Simple Interpretation of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House"
In the drama, “A Doll’s House,” playwright Henrik Ibsen seems to peer beyond the veneer and to examine the real motives for some marriages. Ibsen uses his characters’ interactions to showcase his commentary on matrimony. Torvald’s treatment of his wife, the character Mrs. Linde, Nora’s discussion with Dr. Rank, and the final conversation between the Helmers all seem to support the notion that the author is trying to get us to look deeper.
We meet our main characters, Nora and Torvald Helmer right away as they bicker and haggle over money and how to spend it. It is impossible not to notice the cutesy pet-names Torvald uses for Nora nearly every time he addresses her. While they seem a typical, doting, and certainly socially proper couple for the time period something just doesn’t feel quite right. Already, we can sense something missing. While Torvald speaks to her kindly, it is in a most condescending manner – never giving her credit as a valid or intelligent being. He treats her as if she is a young child, even restricting her diet. “Hasn’t Miss Sweet-Tooth been breaking rules in town to-day?” he asks her as he wags his finger (Ibsen 426). She is seemingly eager to play along with this little act, thin as it may seem. He asks her questions indirectly as if she were a pet – something you speak to one-sidedly, with no expectations for intelligent conversation: “Has my little Nora finally acknowledged that?” he asks her when she tells him that she can’t possibly think of a Christmas gift that would be special enough to give him. As a reader, one can see that there is perhaps a lack of the kind of deep love that one might at least idealize in a marital union.
Ibsen soon brings another character, Mrs.Linde, in to the story. We find out that she is widowed and was left nothing by her late husband. A husband who she did not love but felt obliged to marry as she had been seeking means to care for her mother and two younger brothers. She “did not think it was justified to refuse his offer (Ibsen 430).” Another case of a marriage with missing elements. Purely practical – a business decision of sorts. Yet, she misses it all the same. She pines to have someone “to live for” again (Ibsen 430). When she proposes to start things up again with Krogstad, who is apparently a former suitor, she tells him that she wants him to “give her someone…to work for (465).” She, like Nora, seems content to settle for life with a partner who she does not care for in a romantic way simply to fulfill the role of “husband” in her life.
Another way Ibsen makes his point is through the conversation held by Nora and the family friend Dr. Rank in Act II. Rank tells Nora that he “would gladly give his life for (her) sake (Ibsen 455).” He obviously feels for her deeply, if inappropriately. He goes on to imply that she doesn’t seem to care for Torvald any more than anyone else. She replies, “Yes – you see there are some people one loves best, and others whom one would …rather have as companions.” She quite obviously admits that her marriage is not based in love, but rather practicality. She then compares Torvald’s companionship with that of her father and the significance is not subtle. We have already noted that Torvald does seem to treat her as one would treat a child.
The point is really driven home toward the play’s end, when the truth of Nora’s secret business dealing is outed. She has finally decided that telling Torvald is really the best idea, believing even that a “most wonderful thing will happen” and he will prove his deep devotion to her by understanding why she did the “shameful” deed, then sheltering and protecting her from the after-effects. Quite the contrary, Torvald’s immediate reaction is explosive. He tells her that she has “destroyed all of (his) happiness…ruined all (his) future (Ibsen 473).” He tells her that while it is “so incredible that (he) can’t take it in,” he will have to come to terms with it enough so that they can still keep up appearances as a normal couple. He shows no regard for her feelings, only concern for the fact that she has stepped out of the role he would have her fill and misbehaved – which will surely reflect on him in a negative way. Once he decides that his reputation will not suffer a blow after all, he is able to switch immediately back to loving, doting Torvald. If we thought there was a superficiality about him before – the something that seemed a bit ‘off’ from the start – we are certain of it now. In this scene, Nora shows that she too realizes the missing pieces in her marriage. No longer does she feel cared for and supported. She seemed earlier to have been willing to forego passionate love in favor of posterity, shallow praise, and convenience. In her new realization, though, she can no longer tolerate feeling inferior or that her husband’s affection is conditional.
“A Doll’s House,” which in its name alone tells of the author’s poke at the institution of marriage – she truly is Torvald’s living doll, is short but chock-full of meaning. From the opening scene where we are barraged with the syrupy sweet way Torvald regards his wife to the final sequence where we see how quickly he is able to switch his devotion on and off, Ibsen’s story looks under the façade of many marriages (typical especially to the time of the drama’s writing) to reveal disturbing truths.