Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879) is mostly remembered for its heroine, Nora, slamming the door behind her as she abandons her husband and children to find herself. In this essay, however, Nora will be regarded as a secondary character because she reacts to people more than she acts on them. Her husband, lawyer Torvald Helmer, is at the heart of this play; it is his principled behavior that creates all the problems, and those principles are his father’s legacy. In other words, if the play has a message — which Ibsen denied, saying he was a poet, not a social philosopher (Finney 90) — it is not feminist or anti-marriage but anti-patriarchal. Torvald, like Dr. Rank, is paying the penalty for another man’s sin, “and in every single family, in one way or another, some such inexorable retribution is being exacted,” says Rank (II, 39). In Torvald’s case, says one of Ibsen’s earliest translators and reviewers, Mrs. Henrietta Lord, “his patriarchal legacy has loaded him down with conventional prejudices, especially where women are concerned ….” In the Helmer family the retribution is more abstract than Rank’s but, as will be shown, just as inexorable.
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From the start of the play it is clear that Nora and Torvald love each other but also that they are living a lie. Torvald speaks to his wife as though she is a child, calling her his “little lark,” “little spendthrift,” “little squirrel” and “little featherbrain” (I, 3-4) while she plays up to him, cajoling him in her role as his child to get more money from him. She wheedles and fibs, and it seems that money is her greatest passion. When Torvald forbids her to borrow money on the grounds that he might be killed by a falling tile, Nora answers that she would not care then whether she owed money or not. In this seemingly insignificant part of their light-hearted conversation, Nora lowers her guard for a moment to express her belief that unconditional love is above the law, along with the idea that society cannot be so heartless as to convict anyone for wrongdoing if that was done for the sake of love for another. Her lawyer husband dismisses that as a woman’s notion. The façade is quickly put back in place when Torvald takes out his purse to give his “little squirrel” extra money for her Christmas budget, and she resumes her seemingly relentless quest for more money. Nora’s behavior is not prompted by greed but by a real need but Torvald fails to see that, saying that “It’s a sweet little spendthrift, but she uses up a deal of money.” Nora plays along, saying he has “no idea what expenses we skylarks and squirrels have” (I, 6). Torvald puts her inability to handle money down to her father’s irresponsibility, a trait which he thinks is in her blood. Torvald knows nothing about her father except that his “reputation as a public official was not above suspicion” (II, 36) and for him that is all anyone needs to know. In all matters, Torvald’s ideas prevail because, as Nora later confesses, “when I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it” (III, 66).
Her patriarchal inheritance, however, is problematic largely because her husband uses it to berate and criticize her. In the course of the first act it becomes clear that Nora may once have been a spendthrift but that for the past six years or so she has managed the household budget so well that she has been able to pay off much of the principal and interest on a substantial loan. Nora apparently spent three weeks before the previous Christmas making decorations only to have the cat tear them up. This is an unlikely story for anyone but Torvald, and later she reveals (though not to him) she was actually copying documents to make extra money. The little lies she tells him indicate she is capable of big lies, too, but her motives are pure: she lies to her husband as though he is a child who must be protected from the awful truth. As a result of Torvald’s inability to cope with that truth, she has had to bear her secret all by herself. That has weighed on her conscience so much that she can hardly wait to confide in Christine Linde, an old friend from school with whom she has lost contact but who appears at the door that night for the first time in nine or ten years. Within minutes of her old friend’s arrival she tells her that at the end of the first year of the Helmers’ marriage, Torvald became seriously ill due to overwork. Nora borrowed a large sum of money to take him to Italy for a year on the advice of her doctor, thereby saving his life. She explains to Christine that she used all her resources to persuade Torvald to live in the south for a year, asking him to do so as a favor to her, then using “tears and entreaties,” asking him to be “kind and indulgent” to her without success. When she suggested borrowing the money needed for the journey, Torvald became angry and said “that it was his duty as my husband not to indulge me in my whims and caprices” (I, 14). At that point Nora decided her husband had to be saved in spite of his principles, and borrowed the money from Nils Krogstad since, as a woman, she could not borrow money from a reputable source without her husband’s consent. If she had told him afterward, she tells Christine, it would have been painful and humiliating for Torvald, “with his manly independence,” to know he was indebted to her. “It would upset our mutual relations altogether; our beautiful happy home would no longer be what it is now” (I, 14), she says. In other words, Nora understands that her husband’s ego is brittle, and that it must be protected against all shocks or he might not recover.
Christine has come to visit Nora to ask her for help in getting a job at Torvald’s bank. She has taken care of her bed-ridden mother and younger brothers by entering into a loveless marriage to a wealthy man. He died without leaving her anything, so that the last three years she has worked without a break. Now that her mother is dead and her brothers are independent, she has nothing to live for except work. Nora promises she will find a way to persuade her husband, again showing that a direct, honest approach is out of the question; she must be “very clever” and find something that pleases him, which is how she used to get her way with her father. She has the advantage of being beautiful, a fact she acknowledges with surprising objectivity, aware that her looks have given her an advantage when it comes to making her husband do her bidding. Once her looks have gone, she tells her friend, and when her husband is no longer interested in her dancing and dressing-up, then perhaps she will tell him her great secret because “then it may be a good thing to have something in reserve” (I, 14). What she does not realize until later is that she and her husband cannot communicate, they can only manipulate one another, she with her looks and wiles, he with his money, because they have accepted their conventional roles.
It is true that Torvald enjoys his wife’s dancing and dressing-up. Just as he likes to refer to her as a bird or squirrel and even an “it,” he likes to cast her in roles that make her more exotic and alluring. She knows that Torvald becomes excited and amorous when she dances the Tarantella for him, a dance she learned in Capri. Nora takes full advantage of that, not only to please him or to get her way, but also to ease her anxiety. The Tarantella, Gail Finney explains, is an important symbol in the play because the dance traditionally provided Italian women with “a form of hysterical catharsis, permitting women to escape temporarily from marriage and motherhood into a free, lawless world of music and uninhibited movement” (98). The more desperate Nora’s situation becomes, the more of herself she puts into the dance. This shows how repressive her marriage is, even as it suggests that deep down she is a “little skylark,” one who longs to soar but instead must spend every waking moment finding ways to get around Torvald’s inflexible ideas and principles. Christine, who witnesses the dance, sees at once that Nora is dancing as if her life depended on it, an accurate judgment since Nora has come to see her life as one long Tarantella that will soon be over. Torvald says that her dancing is sheer madness, but what he means is that his wife has forgotten everything he taught her (II, 50). There are dramas going on all around him – his best friend, Dr. Rank is in love with his wife and is also close to death; Christine and Krogstad were once in love and are on the point of reuniting; his wife is a nervous wreck; but all Torvald can think about is his role in the house as its lord and master. Anything that is out of order is seen as an implicit criticism of him as a man, which is why her impassioned dance angers him. Nora knows how to mollify him. She immediately asks him to coach her, a request that pleases him so much that he agrees not to check the mailbox for Krogstad’s letter.
Ironically, Torvald believes that “every man who has gone to the bad early in life had a deceitful mother,” the only mention of maternal legacy in the play. Yet Torvald gives Krogstad as an example of a deceitful man who could have the same effect on his children. “This Krogstad, now, has been persistently poisoning his own children with lies and dissimulation” (I, 29), he tells Nora, failing to notice that he has thrown his wife into a panic. Nora wonders if she, also a forger, is doing the same to her three children, a doubt that ends in “a conviction of her unworthiness as a mother” (Downs 129). She begins to think of committing suicide as a way of taking all the blame on herself, thereby protecting her husband and children from the crime she has committed. This is the greatest difference between Nora and Torvald: she is quick to see herself as being in the wrong, whereas he never doubts the principles by which he lives.
Torvald’s character is conventional in every respect, says Brian Downs. “Outside business hours, there is nothing to distinguish him from the run of ordinary professional men, if it were not for a touch of perversity in his amatory constitution” (112). It is this touch of perversity that has given Nora some sway over him, although not as much as she thinks. When she asks for too much or when she slips up and makes an honest statement, Torvald’s reaction is swift and harsh. In the first instance, Nora’s repeated request that he keep Krogstad on at the bank, even though she puts it as childishly and “prettily” as she can, earns her a sharp reprimand; and when she calls him narrow-minded (II, 37) he gets so angry that he immediately sends the letter dismissing Krogstad. However, when he finally reads Krogstad’s letter which reveals Nora’s secret, he complete loses his self-control, thereby revealing a side of himself that had up until then been concealed by his manly restraint. Suddenly she sees before her a man afraid that his life is about to be destroyed. When she says she forged the document because she loved him more than anything else in the world, he dismisses her explanation as a “silly excuse.” He blames her father, he blames his own kindness toward him and his willingness to overlook the flaws in her background, He is so angry and self-piteous that he does not care that she is offering to commit suicide. That will not help him, he says. The only solution is to pretend to the world that everything is normal but he will not permit her to raise his children (III, 63). Yet when Krogstad returns the bond, prompted by Christine, Torvald immediately forgives his wife. In fact, he turns her into a bird again and promises to shelter her under his broad wings. In the speech that follows, Torvald reveals the true nature of his inherited ideology, the one passed on from father to son for generations: the Christian ideal of the husband who is to his wife as Christ is to His flock:
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You have no idea what a true man’s heart is like, Nora. There is something so indescribably sweet and satisfying, to a man, in the knowledge that he has forgiven his wife–forgiven her freely, and with all his heart. It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own; he has given her a new life, so to speak; and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. Have no anxiety about anything, Nora; only be frank and open with me, and I will serve as will and conscience both to you–. (III, 65)
As usual, Torvald is moved by his own eloquence, but not Nora. Her face is cold and set, she expresses herself tersely and directly, explaining that in eight years of marriage they have never had a serious conversation. He treated her as a doll, just as her father had, and as a result she has never achieved anything. That time is over. She tells him she does not love him because he is not the man she thought he was. He reminds her of her sacred duties as a wife and a mother but to her that is bookish talk. The main point she makes, as Mrs. Lord says, is that Torvald “gives her everything but his confidence; not because he has anything to conceal, but because she is a woman.” The ideal marriage, says Mrs. Lord, “is to make each human personality free. …. the poet’s work tells us, until the relation between man and woman turns in this direction, the relation is not yet Love.” That is what Nora means when she tells Torvald that the only way their marriage could be saved would be to turn it into real wedlock; but even then Torvald misunderstands her because the concept of equality in marriage is one that his father scorned and which, therefore, he must reject.
Torvald is a good man or else Nora would never have considered herself in love with him, and he is a hard worker and competent or he would not have been elevated to bank manager. However, he was raised with a set of prejudices regarding manliness, honor, social standing and femininity that have turned him into a domestic dictator. The value of A Doll’s House as a social criticism, as distinct from a work of art, is that it holds Torvald up before the world to show what a pathetic and fearful creation of his father he really is. On the surface Torvald’s life is a success story but the beautiful happy home and the mutual relations, in Nora’s phrase, turn out to be all Nora’s doing. He seems to realize by the end of the play that by losing her he has lost everything. Whether he will ever see that his father’s beliefs are not just outdated but inhuman, will probably depend on an outside intervention. Just as Christine opened up new possibilities to Nora, so perhaps her marriage with Krogstad can teach Torvald about redemption.
Downs, Brian W. A Study of Six Plays by Ibsen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1950.
Finney, Gail. “Ibsen and Feminism.” The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen. Ed. James McFarlane. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll’s House. Trans. R. Farquaharson Sharp and Eleanor Marx- Aveling. London: Everyman’s Library, 1966.
Lord, Henrietta. “A Doll’s House.” 1882. Henrik Ibsen: The Critical Heritage. Egan, Michael, ed. London: Routledge, 1997.
Introduction: Although Nora is considered the main character of A Doll’s House, her husband Torvald Helmer is at the heart of the play. Like Dr. Rank, Torvald is paying for his father’s sins, having inherited all his qualities and ideas, especially his father’s attitude toward women.
2nd paragraph: Nora and Torvald are living a lie. She has to play along with his amorous banter in order to get what she wants most: money. She interrupts their joking conversation to state that unconditional love puts a person above the law, but when he takes out his purse she quickly resumes her attempt to get more money from him. Her husband believes she inherited her father’s spendthrift ways.
3rd paragraph: Nora’s patriarchal inheritance is a problem only because Torvald uses it as a stick to beat her. It turns out she needs the money for a good cause. Torvald needed a year’s rest in the south or he would die. She tried to persuade him but in vain. Finally she decided to save his life regardless. He can never know about the borrowed money because it would unman him.
4th paragraph: Christine asks for help in getting a job at Torvald’s bank. Nora says she will use her wiles to persuade him, as she has always has done, not just with her husband but also with her father.
5th paragraph: Torvald likes his wife to take on different roles, including the fishwife from Capri, but he doesn’t realize she dances the Tarantella not just for him but also to release her anxieties. Christine sees at once that Nora’s dance is too desperate but Torvald only sees that she has forgotten everything he taught her. Torvald is oblivious to everything going on around him, except what he regards as the product of his labors, which includes his wife’s dancing skills. She mollifies him by begging him to coach her.
6th paragraph: Torvald’s theories assign blame for bad people to deceitful mothers, but he uses Krogstad as an example. Nora panics when he says morally corrupt people poison the atmosphere and their children. She considers suicide as a way to taking all the blame for her forgery on herself.
7th paragraph: Torvald’s character is conventional except for a touch of perversity. That gives his wife some influence over him but not as much as she thinks. Torvald sometimes gets angry with her, but he loses all self-control when he reads Krogstad’s letter, showing a side of himself she has never seen. Later Krogstad sends the incriminating document, at which Torvald forgives his wife at once and expects life to go back to normal. It becomes clear that he sees himself as Jesus Christ in relation to Nora, his Church. In a speech he explains what a “true man’s hearts is like,” encouraging her to throw herself on his mercy. Nora has now see that his love is fallible and at that she stops loving him. She realizes that she is married to a stranger.
Conclusion: Torvald is a good man but he was raised with his father’s prejudices. The shock of Krogstad’s letters show s what a fearful character he is. When Nora leaves him he has lost everything. His only hope is that he will learn from Christine Linde and Nils Krogstad that love can be a redeeming force.
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