Ibsen’s drama ‘A Doll’s House’ appears to be influential literary work, as it revises and reconsiders traditional male and female roles and reveals the threats underlying gender discrimination. The author definitely portrays courageous and goal-oriented women, who struggle with the challenges of the androcentric society and find their niche in this life. However, one of the classically female behavioral models which Ibsen emphasizes is women’s self-sacrifice for the good of significant others. The present paper uses a combination of gender focus and reader-response approaches and argues that in “A Doll’s House”, women’s self-sacrifice is viewed as a regular responsibility and thus remains unnoticed by males and receives no gratitude.
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First of all, it is necessary to consider Mrs.Linde’s fate and the way she acted against her personal interests for the purpose of supporting her family. First of all, as the play reveals, she had a strong romantic relationship with Krogstad, but decided to marry a wealthier man given the necessity of providing for the dependent mother and little brothers: “You must not forget that I had a helpless mother and two little brothers. We couldn’t wait for you, Nils; your prospects seemed hopeless then.” (Ibsen, p.111). Thus, in spite of having strong feelings for her penniless lover, she chose to marry a man who would support her financially in raising her brothers. Marriages, based on mutual love, normally allow a deeper realization of emotions, and the woman consciously rejected this family life, living instead a life, based on marital obligations of spouses. Such life is psychologically difficult, as it is barely possible to reconcile oneself to the lifelong separation from the person the woman is attached to and to assuming spousal duties, which are not reinforced by positive emotions (Embank, p.123; Haugen and Haugen, p.10). However, her moral nobility remains undistinguished by Krogstad, when they meet many years later: “That may be so, but you had no right to throw me over for anyone else’s sake […] When I lost you, it was as if all the solid ground went from under my feet. Look at me now – I am a shipwrecked man clinging to a bit of wreckage” (Ibsen, p.111). As a representative of the androcentric society’s decision makers (men), he fails to identify her sacrifice and doesn’t even consider taking her position and trying to understand his interlocutor. Further, as their dialogue progresses, Mrs.Linde notably empathizes with him, while remaining not fully understood, as Krogstad appears to be so self-centered that he seems incapable of talking about anything else except his misery and despair. As one can assume, both of them seem to believe that there was nothing extraordinary in her pattern of neglecting her personal interests, and this act was treated by both as a regular practice.
Furthermore, although the woman worked days and nights for the sake of her brothers after Mr.Linde passed away, she nowadays is a redundant person in their lives and is definitely treated by them much worse as compared to her care of them (Gray, p.43). In fact, after the death of her husband, the woman needed to earn her own and her family’s living and thus became a diligent worker: “The last three years have seemed like one long working-day, with no rest. Now it is at an end, Nora. My poor mother needs me no more, for she is gone; and the boys do not me either; they have got situations and can shift for themselves” (Ibsen, p.20). As one can assume, although she dedicated her life to bringing up her brothers, they are nowadays not interested in her well-being, otherwise, she wouldn’t have searched for the job so desperately (Ibsen, p.23). More importantly, Mrs.Linde expects no reciprocal support from her closest relatives and even doesn’t consider the possibility of relying upon them in certain issues (e.g. job search), although children are traditionally obligated to look after their aging parents, and Christine definitely replaced her mother for her “boys”. However, probably due to her shyness, she doesn’t dare to ask for their help and thus, the result of her self-sacrifice is loneliness the character is now enduring.
The central act of self-sacrifice in the play is certainly Nora’s bold effort, undertaken for the purpose of saving her spouse’s life, associated with years of fear and self-constraint; however, Nora, similarly to Mrs.Linde, is not able to identify the component of sacrifice. When her husband fell ill, doctors recommended that he stayed for some time in Italy or another southern state, but the young family could not afford the trip. In order to provide Torvald with appropriate treatment, Nora borrowed this money, counterfeiting her father’s signature on the contract: “I never said I borrowed the money. I may have got it some other way. (Lies back on the sofa).) Perhaps I got it from some other admirer” (Ibsen, p.25). As a result, she has lived for years in extremely constraint conditions: “Whenever Torvald has given me money for new dresses and such things, I never spent more than half of it; I have always bought the simplest and cheapest things […] Last winter I was lucky enough to get a lot of copying to do; so I locked myself up and sat writing every evening until quite late at night” (Ibsen, p.28). In order to understand Nora’s situation, it is necessary to construct the image of the late 19th-century upper-middle-class woman. Due to the fact that they were supposed to fully match their spouse’s social class, they needed to wear expensive and elegant clothes and accessories, especially in public. Paid work was considered appropriate only for lower-class and peasant females, whereas Nora was prevented from accessing employment (Gray, p.47; Embank, p.126). Thus, the woman consistently threatened her social reputation. Moreover, it is psychologically difficult to keep a secret from a spouse, given that familial relationships are normally based upon mutual respect and trust. Due to the fact that her marriage to Torvald looks idyllic, it is also possible to assume that her secret is a burden, which she would willingly reveal to her spouse (Embank, p.126). However, the fear of hurting Torvald’s dignity is much stronger, so she is desperate to keep her past act undiscovered: “Deprave my little children? Poison my home? ( A short pause. Then she tosses her head.) It’s not true. It can’t possibly be true” (Ibsen, p.61). In fact, the woman was forced to live years of persistent fear of the revelation of her “mischief”. Later, as the plot progresses, Nora with no vacillation intends to reveal her secret to Dr.Rank, the family’s best friend, thus sacrificing her reputation as the ideal wife (Embank, p.129). This act would have meant the loss of her best friend, but, despite the feeling of shame, Nora tries to ask Dr.Rank for help, but as he confesses that he has loved her for a year, so she decides to avoid giving him the information about her disobedience. Notably, whereas she easily tells Christine about the events, associated with the couple’s journey to Italy. This means, men are positioned in the play as the dominating group, whereas females are peers, as they all are the victims of Ibsen’s contemporary androcentric society (Embank, p.129; Gray, p.54). The two women are forced to comply with this society’s norms and values, so both Nora and Mrs.Linde interpret Nora’s attempt to save Torvald’s life as imprudence with a successful outcome.
Finally, Torvald’s reaction to the information about Nora’s self-sacrifice is illustrative in terms of the androcentric society’s view on female’s heats. In fact, Torvald recognizes nothing but a violation of social norms in his wife’s heroic effort: “Now you have destroyed all my happiness. You have ruined all my future. It is horrible to think og! I am in the power of an unscrupulous man; he can do what he likes with me, ask anything he likes of me, give me any orders he pleases – I dare not refuse. And I must sink to such miserable depths because of a thoughtless woman!” (Ibsen, p.134). As one can notice, similarly to Krogstad, Torvald focuses primarily on his own loss, which Torvald anticipates as a result of Nora’s sacrifice. He fails to take into consideration the fact that she took risks and committed a crime in order to save him; and in spite of the lack of financial independence, she managed to pay off the main part of the debt. In Torvald’s response, one can find mixed emotions including shame, anger, and panic, but there is no gratitude in his words. Torvald fails to evaluate the depth of Nora’s devotion to him, which points to the fact that ignoring women’s self-sacrifice is a stable practice of the man-led society.
Thus, the analysis of “A Doll’s House” reveals that heroism and fame are associated exceptionally with men’s actions, whereas the sacrifices women make despite their inferior social position are not accepted as such or believed to be women’s responsibility. As both Christine and Nora employed masculine social patterns and strategies for the sake of their closest people, their acts are treated as misbehavior and the noble motives and great results of their self-sacrifice are silenced by women themselves and ignored by the “superior” gender.
Gray, R. Ibsen, a Dissenting View: A Study of the Last Twelve Plays. CUP Archive, 1980.
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Ibsen, H. A Doll’s House. Plain Label Books, 1950.
Haugen, E.I. and Haugen, E. Ibsen’s Drama: Author to Audience. University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Embank, I. “Ibsen and the language of Women”. In Women Writing and Writing about Women, edited by Mary Jacobus. Taylor & Francis, 1979. pp. 114-132.