A Guide to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House
by Mohamed Zayed, a linguist
1) Major theme of the play:Theme of love & failed marriage
In A Doll’s House, Ibsen discusses the theme of marriage by presenting a marriage which is not successful. According to Ibsen, a successful marriage must be based on mutual respect, sacrifice and frankness. It can be seen that the marriage of the Helmers lack these elements of successful marriage. Hence, it is a failed marriage.
The major theme of the play is love and failed marriage. The play revolves around the marriage of the Helmers, Nora and Torvald Helmer. Nora is a submissive, devoted wife to her husband. When the Helmers were newlyweds, one day the husband Torvald is sick and has to visit another country in order to save his life. There is not enough money to do that. So, the wife, Nora, borrows money from a corrupted person known as Krogstad. Nora does not tell her husband about the borrowed money and she lies to him. In order to get the money to save her husband, Nora had to forge her father’s signature. In doing so, she committed an illegal act and so Krogstad begins to blackmail her. Nora’s husband, Torvald, is a hypocrite and superficial person and will never forgive her if he knew that she lied to him and that she borrowed money.
Nora keeps her secret for years until one day Krogstad’s job is in danger and he blackmails her. He tells her that she must persuade her husband not to fire him from the bank because he is a corrupted person. Nora does her best to persuade Torvald, but it is all in vain since he is a hypocrite person who believes Krogstad to be “poisoning” his children. So, Nora begins to be mentally tormented. At this point, it is shown how the marriage of the Helmers is a superficial one without true love between the husband and wife since the husband cares only about his social appearance and prestige in society. He does not care about his wife’s feelings. Ironically enough, Torvald keeps telling Nora that if anything bad shall happen, he will take the fall for it which he does not do.
Throughout the play, it is shown how Torvald treats his wife as a “doll in the house” and he calls her “skylark” and “squirrel” all the time. He treats her like a “father figure” or a headmaster not as “a loving husband”. He gives her instructions all the time and warns her not to eat “macaroons” because it is bad for her teeth. Furthermore, Nora tells Torvald that like her father, Torvald treated her like a doll and that she has no decision whatsoever. Nobody cares about her opinion or what she thinks. She is just a decoration. The marriage of the Helmers is a very superficial one since the wife does not share in decision making. It is shown in the play how Torvald even chooses the dress that his wife will wear. It is a patriarchal marriage in which the wife is a marginalised character and has no saying in anything. It is a typical type of marriage in Ibsen’s time in which the husband was a leading, superior figure while the wife is marginalised, inferior character that only acts to please, dance and entertain the husband and maintains his social image.
Also, theme of love is a major theme of the play. The love of the wife, Nora, is a true kind of love since she sacrificed for her husband. She borrowed money to save his life. The love of the husband is a fake love or superficial love since he does not really love his wife because we see him by the end of the play only caring about his self-image in society and prestige. He never thanks Nora or praises her for what she does or did for him. She saved his life, their children and their whole marriage and he never appreciated her efforts. Furthermore, he blames his wife for trying to “taint” his reputation since she borrowed money without telling him. Had it been true love, Torvald would have been grateful and indebted to his wife for life. To our surprise, we find the opposite of gratitude.
The husband is the embodiment of selfishness and lack of respect. He always insults his wife and accuses her of being a child and stupid. Nora, on the other hand, shows great respect for her husband and she has a great opinion of her husband and their marriage. Nora is pleased of her sacrifice since she is sacrificing for the man she loves. The husband is shown as a cruel, insincere person by the end of the play. When Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter, he tells Nora that she is not allowed to bring up the children. Nora discovers that she never understood Torvald as he really is. This is the explosion that leads to the destruction of the marriage of the Helmers. In the eyes of Nora, Torvald has failed the test of sacrifice. When Krogstad sends a letter to Nora freeing her of any guilt, Torvald is very happy and tells Nora that he has forgiven her only because he cares for his reputation.
Finally, we find Nora—the doll in the house—revolt against her husband and blames both her father and her husband for what she has become. She, then, decides to leave Torvalds’s house in order to realise her self.
2) Comparison between Nora and Mrs. Linde
Mrs. Linde is the foil character of Nora, that is she can be compared and contrasted with Nora. Nora begins the play as a weak character and turn into a strong, independent character by the end of the play.
Mrs. Linde relationship with Krogstad was built on complete trust, honesty, mutual love, understanding without superiority of any partner over the other. Some of these factors or all of them were missing in the relationship between Nora and Torvald. Mrs. Linde is an experienced, confident, wise and mature person while Nora is childlike and treated as a “doll” in the house. Linde knows her abilities and she tries to get along in life while Nora seems to be a child who needs caring and to be guided by someone. Nora lives in the past while Linde lives in the present. Mrs. Linde faced troubles and endured the hardness of life on her own more than Nora did. Mrs. Linde sacrificed her happiness for the sake of her late sick mother and her brothers. She marries a rich man without love only to provide her poor family with money. After the death of her husband, she had no source of income and she had to provide for herself and to look for a job to earn a living.
Then, once again she meets Krogstad, the man she loved in the past. Instead of waiting for his proposal, she is free and unconventional enough and she offers him marriage. That is to say, Mrs. Linde has gained experience through her life which is not true of Nora. Mrs. Linde is a practical woman while Nora is a “child of emotions”. Linde is a realistic person who knows about human nature far better than Nora. Linde understands that people are not angels and demons but simply are human being with good and bad aspects.
Mrs. Linde knows everything about Krogstad, the man she loves. She knows his weak and good points while Nora lives in ivory tower believing her husband to be a romantic hero. Linde seems to be a realistic person because she knows of Krogstad’s past and she is willing to forgive him and to marry him. She sees Krogstad as a good family man who was driven to evil as a result of the cruelty of life. She wants to help Krogstad start a new life away from his corrupted past. On the other hand, Nora can never do such things with Torvald because she needs to help herself first to find her own way in life and to be an independent woman. Mrs. Linde was able to forgive Krogstad because she regards him as a human being with good and bad aspects. Nora cannot forgive Torvald because she regarded him as a hero, a god in flesh with no weak points at all. She is a state of disbelief, a disappointment in that god.
Once she wakes of the “romantic dream,” Nora becomes shocked and cannot forgive Torvald. Nora lacked experience. So, she could not judge the true personality of her husband. Mrs. Linde and Krogstad exchange ideas as grown-up persons unlike the Helmers who never have any kind of serious talk except at the end of the play.
Moreover, Krogstad and Linde express themselves freely without fear or shame while Nora is constantly afraid of her husband and in many cases can only talk to a substitute, Dr. Rank.
Although Krogstad and Linde have not been married, yet they know each other better than the Helmers who have been married for a long time. Krogstad’s marriage to Linde is expected to be a successful one unlike the Helmers’ marriage. The Krogstad-Linde Marriage is based on the foundations of mutual respect, sacrifice, and frankness.
Finally, in her struggle for self-discovery and self- emancipation, Nora ends with what Mrs. Linde has started. The play ends with Nora’s departure to discover the world around her and to become like Mrs. Linde. Nora seeks and searches for a real wedlock and Mrs. Linde finds a real one. As a result, we can conclude that in ten years, Nora is going to be another Mrs. Linde. The relationship between Linde and Krogstad ends in marriage which is the best proof that Ibsen is not against marriage. According to Ibsen, marriage is an important institution in life and should be built strongly to last forever.
3) Analysis of Prominent Quotations of the play (Act 3):
"Sit down. It will take some time. I have much to talk over with you. You don’t understand me and I have never understood you-till-to-night. No, don’t interrupt! Only listen to what I say—we must come to a final settlement. We have been married for eight years. Does it not strike you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have talked together seriously? You have never loved me. You only thought it amusing to be in love with me. While I was a t home with my father, he used to tell me about his opinions. If I had other I said nothing about them, because he wouldn’t have it. He used to call me his doll-child, and played with me as I played with my dolls. I seem to have lived here like a beggar, from hand to mouth. I’m leaving you. I must stand quite alone if I am ever to know myself and my surroundings; so I cannot stay with you! No, I won’t go to the children. I know they are in better hands than mine!"
Full Analysis of the quotation:
This quotation was said by Nora to her husband Torvald in Act 3 at the end of the play. Nora has had enough of Torvald’s hypocrisy and she cannot bear it anymore. She says that quotation after Torvald reads Krogstad’s letter which reveals Nora’s secret. Nora is finally disappointed with Torvald. For the first time, she actually saw Torvald for what he really was. He was a man who cared about nothing but his social position in the society. He never thanked Nora or appreciated what she has done for him.
The major theme of this quotation is the theme of marriage or failed marriage. It is shown in this quotation how the marriage of the Helmers is a superficial marriage since it lacks the elements of true marriage such as mutual respect and frankness. Nora is a devoted wife who has been weak and submissive throughout the play. For the first time in the play we see her addressing Torvald in an equal manner. Torvald is no longer the superior god she once believed in. Instead, she is greatly disappointed in him because he did not fulfil his promise. He once promised her that if anything bad happens, he will take the blame for it which he did not do . On the one hand, we have a hypocrite husband who cares only about his social position and positive self-image. On the other hand, we have a wife that has been treated as a “doll” in the house. She was never appreciated nor respected. As a result, we find her now revolting against Torvald and she decides to leave the house and to go realise her self. Nora realises that she will not be able to maintain life with Torvald unless she first gains experience. She must see Torvald for what he is. He is a man with negative and positive aspects not a god in flesh. He is not an ideal husband.
In this quotation, we see Nora as a strong character. She commands Torvald to “come” and “sit down”. She does not say “As you like, Torvald” anymore. She is becoming an independent woman. Nora has been represented as a weak character and a typical submissive wife but in this quotation we find her gaining power and strength. She has woken up of the dream. She must go realise herself in order for her to see the future. She needs to learn life and not to be a “doll” anymore. The doll has left the house and a mature woman has taken her place.
As for Torvald, he is represented as a weak character for the first time in the play. Nora tells him not to interrupt her while she is speaking and he cannot do anything but wonder where she had got that boldness! Torvald is no longer superior over her. He is no longer her master but rather an unfaithful husband who failed to appreciate his wife’s sacrifice and her saving his life.
As for dramatic techniques in this quotation, it is based on dialogues between Nora and Torvald. Nora dominates most of the dialogues. Also, there is retrospection in the quotation. Retrospection is the recall of the past in the present. We can see Nora remembering the past and reminding Torvald of how he had wronged her. Also, there is irony because Torvald expected Nora to be happy when he told her that he forgave her. Instead, Nora revolted against him as if saying “to hell with your forgiveness, ungrateful husband!”
4) A Doll’s House as a Modern Tragedy
A Doll’s House has been described as a tragedy because of the clear seriousness of the play. Also, it is a modern tragedy. It is a tragedy because it revolves around a tragic event: failed marriage and a tragic character: Nora Helmer. The whole play is dominated by a serious tone. The main action of the play is tragic. Also, the ending is tragic. Nora is a tragic heroine who wins our deepest sympathy. The play becomes serious when we know that Nora borrowed money to save her husband’s life in Act 1. We are deeply touched at the end of Act 1 when Nora feels that she may be corrupting her children!
Furthermore, the play is tragic because in Act 2 we see Nora thinking of committing suicide. This thinking arouses our sympathy for Nora. The decision to commit suicide is definitely a tragic one which arouses pity for her.
Also, the play is tragic because of its tragic end. In Act 3, Nora leaves her house and her children which is something that breaks one’s heart. She has always been treated as a doll and she cannot bear it anymore. What can be more tragic than a mother leaving her children! Also, Nora—who is innocent and naïve—is going to a dark, unknown world to face an uncertain future.
The play is modern because it discusses the tragedy of common people—a husband and wife—not a king or a prince. The play is modern because the heroine does not die in the end. Instead, she is reborn. She emerges strong and independent. Also, the play is modern because of the use of the technique of prose. Before Ibsen’s time, tragedies were written in verse like that of Shakespeare. Also, A Doll’s House is modern because the characters in it belong to the ordinary middle class.
Another technique that makes the play modern is the use of retrospection by Ibsen. Retrospection or retrospective mode means that decisive events have all taken place before the action of the play begins on stage. For example, Nora’s borrowing money and forging a signature were all done before acting on stage. Also, the dramatist has used five main characters to maintain our attention throughout the play.
The play is also modern because of its message. Traditionally, a wife had led a conventional life doing the housework and raising children. In this play, the wife—Nora—has taken a revolutionary step.
(5) Original Sin as a prominent theme of the play & the character of Dr. Rank
Original sin is a Christian doctrine which states that the “sins of the fathers are revisited in their sons”. It stems from Adam’s Original Sin when he ate the Apple of the Forbidden Tree while in Heaven. Hence, it is believed that humanity is suffering and was doomed to live in earth as a punishment for Adam’s sins—the Original father of humanity who committed the first sin or the Original Sin in the history if mankind.
Dr. Rank is the clear representation of the doctrine of the Original Sin in the play. He is infected by a hereditary serious disease because of the sins which his father committed. His father was not a man of morals or values; he was a womanizer. Hence, Dr Rank—the son of the “morally-sick father—has to suffer because of the sins of his father. By the end of the play, Dr. Rank is expected to face death as a result of his father’s immoral actions.
Nora says the following quotation about Dr. Rank to her friend Mrs. Linde:
“He [Dr. Rank] is seriously ill. Lesions in the spin. Poor man. His father was horrible. Woman after woman. That’s why the son . . . tainted blood . . .”
In other words, man is a victim of the sins of his parents.