Henrick Ibsen's A Doll's House: the Heroine, the Doll, & the Repression of Nora
The relationship of Torvald and Nora seems beautiful and endearing, but there is an underlying tension throughout that a reader soon discovers is the root cause for the fallacy of their marriage. And in that fallacy is the heroine, the doll, and the repression of Nora.
Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” was originally published in 1879 and portrays a happy husband and wife in their own little “doll’s house.” A reader is quickly immersed into their house of deception and lies, noting that what Torvald and Nora think to be love and a happy relationship, seems to be something much more sinister—in fact, their relationship is nothing but a façade of a real relationship, a full fallacy of a marriage. At first, Nora and Torvald Helmer seem to have the typical, loving man and wife marriage. Their relationship seems beautiful, endearing, and even delectable, but there is an underlying tension throughout that a reader soon discovers is the root cause for the fallacy of their relationship. Nora shops and provides beautiful things for her family and Torvald only cares about the dollar amount. He demeans her, also, by calling her his little squirrel or little lark, twittering about. But their fallacy goes even deeper.
Perhaps a perfect foreshadow for their relationship comes at the very start of the play. Nora is bustling into the house with parcels when Torvald calls out to his “little lark.” Nora hides her snacks (macaroons) in her pocket, quickly wipes her mouth to make herself presentable, then immediately has to convince Torvald that she didn’t spend hardly any money at all shopping that day.
When Torvald gripes about her extravagant spending, Nora makes the comment that they can always borrow until his new salary kicks in—to which Torvald is immediately put off, calling her a “featherhead” and comments that her attitude towards borrowing money is so “like a woman.” As he chastises her, Nora becomes upset, and, to make her happy again, Torvald whips out his wallet and hands her some cash. When Torvald asks Nora what “his little extravagant person” would like for herself, she plays coy, suggesting that he could give her money for Christmas, that she would put it under the tree. Torvald immediately makes mention that if she spends it on “unnecessary” things, like household items—he will be disappointed and just have to give her more money, which will upset him.
Again, Nora becomes uneasy at this declaration and Torvald calls her out on her anxiety, commenting that she promised not to eat any sweets—which of course, she has—to which she dutifully replies with a white lie: “I should not think of going against your wishes.” Indeed, their banter seems cute, at first, but it isn’t long before a reader begins to sense the underlying tension money has created in their marriage—in fact, this opening scene does much to foreshadow the very fallacy that is the Torvald and Nora marriage.
Nora is Torvald's Doll
Furthermore, “Nora’s marriage to Torvald…has obstructed what Kierkegaard would call the genesis of her character. Torvald’s aim in life…is to be ‘invulnerable.’ He therefore shuts himself up in his ‘masculine self-consciousness.’ He recognizes only traditional principles, backed by religion, morality, and law, that is, regulatory forces, which do not need to prove their value to man and to human experience but which shape them” (Meyer 48). Nora and Torvald have made themselves a life of deception, a life in which Nora’s very character is stifled to the point that she doesn’t even know that she is being made to play the doll in Torvald’s life.
Moreover, “the people [Torvald] admits to the inner circle of his life he treats as things, objects for his moods…[Torvald] relegates Nora to a subhuman level, stylizes her into a seductive child of nature. He dresses her up, makes her perform…then, when she leaves the stage, takes her back to his ‘lovely happy home,’ where she is ‘still his young bride.’ (Meyer 49). Indeed, Torvald “avoids love because it would put an end to the stylization of his surroundings, which serves to gratify his clever egoism…[Torvald] goes in for outward show and window dressing—for the charm that promises excitement” ( Meyer 49). Torvald is interested in nothing but outside appearances.
Torvald “uses Nora to be productive in an interesting way and to introduce a pretty, decorative element into his existence…it is true that Nora takes as much pleasure as the complacent [Torvald] could wish in playing the role of the charming little ingénue. Nora lacks all consciousness of self and does not aspire to any, because it might cost her her magic” (Meyer 49). Her magic being the little life she has slipped in to, at home with playing the maiden to Torvald’s needs, at home without knowing that she is missing something much more significant—a real human relationship. Indeed, Nora is just a doll, an object for Torvald’s amusement, and she plays the role without understanding, truly, that she is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
Nora's Behavior: Reinforces the Facade - She Likes Being the Perfect Little Doll
Nora’s behavior is so stilted that the “first word she utters is ‘hide,’ and indeed, from the opening scene on, hiding, dissimulating, extravagant spending, and prevaricating are the four cardinal points that set the limits of her life. She loves secrets. Through her self-concealment she indulges both herself and her husband” (Meyer 49-50). Nora understands that she must keep certain things from her husband to maintain their happy relationship. However, in her deception comes the root cause of her destruction. By playing this deceptive role, Nora is denying herself a true life, true happiness is sacrificed for the sake of appearances.
But, when Nora’s old friend Mrs. Linde enters the play, Nora’s cool façade seems to crumble when Mrs. Linde makes the comment that Nora is just a child, with no real troubles in her life to deal with. Nora immediately cracks, and tells her dark secret to Mrs. Linde—that she borrowed money for the trip she and Torvald had taken, and not from her father as everyone had thought. In fact, Nora borrowed the money from an outside source by forging her dead father’s signature, without Torvald’s knowledge, knowing full-well how he felt about borrowing and credit. But, Nora knew that she was saving Torvald’s life, so she borrowed without his consent, fully understanding what he would think if he found out about her deception. Without meaning to do so, this act has created a great rift between the two, a rift that will continue until it breaks them apart. But now, finally, the truth of Nora’s extravagant spending comes to light. In an attempt to pay her creditor back, she has to skimp and save, but it looks, to an outsider like Torvald, that she spends her money too fluently, without discretion, never saving at all.
The story begins to unfold that Mrs. Linde might be able to exert her influence over Krogstad (who gave Nora the loan and knows she forged her father’s signature to do so) and get him to back down. But she refuses, “she deliberately refrains from exerting that influence; in fact, she does the reverse. She has seen…incredible things in the Helmer household—by which she means in the relationship of the spouses to one another…she disapproves of them and she is convinced that they ought to be ended, not in order to avert an even more resounding catastrophe than the one that actually supervenes but on purely pedagogic grounds” (Downs 113). Mrs. Linde is openly cruel towards Nora from the beginning—thinking Nora nothing more than a child playing house with more money than anyone should deserve. When she finds out what really happened, and how such a betrayal would indeed ruin the Helmer marriage, Mrs. Linde cannot help herself in furthering the destruction. And, while many might call Mrs. Linde a villain for her devious efforts, it can also be said that the marriage was doomed to fail anyway because of Nora’s actions.
The Illusion of the Dollhouse
There comes a moment when “Krogstad destroys the incriminating paper on his own initiative, but before that is done its nature has been betrayed to Torvald, whose paroxysm of selfish fear, anger and recrimination subsides the moment the threat of exposure is removed” (Downs 111). It is a great blow to the marriage as Torvald “resumes his customary attitude towards his wife as if nothing had happened. She, on the other hand, who had believed that he would appreciate the devotion underlying her act and would even be prepared to take the responsibility for it upon himself, feels all the props of her moral existence knocked from under her: declaring that she must think out her position as calmly and comprehensively as she can, she leaves the house” (111). Nora’s deception in the loan with Torvald is a heinous a crime as an affair would have been in this marriage. Nora felt that she was truly saving Torvald’s life with the loan, and once her act became known, she believed he would at least appreciate her efforts at saving her life. Instead, he puts the whole matter out of his mind like a bad dinner cooked by his little squirrel, and even verbally punishes her for being bad, and Nora, for the first time, realizes how little her husband thinks of her.
Nora thought she was happy “in the belief that she has attained a valid realization of all [her marriage] illusions; that she is an ideal wife and mother; and that [Torvald] is an ideal husband, who would, if the necessity arose, give his life to save her reputation” (Shaw 89). But a reader knows this to be completely untrue. Their marriage has been a fallacy since the beginning. Neither really loved the other, neither was fully truthful with the other, but neither knew another way of life. Torvald and Nora fell into the traditional marriage of wife and husband where the husband works and takes care of the finances while the wife takes care of the children and household needs. But, in her desire to save her husband, Nora broke from this mold and made financially impacting changes to their lives. In this, was her betrayal to her husband. In this, began the decline and dissolution of their marriage.
Nora’s illusion was built upon the foundation that she had learned to “coax her husband into giving her what she asks by appealing to his affection for her: that is, by playing all sorts of pretty tricks until he is wheedled into an amorous humor. This plan she has adopted without thinking about it, instinctively taking the line of least resistance with him…and it at once explains to her the real nature of the domestic influence she has been so proud of” (Shaw 90-91). Such is the full fallacy of Nora’s life. She played a part for her husband, a part in which she was proud to play—even though she did not truly understand what she did to play it correctly. Once everything comes out into the open, it is clear that Nora and Torvald did not even really have a marriage. On the outside it was a beautiful life, happy wife and husband. But on the inside, both were just playing the part of the perfect couple, to the detriment of their marriage.
Moreover, “the final disillusion comes when [Torvald], instead of at once proposing to pursue this ideal line of conduct when he hears of the forgery, naturally enough flies into a vulgar rage and heaps invective on her for disgracing him. Then she sees that their whole family life has been a fiction: their home a mere doll’s house in which they have been playing at ideal husband…and wife. So she leaves him then and there and goes out into the real world to find out its reality for herself, and to gain some position not fundamentally false” (Shaw 91-92). After Nora leaves, even Torvald comes to understand “what has really happened, and sits down alone to wonder whether that more honorable relation can ever come to pass between them” (Shaw 92). But Torvald’s realization is not as clear as Nora’s. Nora deeply understood what their fake marriage did to her as a person. Consciously, Nora was ruined by their doll’s house and must make great strides into the very nature of reality to determine her true function as a woman.
Nora's Deception: The Ultimate Crack in the Doll House Facade
Torvald and Nora’s life has been one of fantasy, with the understanding that “guilt and sorrow are present in society, represented by the disgraced Krogstad and the sick Dr. Rank, but these are quarantined, as it were, from the Helmer’s innocence and happiness within the doll house…the Helmers must learn that guilt and sorrow are inextricably built within the reality they share with the rest of humanity” (Johnston 138). It is this reality, however, that they have been cut off from, playing the happy little roles of husband and wife in their happy little home.
“A Doll’s House” is essentially a play about life in an innocent little doll’s house. Nora and Torvald live out their lives, striving for perfection in their marriage, without even realizing that they are doing so, which causes their marriage to be a fallacy from its inception, and both Nora and Torvald come to this realization after Nora’s financial betrayal. Nora felt that she was saving Torvald’s life with the debt, but once Torvald found out what she had done, instead of being proud or appreciative, he loses it—punishing his little lark for her deception and betrayal. It is in this moment that Nora realizes that her marriage has always been a shame, a façade of what a marriage should be, and she leaves to learn what reality should be.
Downs, Brian. A Study of Six Plays by Ibsen. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1950.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Dover Thrift Edition. New York: Dover Publications, 1992.
Johnston, Brian. Text and Subtext in Ibsen’s Drama. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Meyer, Hans Georg. Henrik Ibsen. Trns. Helen Sebba. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1972.
Shaw, Bernard. The Quintessence of Ibsenism: Now Completed to the Death of Ibsen. New York: Brentano’s, 1913.