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“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen’s: Nora as a Victim

It is undeniable that life for women during the Victorian period was very different from life for women living today. With the growth of the Industrial Revolution, women were able to find more opportunities to support themselves without remaining dependent on men, particularly within the cities. However, success was not always assured and women found it difficult to determine whether they wished to sacrifice family for freedom or freedom for family. It was almost never possible for a woman to have both and was often the case that they found neither. For most women, their world was defined by the attitudes and desires of the men most closely associated with them. This meant opportunities for women were first limited by their fathers who determined how much education they might receive and who they might marry and then were limited more by their husbands who frequently insisted upon keeping them within specific social definitions. These are the issues explored in Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” through the character of Nora. In Act 3, she tells her husband, “it’s a great sin what you and papa did to me,” referring to the way in which she has been confined to child-like status.

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Nora’s status is made relevant when the play is recognized as an early feminist piece. Feminism can be defined as an organized movement that strives toward equality for women and minorities in the socio-cultural spheres. This equality has been prevented by a long-standing patriarchal society. “Patriarchy is the system which oppresses women through its social, economic, and political institutions. Throughout history, men have had greater power in both the public and private spheres. To maintain this power, men have created boundaries and obstacles for women, thus making it harder for women to hold power” (Kramarae et al, 1985). Ibsen’s play, through the character of Nora, reveals who women have been oppressed as he reveals the sins her father and husband have committed against her.

Although Nora has several desirable personal attributes, Helmer seems to completely discount any intrinsic value she might have other than her ability to serve him. Throughout the first act of the play, Helmer continues to treat Nora as if she were a naughty child or a favorite pet instead of an adult with thoughts, feelings, and intentions of her own. His pet names for her are objectifying and characterizing his opinions regarding her personality. He refers to her as a ‘lark’, a ‘little squirrel’, and ‘a little featherhead’ (Act I). He constantly makes fun of Nora’s spending habits although she seems to budget her funds shrewdly. Helmer adopts the tone of an indulgent superior providing his favorite toy with new accessories rather than attempting to understand why Nora is trying so hard to collect money.

Nora has a great deal of strength in her, but she is trapped by the society she lives in, which is represented by the figure of her father. Although she had spent a great deal of her life taking care of her father, she was unable to get her father to help when Helmer needed vacation in order to regain his health early in their marriage. To take care of her husband, Nora took out an illegal loan. It was illegal because women were not allowed to have anything to do with money without the consent of their male relatives. Despite the common impression, Nora has managed to pay back almost all of this loan by the time the play opens, having discovered numerous ways in which she might earn money without Helmer’s knowledge. Helmer teases her about these activities, “[you] shut yourself up every evening till long after midnight, making ornaments for the Christmas tree and all the other fine things that were to be a surprise to us … But there was the precious little result, Nora” (Act 1), but he never realizes what they cost her. In this, Ibsen points out through Helmer how little Nora’s contributions mean to the household.

Nora’s final act within the play is to reject the boundaries she’s been under. When Nora decides to encourage Helmer to open the letter from Krogstad regarding her illegal loan, it is because she needs to know her husband values her addition to the household. His inability to recognize how she has contributed to his happiness and her cleverness in being able to help manage important issues pertaining to the family cause her to finally realize the injustices that have been committed upon her. These injustices begin with her father and his support of a society that would make these types of constraints on women acceptable and are continued with Helmer’s flat refusal to consider her feelings or humanity.

When Helmer reacts in anger to Nora’s past actions, she realizes she either needs to sacrifice her self-respect to continue living as a child in her own home or sacrifice her happy home in order to know herself as fully human. In allowing her the freedom to make this decision, Ibsen is arguing for greater freedoms of choice and occupation for women, who he demonstrates are equally as capable, and sometimes more capable, at handling money and business as the men they are associated with.

Works Cited

Ibsen, Henrik. The Doll’s House. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1992.

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Kramarae, Cheris and Treichler, Paula A., with assistance from Ann Russo. A Feminist Dictionary. London, Boston: Pandora Press, 1985.

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