go out with Helmer, leaving Nora to play with her children.
Nora’s romp with her “cute little doll babies” is interrupted when Krogstad returns to enlist her help. Unnerved by his sudden return, Nora instructs the nurse, Anne-Marie, to take the children out of the room.
Years ago, Krogstad committed a forgery that ruined his reputation as a lawyer; since then, he has tried to rebuild a name for himself, and has taken on the job of a low-level lawyer in Helmer’s bank. Due to some recent questions about him at the bank, however, he has been notified that he will be fired again.
But he intends to fight for his position, since he has children to support. He reminds Nora about the I.O.U. he required her father to countersign before he would lend her the money for the Helmers’ trip south. Nora replies that the final loan payment is due soon and Krogstad will then be out of her life.
To Nora’s distress, Krogstad points out that he knows Nora forged her father’s signature, since the I.O.U. was dated three days after her father’s death. Nora confesses that she did this so as not to trouble her father while he was ill, and is angered to think that the law would not take into consideration her benevolent motives.
Krogstad leaves, threatening to expose Nora’s fraud if she doesn’t persuade Helmer to rehire him. Helmer returns and prods her into telling him that Krogstad wanted her help in securing his job. Still alarmed by Krogstad’s threats, Nora begs Helmer to help her choose a costume to wear to the Stenborgs’ party, which will take place the day after Christmas; she then pleads with her husband to reinstate Krogstad.
Helmer lectures her on Krogstad’s moral degeneracy and on the effects that Krogstad’s efforts to conceal his misdeeds have had on his children. Helmer retires to his study, and Nora, pale and trembling, tries desperately to convince herself that her forging her father’s name on the loan could not possibly corrupt her children or poison her own home.
Christmas Day is wintry, and the untidy Christmas tree stands in a corner as Nora paces restlessly, afraid something terrible is about to happen. When Anne-Marie brings in a box of costumes, Nora explains she will be spending less time with her children from now on; Nora is reassured to know that Anne-Marie is reliable and able to look after her children.
As Nora busies herself with her costume, Mrs. Linde appears. Nora explains that she is going to tomorrow night’s costume ball dressed as an Italian fisher girl, but Mrs. Linde quickly senses something amiss and wonders if Dr. Rank is the one who lent Nora the money. Helmer enters and Mrs. Linde is unable to pursue the matter. She then goes to another room to sew Nora’s torn costume, leaving the married couple alone.
Nora again pleads with her husband to let Krogstad keep his job, but Helmer steadfastly refuses, revealing that he is actually dismissing Krogstad because he insists on calling Helmer by his first name.
When Nora expresses shock at the pettiness of her husband’s motives, Helmer, stung, decides to send Krogstad’s dismissal letter. Then he forgives Nora for her doubts about his (Helmer’s) character, and as he walks toward his study, he urges her to practice the tarantella (an Italian folk dance) that she is to dance at the costume ball.
Dr. Rank, pessimistic as usual, arrives and Nora decides to seek his help. But before she can do this, Rank confides that he is suffering from a venereal disease inherited from his father and that he expects to die soon.
Nora changes the subject by showing him some flesh-colored stockings that she removes from a box. She flirts for a while to lighten the mood, but before she can ask him for help, Rank abruptly confesses that he loves her. Nora is indignant that he should tell such a thing to a respectable married woman; she now feels unable to share her secret.
Another visitor is announced and Nora sends Dr. Rank in to Helmer before greeting Krogstad, who has received his dismissal notice and intends to blackmail Helmer into reinstating him. Warning Nora about the futility of suicide, he leaves a letter in the mailbox explaining the details of the loan and forged I.O.U., and the conditions under which he will keep quiet.
As his footsteps on the apartment stairs fade away, Mrs. Linde returns with Nora’s costume. Nora tells her that it was Krogstad who lent her the money and explains that she will need “a miracle” once Helmer finds out.
Mrs. Linde offers to try persuading Krogstad to withdraw the letter and suggests that Helmer be kept from reading his mail until she returns. Nora then persuades her husband to help her practice the tarantella; her frantic dancing convinces Helmer of her need for coaching and he indulgently promises to stay with her—and not open his mail—until after the party.
As he and Dr. Rank go in to dinner, Nora has a private word with Mrs. Linde, who had returned during the dance. Krogstad has gone out of town and won’t return until the following night. After counting the number of hours before Helmer finds out about her, Nora runs toward her husband with open arms, and the curtain falls.
The next night, Mrs. Linde anxiously awaits the arrival of Krogstad in Nora’s living room as party noises are heard from the floor above. When he appears, they discuss their past relationship: they had been engaged, but Mrs. Linde jilted him so she could marry Linde and therefore be able to support her mother and brothers.
He reveals that his life fell to pieces when she did this, but they decide to give their love another chance once she convinces him that she is not merely sacrificing herself for Nora’s sake. When Krogstad suggests that he retrieve the incriminating letter, Mrs. Linde advises against it, feeling that the Helmers should get the secret out into the open. Krogstad quickly leaves as both rejoice at their newfound happiness.
Helmer enters, dressed in party clothes and bringing with him the protesting Nora. He shows off his beautiful wife to Mrs. Linde and explains that their grand exit from the Stenborgs’ party was the finishing touch on Nora’s performance of the tarantella.
Since the room is dark, Helmer leaves to find some candles. Mrs. Linde informs Nora that she need not fear Krogstad but must nevertheless tell her husband everything. Nora replies that she now knows what she must do.
Returning, Helmer bids Mrs. Linde a cordial goodnight, then confesses to Nora that he finds her friend a terrible bore. The loveliness of Nora, his “most treasured possession,” puts Helmer in a romantic mood; but his overtures are interrupted by Dr. Rank, who comes in to bid his dear friend a final good-bye.
His medical tests have convinced him that he is about to die, as Nora explains when Helmer finds two calling cards with black crosses over the doctor’s name in the mailbox. (Rank had told Helmer that “when those cards came, he’d be taking his leave.”) Their friend’s sad news puts a damper on Helmer’s romantic desires for Nora, and when Helmer tells her he sometimes wishes he could gallantly protect her from some grave danger, Nora tells him in a firm voice to read his letters.
Wild-eyed, Nora contemplates suicide as Helmer reads in his study, but he summons her before she can run out of the room. Helmer is shocked to learn that Krogstad’s story is true and refuses to listen to her “silly excuses,” trying to make Nora see what her act of forgery has done to him. Calling her a “shiftless woman” with no sense of morals or duty, he determines to cover up the matter and then to keep Nora from raising the children.
In the midst of his tirade, a second letter from Krogstad arrives, returning the I.O.U. and explaining his change of heart. Rejoicing that he is “saved,” Helmer abruptly forgives Nora, resolving to help and guide her more manfully in the future.
Nora exits to take off her costume, then returns in everyday clothes to have a talk with her husband. She asserts that the two of them have never understood each other, and that Helmer has never really loved her.
Both Helmer and her father have treated her like a doll, and Helmer is no more qualified to teach her to be a real wife than she is qualified to raise her children (“the children have been my dolls”).
She has decided to respect her duty to herself above that to her husband and children and to discover on her own the nature of the world around her. When the “miracle” that she had hoped for—namely, Helmer’s willingness to publicly take the blame for the forgery himself—failed to materialize, Nora realized that for eight years she had been living with a “stranger.”
She resolutely leaves, returning her wedding ring and her keys to her husband. The distraught Helmer is left hoping for another miracle—that their life together might become a “real marriage”—as Nora slams the outside door behind her.
Nora Helmer: Young wife of Torvald; late 20s. Playful, flirtatious, attractive. Initially appears childlike, lighthearted; indulges in role-playing. Devoted to husband and children. Given to petty lies. By the end of the play, however, she comes to realize that she has led a false life; abandons family in order to discover the truth about herself.
Torvald Helmer: Nora’s husband of eight years. Lawyer; recently promoted to manager of the bank. Hardworking, scrupulous, proud, frugal, domineering. Loves Nora but sees her as a possession and a toy. Preaches to Nora about moral conduct. Revealed to be a hypocrite who is more concerned with appearances and protecting his own reputation than with ethical standards or true love for his wife.
Dr. Peter Rank: Physician; friend of the Helmers. Pessimist. Dying of an inherited illness and trying to make the most of his remaining days. In love with Nora.
Mrs. Christine Linde: Longtime friend of Nora but hasn’t seen her in years. Frank, practical, open-minded; believes in honesty and common sense. Reunited with Krogstad, the love of her life.
Nils Krogstad: Low-level attorney in Helmer’s bank. Once a successful lawyer whose forgery cost him his career and reputation; desperately trying to regain his reputation and social standing. Lent money to Nora; now tries to blackmail her. Widower; father of small children. Loves Christine Linde; overjoyed when they are reunited.
Themes and Ideas
When first produced in the late 19th century, “A Doll’s House” was considered daring. It criticized laws and middle-class customs, defying marriage conventions. The play challenges the romanticized notion of marital bliss and portrays a woman walking out on her husband—an act considered taboo at the time. Mrs. Linde’s first marriage demonstrates the powerlessness of women, who often married for financial security rather than love. Her relationship with Krogstad at the end of the play is more positive, based on openness and trust.
However, it still reinforces the stereotype that women are incomplete without someone to love. The Helmers’ marriage is built on empty and oppressive social conventions, lacking understanding and respect. Helmer sees Nora as his doll in a doll’s house.
Nora’s idealized view of marriage is unrealistic, as she fantasizes about her husband’s willingness to protect and provide for her emotionally and financially. Eventually, she realizes that the “true meaning” of their marriage is only a faint possibility, and she makes no promises to return to him.
Ibsen perceives men and women as having different moral standards or “moral codes.” He believes it is unjust to judge women by men’s standards. Helmer represents Ibsen’s view of “masculine” attitudes. He upholds the letter of the law and considers honor, honesty, and thrift as rigid and unchanging values. Helmer’s inflexible beliefs reveal how societal rules restrict individual freedom.
Nora represents Ibsen’s idea of the “feminine” position. She values human relationships over abstract principles and judges each act based on its motive, rather than a predetermined code like Helmer does. Nora courageously rebels against institutions that limit her freedom of choice, although she has a naive understanding of how these institutions function.
However, both characters’ moral conduct is flawed. Helmer, a hypocrite, uses morality to mask selfish motives. For example, he fires Krogstad not because of his dishonesty but because Krogstad calls him by his first name. He also prioritizes preserving his good reputation over upholding the law. Nora, on the other hand, is inconsiderate of those she considers “strangers” and is more concerned with her own problems than with Dr. Rank’s illness.
In Nora’s effort to conceal debt, protect Helmer’s pride, and indulge her own whims, she resorts to telling “white lies.” These lies are comparable to Krogstad’s attempt to conceal his own forgery, which tarnished his reputation. Mrs. Linde emphasizes the importance of truthful relationships and helps bring Nora’s actions to light.
However, honesty comes at a price. Dr. Rank’s confession of love prevents Nora from seeking his help. Nora later realizes that the absence of understanding in her marriage and the falseness of her fantasies about Helmer have led to unhappiness and a lack of fulfillment. This sudden realization prompts her to reexamine her conscience and face life more honestly.
4. Sacrifice and Duty
Both fantasies and the reality of 19th-century middle-class marriage revolve around self-sacrifice. Mrs. Linde sacrificed her own happiness to help her mother and brothers. Nora has relinquished her self-identity to become Helmer’s “doll-wife.” Both Nora and Helmer fantasize about sacrifice.
Nora expects Helmer to take public blame for the forgery to protect her, while Helmer gallantly fantasizes about sacrificing his life to save Nora from a grave danger. When Helmer hesitates to sacrifice his honor for her, Nora remarks that “thousands of women” have sacrificed their honor for men. Ultimately, Nora rejects the ideal of self-sacrifice, recognizing that her duty to herself is more important than her duty to her husband or family.
Money plays a central role in the play. Nora’s borrowing, Mrs. Linde’s motives for her first marriage, Helmer’s stinginess and pay raise, Krogstad’s forgery and moneylending, and Dr. Rank’s wealth all drive much of the action. Money grants certain characters power and control, but also represents the injustices of a social system where women are kept powerless due to their lack of economic strength and legal rights.
Nora must resort to tricks and charm to earn her keep and lives as a “pauper” in Helmer’s house, where she is considered his property. The loan also puts her at Krogstad’s mercy. As a widow, Mrs. Linde relies on Helmer for employment. Dr. Rank inherits wealth from his father, but it cannot buy him good health, just as Helmer’s business success fails to bring him a happy marriage.
Both Nora and Dr. Rank are portrayed as victims of inherited traits. Nora is likened to her spendthrift father, while Dr. Rank suffers from a disease passed down from his father. This narrative device allows Ibsen to establish the characters’ backgrounds using scientific principles such as the laws of heredity, making them feel more realistic.
However, there is some ambiguity regarding heredity as the sole explanation for Nora’s actions. While she spends the money that Helmer gives her to repay Krogstad, she does not squander it. Nora demonstrates greater freedom to change than the theory of heredity would suggest.
1. Dolls and Doll’s House
Nora realizes that both Helmer and her father treated her like a doll, and that she does the same with her children. This indicates the lack of respect given to both women and children, who are treated as possessions, not people. The doll’s house symbolizes a place where inhabitants play imagined roles, protected from the outside world.
1. A Powerful Feminist Awakening
A Doll’s House presents a powerful feminist narrative that was ahead of its time. The protagonist, Nora, undergoes a profound awakening, realizing the hollowness of her past life and the shallow identity that society has assigned her.
Ibsen deserves applause for tackling such an important but often overlooked issue with realism. As a feminist myself, I deeply respect Nora’s journey and the way Ibsen portrayed it. It’s refreshing to see a play that challenges societal norms and explores the struggle for women’s rights.
2. Deliberate and Beautiful Writing
Ibsen’s writing in A Doll’s House is deliberate and beautiful. The play employs a deliberate style that draws readers in and evokes emotions. The way the story unfolds and the language used create a captivating reading experience.
It’s one of those feminist writings where the woman experiences a profound awakening, realizing the emptiness of her previous life and self. The writing is lovely and moving, effectively conveying Nora’s journey of self-discovery.
3. Unveiling the Burden of Sacrifice
One of my favorite aspects of the play is the exploration of a woman’s sacrifice for her husband and the heavy burden she carries. Nora’s selfless actions are met with indifference, and she is deemed selfish and unappreciated by society.
It’s heartbreaking to witness her struggle, questioning her choices and her rightful place in both life and society. Through Nora’s story, Ibsen sheds light on the lack of recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices women make in their marriages. It’s a poignant reminder of the importance of mutual respect and equality in any relationship.
1. Slow-paced and Lack of Likable Characters
One of the drawbacks of A Doll’s House is its slow pace. The play takes a considerable amount of time to make its point, and it can feel like a drag at times. Moreover, I didn’t find the characters particularly likable or empathetic. While I understand that we may not be supposed to like them, it still made it challenging to connect with the story on an emotional level. This lack of relatability made it difficult for me to fully engage with the narrative.
2. Intentionally Depressing
A Doll’s House is intentionally depressing, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The play explores heavy themes and presents a bleak view of marriage, societal expectations, and the role of women in society.
While thought-provoking, the constant gloominess and lack of uplifting moments can be a downer for those seeking an entertaining read. It’s more suitable for study or analysis rather than casual entertainment reading.
3. Outdated and Limited Focus
The play was written in the late 1800s, and its themes and perspectives reflect the societal norms of that time. While it may have been groundbreaking back then, in today’s context, some elements may feel outdated and irrelevant.
The focus on the role of women in society, while important, overshadows other aspects of the story, making it feel narrow in scope. As a result, the plot can appear simplistic, and the limited number of characters may not offer enough variety to keep readers fully engaged.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen stands as a timeless and impactful play that continues to resonate with readers and provoke thought-provoking discussions. Despite the initial controversy and outrage it received, time has proven the validity of Ibsen’s points, elevating the play to its well-deserved place in the world literary canon.
Often hailed as the first feminist play, A Doll’s House boldly critiques the treatment of women in Victorian society. Ibsen vividly portrays the repression and persecution faced by women in various aspects of their lives, from limited speech to restricted employment opportunities. The play fearlessly exposes the hollowness of patriarchy and scrutinizes the dynamics between men and women, as well as the institution of marriage itself. It delves into the complex issues surrounding motherhood and challenges the settled ideas prevalent in Victorian society.
While the play faced fierce opposition and condemnation, particularly from those who were resistant to change, it served as a much-needed wake-up call. A Doll’s House sparked extensive debate and contributed to the eventual reform of societal norms. It is remarkable that Ibsen, a man writing nearly a century and a half ago, possessed such a profound understanding of the cultural pulse and knew exactly how to provoke and challenge the status quo. The fact that even women, some of whom were vocal critics, were compelled to confront the play’s ideas speaks volumes about its lasting impact.
Henrik Ibsen, a renowned playwright and poet, was born in Skien, Norway in 1828 and passed away in 1906. Despite being born into wealth, his aspirations of studying medicine were shattered when his father faced bankruptcy. He initially worked as a pharmacist but eventually found his way into the world of theater, becoming a stage manager and later an artistic director of theaters in Bergen and Christiania (now known as Oslo).
In 1864, Ibsen received a small government grant that allowed him to travel to the Continent, where he resided for 27 years, primarily in Italy and Germany. It was during this period that he wrote some of his most notable plays. In 1879, he achieved fame with his play “A Doll’s House,” which shocked audiences throughout Europe with its portrayal of Nora’s decision to leave her children.
Ibsen returned to Norway in 1891 as an internationally acclaimed figure. He is the author of several well-known works, including “Peer Gynt” (1867), “Ghosts” (1881), “An Enemy of the People” (1882), “Rosmersholm” (1886), “Hedda Gabler” (1890), and “The Master Builder” (1892), among others. While his early plays had a romantic tone, his later works, which dealt with social issues, proved to be more successful and are often referred to as problem plays.
Buy The Book: A Doll’s House
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